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Aaron Moultan: Love Letter to the Secret Sleeper Cell
This is TL:DR and I won’t apologize for it but I need to tell you something.
In March 2020, in those collapsing moments when America went savage and tribal, I was in a collaborative dialogue with artist and cultural theorist Joshua Citarella. I truly appreciated Josh’s approach to pattern recognition of emergent online political behavior and his uncanny ability to name things. He said to me that he was creating a private Discord community and that I should join it. I didn’t know what Discord was but somehow knew what he meant. He sent me an invitation for something called the “Super Secret Sleeper Cell”. I downloaded the app and I made the creative handle @aaronkmoulton.
And then the lights went out and civilization went dark. Suddenly this Discord became a torch through which I would see everything, shadows in the cave, a braille of cultural energies. I watched this rhizomatic community self-organizing from the moment it went online. I just sat there quietly and watched. Right wing memes, liberal memes, leftist memes, shitposting, cumposting, an uncircumcised Wojak was Pepe, the bottom of the iceberg was me. Psychedelic I can’t remember all the branches things spun off into. Each channel was a nutritious focus into everything I ever wanted from the internet. It was suddenly made clear, crystalline and effervescent.
George Floyd’s last breath put it all into overdrive and this thing became a pumping machine, a hive mind on raging Monster Energy. I started getting all my news from it. Everything, drips burst into flowstate. It led me to Woke.tv where I could simultaneously watch every riot happening in America, every city burn at once: Gods-eye view. I would sit by the fire every chance I got.
I’m a good listener. I was already months into what would become a year and half of my darkest depression, a feeling that felt reflected back by the world outside, a world which no longer existed. I had nothing to say to anyone anymore. But I am a good listener. I listened to everything that you said. I had notifications on for months until it became intolerable. But each message was a gift.
Who were you? My new abstract friends. Flip, Abbey, Jak, Margo… Davidy was the one tuned hardest into spirituality and I followed his every word like a fortune cookie. But most had names like Vitruviangrace, Dn.usa, Most Dismal Swamp, water_feature or you Paradox. There were dozens maybe hundreds of you. You kept growing. I knew early that I was one of the oldest people in the room, maybe the oldest. I just sat there and listened.
Memes came churning, kaleidoscoping, sublimating, cannibalizing, fornicating and birthing out into the world from the exact spot where I was sitting. Mark Fischer became prophet and thoughtputty for endless messaging. Weaponized aesthetics. No ego. Pure creation no caption. I saw where the soup was made. I was too close to the flames. I can never unsee it. I was addicted.
People speak with disappointed romance about wishing to have been apart of Paris in the pre-war period or New York in the post-war, sitting at Cedar Tavern or Cafe Voltaire for just a fleeting instant. I was in London and Berlin in the Aughts when you could reach out and touch the brightest star or the newest planet. None of that can hold a flame to what I saw on the Discord. It debunked the myth of the metropolis and proved with balletic ease that anywhere can be the center right now today depending on how hard you spin your vortex.
With every passing day the art world was looking more and more like an aimless doomsday cult, virtue-signaling in a circular way like a snake sucking its own dick. One morning I realized that the art world was an illusion full of transients who are your best friend until you have no value to them. It’s a painfully obvious part of a system which has promiscuously confused the professional, the personal and the social as a marketing opportunity.
But artists remain a vital lifeblood for me. When I didn’t have curatorial things happening I suddenly didn’t know how to talk to anyone anymore. It made me take a hard look at myself and how I communicate my love for people and what friendship means. Was I too one of those transients? During this journey I outgrew my ego through a cocktail of spiraling depression, walking meditations, ritualized psychedelics, and getting awakened like a sleeper cell by The Influencing Machine. I was becoming radicalized and I dropped a lot of baggage. I let it the fuck go.
As the pandemic dragged on, some of my first IRL interactions were with people from the Discord. At one point you organized a New York meet-up. Josh posted a group pic and I suddenly saw them: vitruviangrace, davidy, Abbey, Jak, and Josh. It was one of the biggest fomo feelings I had ever felt. I worshiped you guys and my parasocial emotions were bubbling. I can’t find that photo online anymore and it genuinely makes me sad. It was a legendary L to R pantheon.
And then an LA meet-up was announced. I can still remember the stomach-dropping feeling I felt when I received it. I had not done a single social thing outside of my pod in 16 months. I was a catatonic husk of a man. A sad dad who used to be a curator. I remember stammering to my wife that there was a gettogether for this online community that I really liked a lot and that I thought it was important, no, necessary that I go. I blushed thinking about how lost I sounded. I was learning to control my depression at that point but early days. My wife encouraged me since I had given up on everything and this was a rare sign of life in me.
I put on a fresh face and I think even a blazer. Jesus Christ I was not prepared to be casual. I went there with the intention to rapidly sip beer and just watch and listen. I wanted to see you whoever you were. I wanted to feel that energy. I wasn’t going to know anyone. You were all anonymous @handles. I was @aaronkmoulton.
I walked through the backyard of some property not too far from where I lived. I immediately grabbed a PBR and began sipping it aggressively. I suddenly saw Josh and went over to hug him. I hugged so few people during pandemic, maybe 10. Then my eyes focused and I looked around. There was Taylor Lorenz from WaPo and the popstar legend Dorian Electra whose rainbow capitalism t-shirt I actually debated on wearing that night. Where the fuck were you Paradox?
An astonishingly tall guy named Flip introduced himself. He knew who I was, he said my name, and had seen several of my shows; even named which ones and why he loved them. Then a few other people came up and told me about exhibitions I had made that they appreciated. I truly don’t care about compliments or my ego but I needed that feedback so badly in that moment. I felt seen. I felt like I wasn’t some random transient or a sad dad but that I had made an impact on these people who I so badly wanted to know, who I wanted to impress.
Before the night ended Flip came up to me and said he would love to meet up and hang out sometime. I needed a friend so bad and it was so heartwarming the way he said it that I sputtered that “I would like that a lot.” I didn’t have a professional reason and I didn't know how to just make a friendship appointment and so I wrote and asked if he would be willing to come see my son Asger’s Minecraft world that he had been building for the past 3 years. I won’t explain it here but as a curator and aficionado of cosmologies I felt my kid was onto something unique and I needed a second opinion. Flip is a gifted VR world-builder and it felt like a good excuse to share some beers.
In this moment in time I was developing a super secret project of my own. And I will not bore you with details here but Flip became a crystal clear lynchpin to unite concepts of tactical media, new media, the transitional complexity of Eastern Europe, socially engaged practice, neoliberal colonialism, memory politics and the future of storytelling. I realized that Flip would be able to make me a turbofolklore that would reveal history as the malleable material that it has always been. He knew it too once we talked. The studio visit with my kid’s Minecraft world now became an excuse for a secret plot.
My secret project became a radical spiritual journey that would emancipate me from my depression and emancipate me from the art world that I had lost faith in. In the process I would create an intervention in political consciousness to empower everyone willing to listen with the tools to set us on a new course. Like Manchurian Candidates I included my favorite sleepers from the cell in this call to arms. I made what would be, in my mind, my last exhibition. Harikari. Self-immolation. And then like a Phoenix scorching it’s earth, I would leave America with my family to start a taco stand in a small town in Denmark. Abracadabra and then ashes “Poof”.
But as it turned out, my intuition, my unpopular lifelong research project was being heard. Not by the art world but that didn’t matter any more. It was way bigger. Europeans are naturally more intelligent and more critically equipped to analyze neoliberal imperialism, especially the American brand. And Eastern Europe was ready for a voice who had nothing to lose.
I compulsively make promotional videos that I like to refer to as “aspirational propaganda”. With my favorite artists from the Sleeper Cell we produced a meta-media extravaganza embracing the futility of the news, of TV, of communication, of the medium. It was a nail in the coffin for academic activism called Spooky Castle, a parody “creature feature” dreamed up within the hivemind that i adored with such earnest. I made this with Jak and Abbey, people I worshiped, people who pushed me when I needed a push.
I’m 45. At my age you’re aging out. Generationally someone like myself is obv a worshiper from the church of art history and a disciple of the Boomers and those before. You have a strong connection with your own generation, in my case GenX. Millennials are the last generation to sincerely believe in the art industry as an opportunity in which they can gain a foothold. The members of the sleeper cell are mostly Zoomers and they don’t give a fuck. They’ve found another way to butter their bread, weaponized their practice and use their gifts in an uncompromised way to tell whatever story they want despite what the industry dictates. The chances of me connecting with Zoomers at my age are null. Suddenly I was the random aloof uncle with street-cred, I was @aaronkmoulton.
My greatest gift is being a good listener but my gift that I love most is being a superfan. I’m shameless about it and it’s genuine. Love is such an extreme word. I love to love. I will hug every single one of the sleeper cell that I meet and thank them for their service. o7
These guys encouraged me to stay the course in a time when I needed it most. I made my first memes through this empowerment. The Sleeper Cell made me believe in art again, in myself again. Don’t kill the part of you that is cringe, kill the part that cringes. Say it again!
Temporary Autonomous Zones are a fickle beast. They start with utopia and selflessness and the desire to build legos from the slime. They give us the new forms that we need. From the Super Secret Sleeper Cell a new group coalesced called DoNotResearch. It was a militant and organized way to give voice and velocity where the art industry had no capability to do so. It is now.
The art world is too obsessed with smoke signals. It blatantly ignored memes. The glacial pace of institutions and their ever-revealing lack of integrity as sock puppets proves daily what an obsolescent technology the art world is: Dinosaurs talking about talking about fornicating. An avant-garde without resistance is a mediocrity. The truest avant-garde is survival: breaking the chain, breaking the pattern to offer new and unknown sacred traditions. Temporary Autonomous Zones by their very nature are not meant to last. Everything flows.
Early this year Discord did a hard reset on its server and the entire kaleidoscopic dialogue of the Super Secret Sleeper Cell vaporized without a trace. Like a mirage. But for a moment I saw Bigfoot and shook his hand. We communed together by the fire. I will never be able to express the depth of my gratitude for that. Thank you Josh.
TL:DR. Skip ahead. The story gets better. It’s them, it’s you Paradox. New chapter. Lesss Gooooo!
A Love Letter to the Super Secret Sleeper Cell
Curated by Aaron Moulton
With works by
This occurs as part of Open Video XVI, a video festival of 128 artists curated by Janne Talstad and Kunstrum Fyn and occurring October 27, 28, 29. Check here for opening hours and directions.
On Sunday at 2pm I will give a bleeding heart performance lecture and then do the world premiere screening of Spooky Castle.