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Dean Kissick tha critical visionary on cosmic giggles, "the vibe shift," samurai jawns, NYC counterhistories and more unbeatable topics
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Dean Kissick — he’s a young critical don with a soft accent so sonorous I would have called it Welsh except it turns out he’s from Oxford so F**K DO I KNOW?? Over the past few years Dean has become one of my favorite writers on culture, dropping GEMS with SENSITIVITY and CHARM about art, life in NYC, and the profound peculiarities of internet-era identity-making… He closed out 2021 with a bravura 2-part essay at the art magazine Spike, where he’s the New York editor, weaving together the Sistine Chapel, Kanye, midcentury composer Jani Christou, ‘00s-era Paris Hilton, Grimes, Jeffrey Epstein, Balenciaga, achieving “ego death through posting,” and more (links below.)
The other day I hopped on the Spyphone w/ Dean to talk about getting more time out of a day, what “the vibe shift” actually refers to, and the stories behind some rare & cherished possessions — including FLY SAMURAI S**T from his ancestors.
Blackbird Spyplane: You wrote a great NYT Magazine piece about cutting yr days into chunks using “the Pomodoro technique,” a productivity method where you switch up what yr doing every 25 minutes. You wrote that it “makes time uncanny by revealing how it speeds up and slows down throughout the day… one pomodoro can be a clearheaded, lucid rapture that makes all activities gratifying, and another, a slow, monotonous drag…” It’s wild how simply paying attention to time — and how unaccountably elastic it is — can be mad trippy…
Dean Kissick: “Yes, and I still do the Pomodoro technique, but I need to reach whatever the next level is. The thing I have the most gripes about is that there are more things I want to do in a day than there is time to do them.”
Blackbird Spyplane: That’s gotta feel better than being bored and just killing time in all the dumb ways we have available to us, at least! Before we talk about the RARE cherished possessions you sent over, I wanted to do a little “Spyplane service journalism.” Off the cuff, can you explain to the members of Spy Nation (who haven’t listened to a ton of Contain and Wet Brain and read a ton of Angelicism01) what “the vibe shift” is about? There was that big article in The Cut, but I know a lot of vibe-shift-conversant ppl think it missed the mark…
Dean Kissick: “It’s a difficult question, but I can try off the cuff. So, through no coordinated effort, from June 1 to 5, 2021 — those are the official dates — a variety of people around the world, I’d say extremely online zoomers, started posting and speaking and communicating in this kind of hyper-accelerated, extremely online fashion. They formed a new kind of posting, a new use of language, and it wasn’t organized, it just happened. It was maybe a symptom of, or a cause of, a bigger shift in global consciousness, where maybe we entered a new phase of humanity.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Can you characterize that shift?
Dean Kissick: “Someone described it to me as a peak in ‘cultural malleability’: that there was, in 2021, a very strange sense of, Everything is up in the air. And it was this moment where very weird posters—or people far outside of any media or arts or cultural establishment—could capture part of the world’s attention and do something new and be seen. It was a good time for new things to emerge.
“A lot of those new things are nonsense — this absurd, unintelligible, nonsense posting — but maybe some of it makes sense. Or all of it makes sense, but we don’t know what it means. I certainly don’t. You have new memes but they’re not funny, because memes were no longer supposed to be funny, they were confusing…”
Blackbird Spyplane: What yr describing seems to reflect a repudiation of the instrumentalized online self as we’ve come to know it — a repudiation of the kind of person whose every post can be understood, essentially, as an act of “brand building,” whether they’re advocating for a cause or plugging headlines into a Twitter joke template or trying to get someone in trouble. There’s a justifiable distrust at this point of, e.g., “social-justice posting,” which has come to feel increasingly like personal brand-advancement devouring the language of activism.
