Untap the Millennial Mind
CultureBeast’s Kenneth Lamar puts the ‘con’ in BeastCon
Words by Brit Bachmann + Photos by Andi Icaza-Largaespada
Unless you are oblivious to all the ‘Gen Y’ bashing in media, you are familiar with the term Millennial. Wikipedia defines the Millennial Generation, otherwise known as Generation Y as anyone born between 1980 and the early 2000’s. While certain authors praise Millennials for their sense of community or civic-mindedness, the predominant view is a negative one. There is a history of generation bashing in media, lest we forget the criticisms surrounding the MTV-loving Generation X in the 90’s. Millennials have been dubbed ‘Generation Me’ by psychologist Jean Twenge for their overall sense of entitlement and narcissism as illustrated by their popularization of selfies. CultureBeast’s BeastCon: Awakenings positions itself in the convolution of Millennial traits, both mocking and commemorating the most exaggerated stereotypes of today’s young adults within the template of a motivational seminar.
BeastCon starts mellow. Apart from a small sound system and a pitched tent in the corner (the camping kind) it looks like a typical exhibition, riffing off the ‘normcore interior’ aesthetic that has become so common in Vancouver galleries. There are only a few prints on display, loosely tacked to the walls and fluttering as people pass. They are digitally manipulated, clipart-heavy advertisements and public service announcements for what seems like Millennial stress-coping mechanisms. They take on the appearance of billboard ads or evangelical pamphlets the average passerby may avert their eyes from. In a gallery space, however, the viewer is obligated to indulge these prints with curiosity. And so the audience clusters into familiar friend groups around them, waiting for the main performance in anticipation. By the time BeastCon: Awakenings gets underway, nearly 60 people are crammed into the front gallery of Avenue, chatting excitedly while stripping jackets and splashing beer. The lights flicker and a sudden aggressive blast from the sound system announces the arrival of CultureBeast founder Kenneth Lamar entering the gallery on skis.
Kenneth Lamar has the zeal of the fictional Frank C.J Macky, replacing amplified sexism with a belief in the untapped power of the Millennial mind. Kenneth Lamar is the adopted persona of Vancouver-based artist Tom Whalen. Whalen has been developing the character of Kenneth Lamar and CultureBeast on social media over the last few years. The first CultureBeast video was uploaded in February 2013, still active with +1200 views. As a type of CutureBeast retrospective, these early videos are screened during BeastCon: Awakenings, introduced and expanded upon by Kenneth Lamar between screenings.
In an interactive portion of the evening, Kenneth Lamar invites guests from the audience to cluster in a tent while he mimics the claw scratches of a bear. This is the only use of the tent in BeastCon: Awakenings. Its presence strengthens the undercurrent of stereotypical Canadiana that begins with the snow ski entrance.
Enter Santa, the celebrity guest at BeastCon. In an unexpected turn, Kenneth Lamar and Santa Claus attempt to rekindle some belated holiday spirit by singing Christmas carols with added verses. A two-minute “Deck The Halls” becomes ten minutes long with seven extra verses. Audience amusement peters to boredom. It a yuletide version of The Song That Never Ends.
In text, curator Tommy Chain describes Santa as “absolutely essential” to the performance. He continues, “Without [Santa’s] presence to push it beyond absurdity/endurance it would be just a standup comedy routine.” Santa was supposed to be annoying. Mission accomplished. One audience member was overheard saying, “The Santa part just seemed like an inside joke that we weren’t a part of.” The extended Santa sing-along proliferated a divide between the content of the exhibition and the audience who came to participate.
Motivational seminars are inclusive, almost to their fault. They promote an intoxicatingly friendly environment, perpetuated by name tags, drink tickets, and group ice-breakers. The charisma at conventions transforms any lame traits in the décor or visual graphics into digestible tools for personal change. The formula works. However, by placing the institution of a motivational seminar within the pre-existing contexts of a gallery, even exaggerated and satirized, the seminar is stripped of its inclusiveness.
Perhaps because the intentions of the artist and curator are so vague to begin with, there is no system for determining the success of BeastCon: Awakenings apart from the promises listed in the promo video. From a personal perspective, BeastCon was not “the seminar of a lifetime.” I did not receive a “hands-on infotainment rush,” nor did I feel as though I had learned “the tools that every Millennial will need to survive in this economy.” I left Avenue Gallery feeling annoyed with the first twinges of a headache brought on by stale Christmas music and flashing lights… which was perhaps an intention of the performance — who knows. If you choose to validate and project the duelling definitions of the Millennial Generation onto an art exhibition, BeastCon: Awakenings is an overwhelming success: it both promotes itself as civic-minded and manifests narcissism.
BeastCon: Awakenings was held at Avenue Gallery February 20th. CultureBeast is the brainchild of artist, Tom Whalen. The evening was curated by Tommy Chain.
Brit is Editor-In-Chief at Discorder Magazine, Community Engagement Coordinator at VIVO Media Arts Centre, and frequent contributor to Vandocument. When she isn't writing or sneaking into studios, Brit draws.