In 2019, Paul Chan called VR “the fucking worst.” Like many, Chan had become exhausted by the influx of unoriginal, digital-based art practices over the years. And while his art career began in 1999 with his website www.digitalphilistine.com—where he distributed a number of self-made typefaces and his single-channel videos—he has since moved on, and for a while gave up making art altogether, announcing his retirement from art in 2009. Now, he is “completely allergic” to the once novel digital form, and when he does happen to make art, it belongs to the physical realm.
Chan has played the role of activist, writer, and publisher as well. In late 2019, Chan’s publishing house Badlands Unlimited, known for its “New Lovers” series of erotica, came to a close, stating: “We are now closed for good.” To my dismay, I was unsuccessful in finding the old Badlands’ website—or any remnant of their digital presence for that matter. In the elusive style, Chan has come to be known for, Badlands removed its digital footprint, and now the only proof that it ever existed is second-hand reporting.
Paul Chan hates screens
Badlands symbolized Chan’s escape from working in screen-based art, which had become a dreary, repetitive medium. Publishing was a return to the traditional textual presentation of ideas. In a summer 2019 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chan wrote about his suspicion of social media and the notion that selling personal data by corporations is akin to stealing your soul (under the premise that your data = Greek psyche = your soul). Chan simply doesn’t “want to look at a screen to save [his] life.”
Chan’s new artwork is a meditation on materialism. His newest series—which he calls “bathers” or “breathers”—are essentially installations of the ubiquitous auto dealership tubemen (also known as the sky- or air-dancers). For Chan, these floating pieces of fabric can act as vessels for divine spirits, and they reflect his sustained interest in the relationship between fluidity, movement, and pleasure. Tubemen, now representing a kind of silly consumerism and commercialist low-culture, were originally created by Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall for Carnival. Chan’s installation brings the lost tubemen to their roots as artwork—though it’s another question whether that can indeed be differentiated from commercialism.
Chan’s contentious relationship to the digital proves a significant dilemma for creating content in the Time of Corona, and with the vast majority of galleries moving to digital presentations of shows, Chan has been forced back to the screen. His new survey opened on March 20th, on the occasion of Art Basel Hong Kong moving exclusively to the digital realm. Videos include selections from his 2017 tubemen show Pillowsophia (after Pope Offred), “3rd Light” (2006), “Sade for Sade’s Sake” (2009), as well as—and most notably—his early breakthrough work, “Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), ” 2000-2003.
Paul Chan, Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), 2000-2003. Digital video projection on screen (color, sound), 17 minutes, 20 seconds. (Courtesy: Green Naftali, New York)
A socialist utopian landscape of pleasure and freedom, a Boschian orgy without the sharp edges and agonizing screams
“Happiness” begins by telling the story of a Charles Fourier-infused Henry Darger—a name now synonymous with outsider art—and a socialist utopian landscape of pleasure and freedom, a Boschian orgy without the sharp edges and agonizing screams. Chan’s discovery of Fourier, as Chan has said in many interviews, proved the key to decoding Darger’s extensive body of work.
This work takes it narrative inspiration from Darger’s 15,000-page magnum opus—a seven-volume illustrated novel called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, often referred to simply as In the Realms of the Unreal. Darger broke up his torrent of writing with some 300 watercolor images of girls, guns, and freedom, some of them multiple feet wide and double-sided, which Chan mimics with his wide-screen, looping Flash animation.
Midway through the video, the once free and careless orgy is invaded by an army of soldiers, who proceed to maim, torture, and kill the Vivian Girls (the word “girls” being a placeholder, as gender/sex is very unclear). For Darger, it was a story of “good” versus “evil,” freedom and pleasure versus enslavement and violence.
Henry Darger predicted the FEMA camp conspiracy
The screening of Chan’s 20-year-old work comes at a perplexing time when—to use the beautiful trademarked phrase—“the state of the world seems rather unclear.” The apocalyptic narrative seems particularly prescient, considering the age-old, Alex-Jones-beloved FEMA camp conspiracy theory, which found new life through Q-Anon and coronavirus lockdown hysteria and real dangers and fears. To be fair to Q, already nearly 6000 National Guard troops have been deployed to “combat” the virus, and they could at any point roll into a town near you. Darger also appears to have predicted the Epstein-inspired speculation about elites enslaving children and conspiring for a mass cover-up—the central narrative of his novel being the war to stop the practice of child slavery. “Happiness“, as a narrative without explicit “meaning,” avoids the classic pitfall of intellectualization and psychoanalyzation of Darger, which has lead others to conclude Darger was a “repressed homosexual” or sexually abused, which somehow should provide novel insight into his work.
Rewatching Chan’s “Happiness”, I was reminded of the few times in my life where I have encountered Fourierism. I first heard about Fourier in a high school AP US History class, and then forgot about its libidinal labor theory until watching Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan, in which the protagonist Tom claims to be a committed Fourierist. I also recalled how Fourier’s thought gained traction around 2016, and started appearing on certain forums more often, with the explosion of anti-civ sentiments on both the new political left and right. But Fourier’s claim that “societies are infected” takes on new meaning in the age of quarantine.
He proposed that healthy, working communities must be founded on friendship, love, and libido, and these communities he called “phalanxes.” In an extended lockdown, our friendships have migrated absolutely to the web, and in doing so, has altered its very landscape. Here, we become like children once again, desperate to communicate and share with our loved ones. For Fourier, only children can fully “surrender to real friendship,” because old age and maturity bring about cynicism and distrust in your fellow man.
The quarantine allows for a return to an age of innocence: our friendships will be forged in the silicone of integrated circuits, and we will relearn the meaning of communication and collaboration. Our job is to build the digital phalanxes of the future.