And so you see a bunch of smart, disillusioned, funny, angry young people exploring a kind of post-leftist, post-post-ironic unintelligibility — or maybe trying to imagine new, harder-to-co-opt ways of being sincere… which strikes me as resuscitating an earlier, weirder internet era…
Dean Kissick: “The internet really is our own creation. It can be anything, and the reason so much of it has become a hysterical place, or a deeply gloomy place, or a place where people are so angry and miserable, with apps like Instagram that make people feel bad about their lives — the reason it’s like that is because we’ve collectively made it like that, but the internet doesn’t have to be any of those things. We don’t have to be so serious or have to make it so intense or repetitive or self-loathing. My friend always says, ‘We should have more time for the cosmic giggle than the cosmic wound.’ Bring a bit of levity to life.
“So even with Blackbird Spyplane, the way you write is pretty much unlike how anyone else writes, in terms of language and punctuation and the use of graphics — it’s a bit vibe shift-y. It partakes in how memes, or Twitter, or certain uses of Substack can lead to very different types of expression than we’re used to. I have a friend, Patrick McGraw, who edits a literary zine called Heavy Traffic and he said that 2 or 3 years ago he’d go on Substack to read ideas — essays by Bay Area tech thinkers and thought leaders — and now it’s full of this schizophrenic affect, alt lit, weird writing, blogging some of which is literally gibberish, and it’s all kind of feeding back into itself, because people are absorbing other people’s writing styles and everything iterates so quickly.
“So you partook to some degree in this moment of cultural malleability. Not saying that you’re part of the vibe shift or that I am, either. We’re not trying to steal any ‘vibe-shift valor.’ I just mean it’s part of the same changing cultural moment.”
Blackbird Spyplane: We try to keep the Spyvibes Mach 3+, baby, I can tell u that much !! OK so let’s talk about this beautiful sword guard, a.k.a. tsuba, which is meant to separate the grip from the blade of a samurai sword . You told me this tsuba was “passed down through the centuries by my samurai ancestors.” What’s the deal??
Dean Kissick: “Yeah, I think this is the bespoke part of a sword — you buy a blade and a handle and thread it through, and those are important, but the guard is really what’s yours. That’s what the family passes on, as I understand it.
“So this Christmas my mom was telling me about the samurai family we’re descended from — it’s important to weasel information like that from your parents. My grandfather’s ancestors lived down south, around Hiroshima, I think, and this was in the Tokugawa / Edo period, which is 1603-1868. During that time my great-great-grandpa’s people attempted some type of coup, played their cards, and it didn’t work, so they were banished from the south and had to go north to a place called Kakunodate. That’s a famous samurai district, an old castle town, and they lived up there with the old samurai on the periphery — they made a home in the sticks and managed to keep some samurai integrity and honor.
“I’m an only child and my mother’s an only child, so in my head I’m like the last of this clan. I realize I should actually get a handle and sword for it. Maybe a really good one. I need to find some Japanese antiquarian dealers.”
Blackbird Spyplane: U need to go to Japan and quest for a sword…
Dean Kissick: “That’s true, I should go to Japan when they reopen and have a quest — reclaim what’s mine.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The next thing U sent is a Junya Watanabe t-shirt with yr byline on it because it’s the cover of issue 2 of the NYC newspaper Civilization. Tell us about Civilization and this tee…
Dean Kissick: “It’s a print-only newspaper that comes out whenever it comes out, once a year or so, and it was founded by Richard Turley, Lucas Mascatello and Mia Kerin, who I think are three different generations of cool New York people. The paper is about New York, and they talk to all kinds of people, record them, and put it straight into the paper without too much editing.
“So it builds into a really interesting portrait of the city. For this issue, which came out in 2018, there was an anonymous interview with a district attorney, talking about what’s going wrong in the courts, and not in a Defund the Police way, more in a conservative-leaning way. And there was a great anonymous interview with a drug dealer who ran a franchise in order to launder money — like, how to run a 7-Eleven to clean the money. And there was a really good interview with an old Rastafarian tailor who had some really good insights and said some really weird things. I remember him saying something about how you should have horse-drawn carts instead of cars.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Shout out 2 horses…
Dean Kissick: “So I wrote the story on the cover, and I was happy to see my name on the front page of a paper in the window of McNally Jackson, because I hadn’t been in NYC so long, and it felt great — ‘I’ve made it.’ A year later, Junya decided to do a collaboration for SS220 and they used some of the covers as graphics on tote bags and shirts and jackets. I started accumulating them, because it’s almost certainly the only time I’m ever gonna have my name on piece of designer clothing.
