The Meta World of Cole Kush, Net Artist Orbiting Mac DeMarco

Benjamin Schneider

A still from the dream segment of Cole Kush's "Backer".

“I’ve been backing people up in different parking lots around Edmonton for the better part of my life—I’d say twenty five or thirty years at this point,” says (25 year-old) Mac DeMarco, over a montage of himself theatrically directing cars into tight spaces. His voiceover continues, “My name is Dave Fuck, and I’m a backer. I back cars up.”

This three-minute mockumentary, entitled “Backer”, seems sophomoric at first, like an uncomfortable union of art school and middle school, but then Fuck begins to narrate his latest dream. The viewer abruptly enters an endless parking lot, rendered in gummy computer animation à la The Sims. Fuck notices “this ’07 Chev just fucking floating,” and then he has an epiphany: “It didn’t matter how big that lot was, all that matters is just the back-up that’s right in front of me. Just take it one car at a time, you’ll get through it.” The sequence ends with a close-up on Fuck’s digital face, wearing the very same look of vacancy that IRL DeMarco portrayed so convincingly.

“Backer” is the most popular film by an Edmonton, Alberta resident and post-internet artist who goes by Cole Kush. He’s best-known for creating digital videos for a group of musicians centered on DeMarco, and “Backer” is a good metaphor for his artistic persona. Like Dave Fuck, Kush is an anachronism, a disheveled vagabond who doesn’t fit into fast-paced society—specifically the culture of the internet, which is actually his primary medium.

Kush’s work is deeply informed by his own life trajectory, which he was kind enough to describe to me over email this winter. Despite a youth spent suffering from severe chronic migraines, he earned a graduate degree in clinical prosthetics. In the years that followed, Kush worked at various rehabilitation centers across Canada. During his travels, he met DeMarco and his then-bandmates in Walter TV, including Pete Sagar, who now performs as Homeshake. Through his work, Kush learned 3D rendering and, newly among a group of artists, melded new skill with his creative ambitions. A little over a year ago, with the hope of freeing up time for creative projects, Kush decided to “jump out” of the medical world in order to co-found a web design and animation company. Since then, Kush has also released a remarkable array of artistic content online.

Describing Kush’s work is a lot like describing the internet itself. There are websites and videos, advertisements and blogs, substantive content and endless opportunities for distraction—all of which can be accessed from his website, ckush.com. As for social media, however, Kush’s presence is minimal, with only a Facebook page that he uses to occasionally promote new content. One can’t help but think it’s a very conscious de-emphasis. Social media contains many of the norms that Kush lampoons through his art. “Social,” as it is increasingly known, is where we watch and participate in the parade of corporate brands, the worship of beauty and fitness, the relentless self-promotion, the gameification of social life, and so on. Kush takes these tropes to the extreme, calling attention to the very strange realm that anyone reading this article likely inhabits for many hours a day. His works are inevitably imbued with irony, for the simple fact that they exist in the same digital world that he is critiquing.

Life is not about what you’re going to get; it’s about what you have. It’s about time.

In black and white, these themes are disembodied aphorisms, aimlessly floating through the ether. Consider his animated music video for “Surf Metal” by Walter TV, which begins with a weightlifting scene featuring the members of the band and their buddies, including DeMarco, the nebbish lounge singer Jerry Paper, and Kush himself. The camera finally settles on a downcast DeMarco, who explodes as the song crescendos. People and weight-room accessories go flying. Once the dust settles, Walter TV bassist Pierce McGarry and Andy White (of the eclectic Brooklyn duo Tonstartssbandht) approach a wall-sized mirror covered by a swirling, bluish vortex. When White enters the void, his skin disappears, revealing his bare musculature, as in a biology textbook. The words “I love you,” emerge out of his mouth, as he pouts and flexes in the midst of an apparent narcissism trip. White’s state of mind leads him into a dark room with mirrors for walls, where he begins to dance, with his skin back intact. Starting near his pelvis, the viewer travels the length of a selfie stick, with a meticulously rendered iPhone at the end. White poses for the phone and snaps an unsmiling picture of his own face. As the iPhone camera flashes, his skin disappears once again, revealing the musculature beneath, and his face stretches into a wide grin.

