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Jefferson Hack essay on end of the 2010s

The Xs: Jefferson Hack reflects on the chaotic 2010s

From Fyre Festival to Kanye West, simulation to speculation, Dazed’s co-founder recalls a transformative decade

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

It’s the tagline, ‘once owned by Pablo Escobar’ that should have given it away. 

That anyone selling a dream predicated on cartel provenance would actually be selling you anything but hot air was obvious to all except America’s millennial party-class, who fell for the Fyre Festival’s promise, hook line and Bella Hadid wink. The two documentaries that emerged from its wreckage were not only sharp exposees of influencer culture and the absurdly legitimising power of social networks, but showed how a certain slice of society were ripe for exploitation, suckers for a sales-con. In the post-truth decade, which I’ve come to call the Xs, maybe it’s only nonsense that cuts through the white noise.

How else does Maurizio Cattelan sell a banana for $120k at Miami Art Basel, Elizabeth Holmes raise $92m for vampyric blood start-up Theranos, Anna Delvey use an internship at Purple magazine to become part of the global art and fashion circuit that never sleeps, or Billy McFarland get Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid to ham it up on jet-skis in bikinis for his coke-bloated Escobarian dream? More importantly, why are we all so fixated by these stories? These are some of the questions I find myself asking as we sail across the horizon of this decade of delusion into a new one of... what, exactly?

I remember interviewing Malcolm McLaren in 1996. He was the first person to turn me on to The Society of the Spectacle, the book written by Guy Debord in 1967. Debord predicted a society so consumed by the idea of the spectacle that it could no longer differentiate the authentic from the real, fiction from fact, commodities from ideas. He predicted the unreality of the spectacle we sweetly refer to as the social web and anticipated the meta-reality that renders all objects within it ‘inauthentic’. In late 2019, has society surrendered so fully to the spectacle that, like the inhabitants of Plato’s Cave, the mimetic is the only reality we care for? Is this a world where the simulation of Hadid jet-skiing on an island once owned by Pablo Escobar is so convincing that those sucked in by its vortex simply don’t think to question whether it speaks to anything true, anything actual?

When Kanye West and Virgil Abloh attended Paris Fashion Week at the tail-end of the last decade, no-one could foresee that both would go onto have such a monumental impact on culture. For me, Kanye defines the Xs more than almost any other artist, while Virgil, as a designer, has brought an attitude of positivity, coexistence, and inclusion, where high art and low culture, class and race consciousness were put into a laser-focused vision for breaking down fashion’s labels and barriers of privilege. 

“You only need to change a design by 3%” to make it seem relevant again, Abloh told the world, and thus, light touch revisionism as opposed to invention became a design template in fashion and popular culture, which suited the time-pressed nature of the decade. A copy-paste, self-referential approach to creativity mushroomed, and key references – like the ideas of fashion OGs such as Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang – became endlessly looped across catwalks, collections and ad campaigns. Abloh’s use of “quotations” is language as image, a signifier of surface as depth, a deft reworking of 90s postmodern irony as a new logo of (in)authenticity for the Xs.

“In the post-truth decade, which I’ve come to call the Xs, maybe it’s only nonsense that cuts through the white noise” – Jefferson Hack

Beyond fashion’s runway reruns, we also see this revisionism in art and photography. From Alex Prager’s simulation of 1950s New York street scenes or Chen Wei’s re-staging of 90s Shanghai warehouse parties, these simulations speak to the corporatisation of culture, to a nostalgia of what once was or an ideal that maybe never was. All that is solid becomes a digital scan to be re-rendered.

When did youth and pop culture lose its innate desire to originate? Mark Fisher, who took his own life in 2017, wrote in Ghosts Of My Life about the factors that led to original cultural production in the UK, such as the housing benefits system, free university education, and, of course, a less capital-intensive system like ours where there is simply no time left to create. “If there is one factor above all else which contributes to cultural conservatism, it's the vast inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages,” he wrote. It’s a crisis for culture when the system is designed to deprive artists of the resources necessary for creative production. 

In 2016, I went to see Big Bang perform in Japan on the invitation of one of K Pop’s largest stars, G-Dragon, and I finally experienced military-industrial complex style karaoke. It was so controlled and the audience so stage-managed that it made a Beatles concert from the 1960s look like Anarchy In the UK. Is that the future of pop culture for us when there is no underground to feed it, no invention bubbling under the surface? 

For fashion, this decade of simulation will best be remembered by the moment when Gosha Rubchinskiy opened Vetements’ SS16 show in a canary yellow and red-logoed DHL t-shirt. Demna Gvasalia’s concept label took Margiela’s artful idea of the Replica, an authentic remake of an original, and turned it into a mimetic, pop cultural sampling, a fetishising of the banal.

