Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On "Low Art" and Fan Culture

Recently it was brought to my attention that in Russia there is a Cult to Gadget Hackwrench.

“She is the divine being, the most untouched and perfect sibling of the great God on Earth”, say one of the participants. “Why I love her? It’s stupid question, how I can’t love the Goddess?”. “She is strict, cute, optimistic and her level of technical knowledge is unachievable for a mortal being.” those are just a few of the testimonies of the sect followers.

Now, it's almost incidental whether or not this is true, it's truthy at worst. And sorry Russia, the same way America's Double Down Sandwich makes the rest of the world assume the worst about America's eating habits, your 18th Century Castration Cults make this reasonably believable to an outsider. Similarly, those of us who grew up with the Rescue Rangers know precisely what they're talking about when it comes to Gadget

At any rate, the sheer number of YouTube tributes to Gadget show that she has had a powerful effect on the psyches of those who grew up with her even if it was just for 18 minutes in the afternoon after school while they had a snack. 

What am I getting at here, you might ask? 

I'm getting at the point that fictional characters are increasingly taking a central place in the building of communities. Fandom is in many ways, more powerful a unifying force than geographic location, people are connecting more about ideas than they are in their physical communities, and the way humans are congregating is reflecting that fact. Entertainment Franchises are becoming increasingly similar to the cultural function of religious ideologies. 

According to Clifford Geertz, religion is 
·       (1) a system of symbols which acts to 
·       (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 
·       (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 
·       (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that 
·       (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic 
^ C. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion , ed. M. Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966): 1-46 

The connection to Geertz, comes from Jeff Gomez, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with at Starlight Runner Entertainment for nearly 7 years. Recently he gave a speech at TEDxTransmedia, check it out here:

Jeff often speaks about how the power of storytelling affected him as a child growing up in unfortunate circumstances, and as an adult, how learning how to tell stories helped him manage debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Here he speaks about Kikaider a character from his youth that became a powerful aspirational force in his life, inspiring his creativity as a child and later, returning as an avatar of righteous action in his darkest hour as an adult.  This is an experience that is hardly exclusive to those who create art, though it is a powerful motivator to do so, and the greatest art of generations is usually created out of a desire to highlight the best aspirations of humanity, an underlying message that can pull people from their darkest hour and give them an example of how they can fight against their foes and their own demons to emerge victorious.

The reason I bring this up is because these moments are intensely personal, and arguably spiritual, and whether your God comes to you as St. Christopher or a Badass Robot, the salvation is palpable, arguably a miracle, re-enforcing the underlying message, that these parables are affecting our lives and that they CAN be an amazingly powerful force for good.

It is not my intention here to discuss what is or is not a valid religion, but, it is essential that we consider this component as a piece of connective tissue about why people are becoming drawn together based on these factors. They apply to narratives and story worlds and as people are connecting globally, these story worlds become more pervasive and internationally appealing, people in Singapore and Calgary will be connecting over a shared affection for a cartoon show long before they get into deeper discussions of the meaning of life. These connections rapidly become communities of like-minded individuals who will often pool resources in mutual self-interest.

As an example of a fan-tribe, I'm going to discuss the Insane Clown Posse. This week, someone asked me at a professional function, "WTF is up with ICP????" The answer to that question requires a lot of background, and a lot more discussion than most people are willing to commit to rapping clowns. 
“Comedy has had no history, because it was not at first treated seriously.”
                  – Aristotle 
People tend to discount popular culture because it is just that, popular, often commercial and often directed at socioeconomic groups that are dismissed: Just for Kids, Trash TV, Bawdy or Gross-Out Comedy, Horror, Gornography (violence for its own sake), but these "entertainments" create lasting lessons in the minds of their audience that are later turned into social associations. Who would have thought Gadget would be affecting to an adult when she was affecting as a 6-year-old? the more important question is who DIDN'T think she'd still be affecting?
Is Popular Culture somehow not culture because it is popular?
The Art that is designed to affect the most people will be affecting to the greatest number of people.
So let's take a moment to talk about clowns.  

For those of you too scared of clowns to go on, go to the Merging+Media website to see my Remix of this post where the focus is the Astor Place Riots and Shakespeare.

Clowns are designed to be artistically Grotesque.
1. odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.
2. fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms, as in decorative work combining incongruoushuman and animal figures with scrolls, foliage, etc.