The delicate interplay between self-preservation and self-optimization plays out in Kush’s penchant for juxtaposing symbols of health and wellness with technological devices. When there are (black) mirrors everywhere, reflecting and measuring our lives, we inevitably become more aware of ourselves. We try harder to look good, to reflect the elegant logic of the mirror itself. And yet, no matter what we tell ourselves, we remain nothing but skin and bone.

Kush’s portrayals of a tech-saturated world also involve unexpected experiments in tone. In fact, arguably the most prominent theme in all of Kush’s work—which includes animation, live action, and web design—is the flat or ambiguous affect. His animated characters have the unintentionally cold look of digital avatars. When Kush zooms in for a close-up, it’s as if they’re staring into a screen, too. His live action subjects seem to strive toward the avatar ideal, removing all socially appropriate responses from their range of emotions. The uncanny valley—a zeitgeisty phrase describing the sense of revulsion elicited by realistic computer generated figures—is a constant in Kush’s world, no matter who or what is onscreen.

However, the tonal ambiguity in Kush’s art is not limited to his portrayal of characters; it is part of the very nature of his project as an internet artist. Anyone who frequents social media can attest that there is nothing more atonal than written words on a screen. Kush harnesses this under-acknowledged phenomenon on his parody websites, where he reminds us just how similar the serious and the ridiculous can appear. On his website for “HD Solutions” (URL: hdsolutions.solutions), he puts the infinitely self-satisfied business world on trial. Upon first glance, the site looks like a normal, cheaply built site for a small media or technology company. It has a good color scheme, a few clickable tabs, a list of clients (including Costco and Toyota) and a corporate-y, abstract design. The home page’s tagline reads, “Communication can be difficult, particularly when the modern economy demands it. We help you analyze that gap, enabling you to develop sustainable bridges for visionaries. Sound your voice into an HD future!” Clicking the “About Us” or “Read More” tabs leads to an Ultra-Violet heat map of the globe with the header, “Heat Death Solutions.” The caption explains how the Heat Death of the Universe will prevent “processes that consume energy (including computation and life).”

Kush’s humor consultancy firm, which helps clients build a “dynamic comic sensibility and optimize [their] humor,” takes the idea of a personal brand to its logical and incredibly cynical conclusion. And then there’s the site for Feedballs, an eco-friendly ball that you strap to your mouth, providing you with healthy calories on the go. Once more, Kush calls into question things that we take for granted, in this case our culture’s contradictory obsessions with wellness and ruthless efficiency. The result, these websites suggest, is an inescapable sense of banality.

Kush’s style and tone, as well as the culture that he lampoons, only exist because of the medium on which they appear. In this respect, Kush’s work falls into the realm of post-internet art, which describes art that is made in conversation with the internet. As Niamh McIntyre of Vice UK writes, “While the digital realm that most of us frequent—the one driven by Google’s big-data capitalism—is all about homogeneous progress, post-internet art searches for glitches and irregularities, and explores the strange, performative potential of cyberspace.”

HD Solutions

“Homogenous progress” is how we define a world in which ideas exist in order to be monetized, in which every decision is meant to enhance personal likability or to curate a brand. These are some of the human implications of the internet, which itself is “a projection of a very small part of ourselves; that portion devoted to logic, order, rule and clarity,” as the writer and computer programmer Ellen Ullman characterizes it. As we become increasingly intimate with the internet, our lives begin to resemble its sensibilities; the tiny part of the human experience that can be quantified is radically privileged above all other parts.

Although Kush describes himself as a “True Idiot® when it comes to the academic art world,” his work still reeks of post-internet themes and the culture that has developed around them. Yet the question remains, to what end? Perhaps Kush is attempting to encourage a paradigm that is more authentic, more in line with the human experience rather than the internet experience. Or perhaps Kush is closer to a nihilist: more interested in the absurd world he depicts than the way that absurdity might contribute to a healthier notion of progress. Kush says he’s comfortable letting the viewer decide. “I just find, like I’m sure many others do, that being too direct with my motives can create a more of a passive experience.”