From simulation to speculation. Politically, the Xs have seen a widening division of wealth and a rise of the far right, a dramatically worsening environment and the brutal outcasting of asylum seekers and immigrants. Speculation is a theory based on unverified evidence – it is also the gaming of systems in the hope of benefiting in power and wealth. It is high frequency, invisible stock trading, it’s Cambridge Analytica targeting ‘the persuadables’ in elections and referendums across the world, it’s the ‘mass dissemination of fake news, it’s surveillance capitalism sucking your data for private profit, its Bitcoin-mining and crypto-currency trading and it’s hype marketing, exemplified in the absurdity of Supreme x Louis Vuitton, where authenticity is measured only by the value exchange of what one brand offers the other, it speaks to a world where fashion is a currency and art is a un-regulated commodity market. 

Duty Free Art: Art in the age of Planetary Civil War by Hito Steyerl, sums it up superbly. “What can we do when arms manufacturers sponsor museums and some of the world’s most valuable artworks are used as currency in the global futures market?” In her theory of JunkTime,  thousands of micro-singularities occur in an event horizon where Syria, Brexit, Trump’s election and the hammer going down on soaring auction prices are all part of the same global shockwave. 

In 2016, Leonardo Di Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450m to a member of the Saudi Royal Family. Oscar Wilde told us that a cynic ‘was a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’, and documentary filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn used this rubric to show us the stratospheric gains being made by art collectors who operate like hedge fund managers in his 2019 documentary on the business of being a collector. We already know that Frieze is Tesco Express for the super-rich, but then there are the uber-rich who sell OxyContin patents and pay to have their names on museum wings. Speculation is regulated and halted not by government but by rare individuals like Nan Goldin, who stood up to the Oxy-owning Sackler family and made the art world begin to do the same.

“We already know that Frieze is Tesco Express for the super-rich, but then there are the uber-rich who sell OxyContin patents and pay to have their names on museum wings” – Jefferson Hack

While many in society surrendered to the simulation, others awakened with a new urgency, a sense of political purpose and an awareness of previous failures at challenging the climate crisis, racism, corruption, abuse – the list goes on. Chris WylieEmma Gonzalez, Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Greta ThunbergAi WeiweiVivienne WestwoodKendrick LamarEdward Snowden – for those who hold truth to power, the Xs belong to you. 

‘May we live in interesting times’ was the metaphorical title of this year’s Venice Biennale, curated by Ralph Rugoff. Its two winners speak of these themes. “Sun & Sea (Marina)” by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, writer Vaiva Grainytė and artist and composer Lina Lapelytė, which won the Golden Lion, was pure simulation. An opera on a fake beach, with performers and singers in beach attire offering, “a critique of leisure and our times”. 

The Silver Lion winner, “BLK NWS” by Kahlil Joseph, was a two-screen montage of contemporary and historical found footage as well as newsroom and documentary footage seen through a black lens. Its hyper-construction challenged the power of news to influence and asked for a radical reappraisal of the means of production, the privileging of non-white aesthetics and agendas. Joseph is one of a vanguard of artists along with Theaster Gates, Arthur Jafa, Ava DuVernay and Moonlight Director Barry Jenkins who have affected change through their centring of black aesthetics. Another stand-out moment for me was the video for Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, a salvo of truth shot through the American Dream, a parody of consumer culture’s excesses and society’s failures.

It’s these parallel tracks on which the decade seems to have been running: one is about sunbathing in the perpetual reflection of a simulated reality, the other is about popping the soap bubble, where the activism of dissent and the struggle for political and personal survival is clearly evidenced. 

Adam Curtis captured the psychology of the decade in his epic video essay Hypernormalisation. Our world is strange and often fake and corrupt, but we think it’s normal because we can’t see anything else, he tells us. Not seeing anything intelligible is the new normal because most people are sleep-walking through life, comforted by the woozy gratification of Xanax-tinged, next day delivered consumerism.

The Xs saw an increase in cocaine and heroin production but its fallen idols were those like Lil Peep, who drifted away on prescription drugs two weeks after turning 21, making the 27 club feel quaint. A renaissance in psychedelics had a profound effect on aesthetics, ideas and discourse. Landmark releases like Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap (2013) mixtape, A$AP Rocky’s “L$D” (2015), and Travis Scott’s surrealist Astroworld (2018) coursed through culture. 