Clowns are tricksters, they are jesters and they are zany. Their excesses, their grotesqueness, are designed to seduce their audience with humor and the absurd to elocute an underlying truth. 
The English word ‘clown’ comes from the Old Icelandic, klunni, which denotes a clumsy person. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a clown is “a familiar comic character of pantomime and circus, known by his distinctive makeup and costume, ludicrous antics, and buffoonery, whose purpose is to induce hearty laughter. The clown usually performs a set routine characterized by broad, graphic humour, absurd situations, and vigorous physical action.”

Clowns do all that and then also a little more. They heal, they scare, they mock, they amuse. White faces; red noses; painted smiles absurdly exaggerated; wee little hats with a daisy sticking up; braces barely bolstering puffy pants... They tumble from tiny cars and trip over their outsized shoes. They know every trick in the book and they live for a roar of laughter from the crowd. They fool about and clown around and mostly we don’t think much about them. 

Yet, they are the keepers of the sweet spot on the human psyche – the part that sees the absurdities and tells the truth, the part that is not afraid of being hurt or embarrassed or of showing emotion. Clowns represent at the same time our greatest vulnerability, fragility even, and the robustness that enables us to get right back up again every time we fall. Similarly, they hold the dichotomy of our innocence, the child within that never grows up, as well as the wisdom that enables us to see through the farce.

Clowns have always known what educators are only cottoning on to now: humans learn best while laughing. Clowns are never mean: the joke is always on them. When they make elaborate and conspicuous plans to make fun of someone else, the joke always backfires. Sometimes literally. Clowns are courageous: in ancient times at the royal court, clowns (or jesters) were the only ones who dared to contradict or criticise the king. Clowns are multi-talented: not only can they tickle the funny bone but they often juggle, walk tightropes, ride unicycles or tumble from trapezes while doing so.
So we have some modern clowns, the Insane Clown Posse:

The Insane Clown Posse is a rap group of clowns, literal clowns, and raps about sexual, violent, profane content. A very wide swath of people hear about I.C.P. exclusively through reports of fans committing violent acts.

They call themselves murder-rap, horror-rap, and have lyrics that are often accused of directly insighting their fans to violence, or are intolerant to different groups, or are otherwise not productive to society. That is a subject for someone else to take on, I'm not going to, I want to talk about why you should know something about I.C.P. on a sociological, cultural level. As a nod to the ongoing controversy of what their music is about, here is the band on the O'Reilly Factor:

The following video contains profanity and may be NSFW. 
Fans of ICP who call themselves Juggalos and Juggalettes, they are numerous, they have their own vernacular, they have their own community centers, they have very clear cultural aesthetics and rally around the music, sensibilities and rituals that have developed in response to the myriad releases of ICP, which include albums, videos, movies, recognized fan content and of course, live concert events. 

From Westword,  
Juggalos Band Together at Primos. By Jessica Centers Thursday, May 15 2008
When Denver School of the Arts student JD Gonzales entered the national My City Now contest a few years ago, he had to create a video about what made his city a great place to live. His answer: a little tire shop near Alameda and Sheridan called Primos, "A Juggalo Home in Denver's Zone." While the camera pans across a dozen kids sitting on the ground outside the shop, outfitted in baggy red and black clothes, tattoos, piercings and long dreads, the voice of Kiki Rodriguez, a Primos owner, explains ICP's draw: "All these kids don't have shit. They wouldn't have nothing, dude. But because they're a juggalo, that's a big part of their life. It gives them something to fucking do, something to be proud of."
A Juggalette from New Mexico once told me about people they've made who would drive her and her friends places just because they also liked ICP too. This basic bit of community allowed her to access a world from which she would have otherwise been completely isolated, even though the drive from her house to the city center of Albuquerque is only 45 minutes, it might as well have been days for a teenager without a car and without parents to drive her. The shared human connection of liking the same band is powerful, and one with such a clear culture associated with it, makes the barriers to entry into that society attainable and explicit. Fandom connects people and gives them an excuse to help one another.

Faygo is a soft drink that has seen success entirely because of Juggalos, as an example. A comparison can be drawn to the 30% rise in the sales of pale make-up foundation around the release of Twilight: New Moon. Fan groups influence commerce they are groups that, when large enough, constitute their own demographics.
Two nineteen-year-old girls hold up their T-shirts to show off the matching tattoos on their lower backs. The tats are the logo for Primos, the kerosene-and-tire shop where they've hung out, sometimes for hours at a time, every day since they started high school. "I just showed up for a barbecue one year and never left," Bethany says. "I've never had a big family. It's been nice having this instead."

