COLLAGE CULTURE - 21st Century Identity Crisis

I remember when I was a young teenager circa 2006. Back then, I could read digital PDF scans of Sassy or Raygun Magazine whilst listening to Siouxsie and The Banshees and look like I came out of the 60s - except for my jacket - my jacket was straight out of the 90s.   With the help of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, I had the 20th century at my fingertips. I could pick and choose from the past’s buffet and create a salad of any variety. I could “collage” my own culture.

These days, I’ve been asking myself  “What was my culture?” What was the thing that came out of the first ten years of the new millennium that could be seen as the hallmark of that decade? 

Brian, Aaron, Mandy - creators of Collage Culture.

Many mornings ago I was reading Purple Magazine online and I miraculously came across an article written by Aaron Rose (artist, curator, Director of Beautiful Losers)  about a book that he helped to write called Collage Culture.   Aaron’s description embodied my thoughts on the defining elements of the 00’s exactly.  Written by Aaron and Mandy Kahn (poet, writer for Foam Magazine) and designed by Brian Roettinger (Graphic Designer), Collage Culture is a book which tackles the past decade’s penchant for re-configuring its predecessors in two essays (Living in The Mess & The Death of Subculture) and a collection of computer generated collages.  Read on to learn about Mandy’s thoughts on the past and the future. WORDS AND INTERVIEW BY KEBA ROBINSON. PHOTOS BY AUTUMN DE WILDE. OTHER IMAGES ARE SCANS FROM COLLAGE CULTURE.


KEBA: How did the project start with Aaron and Brian? At what point did you guys realize that you wanted to compile a book together?
MANDY KAHN: Aaron and I got talking one night at a diner - that’s really where the project started. I said I thought we were living in a collage culture - a cultural moment
so fond of the art of the past, and so interested in how it might cut up and use others' art as pieces, that it seemed to be doing more finding and choosing and cutting and assembling than creating from scratch, and that this worried me. I ran into Aaron about a week later and we talked about this again, and then he emailed me and said, I’m still thinking about that collage culture idea--any interest in doing a book on that together? From there, Aaron and I started discussing what shape the book would take, and immediately decided we wanted it to have some sort of unique format, and that’s when we thought of asking Brian to transform our text into visual art. I hadn’t met Brian yet, though I had admired his work for some time, but Aaron knew him, and wrote to him, and I just crossed my fingers that he’d agree to take the project on.

KEBA: What was the writing process like?
MANDY KAHN: Aaron and I divided the subject matter into two parts and then sat down to write our own separate essays. I set out to give an overview of the current cultural landscape and to introduce the concept of a collage culture, and Aaron set out to write a sort of manifesto--an impassioned plea urging the next generation of creative minds to return to from-scratch creation. It was Aaron’s idea that we not read each other’s essays until we’d finished writing our own, so as not to be influenced by each other’s work. So we did that. And so there were a lot of surprises along the way: the surprise of reading Aaron’s essay, the surprise of seeing what Brian turned our text into. It was a very exciting process.


KEBA: If collaging past subcultures is a new phenomenon, doesn’t that make it original?
MANDY KAHN: Our argument is not that cultural collaging is new but that its prevalence is new. What once was a strange, shocking, risky thing to do - and what once aroused a lively debate - is so common now that no one seems to notice it’s happening, and that feels very surreal.

KEBA: Is it necessarily a bad thing that the past ten years have yielded so much collage? Perhaps “motion sickness” is simply the new way of things, especially with the internet. Maybe you could even go so far as saying that the past ten years have been original in their presentation of culture - the fact that we can see the 60s alongside the 90s.
MANDY KAHN: It’s not necessarily a bad thing - it’s simply a thing worthy of consideration, and a thing that we felt hadn’t been adequately considered. And, yes: the feeling the contemporary world gives us that’s akin to motion sickness - or the disorientation that happens when your body sees things that it associates with several disparate time periods at once, which is similar to what happens when your body receives the clashing messages that it’s bouncing (from the body) and that it’s stationary (from the eyes) - could very well be the new way of things, and probably is. What was important to us was starting a conversation about a trend that we felt was happening everywhere and happening loudly and happening - at least at the time we conceived the book - without comment. And yes: the incredible prevalence of this slicing, dicing and combing of past eras IS original - and, good or bad, it’s ours: it’s how we create, it’s how we live.

KEBA: What do you think about the internet in relation to collage culture?
MANDY KAHN: There’s no way to discuss our collage culture without referencing the internet: those two things are inherently tied. Most people got high-speed internet in their homes sometime around the year 2000, and that’s the same time the way we make our art started to shift - and that’s no coincidence. Suddenly we had access to everything that had been produced since the beginning of recorded time: how could we not spend countless hours sifting through that fabulous and near-infinite trove of cultural treasures? And once we’d collected our favorites, how could we not - now that we had programs like Garage Band and iMovie and Photoshop - start playing with and combining that material? There’s no way to discuss collage culture and not discuss technology: they’re married.
Computer generated collages from the minds of Brian Roettinger  and programmer/artist
Chandler McWilliams. All collages are based on a list of 16 compositional algorithms.


KEBA: In your half of the book, you spend a lot of time talking about tone in relation to stylistic or cultural attributes and how tone can severely change your perception of those attributes--particularly in the case of the “ironic mustache.” As someone who lived through the 90s and into the new millenium, do you have any idea why this interest in irony arose? Was there something that happened in the art or music world that sparked this occurrence?
MANDY KAHN: Grunge was awfully sincere, wasn’t it? Think of the big alternative 90s artists--Tori Amos, Kurt Cobain, Liz Phair--the ones that defined 90s subculture: they were confessional, earnest, raw, even bleeding heart-y, and by the 2000s, it makes sense that the emerging generation of creative folks was ready to define itself in opposition to that. That’s what we do: each generation of creative minds seems to define itself in opposition to the generation that came right before.

KEBA: Are there any current artists, musicians or creative types around right now that you think are doing things that are stepping away from this sort of collage?
MANDY KAHN: Oh, tons! Collage isn’t so prevalent that everyone’s doing it--it’s only so prevalent that it’s alarming how many people are. There’s plenty happening that’s new, especially at the crossroads of art and technology. It isn’t that making from scratch is dead--it’s just that it might be dying.

KEBA: What reactions and responses have you had from people who you have shared your book with? Are people defensive about their collaging or have you met a lot of kindred spirits?
MANDY KAHN: We’ve gotten every sort of reaction you can imagine: we’ve met the like-minded, we’ve met the opposite-minded, we’ve met the defensive--and we like everything we hear. All we ever set out to do was start a conversation, so any evidence that we’ve started one we’re happy about.

KEBA: Do you have any ideas for what the next subculture would look like?
MANDY KAHN: Personally, I think we’re ripe for the emergence of a purely analog subculture - not just folks that like vinyl, but folks that live without the internet or cell phones or television. It’s easier to get work done without the onslaught of digital distractions we fend off every day, and ideas flourish in silence. A new generation of creative people are likely to figure that out.