What if it were illegal to be famous?
MSCHF is up to no good.
Well, the boss wants a show about fame, boy did I find one. Walkin’ in the first coupla days at Perrotin gallery, there’s a hand of a famous guy just stickin’ outta the wall, just like that. You know what? I’d never heard of him, but I shook his hand anyway. The show was put on by the art collective who deign to call themselves MSCHF, an apt name, since they seem to be impish little pipsqueaks out to poke fun at the establishment. Even the hand of the rapper was essentially, as they pointed out to me when I met them in the flesh, alleged, since we the (hungry) viewers take it on faith that it even is the hand of said rapper. I started to wonder if these scrappy young guys were even the real MSCHF, but then again, I supposed that’s probably what they wanted me to think. To be perfectly honest, I think about this a lot, the vast quantity of stuff we take on faith and faith alone — a signature, a handshake, even going to a restaurant is a kind of unspoken contract, you could just get up and leave, you know, and boy have I almost done it! I kid! But it’s one of the many moth holes in our system — hole, ha! Maybe that’s why it was a hole in the wall, an arm poking out like the mysterious hands we have to shake in order to get through the door to so many weird, Kafka-esque institutions, the ivory towers guarded by anonymous gatekeepers and all that meshugana.
Just like fame, I guess. MSCHF (I’m pronouncing it mischief, if you were wondering) takes fame as their explicit subject, and in their sneaky art kid way, prod at it with cheeky Bart Simpson-ish glee. For example: a wall of cellphones that the gallery goers can and are encouraged to touch, contain the actual cellphone numbers of several well known celebrities — again, we have to take it on faith that they are the actual numbers — and the inherent challenge of the phones is to overcome the simple barrier of limitless attempts at hacking the unlock code. Ain’t that just the way? Fame feels so much like that, especially nowadays (the Brain Worms won’t shut up about it!) — just a teensy screen separates us from the frenzy of renown. If only you could figure out the secret code, the password, then suddenly you’d be plugged into the world of celebrity that is the intrinsic subject of so much of our modern striving. There’s the sense of a potential portal in this mundane piece of black mirror wall candy: what would happen, in fact, if you were to actually unlock one of these phones — which is, ticklishly, entirely possible? Would you call a celebrity? Which one? What would you say? Would you then become famous yourself? Solve the hidden societal code, my friend, discover, if you dare, the correct series of numbers, tasks, exposure, manipulation, and on the other side lies the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: fame! Delicious fame!
Now, for the question of legality — where is the line? Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the line between legal and illegal lies. Is it ‘legal’ to have the actual phone numbers of celebrities attached to working cellphones on a wall in an art gallery? It is definitely illegal to have LSD-laced seltzer, a cooler of which is buzzing against the adjacent wall. A little bird told me that they had to ship it down through Canada in order to actually get it to the gallery, because it is in fact illegal, although it seems to be hovering on that line between legal to own and illegal to consume (and I was dying for a drink! I may have taken a teensy sip, but my lips are sealed!). This line between the legal and illegal is a tightrope upon which MSCHF seems to take a special delight in dancing — watching them wobble and waiver certainly tickles the nose and whets the appetite. Appetite for what? To watch them fall? To relish in disaster? Maybe.
Beside the LSD Seltzer cooler is some kind of crazy contraption that will leave you scratching your fuzzy little head — if I hadn’t met the artists and had them explain it to me, it would’ve taken me a Manhattan minute to figure it the hell out, but my lips to your ears, I’ll give you the scoop in plain English: a grand roll of white paper is scribbled upon by a robotic arm programmed to imitate one of the artist’s handwriting in a chisel-tip black marker, and a microphone hovers over the whole thing as the paper gathers in loose folds upon the floor as it writes and writes and writes. Oh, the scoop? In plain English? Right! The microphone is actually listening to the you and I in the gallery and taking snippets of our conversations and transcribing it onto the paper! My little monster heart nearly burst at the implications — Big Brother, paparazzi, the idea that our little devices are always listening. The fact that the celebrity cellphones are sitting right there, mounted on the wall, still beckoning to you to try and hack their mysterious code, and here is the flip side: the machines are listening, waiting to turn your desires and conversations, things you aren’t even aware of saying and doing and wanting, into… something, something valuable. Perhaps even to make you more valuable, by, of course, making you famous (or partaking in fame by becoming part of a piece of art!) — the key is the potential, that floating ether that activates not only a device but art itself, for without the conversation, without an audience, the machine is inert, all machines lose their meaning, in fact, as does all art. Ah, but your data, your precious data, here in the form of the ephemeral, unthinking slices of conversation, made into a potentially invaluable work of art through the power of fame, artistic renown, the destruction of privacy in the name of celebrity.
