Charlie Boots on social media, the global village and going down the digital rabbit hole

Meet Charlie Boots on the digital playground.
Meet Charlie Boots on the digital playground.

Editor's note: Artist Charlie Boots is part of the inaugural pair of PAIR residents at Denver's Powerhaüs Studio. As part of his residency, he and his fashion-designing counterpart will be reporting from the real world via Show and Tell, as they learn the ropes from studio mentors Mona Lucero, Lauri Lynnxe Murphy and Jimmy Sellars. Applications are now being accepted for the second PAIR residency though September 15; visit the website for details. Here's the next report from Charlie Boots.

See also: - Charlie Boots on finding unexpected mentors at MOA and the joys of collaboration - Charlie Boots on the vagaries of sudden fame and wearing the mask - Charlie Boots on his artistic process, Internet romances and why logos inspire him

I could tell I had gone pretty far down the rabbit hole when I went to turn the page on Art/Work (a book Jimmy let me borrow to develop my business skills) not by grabbing the page and turning it, but by trying to "scroll down." As my finger pushed on the paper texture of the page, I laughed at myself. I've been using digital devices too much.

I have used my cell phone every day since I bought it. The same applies to my iPad. Sometimes, I think about how strange that is. The majority of my life has been spent without these devices, and yet I now use them as if they are as essential as underwear. I end every night with plugging my devices into the wall, and I begin every day with the sound of my cell phone awakening me. I watch YouTube as my eggs fry. I check my social networks as I head to work in the morning.

It's become ritualized.

I'm what is referred to as a "digital native." This means I am at home in the digital world. I grew up playing SEGA and and Playstation. I'm used to seeing myself in the little characters that exist on a screen. "Avatars" are what they are called. Sonic and Megaman. Little digital beings who serve to give me access to the power to effect a world in which I do not live.

I remember when the Internet became accessible to the public. I went to the Gateway store with my cousins and we "surfed the web" for the first time. I went to the Disney website and played a Tarzan game. It took a literal minute for any page to load, and that was with a good connection.

My parents bought a computer, packaged in its cow-print box, and we took it home to connect it to the Internet. AOL was the default web host, and every time you went online, you would hear a noise that I can't describe in writing, but I know almost every American my age can recognize it.

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My digital existence...
My digital existence...

First there were chat pages, and it was good.

Then there was MySpace, and it was good.

Then there was Facebook, and it was good.

Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Hotmail, Gmail, Vine, Linkedin and Wordpress all flooded in almost without my noticing. One day, a friend tells me that some new social network is better than the older one, and I'm suddenly put in the position of asking myself, "Do I really need another page to manage?" The answer always seems to be "Yes."

I remember when games went online, too. Xbox Live became a thing I needed to have. It was so convenient, being able to play games with people whenever I wanted. I was able to play with people from around the world.

But I noticed something was different from before. In all the other games I had played,I was the one the story revolved around. The game went on only insofar as I progressed forward. I was the most powerful being in these worlds, even if it didn't seem that way at first. There was always some chink in my enemy's armor that I would find. And it was pretty clear, when the game was turned off, that I was just pretending to be Megaman the whole time. It was all an act and as satisfying as it was, it was clear that the implications of my actions ended when I stopped playing.

The digital, Xbox version of me.
The digital, Xbox version of me.

That all went away with the Internet. Suddenly, I'd play a game that had no story. I could win matches, but I could not beat the game. The goal became to win these matches as consistently as possible. The problem was that everyone was equally equipped and equally motivated to do the same. I'd have a brief series of victories, which would make me feel great, and a brief series of defeats, which would frustrate me to no end. And my avatar wasn't Megaman or Sonic or Mario anymore. It was me on that screen. My character became a reflection of myself, and the only thing that set me apart from everyone else was my ability to win.

I began playing video games in every free moment afforded to me. It became my life.

The game would end only when a better game was released. Games got faster, bigger, more realistic, more interactive. The push, push, push was to make a game "more real." Now we have games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, which boast being as close to real warfare as you can get while staying in your living room.  

I don't play games like I used to. The effort to make war into entertainment, to try to get those two spheres to overlap and to call the resulting product "realistic," doesn't sit well with me. This comes at a time when we have war movies boasting "real Marines" as actors (Act of Valor) and reality TV shows that put actors into "real combat training" (Celebrity Boot Camp).

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A page from my sketch book.
A page from my sketch book.

