Emily Segal, Co-founder of K-HOLE and Nemesis, on Defining Yourself, Craft in Creativity, and Selling Out
"Ultimately, everyone has to figure out how to support themselves and establish a moving target of authenticity - and there’s no formula for that. It’s something personal you have to figure out for yourself."
You may know Emily Segal as the trend forecaster who coined the term “normcore,” but the cultural researcher, artist, writer, and strategist has always had several irons in the fire. After receiving her degree in comparative literature from Brown, she co-founded the trend forecasting collective K- HOLE (2011 – 2016), which put out viral, free PDF trend reports on the nature of millennial change. From there, she worked as the Creative Director of the website Genius, and as a strategist for 2×4, a global design consultancy where she worked with clients like Comme des Garçons, Prada, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
More recently, her thinktank/consultancy for cultural research, Nemesis, has been exploring cryptocurrencies and alternative theories of value. She’s relocated to Los Angeles as her primary residence, and has a forthcoming novel project.
We talked with Emily about the future of art and creativity, trend forecasting, and how to keep up a career as interdisciplinary and fluid as her own.
Perfect Number: You moved to Los Angeles just a few months ago after a number of years in New York and Berlin. Why LA?
Emily Segal: I moved in with the person I’m dating, so I moved for love. A lot of my friends are here, too, and my youngest brother just moved to LA. It was a critical mass of factors.
PN: How do you like LA, compared to your previous cities?
ES: I love that LA has a very beguiling mixture of magic and scam. Things feel real and it seems like anything is possible, but you also feel like it all might be a ripoff. I find that poetic.
PN: How would you define yourself now, as a creative professional?
ES: I’d say I’m a writer and a strategist. I sometimes say I’m a trend forecaster, but I only use that description when I know people will understand the spirit in which it’s intended, and not take it too seriously. I used to call myself an artist, and I still broadly consider myself that because my writing practice is an artistic practice. But now that I’m mostly working with text, I think it’s most descriptive to call myself a writer.
PN: What does being an artist mean to you?
ES: I started calling myself an artist when my former project, K-HOLE, had a lot of projects in the art world. Our trend forecasts were conceived of as a conceptual art project, and we were drawing on earlier art collectives, like Bernadette Corporation or General Idea. We were trying to make gestures and create objects that responded to what other people were doing in an art context. What I’m working on now doesn’t take the art world as its primary site of engagement, but it’s art in that I’m not a journalist or a reporter. I also think of my fiction writing and personal writing as being in line with the other projects that I’ve done, though my writing is trying to engage with other worlds specifically via literature.
With Nemesis, my consultancy with my business partner, Martti Kalliala, it was important that it not be art. We were coming out of a period where lots of people were doing post-internet projects through “real-world activities,” or as a performance or joke. One could argue K-HOLE was doing similar things. But it seemed like an exhausted method, so our work now is often initiated by our clients, as well as our own research and writing. However, there was a period of time when the term “artist” was important for me to take on because my involvement in the projects wasn’t limited to one particular discipline.
PN: What do you think “art” means today? It often seems like it can be anything.
ES: It’s funny you bring that up because after K-HOLE, most of us went on to do our own projects and I chose novel writing: a very traditional form compared to K-HOLE’s projects. Post-internet art was a complicated and sometimes bullshit category. Everything could be virtual, playful, fake, and readily changed. At times, it felt good and democratic, but there were also times when it felt forced. My reaction to that was to turn to a traditional craft.
PN: Do you think craft in creativity is going to have a second life?
ES: I think it’s hard to think about craft without imagining gloppy ceramics or something. There are amazing artists who are totally focused on craft, and there are amazing artists who are completely crazed conceptualists who aren’t as invested in “craft.” And, of course, crafting a poem is different than crafting an oil painting or sculpture. More than anything else, I think there will always be a dynamic vacillation between craft and concept overall, as well as in the life of many artists.
PN: Your business partner has used the term “career queer.” How do you differentiate it from a culture of slashies?
ES: Right, where you’re like a barista-slash-horror-actress or whatever. Martti and I both had experiences as we grew into ourselves professionally where it was just very obvious that we didn’t fit into one discipline or one industry, and embracing that has been really important. It also has some advantages, in a very precarious time, of not putting all your eggs in one basket. But it can be, at times, depressing or alienating, because you can’t count on someone else’s story of success, or how it’s supposed to go, and there are very few mentors for really interdisciplinary practices.
PN: Speaking of K-HOLE, the moment when, after you coined the term “normcore,” and it blew up with the media, how did it affect you?