They made the comparison of their show to that lovely bygone mechanism of American youth capital: the mall. The comparison definitely isn’t far off, I certainly got the feeling that I might be shopping without even knowing it — was my little monster phone, I couldn’t help wondering, adding things to my cart as I sauntered along with MSCHF? Be careful what you wish for! Amazon is listening! A gaggle of swords are mounted on the next wall, like those corny swords at hobby shops that seem desperate for their Pulp Fiction moment, but the MSCHF swords? Get this: made from melted down guns. “We’re actively accepting guns, if you have a gun you need to get rid of,” one of the artists said with a grin. The irony is obvious and blunt and brilliant — potential has become transformation. If I’m transforming myself into a celebrity, what kind of weapon will I become, and what kind of weapon was I before? Either way I’m a weapon. Either way I’m something dangerous and awe inspiring — you better believe it, baby. The potential for violence and destruction, for something very illegal to occur, lingers around every corner.
And now, of course, a wall of sneakers, their soles manipulated into perfect squiggle waves — ha! Soles! The theme of transformation, perhaps transubstantiation (where the soul is transferred to another body) is fully afoot (pun intended). And what mall would be complete without a sneaker store? MSCHF is actually facing a legal battle with Vans over their manipulation of that brand’s shoes, and in response they’ve taken several other brands and made them wavy as well, toying, once more, with the legal tightrope. Are we rooting for them or for Vans? When it comes to aesthetics, copyright, and the floaty world of ideas where brands and art exist, where does the line exist? Boy, this sure is a bizarre Footlocker, with A.I.-produced composite imagery of feet on the adjacent walls — and what fame is examined here but the seediest and, some may argue, the most accessible kind, that of foot fetish, of pornography, of course — heard of it? The nature of fame, and the desperation to achieve it, will make fools of us all, just as we are made fools by our desires to own something as nonfunctional and silly as a piece of art — I mean a shoe you can’t wear.
Porn stars make obvious the fantasy we project onto them, onto celebrities as well, the composite we form in our minds that is pretty much entirely separate from the person themselves. Enter: Jennifer Lopez. Well, a digitally-rendered statue built from composite images collected by paparazzi from different angles all simultaneously, the images mounted behind the small statue. It’s like a physical rendering of the weird avatar that society at large creates from the myriad images we have of the rich and famous — we have never met J-Lo, yet somehow we know her. There is this desire to get closer and closer to celebrities, to get to know the real person. But realistically, their image is a separate entity from the real person, an avatar: MSCHF has constructed that avatar.
Their sense of the ludicrous and our complicity in the construction of it is ripe and rampant in their surrealist mall version of GameStop, where a video game called Chair Game has Jerry Saltz (arguably the most famous living art critic) sitting in various chairs. The game’s irony is obvious, blunt, and brilliant, the trifecta of MSCHF’s sensibility, it would seem. The audience participation seems fun, but is in fact rather dull, for you are merely sitting in a chair — ha! The literalness! For what are you really doing when you play video games other that sitting in a chair? What are you doing when you are looking at art other that standing in a room? The mockery is channeled at the entire enterprise of fantasy, of creating our little mind worlds where we live and construct our avatars, where we develop our delusions of grandeur, where we scratch our itches and develop our appetites. Man, my stomach is growlin’! The other video game available to play in lo-fi pixelated GameBoy graphics is based on BTS, the K-Pop group — heard of ‘em? — imagining their mandatory military service in the South Korean military that they were almost able to bypass by dint of being famous, an ode to the great currency that is fame. And it is a currency, isn’t it?
