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We Cant Do This Alone: Jefferson Hack The System
We Cant Do This Alone: Jefferson Hack The System

Exclusive: Jefferson Hack on his Brand New Book

The creative maverick and Dazed Media founder reveals the concept behind his latest tome 'We Can't Do This Alone: Jefferson Hack The System' in this explorative introductory essay, accompanied by original artworks

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“We are in science fiction now. All the revolutions and old methods for changing consciousness are bankrupt. We’re back to magic, to psychic life . . . all public reality is a script, anyone can write the script the way he wants. The warfare is psychic now. Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race.” — “Allen Ginsberg in America”, The New Yorker, 1968

I used to call them flashbacks; now they seem more like flash-forwards. I have a kind of persistent memory jog where I remember fiction as if it’s fact, remember a scene from a movie as if it were a scene from real life, or bring to my mind an image rendered on a screen as if it were an image I’d witnessed with my own eyes. It began when I was a child and I would replace the Super 8 movies of my childhood as real memories. But then, the distinction between the real and unreal remained in the flicker of film and in the patina of Kodachrome. Now I Skype my daughter on holiday and she uploads her memories in real time into a feed. For her generation, who have a different relationship to time and memory, if there’s no documentation, no posting of the event, then it’s as if the event might never have happened—so acutely has the representation of reality replaced reality itself, so acutely has the high-definition quality of our digitised memories come to be more real than real.

Like Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Her (2013), I am in love with an operating system. It’s as if we are married. I exist through her/it. The pronoun for machine love is unclear. All I know is that she/it knows more about me than I can imagine. She/it knows what I will do next and even think next, before I do. She/it makes me feel incredibly intelligent as she/it delivers me into universes previously unknown. While technically the media and communications landscape that has been built around us is wondrously brilliant, as conceptually magnificent to behold as Diller and Scofidio’s “Blur Building”, the output, the creativity in media feels, in comparison to the technological brilliance that abounds, intrinsically banal. It feels and behaves as clumsily as its popular adage: “content.” A first wave of technology is partly to blame, where “search” and intuitive recommendations have narrowed the filters for newness or the unexpected to humdrum clichés. Cultural “Non”ness—sounds like numbness—a sort of manicured, perfected, synthetic new non-world is what pop culture is steeped in. It is described by what it is not. Like living in Heathrow Terminal 5 or, say, Googleplex in Mountain View. These are the future laboratories for how life may become. The industrialisation of storytelling financed by the speculative content-farm mentality of corporate media giants has sucked the soul out of the machine. The digital-media landscape is a map in search of territories where the race for scale obfuscates emotional realities. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard predicted what he called the “simulacra” or “hyper-reality,” which was a postmodern term for the moment when it became absolutely impossible to distinguish between the real and unreal. The simulacra is the suspension of reality for new media that “protects us” from what it thinks we don’t need to know and orders us to consume more of the same to propagate the illusion. Like a Jenny Holzer artwork it screams unironically: “Protect Me From What I Want.”

The hybridisation of art, advertising, fashion, politics, terror, war, technology, and science has been one of the most incredible things to witness in my time building the editorial ethos of Dazed & Confused and AnOther. The pop psychology of modern life had a violent seizure in September 2001 and woke up to a new world order. This was the new beginning: a technologically enabled terrorism, the start of cyber- espionage, drone strikes, zero privacy, zero tolerance, and barbaric staged beheadings posted on social media. I feel hyperalert in it; mostly I feel a sense of extreme anxiety and fear but somewhere underlying that there is also a degree of hope and what I refer to as “punk positivism.” The generation of digital natives born in a world at war with terror have been born into a world with cultural fear on red alert. It’s a very different set of cultural conditions than the one I was born into.

In terms of our hyper-atomised individuality this may come as a relief or as a shock to the system. Maybe it will produce the same kind of sensation that Douglas Coupland described when walking along Clerkenwell Road and seeing a billboard featuring an advertisement for Gap jeans which said “Be Normal”—“I was like, ‘What! What the fuck was that, seriously?’—it was a real moment.” When normcore is no longer ironic then hyperreality is already in full mainstream swing. In hyperreality, the causal instruction, the slogan of indifference, is “be normal”—like acting normal during a tsunami or keeping cool during a hijack, it’s the mainstream’s new calm face, masking extreme fear under pressure.

