Here at Nerve we’ve been accused of everything from pomposity to perversity, and we have to admit that we kind of like it. What can we say, attention is attention, and a good spanking is a good spanking (and a bad spanking is better). So when we discovered an entire website, AreFriendsElectric.com, dedicated to “confronting the commercialization of personal relationships and exploring the idea of online
identities” on the Nerve Personals, we couldn’t resist engaging in a little friendly joust. I sat down recently with artists Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, Jeff Gauntt, Josh Jordan, and Mark Masyga of Are Friends Electric to talk about irony as a defense mechanism, the nature of art, and the commodification of dating. But mostly, I just wanted to get them to admit that, in the centuries-old history of the art world, the only artist who could honestly claim that he wasn’t in the creative field to get laid was Bob Ross. Rufus Griscom
Rufus Griscom (youdababe): You evoke in your mission statement the misguided artistic impulse that anything that makes money is problematic in some way. I think that basically any phenomenon larger than a certain size has to either make money, be hoodwinking someone, or disappear. Those are the three options.
Giovanni Garcia-Fenech (afe_exposed): I don’t think that it was the money that was so much of a concern, but that there is a kind of inevitable degradation that comes about when you’re put in a group so specifically. The thinking behind this project was that people were just taking it for granted a little too easily.
Rufus: And what would be the thing that is taken for granted?
Giovanni: You know, the whole sudden transition of artists being turned into a demographic that’s sought after. When I first heard about Nerve, I was told it was this place to check out hipster chicks. And I thought it was curious that nobody thought, “How did this come about? When did this become something that was mainstream?” I was watching a car commercial on TV the other day, and they were using an Iggy Pop song. There was a time when that Iggy Pop album was not very well known, it was really difficult to even find, and then it was used in the soundtrack for Trainspotting, and then all the sudden it becomes this thing that everybody knows. And I feel that this music was just never meant, originally when it was made, to be a hit. And certainly not meant to be something that was used to sell cars. Because of that process, all of the sudden some of the song’s meaning gets taken away.
Rufus: But it’s still the same song. Don’t you think it could be that the small group of people who used to like that song liked it partly because it made them feel part of a special little group and now they don’t feel so special?
Giovanni: Well I think that it puts it in a different context.
Rufus: So you feel like Nerve personals ads are being distorted because of their popularity.
Jeff Gauntt (afe_paleshelter): I’m totally addicted to personal ads, but it’s just interesting. Everyone gets reduced to the lowest common denominator, which is kind of like, “How cute are they?” “How hip are they in their responses?” It’s horrible, because someone will make a really personal ad that you feel some connection with, but then you read the books or music they like, and it just comes off as a cliché, because they end up saying the same thing that ten previous people did.
Rufus: But it seems to me that in real life interactions, people are all the more cliched and reduced and oversimplified. I would make the case that in the personals ad environment, there’s actually a more soulful and original exchange of ideas going on than in a standard dating environment. For example, someone would look at you and say, “He’s wearing a Swiss Army watch and has a kind of funky orange shirt going on and consequently that’s just the kind of person he is.”
Giovanni: What we were interested in was the idea that you’re constructing your image of yourself in these ads, and to kind of play around with that. In my ad, I thought, “What if I turn it around? What if I actually do my ad from the point of view of my disgruntled ex-girlfriend?” So everything in my ad is as honest as I could make it, yet negative. But then it raises the question that I’m still controlling what it is that I’m talking about.
Rufus: But there is already an enormous amount of irony in the personals. And because of that, I think that the distinctiveness of the project is lost a bit if you had posted these in a more generic service they would have been more immediately identifiable as being artistic parodies. In the Nerve environment, there’s so much tongue-in-cheek posting that it’s almost kind of redundant.
Jeff: The notion that this was social critique and an anti-Nerve thing is kind of strange. Among my friends, at this table, people have dated online at Nerve. And it’s a great place. It’s a good thing.
Rufus: So, isn’t it kind of lame to do a parody of, or an artistic intervention on, something that you clearly like?
Giovanni: I see that there’s been this misunderstanding. I’ve actually gotten some hate mail, you have some pretty vociferous supporters. I got an e-mail from someone who called us and this is a quote “fucking retarded.” This was not exactly meant as an attack.
Rufus: Yes. But in your mission statement you go on about this big scary industry, the money that is being made, the need for artists to put this in a critical perspective. I thought this was supposed to be an intervention.