“Is the growing use of psychedelics an escapist response to our broken political and economic systems, a search for meaning in a universe so perverse that Prince and Bowie can die in the same year a racist replaced Obama?” wrote Mike Powers in his insightful essay The Psychedelic Resistance, where he charts the rise of microdosing, plant based medicines such as ayahuasca as well as capatlism’s influence on psychedelic experimentation to a cornucopia of mind-bending drugs made widely available in the Xs via the dark web. While people languished in prisons for minor drug charges, the 1% were bankrolling legal cannabis start-ups and taking private jets to Burning Man, where they could shed their Silicon Valley skins and embrace the illusion of a society ruled by radical inclusion and decommodification.

“With the release of Jesus is King, does Kanye’s dogma rub up too closely to that of the meta-new-agers, where Goop’s moon-juice meets microdosing tech entrepreneurs and Hillsong merchandise meets crystal-infused vodka?” – Jefferson Hack

In 2016, I watched Kanye West in public mental breakdown during his Saint Pablo tour. He never completed it, going to rehab suffering from mental exhaustion. His public life more than any other celebrity mirrors the psychodrama of the 2010s. “For me, life is art and art is life. It’s all one thing. I’m a performance artist. So is my wife. We are both performers in life,” Kanye told me when I went to visit him in his Calabasas studio just after the launch of Season 6 of his Yeezy collection. This was another significant pop cultural moment where he created campaign art in the style of paparazzi coverage. The athleisure looks were styled on Kim Kardashian and then later a variety of Kim clones including Paris Hilton, trailed by the camera as they performed mundane tasks at the FedEx depot or at McDonald’s. It was life, imitating art, imitating life, imitating art, Kanye West channelling the twin themes of simulation and speculation for the Xs in hyperloop.

But does his latest attempt at spiritual rebirth backfire as inauthentic or is it the natural evolutionary next step in his exaltation? It began with Sunday Service, his revisionist gospel happenings, which spoke clearly to a new self aware, religious and spiritual zeitgeist. With the release of Jesus is King, does his dogma rub up too closely to that of the meta-new-agers, where Goop’s moon-juice meets microdosing tech entrepreneurs and Hillsong merchandise meets crystal-infused vodka? Are we entering a world where spiritual narcissism and branding opportunities blur into one influencer feed of cyber-salvation? I’m sure McLaren would have called it a swindle.

It was reaffirming to read an interview with Mark Leckey in Tate Magazine, where he spoke on a recent show in Liverpool at The Bluecoat called Instituting Care by artist Jade Monserrat. “The title really struck me,” he said. “I thought, that’s where art is now – an idea of art as a platform for attending to people’s well being, mental health, whatever it is, which is very at odds with the idea of artist as rebel, as antagonist.” That show was also an inspiration for Transformer, the exhibition I curated at 180 The Strand, where 13 artists invited us into altered states of consciousness and the works of many – Donna Huanca, Evan Ifekoya, Victoria Sin and Sophia Al Maria and Korakrit Arunanondchai – deal directly with care, wellness, community, spiritual death and rebirth. 

Decades are defined by deaths and David Bowie’s final act was an artwork about coming to terms with one’s own death. Black Star was taboo-breaking for Western pop culture where only immortality and youth are what become routinely celebrated and revered. As an artist who specialised in shape-shifting and creating characters of ambiguous sexuality, his influence on polysexuality in pop could be cited as one of the accelerators of a new era of gender-fluidity.  Today, Bjork more than any other artist has taken up his mantle as cultural shape-shifter, her post-human explorations of possibility, invites a future fuelled by hope.

Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts, published in 2015, proved one of the decade’s key texts for gender non-conformity and trans-inclusivity. Akwaeke Emezi's semi autobiographical debut novel Freshwater is also spellbinding. As a non-binary, trans writer who is of both Tamil and Nigerian origin, they have a unique voice and power. And although transphobia remains rife, as the Xs drew to a close, we saw “they” become word of the year for 2019. It was reflective of a wider shift: school-age teens self-identifying and demanding same sex bathrooms and adults in the workplace changing their pronouns, names and identities. It was an embrace of ambiguity, a breakaway from the often binary imaginings of the 70 and 80s sexual and, to an extent, gay revolutions.

So as we spin out of the Xs into the 20s, the next decade will be an existential fight for humanity’s survival as extinction becomes a greater and more real threat. As we prepare for the fight or flight response to that imminent crisis we should spare a thought who won’t see the 20s; those great artists who we lost over the course of the Xs. Alexander McQueen, Amy Winehouse, Corinne Day, George Michael, Adam Yauch, John Giorno, Karl Lagerfeld, Jonas Mekas, Jeanne Moreau and Azzedine Alaia. We do it because of you.