It’s easy to deride the buzzword-y vocabulary and commodifying impulse of “trend forecasting,” an industry that feeds late capitalism’s frenzied appetite for new ideas by serving up cultural movements as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Subscribers to consumer trend reports, like Trendwatching.com’s and others, often pay thousands in annual fees to read PDFs full of aphorisms like “The quest for status is a fundamental human imperative”; arguments for “Why the ‘new’ has never been hotter”; or declarations like “2013 is all about the rise of the Solo Citizen.”
But there’s a certain camp appeal to the genre’s seductive, hyper-capitalistic writing. Its unabashed tone manages to be honest, chipper, and even humanistic (many of the reports concern themselves with socio-political or environmental issues) while advising readers on how to best manipulate consumers and drive profits.
As a source of inspiration, “basically, [trend forecasting] is just a really expensive Tumblr,” says Sean Monahan, an artist and designer who came into contact with the reports after his circle of friends graduated from RISD, moved to New York, and began working in creative industries where these documents circulate. Since last year, he and four collaborators–Emily Segal, Dena Yago, Chris Sherron, and Greg Fong, all in their mid 20s–have put out their own, slightly twisted take on a trendforecasting report called K-Hole, a sporadically published free PDF that recently celebrated the release of its third issue.
The content and tone simultaneously pay tribute to and subvert the trend forecasting format after which it’s styled. Technocratic diction that’s sometimes ominous (“Where our product ends, you begin”) and sometimes utopian, is plastered atop stock imagery, in all-white capital letters. Outfits are diagrammed, puns abound (“Venmo money, Venmo problems”), and the identity of companies is concealed behind the anonymous “Company A” or “Company Q,” while their strategies are discussed. Like traditional trend forecasting reports, each issue of K-Hole defines new concepts and applies them to case studies from unrelated worlds of fashion, urban planning, medicine, and technology. For example, Issue 1’s “fragMOREtation,” the marketing strategy whereby products “catch the eye–not by being big or flashy, but by being broken-off, hidden, and/or decontextualized.”
The results are unexpected (and entertaining). $680 sneakers with a concealed, internal wedge by French designer Isabel Marant are interpreted as a sign of today’s economic stratification. “[W]e have the bubble class and then just savages in poverty everywhere else”: thus, a trend in footwear where references to both the working class boot and the aristocratic heel are avoided. The current popularity of the IUD is explained as a “hack” to the reproductive system that’s “more in line with maker culture and its insistence on personal hardware” (as opposed to the software-like birth control pill).
“The job of the advanced consumer is managing anxiety, period,” declares K-Hole’s most recent issue. Then, it introduces the “brand anxiety matrix,” a conceptual toolkit to help readers impose a makeshift order on the range of emotional disconnects different brands might inspire–from Nike, to Twilight, to Mitt Romney. “At K-Hole we recognize that there will never be any sort of consensus as to why we are anxious. Unlike fear, anxiety is a response to an imprecise threat. Not the knife pressed to your back, but the possibility that everyone knows what you did last summer.”
If you can’t tell whether you’re hearing from an Occupy pamphlet, artist manifesto, corporate strategy memo, or conspiracy theorist blog, that’s the point. Like the name suggests, K-Hole (which refers to the depth-perception muddling experience of taking the tranquilizer ketamine) is operating in murky territory–it’s the output of minds from a generation that recognizes (and is disoriented by) the power of mega-brands, the limits of dissent from outside (and within) the corporate system, and the mixed pleasures of consumption. It’s also, perhaps, what happens when young artists and writers arrive in a recession-era New York, where marketing and tech jobs–and the distinct vocabulary that both industries have spawned–have become the chief means to access and fund a creative lifestyle, as jobs in arts organizations, academia, and publishing dwindle. (Segal and Sherron have day jobs in branding, Yago and Fong are developers, and Monahan assists on a high-end scarf label.)
The publication has “been a way for us to process that hybrid reality,” according to Segal. “We’re trying to show through K-Hole, that there’s a literacy that comes from not just skewering corporate culture in an Adbusters way, but from looking at it in a more nuanced way, where it can be funny, weird, unsettling–all at the same time–so you can gain a different awareness around you.”
While their take on consumer culture is distinctly millennial, so is their shape-shifting approach. Buzz generated from the trend-forecasting reports turned into opportunities in consulting (for a private equity firm), the art world (an invitation to submit work to a Russian fair for young artists), and a conference appearance (on a panel at the invitation-only DLD13 in Munich). More curiously, they collaborated with avant-garde fashion label Eckhaus Latta to produce their own deodorant (framed as an antidote to body-odor anxiety), fêted with a release party at a Berlin gallery. And they’re providing their design and branding perspective to the founders of Lapka, the environmental sensor for the iPhone, a process that included the “#StevePunk” experience, in Segal’s words, of assembling Lapka’s hit CES-booth in a garage in a Las Vegas subdivision.
“We’re not coming from a place of trying to help big companies,” Segal adds. “It’s not like it’s our dream for Pepsi to pay us $3 million to make a PowerPoint” (although they wouldn’t object). The project is meant to be “more journalistic in spirit.” Lapka may get written about in K-Hole with zero disclosure that they’re behind it, but is that a journalistic faux-pas? Or just staying “on trend” with the collapse of editorial and advertorial elsewhere online? The project is meant to test those boundaries and others, most importantly the increasingly wavy ones between art and commerce.
As Segal told T Magazine, “the art world has been taking [financial] resources from the corporate world forever to support itself, but it made a mistake when it didn’t realize that it could also take ideas–and so that’s where we come in.” And perhaps the number one idea that K-Hole is borrowing, without formally acknowledging it, is the corporate world’s most celebrated organizational form: the startup.
If it were New York in the 1970s, the latter would be apt. But in 2013, “startup” is the most succinct for a crew more interested in making products than art, in understanding the corporate world, rather than condemning it, and in unironically (or, perhaps, post-ironically) appropriating the language of tech, as opposed to satirizing it. They’re a startup whose product is ideas, or its own brand, or something that maybe doesn’t exist yet, as they “iterate,” “pivot,” and, eventually, “monetize.”