...Childish, a member of the rap group Brutally Vicious Killaz, tells the camera that Primos is a place where juggalos get together like family. There's no other place like it in Denver; he doubts there's another place like it anywhere. "Denver juggalos are the lifeline of Denver," Kiki continues. "Everybody thinks, how can that be? How can all these scruffy kids have anything important to do with our Mile High City? Juggalos, we're the backbone, yo.... We're all one family. We're united. We're from everywhere. Jocks are juggalos. Rich kids are juggalos. Poor kids are juggalos. Everybody's a ninja. Your grandma could be a juggalo — you just don't know it."
The attraction of a family that takes care of one another is an extremely powerful draw for young people who have grown up disconnected from the people around them, either by geographic distances, urban planning, or simply because they feel alienated from visible peer groupings –an amazingly common feeling in adolescence and adulthood.

The Insane Clown Posse's content promotes expression of these feelings in a way that other visible ideologies do not. An aggressive, in your face sort of honesty that appeals to those who feel disenfranchised.

As the subculture matures, the sophistication of amenities the subculture can offer will mature as well. Just as the scope of the content has matured from exclusively destructive to tones of spiritual exploration and family.

The following video contains profanity and may be NSFW. 

A recent spate of parody and uproar sprouted in response to the song "Miracles." It's still aggressive, violent at times and laden with profanity, but it speaks to the search for more substantial spiritual truth. The anti-Establishment, this time intellectual and scientific, is in line with previous contexts of the Insane Clown Posse's artistic endeavors. It appeals quite clearly to its base while also articulating a frustration with the cult of the expert: does it really matter at the end of the day why magnets work? is it not still a miracle that they do if a scientist can articulate the submolecular process?

The fact that the Internet exists has allowed for new dialog about just this to begin in the arena of Low Art.  The Internet has taken it upon itself to remix the song miracles in a variety of ways. Now that more people know that I.C.P. exists, the more mainstream reactions to its ideologies are pushing back and creating an artistic dialogue that must be integrated into the I.C.P. worldview either with acceptance or rejection or somewhere in between.

The Unified Theory of Juggelonics:

This is only occurring because the commons for ideological discussion is much more accessible, the Internet makes it easy to talk about stories and entertainments. These pieces of art, low though they may be, pose questions that their audience is now capable of answering in its own time, and spawn creative responses that are not only entertaining, but represent cogent counterarguments.

Whether you approve of the messages they are spouting, or condone the ideologies they are attempting to embody, there is value in the ideology and the social connections associated with that ideology. People connect to the message and celebrate the aesthetics that say the same thing by association.

That, My Ninja, is what is up with I.C.P.

The power of these associations, violent messages, and fan community are hardly exclusive to Juggalos, the content of all art is affecting. Even stories that preach balance and chivilry can, in the proper circumstance lead to violence.

The following video contains profanity and may be NSFW. 
There's even a response interview with the punks who were in the fight

While this instance shows some self-awareness and no one got stabbed or murdered, it does show that people get violent about fan affiliations, The "Jedi's" here had the option to just let it go, they themselves say "these guys were standing they're ground and talking Shit" and they stepped out of line ans escalated.  Cultural affiliations, even 'Pop Culture' are a pretty quick way to get people into situations where they're willing to be confrontational, and violent,  be they Punk Vs. Star Wars fan, or National, Ethnic or Religious affiliations. These affiliations become part of people's identities they represent strongly aspirational identifiers that are also the rallying points for people's social communities.

People who lack respect for the power of these affiliations do so at their own peril, and those seeking to create them should be aware of the potential that the ideas and messages of a narrative have lives outside the story.   

To read the Remix of this post where the focus is the Astor Place Riots and Shakespeare, head over to the Merging+Media website


  1. The funny thing about magnets working by miracle is that there are no scientists that can explain it. Electro-magnetism is a 'force' something that simply exists and exerts a power over matter. Anyone who scoffs at the notion that magnets are miraculous is showing their own ignorance of physics.

    The four fundamental forces, Electro-Magnetism, Gravitation and the Strong and Weak force. They simply exist as a fundamental part of the material universe.

  2. In England in the 60s, Rudeboys would savagely beat the Mods.