In 2011, Nathan Jurgenson coined the term “digital dualism.” The idea roughly translates to the belief that online and offline correspond to two distinct worlds: the real and the virtual. That the term was invented just as smartphones and social media went mainstream is no mistake: increasingly our digital presence was just an interpolation of our social reality. Our phones tracked our locations, cross-referenced our professional, familial, and social connections, and acted as a universal remote for an increasingly bizarre array of products and services, from rideshares to dildos to appliances to deliveries. The ’90s idea that cyberspace was a void we could fashion into any reality we liked was a dangerous relic from an age of techno-utopianism. And thus, we threw out our old metaphors for digital exploration and embraced a new managerial mind-set. We stopped “surfing the web” and started “checking our socials.” Digital dualism was a straw man neologism, coined for the express purpose of being disproven. Like BC, it backdated an era before our collective enlightenment. Before we realized the internet was real.
When I met with Grimes, it was only a day after she had announced her pregnancy via a heavily edited and now nipple-censored Instagram post: tattooed body, orange and black braids, a glowing CGI fetus visible inside her translucent womb. Like so many of her posts, it quickly went viral because of its ambiguity. Was she pregnant? Was it Elon’s? Or was this yet another oddity, like the time she famously claimed to have had experimental eye surgery to remove all blue light from her field of vision in a Stella McCartney for Adidas–sponsored ad? Grimes, I quickly learned, was not Grimes. The person sitting across from me with black lacquered talons detailed in holographic red was C (formerly Claire Boucher). Grimes was the project, C was the artist.
C, like Timmy Thick, insists Grimes is an experiment. “For me, it’s almost like a sociological exercise in the nature of celebrity. I just watch what happens to the Grimes character. It’s pretty important for my own mental health. I definitely have to abstract myself from my persona.” This is both aesthetic and tactical for an artist whose fame has courted controversy since her break-out single “Oblivion” in 2012. Trying to understand early flare-ups surrounding her stance on feminism or veganism is a futile exercise in Internet archaeology, indecipherable runes from media storms past. But perhaps they served as early warnings about the nature of fame in the age of social media. “It takes a lot of effort to, like, build something, to work on something for a decade and then be like OK, the winds will take it where it will. [Laughter.]”
Despite the many icons who go by stage names like Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey, we struggle distinguishing artist and artwork, person and persona. We live in an age of manufactured authenticity. We’ve been taught to interpret all creative output as autobiographical in origin. So when a week and a half later, C launched a new digital avatar under the handle @WarNymph, many online could only interpret it as a digital rendering of her still-unborn fetus: cherubic yet demonic, with billowing angel wings and a bow built from a spinal cord. C quickly clarified on Twitter: “As I’ve mentioned many times in the past @WarNymph is a digital avatar that I’ve been working on for over a year. It is not a social media account for my unborn child. Plz don’t try to create controversy about my baby, whose privacy I plan on protecting.”
If the early techno-utopians had inadvertently created the myth that the virtual existed separately from the real, it now seems we face another equally problematic myth about the Internet: we see all digital output as a sort of behind-the-scenes version of reality, more real than the real. We see this in the last decade’s obsession with minimalism, the Everlane-clad armies of corporate professionals snacking on protein + vegetable + rice bowls in Instagram-optimized fast casuals. The convenient alibi is that this aesthetic is about efficiency. It’s either a harbinger of a frictionless future or a commentary on how harsh competition has pushed everyone to the test the limits of their economic performance. It’s the fashion code for the Black Mirror franchise: the future is the present haunted by technology.
But people rarely question whether our era’s dominant minimalism is simply a fear-based aesthetic response, a redaction of taste and choice for the normie masses too creatively uninspired to forge a unique digital avatar—or in common parlance, a personal brand. Grimes’s embrace of the highly textured visual vocabulary of cyberpunk science fiction, fantasy franchises, and superhero expanded universes taps into ascendant nerd culture, but doesn’t defer to the mainstream expectation that fiction be cordoned off as purely recreational. In 2020, no one will mock Bill from accounting for cosplaying Naruto on the weekend, but management would have thoughts about him wearing a wig to the office. Normcore in the streets, anime in the sheets. That Grimes and associated act Elon Musk refuse to play by these rules is at least half the reason both are such lightning rods for social media controversy.
