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Blowing Up Normcore at the LA Art Book Fair

Documentation of the K-Hole presentation at LA Art Book Fair. All images courtesy of Sohrab Mohebbi, REDCAT Gallery, Los Angeles, unless otherwise noted.
K-HOLE presentation at LA Art Book Fair (all images courtesy of Sohrab Mohebbi, REDCAT Gallery, Los Angeles, unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — The LA-based artist and comedian Molly Jo Shea asked me where my Dell computer was as I took out my MacBook Pro to take notes on New York collective K-HOLE’s presentation at the LA Art Book Fair, organized by REDCAT. Shea’s comment was spot-on because, after all, this was a panel by the trend forecasting group that coined “normcore” — a utopian term that describes the individual longing for community that leads to mass adaptability — and Dell computers are way more normcore than Apple. Or are they? Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks are normcore, but so are Dell computers.

“There is no way to not participate in capitalism or be a consumer, and we have to position ourselves in it rather than outside of it,” said Dena Yago, one of the five members that make up K-HOLE. Since 2010, when the collective was founded, K-HOLE members Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Chris Sherron, Emily Segal, and Dena Yago have explored the language of marketing and advertising. Specifically, the group is interested in elucidating different strategies that companies use on consumers and that consumers fall for without realizing. The collective is currently at work on its next report, which will look at the current state of communications, including interpersonal messaging, and broader social and political campaigns.

Still from K-Hole's presentation at the LAABF. Image courtesy of K-Hole.
Still from K-HOLE’s research presentation at the LAABF (image courtesy of K-HOLE)

K-HOLE members speak in a pseudo corporate-y performative language, using terms like “onboard” in a way that is cringe-inducing, serious, and ambiguously funny. This is deliberate: the collective noticed that the language used in marketing white papers was similar to what they saw circulating in the (corporate) art world. We are at a time in contemporary art when artists are creating their work and their own brand, sometimes erring more on the branding side and forgetting the art, concept, or meaning altogether in exchange for the aesthetics and a lot of “likes.” So K-HOLE decided to produce their own reports, repositioning the artist — not the marketer — as trend forecaster.

During the panel, K-HOLE kept referring back to normcore as an example. It is, after all, the collective’s “greatest claim to fame so far,” as Monahan said, not at all smugly or ironically — just straight dry delivery, funny in that deadpan, honest way. Like a marketing company, K-HOLE draws conclusions based on social trends. Unlike a marketing company, and perhaps more like an artist, the collective’s conclusions, such as those defining normcore, are open-ended — K-HOLE was curious about how people would respond. This is how the group originally defined normcore (to read the full report go here):

Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities. Mass Indie responds to this situation by creating cliques of people in the know, while Normcore knows the real feat is harnessing the potential for connection to spring up. It’s about adaptability, not exclusivity. Normcore understands the process of differentiation from a nonlinear perspective. It’s addicted to the toolkit provided by YOUTH MODE and never wants to put it away. Normcore doesn’t want the freedom to become someone. Normcore wants the freedom to be with anyone.

Two of the five K-Hole members at the LA Art Book Fair. From left to right: Sean Monahan and Dena Yago.
Two of the five K-HOLE members at the LA Art Book Fair, from left to right: Sean Monahan and Dena Yago

But when New York Magazine picked up on normcore and decided to call it a fashion trend back in February 2014, the definition shifted overnight. New York Magazine‘s Fiona Duncan writes:

In fashion, though, this normcore manifests itself in ardently ordinary clothes. Mall clothes. Blank clothes. The kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.

As expressed during the panel discussion, K-HOLE members felt like journalists had reduced normcore to an advertisement of sorts. But rather than call out journalists or call up corporations or others that took normcore and used it as they pleased, K-HOLE decided to analyze how this could have happened in the first place.

The first hypothesis is that it was “a creative misunderstanding,” or that “once one loses control of the narrative there is no way to reclaim it.” The second hypothesis is that in order for the concept to have circulated and grown as fast as it did, there was a necessarily stripping — it had to become “lighter.”

Slide from K-Hole's presentation at the LA Art Book Fair. Image courtesy of K-Hole.
Slide from K-HOLE’s presentation at the LA Art Book Fair (image courtesy of K-HOLE)

“People move toward two different poles: either privilege the personal or privilege the data,” said Monahan. “You can’t challenge my thoughts because they are my feelings. We see this in the way that people speak in public, they speak about what they feel. This precludes them from debate—because it isn’t about logic, it’s about this internal sense.”

K-HOLE calls this hypothesis “fucks and feels,” which takes the view that a person’s tastes are justified no matter what. There’s a sense here of unimpeachable language: it’s either all feelings or all data points. As such, there is no way to productively engage.

Documentation of the K-Hole presentation at LA Art Book Fair.
Documentation of the K-HOLE presentation at LA Art Book Fair

The panel ended with revisiting the original definition of normcore — what was it? What is it now? There’s no longer a right answer, Yago and Monahan explained — which, says Yago, is what “allowed it to be a joke, meme, and something serious at the same time that could be modulated by the receiving party more than speaker.”

If they had tried to go back and redefine normcore, Yago and Monahan believed it would have been a foul move — like the Streisand Effect — of trying to censor information once it’s already on the internet, which instead makes it more available and creates a greater backlash. In the end, K-HOLE has chosen to accept that normcore no longer belongs to them, but to the public.

K-HOLE presented at the LA Art Book Fair on January 31st at 5pm in The Classroom.

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