Interview by Amelia Stein Photographs by Andrew Long
This is a conversation with Aaron Rose. He has just released a book called Collage Culture: Examining the Effects 21st Century’s Identity Crisis with Mandy Kahn, designed by Brian Roettinger, about the effects of creative ‘borrowing’ and appropriation on culture.
When we sat down, you’ll see I asked him to identify how he’d arrived at a certain ‘point’ where he felt competent to address such an issue. To talk about a person as being at a particular ‘point’ suggests that everything they have done is behind them and that everything they will do is still to come. This doesn’t fit the subject somehow. Better to conceptualize Aaron Rose as the seed of a tree, where everything he is and has been and will be was present from the beginning, and continues to be present in each moment and each new thing he does.
Joseph Conrad said: “An artist is a man of action, whether he creates a personality, invents an expedient, or finds the issue of a complicated situation.” If this is what it means to take action, then Aaron Rose is an activist. If this is what it means to be an artist, then Aaron Rose is that too.
Your book identifies the problem of people losing confidence in their ability to take individual direction – actually, it not only identifies it but also attempts to answer it. What brought you to a point where you felt confident to write about something like this?
Honestly – it didn’t manifest itself so much in the text, thank god – but I was motivated by anger. I was sick of seeing “new” things, “new” creations, especially by young artists, designers, photographers, filmmakers to a certain extent, that were direct rip-offs or direct references to brilliant things from the past but were being sold to us as new. It’s become so easy for people to find obscure things, copy them and re-release them with a small tweak. I felt like it was unfair because there are so many creative people from the past who never made it, who never had success, and usually those are the people who are stolen from the most. It was frustrating to me. So the original impetus was out of a sense of duty, based on a frustration that I was feeling with this content re-hashing. Of course, once I started writing, it changed. As I was writing, new things came in to play.
The book certainly doesn’t carry an angry tone.
I think I felt that just another book that complains wasn’t going to do anything. There’re a lot of those, especially when you’re getting in to cultural theory. There are so many books that identify problems with no solution or no possibility of solution. Not that this book solves the problem at all…
But it does provide a sense of hope – grounded hope. You have to create that space before you can fill it with a solution.
Yeah. I consider it a conversation starter. Once I locked in on that, it didn’t have to be a definitive text. It’s probably far too early for that. Hopefully after reading this, it won’t be so easy to just pull references because there will be an awareness of what’s happening. In my dream of dreams, people should question their techniques.
The book feels very timely to me. I almost don’t want to bring up Occupy Wall Street again because it’s all I am talking about at the moment…
It’s completely tied in though. And I think Steve Jobs’ death, too, represents the end of an era. That whole Baby Boomer thing, their control over our culture, especially the technology sector… even though I do praise the technology sector in the book, it’s a major turning point: the redefinition of who we are as 21st Century creative people.
One conversation I had about Occupy Wall Street recently was to do with a return to wearing your heart on your sleeve. Like, people are bored with apathy and irony and are starting to become engaged again despite the fact that it’s ‘uncool’.
Well, people don’t stand for anything [anymore]. It’s all style. And that’s what references create.
You talked about that in the book, the idea that we appropriate the visuals of something from the past but not the ideology.
We’re coming out of the decade of the hipster, right? So, what is a hipster? A hipster is a stylistic manifestation, based in irony completely, usually where you take the ugliest thing – which Mandy [Kahn] talks about in her essay [‘Living in the Mess’] – and then wear it funny. At first it’s an inside joke but then it becomes the look of a generation. I travel all over the world and see people who dress cool and like a certain kind of music and it’s the hipster world, or whatever, but that world is the first counterculture movement – if you can call it counterculture, which in a way you can – that doesn’t stand for shit except apathy and irony. There’s nothing behind it. If you go back to pre-20th Century, outsider movements have always been rooted in ideology. Even if there was a huge stylistic element to it, which the 60s definitely had, the punk movement definitely had, the 50s rockabilly movement definitely had, it was rooted in the ideology of rebellion against lies. The Beat Generation, the Jazz Age, these things were rooted in a way of life. The hipsters are not. They’re rooted in being cool – but cool is a byproduct.
That you talk about technology in your essay is really interesting to me. Have you always followed developments in that field?
No, I’m not a techie at all. I’m not on Facebook, I don’t deal with any of that stuff, but I have watched it as a culture and I see the way that certain companies in the technology sector are not afraid of trying crazy things. Even though most of them do fail! The percentage of new technologies that are presented that fail is something like 90%. There’s a huge risk element, but it’s applauded in that world. We’re learning so much about what [technology] could do for us as a culture and there’s something very interesting in that. It’s an interesting model: it’s OK to fail, that’s how great things happen. Great things happen when you’re not afraid to do something that’s uncool, you know?
Is there any connection between creativity and technology for you?
I wish there were more. I don’t know if computers are necessarily going to change art. It’s another tool, and it’s just like a new paint that’s been developed. I don’t think it will ever replace pencils and paper. I feel that that’s a very tangible human need, to put a pencil to paper.
On that note, can you tell me about the book’s design?
