Y: The Last Man - Ygriega’s Cutting-Edge Art Is A Disruptive Reflection Of Terminal Capitalism’s Hetero Gaze by Raymond Désolé, writing in the monthly journal of the London School of Media Arts & Economic Technology
The Zeitzerstraße was, for much of the 20th century, a quiet block in the Neukölln area of once-communist East Berlin; dead-ending on both sides into larger thoroughfares, reading from above like a capital I written in a different typeface than this, it was the kind of place the children of the 1980s couldn’t wait to leave. The nightly dreaming of those neglected youths would see them routinely devising ever-more-elaborate methods of escape, increasingly baroque schemes to cast off the shackles of not just the DDR, but of their dour and hopeless street in particular. When the wall fell in ‘89, and reunification came in ‘90, those now-slightly-older people seized the day and fled west, the tears in their eyes shining with the promise of brighter futures in exotic locales like Steglitz, Friedenau or Lichterfelde.
The young people to be found in the Zeitzerstraße of 2020, in stark contrast to their now-middle-aged forebears, are in no hurry to depart. This once-desolate block has been transformed, seemingly overnight, into a post-millennial trench town, the sum total of every opening night Star Wars camp-out, the Occupy movement remade for the influencer generation. But it’s not the latest instalment in a beloved mass-media franchise that’s got these kids camping out, nor is it the 7-year-itch to take to the streets chanting slogans of breaking the wheel, eating the rich and weaponizing the working class. No; it is one simple word that’s got these kids lining up for days, no matter the temperamental Berlin weather, and that word is Ygriega.
By now, the artist known as Ygriega is a household name, as familiar as the names of one’s own parents, with even the most out-of-touch members of society having at least a casual recognition of it. From Bangkok to Biloxi, Birmingham to Beijing, the world as we know it belongs to him. Though it should hardly be necessary, to recap for those readers who’ve spent a bit too long under that rock of theirs:
In September of 2019, a video was posted to the social media platform Wzzl-Wzzl, depicting a young man of African descent gazing stoically into his webcam. The video is 33 seconds long, and registers at first glance as being a still image, such is his motionlessness, until at the very last second, the young man’s mouth twitches ever so slightly, as if take the first tentative step towards speech, before the video loops back around to the beginning. Coming as it did at the time of the various Climate Marches, users of the massively-popular Wzzl-Wzzl mobile app found themselves enchanted by this highly effective commentary on the events of the day. That expressionless face resonated with the dispossessed youth of a seemingly-doomed planet, and like a tuning fork struck in the nave of a gothic cathedral, the echoes of that first impact spread out cavernously. The video was reposted on an unprecedented scale, reaching every demographic - regardless of discrepancies in age, language, sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity, Wzzl-Wzzl users all felt strongly identified with that expressionless face, and the video cutting itself off just at the first moments of utterance served as a particularly profound commentary on the silence of our governments to address the problems at hand, of the voicelessness of the people, and of our own complicity in the erasure of diverse groups of people.
The rest, as they say, is history: the star and creator of the video was quickly identified a new-media artist known simply as Ygriega, originally from São Paulo, Brazil, but currently stateless, after burning his passport on the steps of the Syrian embassy in Paris, as a public gesture of solidarity with the recently-torched Amazonian rainforest. If the trees do not enjoy the support of the Brazilian government, he seemed to say, then neither shall I. The video which brought him global notoriety was made shortly thereafter, while living in a soap-factory-turned-artist-residence near Versailles. Though the French government has long struggled to implement fair treatment of immigrants, and especially of refugees and the stateless, in this case even staunchly far-right politicians like Marine LePen found themselves moved by Ygriega’s work, and welcomed him with open arms, seeking to claim him for France before another nation could swoop in and snatch the prize first. It was revealed at a televised press conference, held at the Centre-Pompidou, that Ygriega had taken a strict vow of silence at the age of 7, and thus communicates exclusively through his piercing gaze, though his non-verbal statements are vocalized with the aid of an ever-present interpreter, known themselves simply as Jeoff. At the press conference, while refusing to answer any questions from the assembled journalists, Ygriega announced (through Jeoff) his intention to stage a series of “semiotic disruptions” in various cities around the globe. He would begin in Berlin, explaining that the cultural hub was chosen not due to its established history as a supportive home for cutting-edge artistic exploration, but rather because it began with the letter “B”. Jeoff explained, with the tone of a waiter listing the day’s drink specials for the 40th time, that it was Ygriega’s intention to reverse the accepted paradigm of alpha and beta; that by beginning with B, before moving to A, he would be able to better explicate the failures of western society to integrate the liminal spaces, traditionally occupied by “the other”, and would open them up to new interpretation within a post-colonial framework. This proclamation was met with a near-uniform silence from the assembled press, the only sound being the soft weeping of those with the clearest line of sight to Ygriega’s statuesque visage. No one even dared to breathe as Ygriega turned his head slowly to the right, meeting the equally-impenetrable gaze of a water cooler in the wings, before rising from his seat with the grace of a breaching orca, and moving noiselessly away.
