Mark Sladen on K-Hole and the nuance of 'normcore'

from the Summer 2014 issue

By Mark Sladen

Page 17 from K-Hole and Box 1824’s Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom (2013)

It isn’t often that an idea that originates from the ‘critical’ artworld becomes a global meme, but that’s what happened to the concept of ‘normcore’ after it was featured in New York Magazine this spring. Normcore is a term that was invented by the New York group K-Hole – which styles itself somewhere between an artist collective and a marketing consultancy – and that featured in one of the organisation’s trend-forecasting reports. Since it was founded in 2010 (by Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Emily Segal, Chris Sherron and Dena Yago), K-Hole has produced four such reports, based around neologisms and catchphrases that identify supposed marketing trends. In the normcore report, the group points to a trending form of consumer individuation: ‘The most different thing to do is to reject being different all together… Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness.’

The article in New York Magazine, and much of the ensuing coverage around the world – reaching even Britain’s Daily Mail – applied the notion of normcore mainly to fashion: a kind of nonfashion based on ubiquitous brands and bland styles, including fleeces, khakis and comfortable trainers. There was much talk of Brooklyn hipsters dressing like Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld. However, K-Hole and their supporters subsequently argued that the term is misunderstood when applied in such a narrow way, and they have a point. The kind of consumer understatement described in these articles is only one idea covered by the original report – under the heading ‘acting basic’ – whereas normcore is described as a more nuanced phenomenon, in which consumer nonexclusivity helps ameliorate deep-seated contemporary anxieties.

The normcore report, like K-Hole’s other documents, takes the form of a PDF that can be downloaded from the group’s website. Each of these reports features a framing text that outlines the central concepts, mixed in with examples drawn from contemporary products and brands. The text is drafted in anonymous, friendly language, mixing marketing speak and light sociology. The whole thing is set in bland and blocky sans serif, accompanied by stock photographs and clean infographics, giving the appearance of a moderately sophisticated corporate PowerPoint presentation. The first two reports stuck fairly closely to conventional principles of marketing, but the third report introduced ‘The K-Hole Brand Anxiety Matrix’, stating that ‘the job of the advanced consumer is managing anxiety, period’.

It is this focus on anxiety that is the most interesting aspect of K-Hole’s work. The fourth PDF, which introduced normcore, takes the title of Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom. The document (produced in collaboration with another consumer research group, the São Paulo-based Box 1824) was launched last autumn at the 89plus marathon at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and reflected the latter event’s rather vampiric preoccupation with the generation of ‘digital natives’ born after the advent of the Internet. Commentators – such as the artist Huw Lemmey, writing on the Rhizome website – have agreed on the relevance of normcore to this generation, living as it does with financial and professional precarity, and with the instability produced by rampant technological change.

Speaking at the Rhizome ‘Seven on Seven’ conference in New York in May, the media theorist Kate Crawford went further, linking the idea of normcore to a larger fantasy of disappearance that, she said, “has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become impossible, because of Big Data”. K-Hole, she argued, “capture precisely this moment of mass surveillance meeting mass consumerism”, resulting in “a dispersed anxiety that seeks nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity: no longer having to worry about what it’s going to wear tomorrow, or whether it’s got the right settings on Facebook”. This fantasy is reflected in the report’s own words, according to which normcore ‘finds liberation in being nothing special, and realises that adaptability leads to belonging. Normcore is a path to a more peaceful life.’

One of the interesting things about K-Hole is the way that they employ this principle – let’s call it ‘blending’ – not only as a proposed marketing strategy to appeal to new consumer identities, but as their own organisational dynamic. The idea of artists adopting a group identity and a corporate facade is not new, and has a notable pedigree in New York, where it has often been employed to satirical ends. What makes K-Hole appreciably of our own moment, however, is how hard it is – in the bland, frictionless version of digital publishing that is the forum for their activities – to divine the point where the corporate might end and the critical might start. The adoption of corporate aesthetics and models is a notable characteristic of some of the work that, like that of K-Hole, has been corralled under the now-infamous banner of ‘post-Internet art’, and such an approach inevitably raises the question of the limits of blending as an artistic strategy. In K-Hole’s case, it is quite possible to imagine that the normcore report was generated with deeply satirical intent, but it is even clearer that the subsequent success of the term owed little to satire.

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue