Plushy Indulgence in a Time of Rigid Restrictions
Like most evenings recently, last night I was watching The Discovery Channel with my parents.
Like most evenings recently, last night I was watching The Discovery Channel with my parents. A two hour special of a homestead renovation show came on, featuring a six person family living in a half finished house in the middle of Amish country in Ohio. The parents admirably attempted to live off grid after the disorienting 2008 financial crash. Yet, four years into trying to live independently as a family unity, they had found a lot less idyllic and plausible, and a lot more overwhelming than they initially thought. Their homestead looked the complete opposite from the sunbleached, turmeric accented aesthetics of contemporary “wellness” and sustainability. Throughout the episode, Wendy, the mother of the family, while standing 6 inches deep in her waterlogged attempt at an indoor herb garden, kept mentioning that “everything here is just hard.”
The house was given a grant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be made out of used non-biodegradable rubber tires as well as plastic bottles and bin bags. A hodgepodge conglomerate of used materials formed the insulation and walls of their house, pushing against its seams, where wasps, minks, and yellow spotted salamanders had also made their homes. If the family didn’t complete the house, which was falling a bit more into disarray each time Ohio’s sporadic summer weather turned stormy, the EPA would fine them for effectively having a dump of 30,000 rubber tires rather than a home built out of one. The distress on this show extended through the screen. The underlying wish to be doing something beneficial for the environment which had been muddled by unpleasant realities reminded me of some creative projects I’d started in the past and never finished if magnified by hundreds. This capsized, dilapidated environmental dream house turned nightmare thankfully doesn’t remind me of my own family home. But, it does remind me of all the unfinished paintings, unused Teen Vogue clippings, and half-burned mixtapes. All these unfinished artifacts from a few years past have reminded me how, similar to the ambitious project of living off the grid, sometimes creating is just hard under normal circumstances, but especially in the tumultuous time of coronavirus.
Since moving away to university four years ago, I’ve come home in short spurts, depositing objects into the recesses of my closet. My room is full of relics from my high school and college years that have collected and formed globular composites like layers of sedimentary gravel under earth’s surface. Due to the pandemic, I’m now living amongst these discarded, and often half-finished, materials from my teenage self, reminiscent of the jagged, incomplete homestead on The Discovery Channel. While completing work for my postgraduate degree, I’m absorbing the dog-eared novels and blue-tacked postcards of my undergrad and high school years seemingly through osmosis. All these undefined versions of myself are ruminating in the space of my bedroom years later, itching for some interaction outside of these four walls. Quoting Dazed editor Claire Marie Healy, this pandemic has made us “teenagers again. Waiting for our lives to begin.”
Last week’s podcast created by Gabrielle de la Puente, one half of the art critic duo The White Pube, expresses these pent up kinetic desires often felt in adolescence, but also now as we’re all “[w]aiting for our lives to begin” a second time. Though the review is of the video game In Other Waters, the spoken essay starts off with the writer’s feelings in true White Pube style. The duo, who met in a fine arts undergraduate course have been maintaining a blog post a week since October 2015, in an effort to alter the field of art criticism from something inaccessible and dry to stream of consciousness style essays which could be pulled from a conversation with a friend rather than written by a pretentious whoever in a whatever stuffy office space. On their website’s “About” page, de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, write that they started “The White Pube to actually state how art makes us feel (happy, bored, angry or in love for example); we fall through feelings, and write about the art on the way.” Though this is evident in all their work, this past week’s episode was especially pertinent. de la Puente begins by admitting “for these first 6 weeks of quarantine, I don’t think I have really allowed myself to indulge too much in anything because: the world is frozen, resources are scarce, and mostly I think big happiness would be followed by big sadness so wouldn’t it be wise to stay somewhere in the middle of the two?” She continues, noting that by cutting herself off from her usual activities and indulgences, the perpetual waiting game of quarantine wasn’t stifling anymore, but rather “meant a building momentum to something greater.”
However, while separating ourselves from our usual pleasures may have been a reliable tactic to navigate quarantine at its start, six weeks into this new normal, the edges are beginning to cave in a bit as we all frantically daydream of life after quarantine; whenever that day in the blurry future may be. de la Puente emulates this saying, “to be honest, I would really like a Purge moment, to break every rule in one day and have a BBQ in the park with one thousand writhing people around me while I have loud sex in the middle of them all, like Midsommar but in Sefton Park. Consider this text my attention nude on the timeline. I want the sun to blast my face with freckles, I want to neck coke until all my teeth fall out, I want attention and love and as big of a release as I can get.” Similar to the pent up energy experience of a teenager in suburbia when the centrifugal points of your life were your bedroom or the local strip mall, the lockdown measures have us grasping not for an ounce of normalcy, but a gallon of it. Similar to de la Puente I don’t want a sip of a beer in the smoking area of a pub with my friends, but I want to be doused in it and feel the alcohol fizz and bubble on my newly aerated skin; like the thrill of a night out in your first year of college after having to sneak around while living at home in high school. After reviewing the lackluster game, de la Puente concludes the podcast by asking for any recommendations because, much like the bored teenager, “unfortunately, I’ve got all the time in the world.”