We live virtually. Our data trails live as mirror images of ourselves in the cloud. We can find digital footprints of our emotional profiles etched into code. The codification of life. Yet aren’t we all machines of some description? Is not all life, from animal to plant life from distant stars to sound and light waves that emit from mobile phones in designer handbags all part of a complex, interconnected magical system of metadata? I met the Generation X author and artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute Douglas Coupland at a conference recently and I asked him about his theory of the “cloudganger.” It has long been an obsession in fiction that we all have a doppelgänger in real life, someone out there who looks just like us, who shares our behaviour, our soul. Coupland suggests our cloudganger is our virtual self, who behaves and thinks just like us. But it will far outlive us. Standing next to him at this conference was a young tech genius who happened to be in charge of operating the cloud for one of those giant corps. I wanted to know if it was a possibility that I would live forever in the cloud and if my cloudganger would continue to consume, create, or possibly even procreate beyond my years on the planet. “Yes, it’s possible,” the genius tells me, “but not only for you, but for you and all your multiple selves.”

The idea of a singular Internet already feels like a linear, old-fashioned concept. We are now curating multiple Internets for our multiple selves. In The Fabric of Reality (1997) David Deutsch reveals new quantum dimensions and suggests the concept of a multiverse—the idea of many worlds existing simultaneously. The idea that everything that ever exists or happens at any place or time is as seriously real as the contents of what we are able to experience here and now. He takes a transhuman, or posthuman, approach and calls the brain “a virtual-reality-generating computer,” which he sees as capable of rendering humanly experienceable environments.

Para is the ancient Greek word meaning “beside,” “next to,” or “contrary to.” It both suggests being on top of or underneath something else. The concept of our lives being many parallel realities, all equally as real as the other, feels to me to be an incredibly relevant concept—a mix of sub-and superconscious reality operating at once.

“Para-real” may be the moment we recognise that the artificial is the new norm and that there in the multiplicity of causality is where “I” becomes pluralised. Perhaps the title of this book, We Can’t Do This Alone, is an affirmation of that. The “We” is in many ways a reference to our many selves. In a para-real world of multiplicity, one of me is clearly not enough.

This social passivity, dismissiveness, blandness, a certain monotony and monotone EDM beat is the normcore reaction to hyperreality—a Prozac of consciousness. In this newer para-real time, the multiplicity of fictional universes has created a greater sense of friction and juxtaposition. I see a return to anger, frustration, and impatience in the voices of young artists in the transgender movement, in the pro-choice, gay marriage, climate change, pro-equality, pro-legalisation groundswell. It’s a protest against indifference—a new emergent, emergency movement.

Timothy Leary’s slogan “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” was about resistance against the Man, the faceless corporations running America’s sociopolitical status quo in the late 1960s. It was something to do with creating an alternative “countercultural” society and sparking a revolution where the hippy search for meaning in ancient cultures inspired a spiritual togetherness that would triumph over individualism, where the underdogs would crawl over the mad dogs who were running and ruining everything. To have been a part of that time always looked amazing to me. The Civil Rights marches and victories, the Sexual Revolution, Woodstock, May ’68, independent politicised cinema, environmental activist movements, the Beat Generation, flower power, first-wave feminism—everyone looked sexy and cool and had hip sunglasses and quoted philosophical and political text. I buy the retro-fetishism of it. Looking back there’s rarely been a better time for literature—photography, graphic design, and magazines flourished. I loved collecting the worn and fragile old issues of OZInternational Times, Avant GardePlayboyInterviewNova, and Evergreen magazines, the underground, social media of their time. It was a time of such fundamental, monumental change that it seems almost unrepeatable. The failed communes and failed utopias of the 1970s may echo the failure of the Arab Spring but they don’t stop successive cultures or generations wanting to tear down the power structures to erect their own. The “Twitter Revolution” attempted to bring democracy and designer sunglasses to the political systems of Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Tunisia. The ecology of social resistance is hugely liberated by technology, but humanity is still playing out its dark self globally, and the reality is that many die and sacrifice their liberty while utopias appear glacially slow in emerging. Perhaps the very notion of them as utopic, replacing one extreme with another, an idea with an ideal is the inherent flaw. In many places democracy, civil liberty, human rights are like the global ice caps actually in full-blown retreat. Advances that we in the West can all be grateful for, such as racial and gender equality and improved drugs for managing diseases such as HIV/AIDS and polio have made respectable gains on the surface of some areas of our society. But you only need to look at the incarceration statistics in US jails to get a perspective on a new, more silent form of racial segregation, or look at the statistics for female filmmakers in Hollywood, female CEOs in the San Francisco tech community, or the number of female political leaders to see how wide the gap still is in racial and gender equality. The surface of Western society masks a thin veneer of anxiety, patriarchal control, mistrust, and—one of the most infectious barriers to positive change—a sense of spiritual hopelessness.

