Why the 2010s Were the Decade of Mercury in Retrograde

5 days ago

The artist and trend forecaster Emily Segal is telling me that humanity is on the cusp of a reality-altering astrological event.

"What's the date today? It's the 17th," she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. "On the 21st of December, the planets Jupiter and Saturn are going to make a conjunction in Aquarius, and it's going to begin a 200-year cycle where those two planets only make conjunctions in air signs. We're on the precipice of a type of shift that not that many people live through."

Segal—co-founder of the defunct trend-forecasting group and art collective K-Hole, which invented the open-minded-life-philosophy-turned-Seinfeld-obsessed-fashion-meme Normcore in 2013—has built a career on divining patterns in fashion and culture, unlocking meaning in the strange shapes that contemporary existence can take. And although she says that she doesn't make predictions on the spot, a question I just asked—about whether she sees genuine "newness" as something possible in our information-choked cultural present—seems to have opened the floodgates.

 "An air period, which is what we're going into, is often about collapse of empires; it has to do with information traveling along the trade routes that are left in the rubble of the empires that fell," she says. "There's a lot of spirituality, a lot of decentralization. We could see really interesting collective action. I think we're going to see internet or technological-related upgrades that are actually radical—not like the things that are actually just portals for managing your employee data or managing money."

A long time astrology enthusiast, the New York-born artist appears to be integrating the cosmos more seriously into her research lately. She recently wrote an article for The Guardian about the aforementioned "Great Conjunction," and Nemesis, the design and strategy consultancy she co-founded with Amnesia Scanner member Martti Kalliala, has been working on a mysterious-sounding project that involves consulting with people from the tech and astrology worlds about where technology is going, she says. Planetary churn also forms the conceptual basis of her latest solo endeavor: a long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel called Mercury Retrograde, which uses the funk people experience during that transit (or when Mercury appears to be moving in the opposite direction to Earth) as a means of making sense of the sweeping shifts in art, culture, and technology we lived through in the 10s. 

The book—which grew out of a 2015 essay she wrote on the concept for e-flux journal, in addition to some K-Hole-era writings, then metamorphosed over time into an absorbing narrative page-turner—tells the story of a young artist, also named Emily Segal, who joins a mysterious Williamsburg tech start-up called Exe. Tasked with designing a brand identity for a company whose actual value proposition nobody seems to understand, she embarks on the adventure with the idea of turning the whole experience into an art project—only to find that the "anything is possible" techno-optimism that defined so much of the past decade, from the art world to Silicon Valley, only seems to yield increasingly confusing (and sometimes painful) results.

It's part autofiction, part "gendered power-play" story, part post-mortem on the way cultural capital, venture capital, and the internet intersected in the tens. And it's brimming with period details that will produce a comic shock of recognition for anyone who witnessed the cartoonish excesses of a rapidly gentrifying city in the years between Occupy Wall Street and the Trump era. “I had gotten the sneakers for free, as a perk," she writes of some swag she is wearing in the company's luxury-condo-turned-waterfront-office-space. "Free sneakers = no choice. It was even better if they were white. There is no feeling like that. The free, unchosen, unworn, fresh, white sneaker.”

VICE spoke with Segal about why Mercury in Retrograde felt like a good metaphor for the zeitgeist in the tens, Nemesis' recent umami-inspired "autopsy" of the pre-COVID-19 experience economy, and what she learned from the whole Normcore experience. The below interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Mercury Retrograde is available now Deluge Books, a new "mass experimental queer press" she started with Hannah Baer and Cyrus Simonoff. Look out for a book of poetry by Jeanetta Rich in 2021. 

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Mercury Retrograde tells the story of an artist who "goes over to the other side" and takes a job at a start-up. Why did this story feel like an important one to tell?Emily Segal: I was fascinated by the site-specific decadence of New York in the 2010s—this holy nexus of art and nightlife and literature and then tech [that] was swirling together. So I thought [the story] became an interesting case study of the ways that different values circulated under late capitalism—or these more classic questions of, how to be a "woman," or how to be an "artist," and how the other entities in your sphere kind of weigh on those designations and help or hinder you. It was a mix between the more macroscopic cultural view and then the microscopic way that personal journeys of discovery play out. 