Obvious, blunt, brilliant, it’s a vibe, people! Ever heard of Damien Hirst? One of the most famous living artists? Love him or hate him, MSCHF bought one of his polka dot pieces, chopped it up and propped the dots on the wall, each one an individual piece now for sale. “The last time we did this,” one of them told me, “Some collector decided that the green dots were more valuable, so they bought up all the green dots.” Thanks for the insider’s tip! Go green! They went on to explain that the cost of the Hirst piece was a part of their overhead — they were literally paying for a piece of fame, breaking it apart, and selling it off. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Here are the coins, collected one by one, fused with the rainbow itself. I can’t help but think of Henry James’ famous dictum: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Money is an illusion based on relations of value, fame a fleeting currency whose boundaries are invented every moment, and art a bunch of circles reflecting all of the above and keeping up appearances, also invented. Yep! Sounds about right!
Oh hey, we’re at my favorite part! The Peeps of Willendorf! I can eat it! Nom nom nom! The most famous work of art in Western history (or at least the earliest) made into an edible little snack! And a row of porta-potties behind to poop them out! Just kidding, they have trick doors (they love a trick-or-treat moment, these guys) — but if you can figure out how to open them, to trick the mechanism that immediately locks the door when you attempt to open it, behind is an embossed figure, rendered in that universal municipal style of bathrooms and sidewalk crossings, there to perform one of the four titles: piss, barf, phone, think. The door, the portal into the body, the opening where we can see the real deal: it’s a lot like that desire to be closer to the famous, to really know them. There’s that funny, stomach-tingling sense of solving a riddle to enter the kingdom that we felt with the phones mounted on the wall — solve the riddle, get the gold. Except in this case it’s a golden shower — no kink shaming, people!
But now we’ve made our way to the show’s centerpiece: Spot’s Rampage, as it’s called, a Boston Dynamics Robot that MSCHF mounted with paintball guns and allowed members of the public to remotely control and fire within an art gallery. Via livestream, people could pilot the robot and send paintballs flying, gradually destroying the space and the robot in a festoon of paint — it’s performance art meets action painting (eat your heart out, Jackson Pollock!). Suffice it to say, when Boston Dynamics caught wind of how their robot was being used, they weren’t too happy: at first they tried to bribe the collective to remove the paintball gun because they didn’t want their product associated with violence, but the day after Spot’s Rampage debuted, Boston Dynamics rolled out a partnership with NYPD. You can’t write this stuff, people! That irony is white hot, if you ask me! On top of that, the robotics company also remotely disabled MSCHF’s legally-purchased Spot (registered trademark) robot via an undisclosed backdoor mechanism. Sneaky, sneaky. So what did MSCHF do? They outfitted the robocorpse with as many real guns as they possibly could, in memoriam.
What if it were illegal to be famous? MSCHF toys with the question, and lives along the boundary it presents: they might be illegally famous, frankly, at least in the eyes of some — corporate interests have their Sauron’s eye on them. Like little boys with magnifying glasses held above an anthill, they magnify ironies to the point of explosion — or perhaps just enough to make a little smoke. Like I said, the show is fraught with potential, but hasn’t quite burst into flames just yet. The robot especially, is unnerving. The forces beyond the gallery wall, the way the art asks you to play with it and its potential to reach outside of itself, are ever looming, watching, waiting. If Boston Dynamics is able to deactivate the robot remotely, what’s to stop them from activating it again? MSCHF, with their wicked magnifying glass, has exposed the constant wobbly ground of eggshells upon which we walk in our brazenly bizarro contemporary moment — school shootings, anyone? At any moment you could be suddenly famous or suddenly wiped out by someone trying to be famous — the desperation for that difficult-to-define currency that contains its own economy, an economy of fantasy. What if it were illegal to be famous? Maybe it should be.
All images courtesy of Perrotin.