In the 1970s there were faceless corporations that ran the world but that was when most Western middle-class kids like me were guaranteed a job, and if we didn’t want a job, at least a future. Now the middle class has been hollowed out and the odds of getting a job or having a future that the generation before you enjoyed are stacked wildly against you.

Kids are not kids anymore. The rite of passage is filled with new rebel myths and mystique. Technology is the new discriminator. The algorithm automates the new tabloid headline. The data cloud is the new prison. Are you shut out or shut in? Douglas Coupland’s essay title “Shopping in Jail” (2014) describes technology as the new paradigm for social advancement. What happens when the majority of China’s millennial population gets access to high-speed connectivity, one hundred times faster than anything currently in use in San Francisco? What happens to our morality when a tech giant can predict, like the movie Minority Report (2002), within ninety-five per cent accuracy, exactly when you are genetically predisposed to die?

Like all communications systems and feedback loops the ecology or management of technology is really in the hands of the very few—the one per cent of the one per cent, but that’s a top-down view; looking at it from the bottom up, where everyone is now the media, there is an alternate perception. There is more transparency, more authorship, more evidence, more relevance, more diversity, more power to the people, to the individual voice.

The system is flawed when serious news organisations and genuine investigative journalism are in decline. The true accountability to society is society’s right of self-investigation. Yet self-expression is the new news. The system follows your innermost codes and desires so it can better understand you. It rewards you for subscribing and following and sharing and accumulating followers and it invites you to post, retouch, edit, shoot, upload, download, and internally busy yourself feeding the machine. It wants you to be so busy expressing yourself that you no longer care about what really matters other than that cycle, that loop of narcissism, that addiction, that sense of self-worth that this projection of desire gives you. “Do we continually have to prove to ourselves that we exist?” asks Baudrillard in America (1986). He saw it as a flaw in humanity and describes it as “a strange sign of weakness, harbinger of a new fanaticism for a faceless performance, endlessly self-evident.”

As Coupland revealed to me in our conversation for this introduction, “I want to create as much data as I possibly can by being alive. The question is how do we even do that? And I got to thinking that maybe in the future we can look at . . . things like frequent flyer points. The frequent flyer points of the future are going to be data—the more data you generate, the more mileage points you get to fly, or something like that.”

And that really sums up the way the relationship between the individual and the machines are playing out. You are rewarded for feeding the machine. The more you feed it, the more rewards you accumulate. The true revolutionary figures in all of this are the ghosts in the machine: Edward Snowden, Alan Rusbridger, Julian Assange (who was interviewed in AnOther Magazine, Issue 21, 2011), and Aaron Swartz. These are some of the freedom fighters who have risked everything to bring truth and accountability into public consciousness. These are the ones who risked life, liberty, and all the rewards. The fact that technology is getting the bad rap is to some extent counterintuitive. It’s too obvious. It’s humanity that has always had the potential to be its best solution or its own worst enemy. Yet the very essence of who we are is more acutely rendered in real-time HD, in VR, in AI, in all of these new portals into our understanding of ourselves than it ever has been in any moment of our existence. It’s beautiful and harrowing, fear inducing and liberating, horrific and beatific all at the same time.