On November 1, 2019, Twitter erupted with screenshots of the Blade Runner title card: “Los Angeles, November 2019.” We had crossed a Rubicon of sorts. We were now living in the faraway future of our childhoods. Only our version of 2019 was less aesthetically cyberpunk, more literally dystopian. Flying cars were janky beta tests, nowhere near FAA approval. Siri was a poor approximation of a replicant and barely passed the Turing Test. Downtown Los Angeles, though Manhattanized by new condos, remained bright, airy, and retro, decorated with ubiquitous street art and selfie murals rather than gargantuan winking geisha ads. China is the East Asian adversary that keeps Pentagon strategists up at night, not Japan. And of course the most conspicuous sign of our times, the smartphone, is absent.
On November 21, 2019, Elon Musk launched the Cybertruck. Like Grimes, Musk was “everting” cyberspace, to borrow a term from William Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, taking the most compelling aesthetics from the fictional realm and using them as templates to create new things in the world. Technical difficulties at the launch aside (the shatter-proof “armor glass” did indeed shatter), both the fascination and revulsion with the angular steel SUV seemed to stem from the polite fiction the automobile’s design implicitly shattered. It was a car for a post-collapse society where civil unrest and unpredictable weather always lurked around the corner. No one is supposed to notice that just outside the gates of any Silicon Valley start-up’s twee, unpretentious co-working space is a homeless camp. But of course, we do notice. And when we see C’s haunted flashbulb face in a paparazzi snap as Elon’s Cybertruck speeds away from Nobu onto a dark stretch of the Malibu PCH, we do remember that only months ago those hills were on fire.
C is embarking on what might be called social media science fiction, using digital platforms as a set to create her own expanded universe. First there was Grimes, now there is War Nymph. And with the release of her forthcoming album, there will be Miss Anthropocene, the manga goddess of climate change. In the video game Cyberpunk 2077 she is cast as the in-game pop star, Lizzy Wizzy, and her song “4ÆM” is featured on the soundtrack. C is toggling between the real and the virtual, between fact and fiction. She’s not so much proposing a return to old school digital dualism as taking full rein of the creative capacities of a life lived neither on- or offline, but between the two.
“We live in a simulation. If you look at a video game, a video game is a simulation of the world but it’s a distillation of the most entertaining or beautiful or scary stuff. Part of the reason a video game is so addictive is that it’s like a reality but it’s just like without mundane shit. Social media is a similar thing. It’s a mirror of reality but so much mundanity has been removed from it. So it feels like reality, it looks like reality, and you know you’re interacting with people that you know in reality, but all the boring shit has been taken out. Our minds are just sort of primed toward that, I think.”
C is a simulationist who understands better than most that social media is just a new editing suite for the consensual hallucination we are all participating in. While the Internet digs in deeper to its category error, writing hot takes about how War Nymph is “literally” C’s baby, and “that’s not OK.” The avatar, I was told, will age rapidly, potentially dying in the coming year. C hopes it can take its place among the growing cast of CGI personalities like Lil Miquela and Ruby Gloom, potentially even taking on one of them in a Twitch battle. Her proposition seems to be that if social media is a simulation, we should take that opportunity for all that it’s worth. Rather than fall in line with the neo-traditional, haute bourgeois sensibility of Silicon Valley, which amounts to not much more than rewiring a San Francisco Painted Lady with a porch spy cam and a remote-controlled thermostat, we should see what sort of spaces we can build online when we stop imagining an online world that only refers to our lackluster present.
CR Fashion Book Issue 16 Special Edition is now available at select retailers around the world.
PHOTOGRAPHS JASON NOCITO
FASHION JULIA EHRLICH
MAKEUP NATASHA SEVERINO
HAIR CHANEL CROKER
SET DESIGN DÏN MORRIS
LOCAL PRODUCTION VIEWFINDERS
PRODUCTION SASHA BAR-TUR FOR CR STUDIO
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