“We were in a men’s a capella group together in high school called the Acafellas,” David Wightman explains, causing me to burst into laughter. I immediately regret laughing as I realize that he’s dead serious.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Brooklyn, and Wightman and I are talking over bagels and coffee at the apartment of his collaborator, Jacob Ciocci. I’ve just asked them about the origins of Extreme Animals, an experimental band they formed more than a decade ago that released a new DVD, The Urgency, on the Undervolt & Co. label at Bushwick's Silent Barn art space on June 3.
Extreme Animals are well known in both the art world and underground music scene for their manic sampling techniques, intricate fusion of disparate genres ranging from synthpop to nu metal, and their animated and appropriated videos that probably induce epileptic seizures. What interests me about the band, in particular, is that Extreme Animals encapsulates what’s been referred to recently as the lateralization of culture. For Ciocci and Wightman, there’s no hierarchical difference in value or meaning between a John Cage score and a Katy Perry music video; both exist as cultural artifacts, although representing different pockets of culture at large.
But their method of appropriating from wildly divergent sources engages the original material with a sincerity absent from their contemporaries who employ internet-influenced aesthetics. Where others appropriate to mock or lambast, Extreme Animals eschew hamfisted politics in favor of presenting a confounding and paradoxical assault of sound and visuals. One could argue that many artists in the “post-internet” (gross, I know) genre of visual art produce equally paradoxical works, but the majority of that work is glossed over with a clinical and predictable sheen of aesthetic cool. Some people really hate that aesthetic, but I’m not gonna name names.
“Our whole history is like that,” points out Ciocci. “Regarding sincerity, in high school we were super into this nerdy a capella group while also being invested in underground music at the time. It’s a fascination with, or maybe just an unintentional balance of, nerdiness and cool.”
That balance has garnered Extreme Animals an increasingly wide audience, as well as institutional recognition. They’ve performed at the New Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum, among many other venues, and were recently awarded the Rhizome | Tumblr Internet Art Grant to stage a mini-tour of internet “super users.”
Ciocci and Wightman attended high school in Chapel Hill, NC, later rooming together at Oberlin College before Wightman left to finish his studies at other schools. More than a decade later, both reside for the most part in Brooklyn, and they’re still producing music and videos for their collaborative project while touring and playing shows with musicians and artists like YACHT, Hot Sugar, Molly Soda, Parenthetical Girls, JUICEBOXXX, and Black Dice. Still, each maintains a robust practice outside of Extreme Animals. Ciocci is a founding member of art collective Paper Rad, periodically writes incredibly accessible critical theory about pop culture, and recently completed a fellowship at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center. Wightman, a guitar virtuoso and the softer spoken member of the band, has been an artist-in-residence at places like Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, curated multiple time-based art events, and holds a PhD in Music Composition from the University of California, San Diego.
The online trailer for The Urgency opens with a title card communicating the following epigraph:
The reel of clips that follows is characteristically insane, vacillating between dramatic piano, chugging heavy metal palm muting, and what I think is called happy hardcore techno music, but I literally know nothing about techno music except that a lot of people hate Deadmau5. Visually, the one-minute, 14-second teaser cycles spastically through dozens of appropriated YouTube videos, Ciocci’s signature psychedelic animations, and superimposed text slogans that appear at once to be both foreboding propaganda and bizarre non sequitur.
With the radical amount of appropriation in their work, I ask Ciocci where they stood on the traditional notion of authorship.
"We have a pretty open idea about authorship," he says. "While I might be making the video works, I am constantly borrowing ideas from friends. And I’ll straight up take a YouTube clip someone posted in their Facebook feed, with a certain restraint. There are some rules to the game of appropriation; it’s all contextual. Sometimes it feels OK to take somebody’s link; sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the person, my relationship with them, my relationship with the clip, their relationship with the clip. It’s fluid, but there is a sense of right and wrong for me."