I remember in a very early issue of Dazed & Confused talking to one of my first mentors, Tibor Kalman, and he said, “Extreme acts of individuality are what propel the world forward, but it takes individual people and passion to make things happen and you have to be unpopular and you have to risk everything. It’s almost a cliché but advertising is the complete opposite of that because those producing it need to have security.”

Every action is a political action even if we don’t recognise it as such. It’s the individual and individual action, not society, that will make counteraction and real change possible. Society is too slow, too fragmented, too crippled with nostalgia to know how to adapt to change. It has got to be an inside job.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-author of The Age of Earthquakes (2015) with Douglas Coupland, reinforces this idea of a protest against indifference with his “protest against homogenised globalisation.” He explains, “The forces of globalisations are at work and are a risk to the world—erasure of difference is the danger of homogenising forces. Can we protest against homogenising forces and impose global dialogues that are not nationalistic, which are not refusing to engage, which are generous?”

Artists and storytellers are our dreamers but they are also our creators of new realities, without whose artistic endeavour the public cannot imagine stepping into territories mapped by technology or modern philosophies. That’s why I am excited about promoting and participating in the new narratives and counter-narratives that emerge as we system-hack between the hyper- and para-real, between truth and fiction. From new quantum understandings of space and time we can view stories from territories that were impossible to fathom previously.

We Can’t Do This Alone is for and about storytellers who transcend their borders, their age, their genres, their identities—people who live simultaneously in between them all, criss-crossing like ice-skaters on the cool flat surface of digital screens. Shifting identities within this shifting landscape is a surreal game of simultaneous camouflage and exposure. Some storytellers, such as Rem Koolhaas (yes, you can tell stories with buildings), stand out in contrast to the backdrop, an elevated position in relief to the landscape, while others, like Miuccia Prada or Björk, seem to assimilate it and wrap themselves up in its paradox—the high/low of consumer culture brought to bear in the characterisation of the feminine: fashion as art, as social and political metaphor.

It was Tilda Swinton who really helped me understand that we were not alone, but part of a much wider cultural resistance movement. I first collaborated with her for AnOther Magazine, when she generously guest-edited the literary section, “AnOther Document.” It was the beginning of many creative adventures that have resulted in covers, interviews, and happenings, both on and off the page. I have enormous gratitude for her generosity and her spirit of collaboration. For this book, we discussed the notion of resistance, the sense of scale in which it’s possible to exist as an artist if we take the wider view, a perspective that allows us to belong to a tradition of resistance, “a continuum” as she calls it. There are few artists who traverse pop culture with as much plurality as Swinton. She is a true artist-chameleon, a polymath on a perpetual voyage of discovery—she is a Moonage Daydream, an action painting, a futurist manifesto, a Dadaist discoball of the imagination. Talking to her is like tripping naked through a culture field—she makes me feel that vulnerable, that inconsequential, that human, that connected to others, that real.

Fashion is the ultimate dream factory. I had the privilege of working with Alexander McQueen, who, very early on in the history of Dazed & Confused, taught me the power of fashion to convey ideas, of clothing to be a canvas for storytelling—the catwalk a stage set for transcendental wonder, where he would synthesise music, art, fashion, and technology to trigger all the senses into a state of suspension in which an almost ritualistic desire for belonging was evoked. It was cathartic, quasi-religious, like so much of the early 1990s in London—it was tribal, outsider, and it created an extreme sense of spiritual connection as fashion transcended its boundaries. It was the coming of age of high fashion as a new globalised industry dominating the ideal of what is beautiful, desirable, and seductive, with an aesthetic that evokes power and ultimately cultural, economic, social, and political advancement. The genesis of a paradigm in which logos are an international language understood from Lagos to Shanghai—the goods, easily distributed, globally tradeable, and quickly copied. Our times are defined by the acceleration of this industry as it broadens. Brands recode their products to target the various richly individuated lifestyles from the Jet Set to the Art Set, from the Gyp Set to the Boyz-N-the-Hood Set. Different parallel realities have begun to exist within brands that switch storylines between product lines, that exert paradox as a marketing strategy, that utilise duality or para-reality as a way to broaden desire and reach within a narrowing of time, surfing the fourth dimension in the slipstream of the extreme.