Mandy and I came up with the concept before we had a designer attached. We were talking about what the book should be and how it should manifest itself in the physical form. We thought, well, this book should be a manifestation of the ideas that we’re talking about. If we’re going to write about experimentation then we should create a book that is, design-wise, a bit of an experiment. It’s not the first book that’s ever been attempted like that, but it was like we wanted to go into it with the same sense of wide-eyed freedom that maybe we’d fail and it’d be unreadable.
How did you choose a designer?
Brian Roettinger I know mainly through the music scene. He’s done records for The Liars, No Age… he has an independent record label and he designs a lot of books too. I think because he came from music, he’s not the type of designer that comes from a highly theoretical background. He is very intelligent, but there’s a punk edge. I felt like he could be someone who could break loose from the grid enough to execute this. I know so many designers who are amazing with clean, beautiful, well layed out type. But we needed a designer who could do not-clean and still make it look beautiful.
Do you think it is possible to keep things fresh all the time? How much does one have to un-learn?
When we started this book, I thought it might somehow be possible to create something entirely free from influence. I no longer feel that way. I feel that everything in our world grows on top of something else. The whole world is a collage, in a way. There’s no way to wipe the slate clean because we know too much. But I do feel that an awareness of how much we’re taking, and changing our ideas of what’s right and wrong, is really what’s important – not so much trying to be completely new.
When was the first time you identified with being creative?
Probably [through] records. I was obsessed with records. From the age of 12 or 13 I would go to the record store and I didn’t even really understand that that was art. I think I even write about it in the essay. I was divorced from any idea of what art, or even creativity, might be. I would dig into these things like they were these wells of knowledge and information. That was what I wanted to be when I grew up: a record cover designer. Actually I never thought about that connection, that I got a record cover designer to design the book.
Why do you think you wanted to be a record cover designer and not a musician?
At that point, the physicality of an LP… there was text, writing, photos – there was so much information in there. Of course now I realize that’s marketing and that’s how they sell a band, but as a kid so much of who I am came from reading the liner notes of punk records. I learned about politics from that, I learned about fashion from the photos, and it was all contemporary stuff.
If you had kids now, would you point them in any particular direction?
I think I would be careful with that. I didn’t come from a family that supported me in that way, so although it probably made my childhood a bit more difficult it pushed me to find things myself. And that’s a very valuable gift, to have the initiative and not have to be shown. So I don’t know if I would point a child in a direction. I would probably show by example but not necessarily push.
The way that we’re talking about encountering creativity for the first time is as a major milestone in forming identity. You could apply a similar idea to what culture or society is going through right now.
It’s so funny that it’s taken us ten years to get to a point where the 21st Century – or at least this section of the 21st Century; the 21st Century will probably have as many manifestations as the 20th Century had – can experience a paradigm shift, and figure out exactly what it means to live in the first half of this century. If you believe in time, it’s a pretty major moment in human development.
Do you believe in time?
It’s convenient. I think it helps us. I don’t know if nature believes in time… I feel that the artist’s job is to tell the story of their time and even if time is porous, the real history of humanity is in the artist’s work. Written history is malleable and has been changed many, many times – but a piece of art, whether it be literature or painting, it’s not like you can go back and revise it. When all artists are doing is collaging things from the past, I feel like they’re not doing their job.
There’s an instinctive element to that. Like if you’re an artist, you should gravitate towards this way of doing things.
I believe it’s a duty. I believe artists are in the service industry, and that they have a duty to their time and to future generations.
How important is community to what we’re talking about? To have a relationship with other artists?
I believe it’s incredibly important because that’s how movements happen. If there was one guy down on Wall Street protesting with a sign, would we be watching it on the news? No. We’d laugh at him. But when it’s 20 or 30 thousand people, it becomes newsworthy and it becomes a mouthpiece. When you’re able to develop a real hand-to-hand community with people touching and interacting, not just IMing, that’s when things can really happen. All the greatest cultural movements have started that way: three friends in a bar. It’s very unintimidating. It doesn’t have to be a big manifesto or a grand proclamation.
Community also provides support and encouragement, even if it comes through criticism.
I’ve been through a couple of waves of these kinds of small communities developing, and one thing I’ve noticed is that you inadvertently influence each other. Sometimes that can be very trying, when you do something and your friend does something that looks like what you do, but that’s how aesthetics are born.
Do you see echoes of what you and your friends were doing years ago now?
Well, I think what me and my friends were doing were just echoes. I see us as not being that original, and of course I see it over and over again. I lived in the Lower East Side for ten years, and there was a whole wave of young 20 year olds who were up and down Ludlow Street drunk; skaters, bands, pro-skateboarders. We moved on to other things, and I have already seen two turnovers on the Lower East Side of people acting out the same recipe. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad, because we were just acting out a recipe that goes back before us. I knew some of those people when I was in my 20s and I wasn’t smart enough to realize that they already did it. We were not original to them.
Do you feel hopeful for the next few rounds?
Oh yeah. Especially because I have no idea, which is such a cool feeling. I have no idea what it’s going to be or how it’s going to manifest.