We report from the writer and artist’s Frieze talk with K-Hole founder Emily Segal as they discuss generation branding and individuality
Platforming speakers whose practices exemplify the ways in which contemporary art intersects with and pervades our lives and cultural outlook, this year’s Frieze Talks was opened by artist, thinker and spokesperson of their respective generations, Emily Segal and Douglas Coupland. Segal, founding member of artist collective and trend forecasting group K-Hole, and Coupland, Canadian artist and author of the seminal novel Generation X, met to discuss their admiration for one another’s analysis of the present and the heat, the hype and virality, that is said to define our era.
When Generation X was published in 1991, Coupland was unaware of the life that his newly coined phrase would take on independently over the course of the next decade. Today, Segal recognises that Coupland’s Generation X could be repurposed to talk about millennials. Referring back to what she and K-Hole discussed in their Youth Mode edition, Segal posited that Generation Branding reflects cultural anxiety at large and places it on youth. When thinking about what it means to be a millennial, K-Hole observe a pattern in the discussion: millennials, it seems, all believe in their own uniqueness. Perhaps it therefore isn’t only the younger members of our society, but rather everyone who is concerned with how special they are.
Generation Branding reflects cultural anxiety at large and places it on youth.
In light of this, Coupland noted that “a defining feature of the world we live in now is that it's never been so easy to broadcast individuality across the entire world, and yet individuality itself has never felt so far away.” How do you distinguish yourself in this landscape when, as Segal recognised, “factors of our individual identities become able to blow up into virality because of the way people engage with new communities through digital media”? The answer to this key question led on to a core focus of the discussion: normcore. ‘Normcore’, a slippery phrase coined by Segal and her team at K-Hole that received runner-up for the English Oxford Dictionary 2014 Word of the Year (“We tied with ‘bae’ but lost to ‘vape’”), became a new type of coolness that didn’t rely on rebellion or uniqueness.
A defining feature of the world we live in now is that it's never been so easy to broadcast individuality across the entire world, and yet individuality itself has never felt so far away.
What is so fascinating about normcore is its very name. Segal discussed its uncanny quality, its lack of any human driver behind it, and its structure as a word and meme that almost autonomously propagates itself all over the internet. This led to a discussion of other words that typify virality through language. ‘Selfie’, ‘genericide’, ‘paradesence’; what creates energy around these words? What makes something go viral? And what does this motivating issue of anxiety around individuality have to do with it?
About a year and a half ago, we stepped inside the future. It feels like the future tense and the present tense have all melted into the same thing now, and we’ve lost a tense.
Furthermore, how does this virality contribute to predicting the future? For Coupland, “growing up, the future was always 2001 or this thing that was over the horizon. Then the future became the horizon, and then quite recently the future was a few blocks away. Then, about a year and a half ago, we stepped inside the future. It feels like the future tense and the present tense have all melted into the same thing now, and we’ve lost a tense.” As a trend forecaster, Segal described what she does as mapping emergent behaviour, and then predicting where those things will converge and evolve: “The future becomes a way for you to talk about the present with more credibility than you might ordinarily have.” Perhaps talking about the future, they conclude, has become “the clickbaitiest thing of all.”