When Marc Jacobs collaborated with Richard Prince for Louis Vuitton in the mid-2000s, it felt as though fashion was an appropriated art form. Art needed a bigger stage and fashion needed a metaphor for authenticity and they found it in each other. But fashion is now established as pop. Karl Lagerfeld is the new Andy Warhol and the “Chanel Supermarket” shows the ultimate expression of high-fashion consumerism, as bold as a Kanye West lyric sheet and as self-referential. I see a few welcome exceptions in the pages of Dazed & Confused with designers like Eckhaus Latta, Hood By Air, Simone Rocha, Iris van Herpen, and Grace Wales Bonner, designers, image-makers and stylists who are inventing new narratives. It’s still on the fringes that we find experimentation. There is a new generation who are living and identifying our times, but it’s still a minority voice hemmed in by a constant barrage of mediocrity, where successful formulas for sales and not invention are encouraged.

Perhaps the true new form of revolution or individual subversion is coming not so much from the decoration of the body but from the DNA of the body itself. A pro-diversity movement is in full swing and it is redefining sexual stereotypes and archetypes across all aspects of culture. The orientation of a society across gender binarism is in flux—we have a multiplicity of choice and all the traditional codes of references, what we knew about man and woman, what we were taught in school, what we learnt from the morality and sensibilities of our social codes seem so old-fashioned, so quaint, and so oppressive. Anyone who stands in the way of cultural diversity is pro–cultural oppression. Anyone who stands in the way of gender diversity and equality is by definition gender stereotyping.

The landscape of the body and personal identity as a canvas for storytelling is now more potent, more popular, and more empowered than ever before. It will be what reshapes fashion, media, and communication in the next decade more than any other cultural movement. Dazed & Confused in name and intent was always waiting for this moment to connect to those brave enough to stand apart from the system’s status quo and take individual and collective responsibility to effect change on their terms. It was David Bowie who told me, “The moment you feel safe, move on”; it’s the most unnatural emotion in the world for creativity to feel “safe.”

I met practically everyone I worked with in nightclubs, and I mean everyone. Long before the social-media explosion, nightclubs were the physical manifestation of where youth cults existed. In London these clubs were salons of creative dialect, laboratories of fashion, the pop-up homes of radical free expression—places of ecstasy, experimentation, and performance. From Acid House, Psych Rock, Northern Soul, Punk, Techno, Hard House, Dub, Jungle, Dubstep, and Trip Hop, from the Colony Club to Dazed & Confused’s own “Been There Seen It Done It,” from the Brain club in the early 1990s to BoomBox almost two decades later, London club culture was where I grew up, where I learnt what it meant to synthesise the subcultural codes of nightlife, where music, fashion, performance art, and sexual adventure manifested. Where ideas and individuals that would change the future of pop culture were born. As my friend Malcolm McLaren once said, “I am obsessed with the look of music and the sound of fashion.” There was never a more authentic catwalk or social network displayed than through club culture.

I am certain my brain has been rewired by more than just psychedelics and the shocking displays of exhibitionism I witnessed through living mostly in nightclubs in the 1990s and 2000s. We know from brain scientists that neuroplasticity from digital media causes a natural reengineering of our memories and our ability to multitask and concentrate on many things simultaneously and nothing specific for any length of time, the same could probably be said for club culture.

It’s always been an unrealised ambition of mine to interview Björk under clinical hypnosis. Apparently the neural pathways open in unexpected ways under a deep, trance-like state and I find that fascinating—not least because she is someone who explores her own interior as an artist, the innermost workings of the heart and mind. What new memories will come to light? What connections between her emotions and her work could be exposed and explored and a deeper and more profound understanding of her as an artist revealed? I’ve always distrusted the classic interview format and have tried to subvert it wherever possible. For this book, Björk suggested we try something new and chat through emails. I couldn’t imagine a more generous, eventful, and surprising collaboration. It’s published here [in We Can't Do This Alone], completely raw and un-edited, a transparent facsimile copy of our correspondence and a view into a brilliant mind; dancing across subjects, emotions, interests and speculative theory—“just like a musical.”