Why did the concept of Mercury in Retrograde feel like a good metaphor for the zeitgeist in the 2010s?My reading of Mercury in Retrograde is something I wrote an essay about in [2015], for e-flux journal. I was fascinated by how people who said they didn't believe in astrology would still talk about Mercury Retrograde as something that was ruining their life. I was noticing it coming up more and more: People [using it to account] for the ways information wasn't flowing properly.

I was poking around and learning more, and I [had] this idea that had to do with the fact that I was having a hard time getting dressed. I was really struggling with my look. There are probably bigger reasons for that, but ordinarily, that is supposed to happen under, say, Venus Retrograde. Venus is the planet that signifies beauty and grace and elegance. But it was happening under Mercury Retrograde. 

That made me think about how so many domains of life were now functioning primarily as information flows. That gave me the idea that Mercury Retrograde didn't have to be this one astrological transit; it could be a metaphor for living in an information economy that was glitching and breaking down—especially at a time when there was so much startup language around unfettered progress, and innovation, and the good kind of disruption.

I started to formulate this hypothesis that people talking about Mercury Retrograde was their way of talking about the opposite thing, which [was] the lost information, the breakage, the [things] that had fallen between [the cracks]. Feeling like your emails are bouncing back or not going to the right place. [That idea] became the sourdough starter [of this project], or the kombucha mother of it. 

Like, technology that is promising to make life easier but makes it harder and more confusing?Right. I mean, we talked about this in one of the early K-Hole reports: It sucks to be poor, and it also really sucks to receive daily low balance notifications. The idea that more information about you, served to you more often, is going to make your life better is obviously not the case. But I was surrounded by a lot of delusional techno-optimism in my early 20s, working in branding and design and trend-forecasting. I was contending with this energy and hope that was also profoundly, willfully naive.

People definitely seemed to think that technology was going to democratize independent music at the time.That conversation was very formative for me. My stepdad is the guitarist of the band Twisted Sister, which is a famous 80s hair metal band. When I was a teenager who was really into indie music and Napster, we had the craziest fights at the dinner table. He was like, "You're stealing music, and this is ruining my industry." And I was like, "Information wants to be free, old man." But then I started to see [that techno-optimism] unravel quickly—and now, look at where we are with Spotify, and the way it's such a nightmare for musicians to build the careers that they deserve. 

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 6.32.53 PM.jpegPhoto courtesy of Emily Segal

Part of the Mercury in Retrograde concept was that it felt like culture was doomed to repeatedly cycle through old ideas instead of generating new ones. Do you think that idea works as a model for understanding culture now, five years after you started writing the book? I think there are different versions of cyclical return. There is the dull kind, where you feel like things are getting regurgitated in a rote way—and then there's the beautiful, spiraling [kind]. Astrology is all about that—this cyclical model for tracking the passage of time, and a mythopoetic system for meaning. So the idea that old things come back as new isn't always meant to be, "Why can't people think of anything cuter than bell-bottoms again?" I think the idea that we are living in an information age in crisis is absolutely relevant, but it's definitely shifted and become a very perverse and strange version of itself since the period that the book is based on.

I also believe that we are on the precipice of massive systemic shifts, which I hope are for the better, although I can't say that they're going to be peaceful ones. When I look at it through the astrological lens, you just gotta cop to the fact that some newness is coming down the pike. 

The book captures this dance between art and commerce that feels very exemplary of the 10s: this idea that your character has "an excess of cultural capital but a lack of actual capital," and then joins a company that has actual capital, but needs cultural capital. What was interesting to you about the way those two things interacted in the last decade? I was fascinated by the question of whether brands could be art. I became interested in that when I started working at the branding firm Wolff Olins. I met these brilliant people that were putting so much energy into aesthetic [and] cultural research, tinkering with small phrases in a way that is indistinguishable from a poetic operation. And then it would get sent out into the world and charged with the energy of being associated with these multinational corporations, and it would start to almost take on a life of its own. I found it very strange and very alluring—even though certain parts of the process made me really uncomfortable, and didn't align with my developing personal politics.

K-Hole was also playing with the instability of that binary between the art object and the commercial object. And I was observing my peers making post-internet art that used tech brands in the art, and I was just like, "Wait a second. That's too basic. It might also be possible to make this an artwork from the jump if it's done the right way." And so the book is sort of a documentation of that art gesture. But, as you see when you read the book, it's not so simple, and there are a lot of inconsistencies in that thinking that show up. 

