Gruppe text director Nele Ruckelshausen met art & fashion generalist Mac Folkes in his office near Tiergarten to have a casual chat about capitalism and mass media, the crisis of fashion, and his new book project FAMVLVS – A Poetics of Blackness. The photos for the interview were taken by Robert Hamacher.
Nele: What is happening in fashion right now, from your perspective? As someone who works on the periphery of that whole scene I can’t help but feel that the industry is in a bit of a crisis.
Mac: It’s in total crisis. The problem is that fashion got behind the digital revolution too soon too fast. High fashion used to be part of the avant-garde, but now it’s become streamlined by mass media. The industry is playing catch-up with what’s popular on social platforms, chasing influencers and trying to gain followers rather than creating their own worlds of art and beauty. Of course they’re chasing those things because they are desperate to keep their jobs, and this is the game you need to play now. But it keeps them from developing a genuine artistic standpoint. Where do you see the problem in fashion today?
Well, I think the structure of the whole system right now, brands on top, magazines trying to uphold the illusion of fashion as something aloof and exclusive, and then all the people who do the actual work – the young, aspiring ones, those who have genuinely new ideas – is pretty imbalanced and detrimental to creativity. With the rapidity with which everything moves now, these young people are being chewed up before they can even get started. Plus, somehow it’s become completely acceptable to pay us in ‘prestige’ rather than money. I found in modeling, you get the big bills for the shitty corporate giants, and you get next to nothing for the cool, forward-thinking designers – and it has little to do with their ability to pay. They just trust that their models are privileged enough to not actually have to care about the money.
Truth be told, I don’t envy your position. I feel like I’m already on the other side of this, more of an observant. But I’m always shocked how everyone is so ready to sell their cool today, or vice versa, willing to buy it – it didn’t use to be like that. And as fantastic and wonderful as the new world could and should be with all its new tools, the moment right now is too precarious for young people. And no one seems to know how to use the tools right. I remember one time, a young girl who works at Google was staying at my place in New York, and I was really interested to hear what it’s like. But she said to me ‘You know what? I’m totally cynical about the whole thing: We have some of the brightest people in the world there, and at the end of the day, they’re just trying to come up with algorithms to sell you more stuff’. That was real food for thought.
I feel like this kind of cynicism is common among my generation. I think a lot of us are jealous at older generations for the reason that we don’t really know who our enemy is. We don’t know who to fight or what to to fight for. You can come to the realization that there is something super fucking wrong with the capitalist system we live in, but it feels like there’s no way to work against it…
There’s the paradox that you want to subvert the system, but you also feel forced to participate. And by participating, you are continuously perpetuating. A question I’ve been carrying around is, how come this generation seems to have such a hard time to create new, original spaces of expression for itself? And once again, I think it has to do with the acceleration of capitalism. I was here at the beginning of Techno, when the wall had just come down, when you were able to walk into buildings and just claim them. We were able to build a scene with little to no money. I don’t want to say that’s impossible today but it’s certainly harder to find. At the end of the day, I think that’s the problem: your generation hasn’t figured out to create space to make culture that is completely and totally your own. Looking at the line in front of Berghain today, I can’t help but think, why are kids still lining up for this? I don’t mean that in disrespect to Berghain, but why are the kids not doing their own shit?
I think it has to do with the fact that youth today have theoretical access to all possible pasts, presents and future. Your taste in fashion, music, events, is patchworked from a thousand sources that transcend time and space, and it becomes very hard to channel that vastness into something new and definitive.
Yes, everything is referential, instead of coming from a grassroots. But you can’t create culture just by copying. When I moved all my stuff from Brooklyn to Berlin recently, I went through some boxes and I found this old Jasper Johns quote that I collected for a project that I had done. It says:
If you really want to get me interested, take something old, and then do something else to that. You can’t just copy and perpetuate.
Yes. But even if you have an interesting and subversive aesthetic vision, how far are you gonna get, how many people are you gonna reach, relying on channels like instagram and facebook? All of these platforms are built to follow a very limiting logic. And the content on there is consumed so rapidly, so in passing, there’s no time to engage or critically reflect. There’s this obsession with marketing yourself. The mindset of selling-and-buying not to only applies to us as consumers anymore, but to all aspects of our personal lives, too – especially in art & fashion. As soon as you’re good at something, anything, there’s the implicit expectation that you should make money from it.
I was a model agent from the early 90s until the late 2000s, and I scouted all over America. I would go to conventions, meet all these young kids, had castings, and during the callbacks I would sit down with them to have a little conversation. My opening line always was: “What’s your goal?”. In the early 90s, the answer was always, “I want to be a supermodel”. Then in the later 90s, as reality TV became popular, the answer became “I wanna be famous”. Then, about 6 years ago, the answer started to be: “I want to be a brand”. The first time I heard this, it absolutely blew my mind. I looked at the girl across the table from me and I asked her, “What does that mean?”, but she was as puzzled as me, she didn’t have an answer. She was repeating an idea that has become so popular now without having any idea what it meant. This kind of ideology is like cult indoctrination. So many young people think of capitalism as if it’s some kind of natural science.
Well it’s way harder to express yourself as a human than as a product. And there’s only a handful of platforms we are using to create our identity right now, structured to reward attempts to commodify yourself.
You know you’re dealing with a crazy powerful ideology though when you get people to think of themselves as products to be bought and sold. The kids that are now quote-unquote ‘influencers’ – the word itself is so insidious, if you think about it –
Yes! Much of our language – the wish to be a brand, to sell yourself, to influence people – begins to sound horrible if you say it out loud more than once. We’re not even making an effort anymore to hide the ideological construct hidden behind. I’m hoping that it’s still possible to build networks for artists that at least for a little while, function outside of these systems and can stand on their own. I think the intertwinings of the art & fashion industry with new media have contributed to a kind of identity crisis among creatives, they lose sight of who they’re creating for. Especially in fashion, which wants to make things that are luxurious, but is also creating now for the masses more than ever, and that at an insane pace.
When I first got involved in fashion, there was two seasons a year, Fall and Spring. Now there’s like six. And it’s not possible to create and produce on that level. One of the problems I have with fashion today is that things are not allowed to gestate. Before, creatives were allowed to take more time to build and develop their output. Nowadays, if you’re not blowing up within a very small amount of time, and keep knocking it out of the park every season, you’re a failure. It’s very difficult for a young person to step into that world.
It’s become very hard to create and sustain niches of culture that allow for that kind of gestation and long-form creation. With Gruppe, to me personally, it’s really important that the focus is on the process. I want the people we work with to have fun creating, and also provide them with the time and space they need to do so. What are you working on right now?
I’m working on this book here. Right now it’s planned as a bi-annual publication, dealing and engaging with the poetics of blackness. The theme of this first edition is ‘Magic’, and it’s a collection of found images and collected quotes that I put together by hand. Morgan Freeman is on the cover right now because the title of the work is Famulus – a famulus in Latin is a servant to a scholar or magician. When I embarked on this project, this was the word of the day on dictionary.com. So we decided to make the book all about magic. One of the concepts we talk about in here is the Hollywood trope of the ‘magical negro’ – where black people just sort of magically show up in the middle of the movie to take care of white people…
…give some words of wisdom to the struggling hero…
…and then just disappear. We have a section about the magical negro, and we reference Morgan Freeman, who often plays these kinds of characters. One of the nice things about Famulus is that I created it all by hand, and I took a lot of time with it. And that’s what makes it super luxurious.