This post-symbolic interview, or meta-interview, is about inventing new rules of the game with certain willing subjects; Thom Yorke’s self-interview for Dazed & Confused (Issue 19, 1996) was my first attempt. Yorke also shared a healthy distrust of media and disliked the fake feeling of being interviewed by a journalist for the obligatory sixty minutes and that interview somehow becoming a genuine profile of his ideas and work. So I asked him to interview himself. It sounds almost ridiculous but you can read more about the process later in this book. The process of undoing—that brings new realities and truths to the page.

I recently came across a lecture that William S. Burroughs gave at the City College of New York in 1974, where he considers writing “a magical operation.” He talks about the ceremonial and magical qualities of writing and sculpture and how when it’s separated from the ceremonial it loses its magical quality and becomes like a tribe selling dolls to tourists. “It may make money but it isn’t magical,” he continues. “Journalism is closer to the magical origins of writing than most fiction, and the technology is the technology of magic.” In the wrong hands he describes it as “black-magic.”

The independent way is a way of keeping the magic alive, because as soon as publishing becomes solely in the aid of commerce and power, then creativity and decision-making becomes about the formulas of success and not invention. The process becomes a means to an end. Burroughs said that art was about “qualitative magic” and journalism is about “quantitative magic”; one asks the big questions about life and death, the other reports on them looking for a bigger splash.

This “magical operation” to bring art to publishing and journalism, to try to transcend the form and function of magazines in the curious pursuit of new cultural territories, through new encounters and with new visual horizons—this was my naive world view at eighteen years old when I met my future partner in misadventure, John “Rankin” Waddell, at the London College of Printing sometime in 1990. It is still my naive world view today, some twenty-five years later. I am still anti-rules, anti-corporate, anti-Facebook, anti-self . . . For me, it’s about “we” over “I,” about creating a meaningful connection to people, not personal footprints in the sand.

We Can’t Do This Alone: Jefferson Hack The System lists me as the author. But I am not an artist or author. I have made nothing. I feel like a fake. If anything, I am an observer of artists who, to my mind, are truly listening to the future and galvanising it in the present. I’m an encourager of their ideas, perhaps even a collector of their ideas and therefore a channeller of their cultural energies. My pattern of enquiry has always been to search for who is provoking, who is challenging the culture, and to go where the real energy is flowing and start a conversation there.

As much as editing this book has been a flashback over the twenty-five years of my editorial life observing culture close-up, it has also triggered many flash-forwards. I relish these déjà vu moments, described by Richard Prince as “tight spots,” as they are possible imaginings for me of what’s to come. I believe in the magical operation, the magical possibility that this book may fall into the hands of someone for whom it will be useful—a toolkit perhaps to unlock a way of thinking or behaving. I hold a high degree of hope for the cultural diversity movement and for a better future for all of humanity, not just the ones who can afford a book like this. We live in extraordinary times, extraordinarily dark and indifferent as well as extraordinarily vulnerable and therefore observant times. The status quo distrusts any positive change. We are in para-real science fiction now. We are all media. We can rewrite the rules together. We have the power to construct our own language and distribute our own images. We have and will continue to break the control of the status quo by refusing to be indifferent to change, by replacing old habits with new positive behaviours and maintaining a sense of collective responsibility for each other and the future of our planet with an open mind. The independent way is to never secede control—remember as Allen Ginsberg said, “Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race.” Time to take control of that system.

We Can't Do This Alone: Jefferson Hack The System, priced £50.00, is published by Rizzoli in a limited-edition run of 5,000 copies on May 17th, 2016. 

The artworks that accompany the text in this article are devised by Jefferson Hack and Ferdinando Verderi and are currently on display at Colette until June 4th, 2016.