The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, in early 2020, and the resulting global quarantine measures, led many to speculate on the feasibility of Ygriega’s forthcoming disruptions. Would it be possible to move forward with them, and was the world not already disrupted enough as it was, with the mass shutdown of urban and commercial centres? In mid-April, Ygriega posted once more to his Wzzl-Wzzl account, this being his only upload since that first video, the one which brought him to global attention. In this new video, shot in a nondescript and windowless white room, the artist sits towards the back, at the far-left edge of the frame (as a clever indication of his political alignment), in a blue-cushioned Ikea Poäng chair, his face downturned towards a single Doc Martens shoe that rests on his lap (eagle-eyed viewers were quick to note that it was the right shoe - the political commentary is richer than chocolate cake). In the foreground, an unidentified person of indeterminate age, gender and ethnicity stands with arms akimbo, dressed in an obviously store-bought costume depicting the character Sue Kanko, an anthropomorphic skunk realtor from the mega-hit Nintendo Switch game Beasts Junction. An overdubbed voiceover, read by what is either a very sophisticated speech synthesizer or an uncannily robotic human, announces Ygriega’s intention to push resolutely forward with his “semiotic disruptions”, the first of which would be unveiled on May 6th, at a specially-purchased space in Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood, regardless of the Coronavirus pandemic. Art, the voice continues, knows neither sickness nor health, and respects only the law of the transfer of energy, thereby possessing a natural immunity to all disease, be it physical or ideological.
And so it is that we find ourselves here in Zeitzerstraße, on this unseasonably chilly May evening, as the thronging mass of Ygriega-devotees, living for months in improvised camps along the block and spilling out into adjacent streets, finally prepare themselves for this, the opening night of the first disruption. Though a uniformly residential block, darkened since the 19th century by the absence of streetlamps, tonight one window blazes as brightly as a lighthouse on a desolate shore. Standing as a golem beside the freshly-installed frosted glass doors fronting Zeitzerstraße number 5, a familiarly unwelcoming and heavily-tattooed face indicates to the newly-arrived exactly where tonight’s disruption will take place. Sven Marquardt, perennial doorman at techno mecca Berghain, was brought in at the express request of Michael Müller, mayor of the city of Berlin, and his presence does indeed lend this otherwise-unimpressive street a special sense of presence.
With those frosted doors set to open at 9pm, and not a moment sooner, there’s time to chat with some of the others who’ve broken their quarantines to be here tonight. Tomič, a web developer from Karlovy-Vary, across the border in Czechia, travelled to Berlin specially for this event. “It was hard getting here, with international travel being shut down,” he explains, not looking up from the Wzzl-Wzzl app, open on his phone. “Luckily I was able to find a rogue rideshare service on the dark web, and they were willing to smuggle me in, in the back of a van full of boxes of the latest issue of the Al Qaeda newsletter”. Tomič is far from alone in having travelled here from abroad - Jules, an installation artist and barista from Melbourne, Australia, stowed away on a cargo ship for three months, sneaking aboard under the cover of darkness the moment after the Pompidou press conference ended. “You might think it was tough work keeping myself hidden from the crew for that long,” she begins, through bites of a vegan döner. “But as a female artist trying to make her way in a male-dominated marketplace, I’m used to being ignored”.
Of course, it’s not only people from far-off lands who are in attendance tonight - the locals have turned up in droves as well. Ted, a self-described “non-idiomatic percussionist”, lives just a few kilometres from here, in Kreuzberg. “What a treat it is for us locals to have work on this level show up, right on our home turf,” he enthuses, in what sounds jarringly like a western US accent. “We never had stuff like this happen when I was growing up,” he continues, though when I press him to reveal exactly where his home turf was, he concedes, “In Portland...well...outside Portland...but I’m a Berliner because this is where I really found myself, you know? It’s just so free here, and...”