Plus, I really don't have the time anymore to dedicate to endless competition.

As I check my Facebook every time my cell phone beeps at me, I see a parallel between these games and social media. The push, push, push to make social media "more real," or rather, more implicated with reality. The "new social." The power to affect a world in which you don't (or do you?) live. Maybe I just read too much French philosophy, but I'm seeing a strange inversion happen in my life, where the Charlie Boots that exists online is more real than the Charlie Boots that exists in the physical world.

I remember a class discussion in which I was involved. We were discussing social media. I brought up my experience with Twitter, stating that it's difficult to get followers. I said that, in order to get more people interested in your content, you must live a "Tweet-able life." This made my classmates laugh at me. "You shouldn't change who you are to get followers on Twitter," said one. What I meant was that you shouldn't expect anybody to listen if you have nothing to say. I meant that you need to go out and live life before you can have anything interesting to tweet about. But my classmate's point was well-received.

People change how they live in order to look good online.

But I think this digitization of real life extends beyond social media. Recently, I was heading home on the light rail, as usual, when a man began talking to me. I had almost no clue what he was saying. He mumbled and slurred his words and I only caught small fragments of his statements. The essential information began to surface. He was a homeless veteran who was upset that the light-rail driver (conductor?) wasn't courteous enough to help him find his way to his shelter. The man didn't know where he was, but he knew the address he was trying to reach. I had him repeat the address a few times, to make sure I understood him, then I pulled out my phone and typed it in. Directions popped up and I realized I had three stops to try to help this man memorize them. I began telling them to him repeatedly. It seemed difficult for him to remember. We pulled up to his stop and I told him one more time how to get to his shelter, and I watched him walk off the light rail... in the wrong direction.  

It clicked, right in that moment. I live in a different world than this man. The term "digital native" is perfect, because it implies an actual place that some people live in and some people just visit, if they can afford it. I was sitting next to this man while we were living in completely different countries. And the negative thing about it is I live there because I can afford the real estate. He doesn't because he can't even afford a home in America.

The upside, however, interests me just as much as the downside. About two weeks ago, I went over to Xi Zhang's studio. I'd been wanting to meet him ever since I saw his show, 21st Century DNA at the McNichols building with my friend and fellow painter, Leon Haze, and his daughter. It's ironic that Xi and I scheduled our meeting over Facebook. For those who aren't aware, Xi's work focuses on similar themes as mine. Both of us have a strong focus on pop-culture and modern identity. Xi's work, however, focuses more overtly on a theme that I have yet to explore in-depth. While my work is mediated by technology and might make an infrequent reference to the digital, Xi's work focuses in-depth on Internet culture.

"The Internet has allowed cultures to interact in a way they hadn't before. It's making a new culture," he told me as we sat next to some of his in-progress paintings.

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デジモン, Charlie Boots, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas.
デジモン, Charlie Boots, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas.

I consider this idea as well in my work. One of my paintings is titled デジモン and references Internet culture by featuring Frankenstein with a speech-bubble, in which I painted a hash tag. The only way I was able to title that piece was by copying and pasting from Wikipedia.

I once had a Japanese pen-pal on the Internet. I've learned some (muy, muy poquito) Spanish by listening to podcasts I downloaded from iTunes and by subscribing to "Spanish word of the day" e-mails. I've made friends (even had that Internet crush I mentioned in a previous blog) who live in other states over social networks. I maintained a WordPress before my website, on which I was able to see from which countries hits on my site came. I received hits from the Middle East, Europe and Africa. One hit came from Mongolia. I didn't even know Mongolia was still a country.

The upside of the Internet is that it is the melting-pot that America has, often enough, failed to be.

I think that the whole reason I am rambling on like this is because I am often referred to as a pop artist. That's completely fair. I paint pop iconography.

The issue is that "pop art" is a specific movement that occurred in a specific time and place. The work that pop artists were making was a response as much to the mediation of popular culture (TV, magazines, movie theaters, newspapers) as it was to the specific cultural icons themselves. We've moved so far past those mediums with the digital revolution -- so I believe I can't throw my lot in with the pop artists. Xi, myself and so many artists responding to our unique historical situation are just as much "social realists" as we are "pop artists."

I don't know what to call us.

 If you have any suggestions, feel free to tell me. Friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @CharlieBootsArt - shoot me a message.

Meet Charlie Boots on the digital playground.
Meet Charlie Boots on the digital playground.

--Charlie Boots, August 12, 2013



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