“Also, as a half-Japanese person it’s an honor to be on a Junya shirt. It’s not Yohji, it’s not Comme, but it’s not too bad. It’s better than Issey.”
Blackbird Spyplane: U aren’t trying to see yr name in PLEATS?!
Dean Kissick: “I’m just not sure about the whole Homme Plissé, pleated thing. I don’t think it’s very cool. It’s a bit done, no?”
Blackbird Spyplane: I respect it, but yeah, it goes in and out, and we might be on a downswing now, sure, at least from the menswear POV… Dean, let’s close things out with this drawing you own by the Dutch artist Pieter Slagboom from 2010. You told me “he makes art about sex and death, masturbation and mourning.” It’s very striking, has a kind of “biological matter” feeling to it, whether it’s DNA or flagella or something else …
Dean Kissick: “I need to get it framed and up on the wall. I’m very excited about this piece — Pieter asked me to write text for a book he put out last year, and I asked to be paid in a work, and I chose this really beautiful, quite big drawing of who knows what. It might be a tree full of berries. He had a show at Bridget Donahue gallery, here on the Bowery, and I’d never heard of him. But my friend said this was the best show in the city, so I went and it blew me away. I wrote about it in my column, and Pieter got in touch.
“The drawings in the show were much crazier than this: Gigantic colored-pencil drawings that he spends days and days on — he has to buy thousands of colored pencils to make them, and they’re often scenes of mourning and birth, done in this colorful, psychedelic style. One might be from the perspective of a baby coming out of his mother’s vagina, but the baby has a big adult-size penis, or there will be a dead body in a coffin at a funeral, but everyone at the funeral is masturbating as the body is laid into the ground…
“It’s really weird stuff, but the way he’s spoken about it makes a lot of sense to me. He described one piece to another interviewer as ‘the dying head of a man with aroused female genitalia of three women surrounding it. So it’s a fantasy or cultural ritual where people die while others are aroused. Or, could dying have been eased if surrounded by sexual arousal? … I gave very many colours to the dead body. We should not be afraid. The death ritual is a way to soften the burden. Everyone lives with the burden.’
“All of his work is about different ways we could see death, maybe celebrating the passage to another world — how sexual desire is this force all around us but repressed in all kinds of way, and he believes we had a healthier relationship to death in societies like ancient Egypt, but we’ve lost a lot of this ritual understanding of sex and death and how it’s connected.
“I think part of where it comes from is he had this near-death experience aged 8, when he was at a yacht harbor and fell in the water. He nearly died but was luckily rescued by a passerby — a heroic Belgian sailor dived in, got him out the water, and saved his life. But what Pieter’s said about it is, ‘I can remember consciously saying goodbye to my family and my train set.’ He described it to me not as a frightening experience — he could feel himself dying, and he felt very calm and relaxed in that moment.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Years ago I talked to to a lifelong deep-sea diver who almost drowned as a teenager, and he said that after a certain point of holding yr breath underwater, you can’t any longer, yr lungs feel like they’re on fire, so you open yr mouth and the water starts to fill yr lungs and there’s a strange sense of refreshment and relief — the water’s going to kill you, but first it’s going to cool yr burning lungs. An experience at the extremes like that can give ppl a counterintuitive kind of insight into death…
Dean Kissick: “Wow. Right, and an interesting thing about Pieter is that he’s a bloke. Not some weird avant-garde guy — just a bloke in the Netherlands with a family and a visionary expressionistic drawing practice.”
🌀 Dean’s Spike column The Downward Spiral (new one drops tomorrow!) lives here, and the two-part 2021-year-end essay I mentioned up top, called “Persona,” starts here. He’s on Instagram here and Twitter here. His NYT Magazine essay on the Pomodoro technique is here.
🌀 Our “Master Jawn Index” — a running guide to earth’s greatest under-the-radar pieces and designers — is here. Our recommendation-rich SpyTalk Chat Room is here. The gem-stuffed Blackbird SpyMall is here.