Though I’m sure Ted could go on like this all night, a quick glance at the countdown timer suspended above the door indicates that it’s finally time for us to enter; the crowd is practically humming in anticipation. Those of us with press passes are allowed to cross the threshold first, after the customary once-over from Sven, of course. Fashion sense and general demeanour having been approved, the doors open inward, and the boundary is transgressed; entering into that space is like experiencing a second birth, or perhaps one’s own death, while still living. Once inside, the doors close automatically, all sound from outside muffled anechoically. The walls are bare white, the floor unfinished concrete - is this the place where that second Wzzl-Wzzl video was filmed? Half-expecting to see Sue Kanko’s waxy face leering out from a corner, the eye is drawn inexorably towards the sole adornment in this otherwise empty space. On the wall, directly opposite the doors, is a red cross, arms about two metres across. The cross is angled at 45 degrees, with hooked caps at the end of each arm. There is a white piping running along the length of the otherwise bright red struts - seen from a distance, the pattern has the appearance of a candy cane, or a barber pole. As one moves cautiously forward, as though approaching an unknown dog, the true pattern begins to emerge, the repeated mantric writing revealing itself to the suddenly-knowing eye:
SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SUPREME SU
A swastika made entirely out of high-end streetwear decals - could the satire be any more devious? Standing awestruck under that fearsome cross, one can almost hear the lamentations of capitalists the world over, their ruse finally having been uncovered, and in so incisive a way. One can feel the ivory towers falling, shaking the earth in their collapse - how could they ever recover from a blow such as this? The juxtaposition of so insidious a symbol of 20th century fascistic worship, set against its 21st century equivalent. Where once the streets of Berlin thronged with those championing Aryan supremacy, now the descendants of those same zealots wear the red and white, a new kind ideal regarded as SUPREME. The sheer raw power of the message can’t fail to bring tears to the eyes of even the most jaded art critic.
Though the visitor is only allowed a scant few minutes in the presence of this first semiotic disruption, upon exiting through the well-camouflaged rear door, members of the press are granted a brief audience with Jeoff, Ygriega himself having already departed to begin planning the next event. “We have no thoughts about what has just been seen,” the ever-curt Jeoff explains unblinkingly, seated in the alley on a kitchen stool, under a bare lightbulb suspended from who knows where. “No thoughts may be had, for theirs cannot be owned - they are in the doing, and the doing has been done. Your deed is writ large upon the wall, but the ink has run dry”. With that, a second bulb flicks on, further down the alley, indicating a path back to the street, to the so-called real world, now thrown into such stark relief.
Upon returning, two days later, to the Brixton offices of this esteemed publication, beginning the admittedly Sisyphean task of attempting to communicate such a transcendent experience into the paltry and ineffectual medium of the written word, I’m met with a notification from the Wzzl-Wzzl app on my phone, announcing a live stream taking place from Ygriega’s account. My fingers practically tripping over themselves in their haste, the app is opened, and I wait anxiously for the stream to begin. This time, the screen is tiled, à la The Brady Bunch, with multiple faces peering out from their solitary boxes. Ygriega sits enigmatically, top-left, with Jeoff in the square below him. Sue Kanko is to Jeoff’s right, her quadrant surmounted by the water cooler from the Centre-Pompidou press conference. To the water cooler’s right is the Celtics-cap-adorned visage of Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, and below him mopes the perpetually-forlorn and flame-haired Holly Herndon. They all begin to whisper, making a sound like rustling leaves in a PS1 game about an autumnal armageddon, while below them all, spanning the width of three squares, a chorus of bedraggled men and women fade into view, singing in such a way as to call to mind a flock of seagulls trapped in the New Orleans Superdome, circa August 2005. A banner suspended above the singers identifies them as the Pyongyang Intramural Comrades Choir, and while this aural feast is being laid sumptuously out before our hungry ears, our eyes are treated to a scrolling line of text, BBC-style, running along the bottom of the packed screen, announcing the location of the second of Ygriega’s semiotic disruptions. This sophomore instalment, presented in collaboration with Lopatin and Herndon (with promotional consideration from the recently-deceased Kim Jong-Un and Red Bull Music Academy), will take place on July 4th, 2020, at Auschwitz, and will expand on the themes introduced in the first disruption, developing them into “a multi-media event on the scale of a genocide”.
The world waits with bated breath.
This is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and
incidents in this work are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.