Now that we can reproduce and remix virtually any picture, is there any point in trying to trace those images to a source? I asked myself this question after having read that a few folks on Tumblr were in a huff about Rihanna. They didn’t like that Rihanna used a blue-screen video with bunch of Greek statue heads, bluish looking water, and pink skies on Saturday Night Live, because it resembled an aesthetic journalists have dubbed “Seapunk.” (It’s also a musical style defined by its fusion of 90’s house, and the past 15 years of pop and R&B.)
Jacob Ciocci, an artist whose process runs the gamut from blatantly appropriating imagery to producing all-original content, didn’t seem to have much sympathy for artists like Jerome LOL, ZOMBELLE, and Bebe Zeva, each of whom is affiliated with the aesthetic. “If you do not want your image to travel somewhere far away, do not release it to the cloud,” he warned in a recent blog post. The more an image is seen, the more online authorship tends to disappear.
That’s a tough reality for any artist. It means a world in which creative types have to be concerned with self-branding if they want to retain authorship and/or ownership of their images—a dirty word for most in the fine-art world. Art is supposed have a higher purpose than marketing. Artists are supposed to have better things to do with their time.
In the case of Seapunk, it’s hard to see how that kind of branding or ownership could occur. The aesthetic was willed into existence as part of a corporate marketing strategy by Coral Records Internazionale and brought to life organically on image-sharing sites like Tumblr and dump.fm. But online, we understand that people own platforms, not the content built by their users. (In fact, those owners may outshine its users. Ryder Ripp’s rise to fame stands out here, thanks in no small part to his role as a founding member of dump.fm.) Understably, this doesn’t always make users happy—how many times have we read complaints that Facebook doesn’t pay its users for the content they provide?—so perhaps it’s not surprising to see some of the Seapunk crowd get upset.
According to model and fashion blogger Bebe Zeva, a teen Seapunk expert identified by BuzzFeed, Seapunk has been soiled. “Wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL,” she posted to Twitter, quoting those who were excited to see images they themselves appropriated and remixed. “why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture.” She went on to complain that people weren’t upset enough about Rihanna’s commodification of the movement.
It’s almost impossible to make an argument from these complaints—mainstream culture barely exists anymore, let alone counterculture—but it has value nonetheless. As I see it, the reason counterculture persists as a term at all is to give higher purpose to our poverty. That’s a little depressing, but if the online reaction to Rihanna’s video tells us anything, it’s that we need that veneer of purpose. Users don’t have pop stars’ commodity-making brand machines behind them, so our authorship will necessarily be subsumed should they decide to use it. If we retain any kind of imprimatur at all online, it’s probably because, for whatever reason, that work can’t be commodified.