ES: It was a really confusing mixture of very exciting and very embarrassing. And it definitely made me feel like a premature, one-hit wonder. There’s a mix of pride in creating something that has so much traction culturally, with a fear that it’s corny, or not exactly what we meant. That happens so often — and was actually baked into the idea itself, that categories like this are slippery and easily misunderstood. Suddenly, we had a much bigger audience, and a lot of corporate clients wanted to work with us, but we weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to do with us. We had to go from being a collective that was formed around a project that was essentially a zine, started by some 22-year-olds, into a business that was at least partially supporting five adults. So there were growing pains associated with that, but it was also an amazing experience.
It’s not like we were sitting there with a publicist in a war room strategizing. I think we made a decision that we weren’t going to try to quote-unquote set the record straight, because there already were so many cooks in the kitchen, and it seemed like it would be kind of cheesy for us to try and control the narrative too much. So it just kind of happened.
PN: It’s clear you’ve always thought and continue to think carefully about all of the work that you do, and how it might be positioned in the eyes of others. How have you approached the issue of selling out?
ES: I think about that all the time. But, ultimately, everyone has to figure out how to support themselves and establish a moving target of authenticity – and there’s no formula for that. It’s something personal you have to figure out for yourself. For me, that’s avoiding working with companies or people who I find harmful in some way or don’t agree with. The luxury of running your own company is that you don’t have to answer to a boss; you get to decide who you work with and I’m lucky to be able to work with people and organizations that I respect.
At the same time, sometimes you get roped into a project that seems really cheesy at first, but after a while, you realize it’s legitimate and important. Or, the reverse. It’s important to not be too arrogant about the meaning of what you’re doing because you don’t always see it properly.
PN: Looking back at “Youth Mode” report you’ve co-created at K-HOLE, what are your tools for staying relevant as you age? Especially when you are reporting on culture and society.
ES: I’m not going to pretend to be as clued-in as I was in my early 20s, when it felt like information came to me seamlessly. You gather information from your particular perch in the world, and that includes how old you are. For me, it’s always been about people: my friends, my friends’ friends, and siblings, crushes, cousins, etc. I’ve always learned the most about the world by processing things through my relationships.
PN: We love mixing content thought of as “highbrow” with that thought of as “lowbrow,” which is what we see on your Are.na profile (you have a great selection of shoes, by the way). How do you navigate being a public person sharing their personal interests?
ES: I want to make more stuff public on Are.na. My Are.na’s very messy. I’ve been using it since the very beginning, so there’s just a huge pile of stuff on there, and I use it almost in a second nature way, where I don’t think that much about what’s public and what’s not. It’s also a pretty small audience, so it doesn’t really matter what’s exposed. I feel like in the age of Instagram, everyone has become this sort of blog of themselves, being like “These are the shoes I like, this is the makeup I like,” which is often really beside the point. Plus, so much of what I work on professionally also has to do with some pretty superficial stuff. Some of what I bring to the table is some knowledge about shoes and models and so on. Part of what is great about running a small business is that you get to define it for yourself — I think it can be really hard, when the expectations for your identity and your persona are really tight, and luckily I don’t feel like that.
PN: You have such conviction while still having creativity of thought. Have you experienced moments of doubt or struggle, especially as a woman?
ES: Of course. My entire experience is through the lens of being a woman. Although, funnily enough, one of the most painful realizations of my young life was realizing that the idea that males and females are equal in society was, in fact, a 90s liberal lie.
The idea that everyone’s the same often covers up the pressure and struggle of a particular group. Marcuse calls it repressive tolerance. For example, I was in a collective with a number of men who saw me as their total equal — entirely the same. Yet, it covered up a broader ambient sexualization of myself as an object that I knew they weren’t experiencing. A lot of my creative work in the last few years has been unpacking that, and also understanding how others’ experience differ.
PN: How does all this play into the ideas you’re compelled by and the work you’re doing?
ES: I’m anxious to get my current fiction work out so I can have a more explicitly feminist conversation. There’s been a lot of behind the scenes work, but it’s not visible. Right now, there’s certainly much more visibility given to people of varying genders, races, relationships, and more radical philosophies – and this includes feminism. However, in the mainstream, it can be done in a disingenuous, pinkwashing way. We have to be careful about saying, “Everything is changing,” because some things are changing, but absolutely not everything.
Soon Nemesis will be releasing more essayistic thoughts on a topic that we’ve been researching for a while, which I’m excited about. Hopefully, there will be a lot more of my writing coming out in the not-too-distant future. Although, the Universe tends to disrupt my plans in some way when I say that, so we’ll have to see.
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