Prankster, art-hacker, erstwhile social deconstructionist

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Report by NewsroomPlus.com Contributed by Adam James Ring

Somewhat underprepared and filled with the daily dread of the disorganised writer, I made my way to the iconic Embassy Theatre in central Wellington to meet my patron and steal his day pass to the 2015 Semi-Permanent design conference.

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As people began to stream down the large, winding stairs during the first programme break, I nervously chewed the lid of my now empty coffee cup and waited for him to show in the downstairs foyer. I think I was chewing the lid just to have something to do – the mechanism of a nervous habit. Standing there, I felt like I was waiting for the End Times, or perhaps a bride who I didn’t want to marry.

After getting the pass adorned round my neck like a Hawaiian Lei, and pretending to listen as the tall man told me about the day’s event, I went in search of more legal stimulants. The sweet caress of caffeine – via Sweet Mothers Kitchen – came quickly from behind the espresso machine and was soon weaving its magic upon my tired and misfiring brain synapses.

The funny thing about being a freelance journalist is that most of it is just turning up. Sure, it helps if you can write and it’s beneficial to have some passing interest in current events, but mostly it’s just being there. ‘There’ being wherever something is happening.

That being said, it is extremely helpful to do your background work so you actually know where you’re going, why you’re going and what you’re supposed to do while you’re there. As I hadn’t done any of this, I had no idea who was speaking next at this event and no plan of how to cover it.

Squinting at the card on my lanyard, as I walked back towards the theatre, the small, tidy printed schedule told me ‘1:50 – Presentation: Ryder Ripps.’ Ryder Rippswhere do I know that name from? 

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Photo: Vice

After finding a seat in the crowded theatre, I settled in just as Ryder Ripps started his talk.

As I listened to him give an overview of his internet-slacker teenage years, it finally dawned on me that I did know who Ryder Ripps was – he’s the guy that The New York Times called the “consummate Internet cool kid” and he’s the guy who launched Internet Archaeology – a greatest graphic hits of the internet culture’s formative years – and he’s the guy that caused a shit-storm of media and art world stink with Art Whore – an Artist in Residence piece at NYC’s Ace Hotel where he paid two escorts to paint penises in his absence.

Hearing him talk – even the way he talked – was like listening to some kind of digital human-hybrid. Equal parts hacker-cool and art-scene arrogant, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel in my mind with the 90’s New York hyper-cool scene of filmmaker Harmony Korine.

Here’s the thing: Ryder Ripps isn’t just an ‘internet cool kid’, nor is he merely a trickster artist – he’s a concept art maverick. His internet, advertising and art output – including recent solo exhibition ‘Ho’ – sits comfortably in the same realm as some of the true greats of modern conceptual and abstract art.

His conceptual creations are on par with UK art god Damien Hurst or Italian art-hacker, Maurizio Cattelan. He is one of the torch bearers and reference points for the style, expression and culture of this generation. Ryder has been called a prankster – a moniker he shares with Cattelan – and not without some deserving praise.

That he spent most of his talk at Semi-Permanent making infantile and flippant jokes, is a sign of someone who really doesn’t care about his professional image, or who at least wants people to think that he doesn’t. Either way, it’s still better than what a million other designers/ artists are doing right now.

Much of his dry humour – used lavishly throughout – was directed sarcastically at both the audience and himself. The simultaneously self-deprecating and audience-alienating drawl of someone who is literally too cool for school.

Parts of his talk were a pointed yet playful stab at the tender ribs of SERIOUS DESIGNERS.

His use of throw away images and conjured up screenshots of pure HTML websites, a la Warren Buffet’s 90’s-minimal Berkshire Hathaway site, revealed someone unwilling or unable to be pinned down or rendered mainstream.

His overwhelming unorthodoxy is evident in everything from his early work choices, his anti-establishment attitudes, or the way he seems willing to regularly bite the hand that feeds.

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Photo: Leylan37 Instagram

Speaking of his agency OKFocus and how they go about getting work, he built up the anticipation with mock seriousness – “Everyone asks what the secret is to getting work, and I NEVER tell them. But I’m gonna tell YOU.”

To a conference of designers, graphic artists, communication pros, branders and marketers who were perhaps there for some professional, detailed advice and tips, he dished up the illuminatingly simple and so, so dry – “Do good work – wait for emails”.

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The thesis for his idiosyncratic and spasmodic presentation could be succinctly summed up with his statement “People don’t complain enough”. He spoke of how “designers should dislike more things than they like” and proceeded to show a range of photos from his recent travels to illustrate that a designer should try and fix what’s in front of them first.

A wobbly handle on an expensive luggage case, a vent that stupidly points down thus staining the carpet, the need for some kind of arm brace to hold a smartphone so one can also hold their baby.

An endless collection of sundry design flaws that people should complain about more, thereby generating enough dissatisfaction to want to fix it. His vision of what Design is, constitutes a pragmatic and visionary simplicity – ‘fix stuff that’s broke’ could be his working mantra.

His “People don’t complain enough” comment would no doubt make a great t-shirt, though I’m unsure if kids these days still do that. Maybe it should be digitised then transferred directly onto skin like a temporary tattoo.

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Photo: Ryder Ripps Instagram

Master Ripps didn’t speak too much about his conceptual art, focusing more on his design work – it was a design conference after all – though he did mention some of his past and present gigs that were the most impressive or at least the most attention grabbing.

He’s worked with rap producer Mike Will Made It, fashion designers, corporate giants like Nike, and he even met recently with Kanye West – who apparently loved his satirical site WhoDat.biz – with some talk of a possible collaboration.

And this is a guy who participated and perhaps masterminded a fake/ real boy band called #HDBoyz – dubbed ‘the first boy band in high definition’. His satirical and innovative outbursts are the surface data of a deeper and motivating restlessness.  He’s the Tyler the Creator of internet cool. Always surprising and often hated.

As an insight into his brilliance, he spoke of his first paid internship while he was 19 or 20, and how, when asked to pitch an idea for Burberry, he suggested elite email addresses at $50,000 a pop. The user would have the prestige of a luxury email address @burbury.com. When his employers said it was a terrible idea, he quit and (eventually) went on to better, more self-directed pursuits, after some time buying and selling vintage synthesizers on EBay.

Sometimes genius masquerades as stupid banality and this IMHO is very much the case with Ryder Ripps. He’s an artist of ideas more than mechanism. But he’s still an artist, and an important one.

There is a common argument that some people will have over what constitutes good abstract art.

Some will look at a piece by someone like the great NZ figurative expressionist artist Max Gimblett and say, “Well, anybody could do that! He’s just painted a stripe on an interesting shaped canvas!” To which the correct response should be “Yes, anyone could do it, but he’s the only one who actually is doing it!”

That Ryder Ripps is an inconsistent and unpredictable combination of prankster, art-hacker and erstwhile social deconstructionist, or that he doesn’t paint his own art, or that he perhaps generates phony culture, is more or less irrelevant to the bigger picture.

He is an overactive developer of new ideas which are far more relevant to the internet-heavy age we live in than any number of contemporary artists with critical acclaim.

To my mind, put simply, he embodies the new generation of plugged-in, individualistic and self-referencing human beings. A true maverick in a vast and pixellated field of creative wannabe’s and internet culture-vultures.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues.
Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia’s FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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