When I was a teenager, creativity and its physical manifestations in the forms paintings, clay sculptures and mixtape track lists seemed like the only escape from the insular world of my suburban bedroom. However, despite all the time I seemed to have (similar to de la Puente’s dilemma), I could never finish anything. Frances Ha, The Virgin Suicides, and Persepolis all reached the halfway mark on whatever pirated site I was watching them on before I called it quits. Notebooks full of character planning for short stories I never wrote sit idle beside my desk. Much like the tire-filled homestead, my best efforts at creating seemed always to turn into unfinished, half versions of myself. Even with the best intentions and seemingly all the time in the world, translating ideas from your head to your preferred medium is difficult.
The level of customisation available in Animal Crossing: New Horizons has made the leap from mind to, some version of, reality a bit smoother. The game itself seems to be talked about during the pandemic as much as the coronavirus itself. Instagram stories have been speckled with pastoral, serene screenshots of avatars sat by the water’s edge with a checkered picnic or stopping to smell the swaying roses in a MiuMiu SS2020 sundress. In spite of quarantine, Animal Crossing has allowed players to blissfully engage with the outdoors through an infinitely explorable landscape, expanded even further by this edition’s inclusion of an in-game smartphone. Most notably, an internet culture around the game has emerged and saturated other platforms such as Instagram. The rise of game boutiques such as Nook Street Market, a play on the high end retailer Dover Street Market, further facilitates the presence of designer clothing in the game’s world. Players are able to decorate themselves and their spaces in designers or artists they admire but aren’t able to afford or interact with in reality. For instance, in a screenshot taken from the account’s Instagram this past week, one player notes how they “can’t get Burberry irl, so got it on [Animal Crossing].” Player customisation and creation, in and outside of the game is encouraged, allowing for an idyllic version of our own world to be played within.
Nook Street Market’s Instagram account has facilitated my indulgence with Animal Crossing’s aesthetics without having to purchase a coveted Nintendo Switch and New Horizons game myself. The lack of a straightforward game narrative present in many other games encourages exploration of the space and rewards player creativity. Animal Crossing continues to accelerate and animate cultural outlets such as fashion design during this time of supposed artistic stillness through its fluidity between its interface and our reality through its updates. Scrolling through Nook Street Market’s instagram page is another layer of WFH apparel, fuelling creativity through dressing one’s self through the outfit codes provided by the account's creators, or in this case one’s avatar. Yet, in the game, you aren’t limited to the constraints of your closet. You’re able to experiment using the virtual resources surrounding you. While tangible you can’t afford can’t afford or access a Gucci gown on command: your game avatar can. The Nook Street Market is not only an archival fashion source to scroll through on Instagram, but also a space which enhances creativity that can’t be fully achieved in reality because of financial or physical limits.
With or without the pandemic, Animal Crossing still remains an idyllic space. Not only because it’s rooted in nostalgia, but because of these inaccessible elements which players are allowed to create freely within and among in the game. New Horizons offers plushy, cgi horizons that extend beyond our flat’s window frames. The interface is still cosily familiar and quaint, like a replacement hometown if you’re having to quarantine hundreds or thousands of miles away from your own.
Circling back to Healy’s quote about how the pandemic has transformed us into teenagers again, I always daydreamed that my 20s would be a period in which I could finally reach the summit of creativity. However, due to the still atmosphere of quarantine, which can be simultaneously excruciating and exhilarating, I’ve become reacquainted with old interests, especially the many things I left unfinished to pile up in my bedroom. Last week, when singer Kali Uchis unveiled the image for her new EP created in quarantine, I was struck with how applicable it felt to my current situation, while also being an indulgent scene worlds away from my own. It prompted a feeling similar to the boredom which saturates Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, despite it being set in a centuries-past Versailles rather than my own experience in a suburban American bedroom. The explosive pastel cover of Kali Uchis’s most recent release TO FEEL ALIVE, created by the painter Oh De Laval, expresses a type of reacquainted with old selves and unfinished projects from the past. A ferris wheel out the expansive, infinity window frame is accented with flames as two hedonistic figures occupy the centre of the scene. Kali Uchis’s album cover is a playful image of two of her past selves pleasuring each other as the world falls into chaos outside the confines of a pink, frilly bedroom. Its message resonates as a reminder to indulge in past creations and mindsets; how those may be more comforting now in addition to or in place of embarking on new endeavours.
Most importantly, the sentiment behind the image which pulses throughout the short EP bodes deeply with the current context as Kali sings: “I just wanna feel something/I just wanna feel alive.” The lyrics succinctly encapsulate the relatable pent up hedonism expressed in de la Puente's podcast. By gluing together old versions of herself from two previous projects Isolation (2018) and Por Vida (2015), Kali created this new timely project. The album’s first track, “honey baby (SPOILED!)” incorporates riffs and lyrics from a past unreleased song from 2013 named “Honey Baby”. This remastered project transformed the track into a fitting rendition for the present. The image for Kali Uchis’s TO FEEL ALIVE EP, along with the four tracks which compose it, is a reminder to not only indulge yourself during this time of isolation and reflection, but also to return to past projects that may benefit from your present perspective.
Like the tire-strewn situation of the distressed family on the homestead renovation show, our best intentions often aren’t mirrored in reality. Creating is, more often than not, “just hard.” Yet, in the midst of eerie pandemic stillness, The White Pube’s weekly podcast, Nook Street Market’s Instagram account and Oh De Laval’s image for Uchis’s EP have continued to electrify if not enhance existing artworks and designs and the unique perspectives which surround them. In spite of the uncertainty ahead, these three media outlets ensure a bit of internal indulgence in a time of external restrictions which propel us into the opaque future equipped with rose-tinted ambitions.