Giovanni: But if so many people are getting involved, and if so much money is being pumped into it that it’s becoming this way of people meeting each other, then that’s, like, a valid thing to question.
Rufus: Let me ask you a broader question have you all been on many dates through Nerve Personals prior to this little exercise?
Rufus: And has it worked out? Have you gotten some?
Giovanni: [laughs] Maybe.
Rufus: So you guys have had some dating success on Nerve. Some would say not I of course, but these other people who don’t understand the context of your mission that it’s a case of shitting where you eat. There are obviously a lot of very bright, artistically inclined people in the system, and a very large percentage of them, in the process of creating an ad, poke fun at the process, and have various degrees of ironic detachment from the whole thing. One person wrote a whole ad from the perspective of a baby in a jar, and it was hysterically funny. The difference between what all these other people have done and what you guys have done is simply calling it Art with a capital A as opposed to simply doing it. What’s the value of calling it Art? You know the downside you expose it to a criticism from the outside.
Giovanni: But we weren’t presenting it to people on Nerve as art. We were hoping that people would just run into our ads. And I think Mark is the only one at this table but not the only one in the show who got actual true responses to his ad. He’s had, like, three responses, and I’m actually extremely jealous and a little resentful.
Rufus: If one of the objectives of this was to generate dates, that has failed.
Giovanni: As usual [laughs]. Again, not with Mark, though.
Rufus: What’s become clear here is that the purpose of Art or one of the primary purposes is to get laid.
Giovanni: That’s the entire purpose.
Josh Jordan (afe_spaceace): That’s what art’s all about.
Mark Masyga (afe_julius_k): Once I realized I was a little too old to really learn how to play the guitar, that’s what led me into becoming an artist.
Giovanni: We all want dates with cool haircuts and bad-ass tattoos. We just wanted the people who do the ads and who respond to the ads to have one extra layer of awareness of what they’re doing.
Rufus: The case I’m obviously making here is that the people in Nerve personals are already a hyperaware group of people. And thus in my opinion
Giovanni: I actually will make an argument that people are not hyperaware. I haven’t seen that many ads that say, “I’m an artist looking for another artist, and it’s kind of ridiculous that this is the way that we’re meeting each other.”
Rufus: What happens, not just in these ads, but in life in general, is that people are constantly parading their intellect, their wisdom, their sense of humor, their perspective, as part of this mating process, and have been for millennia. It sounds like you’re frightened of participating in that.
Josh: Yeah. I myself have never had the guts to take out a personal ad. My other esteemed colleagues have, and I have always been very passive-aggressive about dating in general. And my artwork is very much passive-aggressive.
Rufus: It sounds like you are passive-aggressive.
Josh: Yeah. Yeah, I am. I swing both ways.
Rufus: I see. Now do you all consider other ads, ads outside your project, to be art?
Giovanni: When I talked to artists about being in the show, I recommended that they look at the ad of this guy named fuckboy. He has one of the funniest ads I’ve ever seen. And basically what he did it was a gay ad was to answer each question with every cliché that he could. And it would be a long list of things. And the very last line of the ad said, “Sense of humor a must.” It was this kind of double edged joke, and I thought it was brilliant.
Rufus: Part of what I think is going on here is that the prospect of putting oneself out in the world, whether in the physical world or in a Nerve ad, and saying “This is who I am,” is terrifying. And so it’s always the best refuge, particularly for bright people, to be more ironic than thou. Because if you’re always one step more ironic than the next person then no one can look down at you. Classifying the whole thing as something that’s happening as part of a show immediately protects you from being accused of representing yourself.
Giovanni: But the thing is, we put the ads up as personals. It’s my face, and if it’s a guy in Brooklyn who sees me in the street or whatever, they’re not going to see my work distinguished as an art piece.
Rufus: But if someone responds and says “I think you suck” you’re protected by this layer of art. Basically, I’m accusing you accusing this project of being an act of cowardice.
Giovanni: Actually, if you want to talk about ironic, of the four of us Mark here was the only one who wrote an ironic ad. And he’s the only one who’s getting responses. We actually felt like we exposed ourselves.
Rufus: You exposed yourselves because the irony of the whole project made you feel like you could be sincere for the first time.
Giovanni: How did you figure us out so quickly? I really think that deep down, what it comes down to is that artists want to be loved.
Josh: Many times.
Rufus: I know some non-artists who do too. Well, maybe you should take a more humble path and say, “This is not art, this is nothing,” and then people read it and think it’s genius. I think it’s a better strategy.