At that time, artists were putting Nikes on top of Pringles cans and being told it was great art. And every random start-up could potentially open itself up this unimaginable wealth based on its ability to have a certain stance for the future—like, "Anything can happen." It was all rather flamboyant and ridiculous. It's just that a lot of those experiments fell flat, and they fell flat at great cost to a lot of people, and that's a problem.

In the "Umami Theory of Value," a report Nemesis put out this year, you wrote about how leading up to the pandemic, the cultural marketplace had evolved into this novelty-obsessed experience economy."The Umami Theory of Value" originated as an inside joke between me and my business partner. We were consulting for a big media company that is famous for selling media to young people about their experiences. They came to us and said, "This is crazy: In all of our focus groups, all of the young people are saying that they're not having sex. Can you guys look at this in a more multifaceted way and tell us what's going on?"I was in New York, and my brother took us to this restaurant on the Upper West Side that only sold these $30 French dip sandwiches, really strong cocktails, and Instagrammable slices of cake that had, like, 20 layers. Everyone in the restaurant looked like they could be in any global luxury environment—like we could be in Jakarta, but we were on the Upper West Side. And I texted my business partner and said, "People no longer want sex. They want umami." I was looking at this incredibly savory sandwich and this amber colored light, and it all just reminded me of that flavor. And so we started joking around at that idea, and to us, it became indistinguishable from the experience economy: the idea that the most [significant] consumption of our time was tied to spending [money] on immaterial things, and luxury travel, and going to music festivals, and being seen at the right spot at the right time—not physical stuff.

Then we elaborated it into a larger thesis that had to do with financialization: the idea that the markets keep rising, but the economies they reflect are not actually being enriched—and cultural objects have to sort of match that. To justify more and more capital flowing around consumption, more and more cultural objects had to be remixed or mashed up with new intellectual property, or continually reframed—and done at such a pace that you can never catch your breath and say, "Does this make any fucking sense? Why is this happening? 

We published that report right as California went into lockdown, and it was phrased as an autopsy of the experience economy. We're definitely in some next chapter that I don't have a cute name for yet.

K-Hole's 2013 report on Normcore felt like a really interesting reaction to hipster culture—this idea of rejecting that ethos of personal individuation and specialness, and instead focusing on adapting one's manner of dress to different situations, embracing a togetherness. Do you see that prediction as having come true?Well, I think that the report was more of a fantasy than a prediction. It was riffing off tendencies that we were observing in our own group, in our peer group, and in ourselves. But then it took on this much bigger meaning in the media that was mixed up with this idea of acting basic. We had put a lot of energy into saying how [people's] interpretation [of the report] was an opportunity for connection, so we felt like we had to accept that the way that people were interpreting the concept could be part of what it was.

I still see what I would think of the true Normcore tendency in certain people I love and admire—their ability to be so multivalent and get down with so many different types of people. But Normcore as a meme that describes a look and fashion is also in my head as part of what it is. Like, if you look at the infinite sweatsuit of 2020—that's definitely related to the cluster of aesthetics associated with Normcore. 

What did you learn about the experience of the Normcore idea going super viral?On this very practical level, it was super fascinating to see how information travels. It was also overwhelming. A lot of different companies and institutions started hitting us up. We were so lucky to get these crazy opportunities to collaborate, and I wanted to make sure that all of our collaborators were able to support themselves with our work. We went from being a zine that a bunch of 22-year-olds started to a small company that we were living off of, and that's just a steep learning curve, so I learned a lot about collaboration, friendship, and heartbreak from that as well. I felt like a cheesy one-hit wonder for a while, which was kind of awkward [laughs], but now I have more of a sense of humor about it.

Considering that trajectory—starting K-Hole, which was an art project, but then watching it turn into an actual consulting group—it makes sense that you go and write a book about the fine line between art and commerce.Well, I wanted to introduce an element of craft, because writing a novel is just that. Although there was a fair amount of craft involved in making K-Hole, the problem with the types of maneuvers described in the book [is that] when it's so conceptual and up in the air—Is this art? Is this not?— it misses out on that element of learning how to render something in a really specific way that takes a lot of repeated tries, and specificity. Writing a novel is like knitting a movie: You have to sit there and make every moment from scratch. The different things that inspired the book were so conceptual and ungrounded, it was my way of compensating, I think. Or trying to bring it to a new place.

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