Kush’s art invites a probing and sometimes even distressing level of viewer engagement. He suggests that the assumption of sincerity that we must make in every digital exchange is in fact a delicate facade. Beneath the surface, there is a violent stew of meanings and tones, which, if unleashed, can yield to utter incoherence. Consider Kush’s collaboration with musician Alex Calder. In a two-minute live-action mockumentary about his EP Time, Calder introduces himself by saying, “I guess I would call myself a recording artist. Even though it sounds weird when I hear myself say it.” His subsequent narration straddles the line between aphorism and self-effacing cliché: “As a society we really need to slow down and listen to the music.” His girlfriend, now in the frame, gives a heavily veiled look of psychic melancholy as Calder concludes, “Life is not about what you’re going to get; it’s about what you have. It’s about time.”

On the one hand, Calder offers a worthwhile commentary, implying that our fast-paced society has left something to be desired. Yet the depth of the cliché, along with Calder’s exaggerated millennial self-consciousness, undermine the authorial integrity. It’s making fun of people who critique the pace and direction of society—even though, as evidenced by the rest of Kush’s work, that seems to be what Kush is trying to accomplish. Nothing is safe from criticism in Kush’s post-internet world, not even the apparent objective of the artist. His forthcoming projects—including a web-series “about two Zen-like child men roommates who make funny web videos together, slowly accruing fame and popularity until they are lifeless number-obsessed shells”—indicate that things are only getting more meta from here.

After all, Kush’s work is intended to resemble the platform upon which it exists, where flows of information have been transformed into crude reflections of ourselves. His most comprehensive meditation on cyberspace itself occurs in the video for “Heat” by Homeshake. The video opens with a Neolithic man walking across a glassy pond, carrying a baby on his back who happens to look exactly like him (beard and all). Subsequently, a sexy mouse-woman à la Richard Scarry fills the screen. But the mouse-woman, it turns out, is just an image on the desktop of a prematurely aged man without eyes in a suburban home. A couple of kids play in the living room in front of a massive TV, which the viewer enters, only to discover a dancing mouse-man dressed in medieval clothing, entertaining the family. Instead of watching the spectacle with the kids, the eyeless man is bent over a tablet. On the other side of that screen, the Neolithic man walks through an extra-terrestrial hookah lounge, without a baby this time. He wanders by chrome figures staring at their smartphones, and into the palm of a massive white hand. The camera zooms out, and the viewer realizes that the hand is that of the man-baby, who flips it over and lets the mini-man drop into the water. The original Neolithic man begins walking backwards, and the music stops.

“Heat” is absurd, but it leaves you feeling hollow and anxious; it feels uncomfortably similar to reality. The Neolithic man’s mini version of himself evokes the intimacy and constancy of the digital world that we carry in our pockets. This mini-self provides access to experiences that were previously accessible only in our dreams. And yet, the real-world act of entering this sphere is far from dream-like. The figure of the eyeless man forces the viewer to reckon with the physical decrepitude that comes with a life lived through screens. Once again, Kush’s background makes him uniquely qualified to animate such suggestions. “I am always picturing myself on the computer while I am on the computer; the curvature of my spine, my internal bio systems slowly chugging along in this sedentary state and the absurdity of using 3D animation to communicate these concepts,” he wrote.

The eyeless man also represents the dangerous potential for social disengagement amidst the whirl of distracting devices. He embodies the nagging feeling that there’s always something better and more interesting onscreen. As the children play in their imaginary world, the eyeless man follows the Neolithic man’s simulacra along its strange, inevitable course. Ultimately, however, the eyeless man, who functions as a stand in for the viewer, ends up exactly where he began. The figure he followed so intently through the virtual realm turned out to be a tiny fraction of its original self, insignificant and expendable.

Along this circular journey, Kush suggests that the worlds opened up to us by digital technology fall short of our hopes. He channels Ellen Ullman, reminding the viewer that the part of you that the internet engages with is just a small part of your entire self. Yet, as Kush’s work demonstrates, the human element does not have to be absent from cyberspace. Instead of letting the internet project its binary logic on to us, we can project our own spirited and self-defeating logic on to it. If not, we could end up like the man without eyes, obsessively following trivial images through a meaningless space. Kush, in his way, simplifies the message: “I rarely feel that I have any actual answers—we’re all just figuring this out together, man!”

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