What’s effective in their method of appropriation is that while it’s transparent that they’re quoting and borrowing from myriad preexisting sources, they still manage to produce an entirely unfamiliar experience out of aesthetics and melodies that are almost banal in their familiarity. In his own work, under the moniker DJ George_Constanza, Wightman produces elaborate mixes of what might be perceived as arbitrary or shallow music that become fascinating artifacts of a niche corner of culture. In particular, his pop punk mix for DIS magazine, “My Friend Zone Over You,” from last year, manages to highlight the tropes of nearly 30 different bands in less than 30 minutes. What results is equally ludicrous and funny, yet like his work with Extreme Animals, the sampling and recontextualization comes from a place of genuine and sincere intrigue instead of irony.
Ciocci points out an interesting aspect of Wightman’s choosing to produce this mix. "Pop punk, as we now know it, didn’t really exist when David was in high school," he says. "So David is actually learning about a lot of this music for the first time as a 30-something-year-old adult. I think he sort of has an ethno-musicology approach to the project. I’ve personally always been extremely interested in what people younger than me are into at any given time, even people much younger than I am-—like tweens."
Early this year, Ciocci wrote a brief and casual, yet insightful, post on his personal blog called “The Value of Being Trolled” that later appeared, slightly adapted, on Motherboard. In it, he argues that garnering significant negative feedback on the internet (when one isn’t actually trying to troll) is its own form of success. Citing the Rebecca Black “Friday” phenomenon and George Zimmerman’s awkward patriotic painting, Ciocci points out that because the internet is not a community of active users, but rather simply 21st-century television, it matters little whether an audience’s reaction is positive or negative. The fact that they’re reacting at all indicates that they’re consuming your media, meaning that you’ve successfully produced entertainment. This is a worthy counterpoint to anyone who still believes that the internet is some kind of revolutionary tool; Ciocci grants that “there are people who use the internet in revolutionary ways, but those people are wanted by the government.” Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” concept might very well have predicted the internet as many people inaccurately believe it to exist today, but the medium itself feels increasingly less like sex and more like a massage.
Those negative reactions to online content are made manifest through ironic sharing of links, hate-reading, and trolling the comment sections of video posts and news articles. While the targets vary considerably, one in particular caught the attention of Extreme Animals, and they included samples of it in their song “Am I Evil?” Jenna Rose, whose bubble-gum pop music video “My Jeans” has spawned countless parodies, became a public pariah in the wake of its release in a similar fashion that Rebecca Black did. Around the same time, the Harry Potter films were enormously popular, and a Tea Party conservative activist named Christine O’Donnell was campaigning for a Delaware Senate seat previously held by Vice President Biden. O’Donnell had appeared on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect in 1999, where she made reference to participating in some light witchcraft as a high school student, and Maher later showed that clip on Real Time during her 2010 campaign. In response, O’Donnell aired a commercial insisting that she was not a witch, which predictably backfired considerably.
It’s a perfect storm of seemingly unrelated cultural events like this from which Ciocci and Wightman cull inspiration. A loose theme related to contemporary witch hunts in popular media emerged, and Extreme Animals crafted a disturbingly weird song and video featuring the Harry Potter theme melody as its central hook. Including video and audio samples from Rose’s “My Jeans,” O’Donnell’s television advertisement, and homemade coven-like videos ripped from YouTube, “Am I Evil?” is a prime example of the critically sharp but never politically obvious output that’s compiled in the DVD work The Urgency.
On Rebecca Black and Jenna Rose, Ciocci says, "Everyone said they hated all of those videos and so in a weird way the singers of these ARK Factory videos became not exactly witches but sacrificial—held up for public scrutiny. So the menacing music we’ve positioned underneath that section of the video seems to parallel the context within which her video existed in culture. Deep meanings can come from seemingly trivial source materials. We don’t expect all of the meaning to happen on first viewing, but ideally it prompts multiple viewings.”
Ciocci went on to describe the inclusion of “red herrings” in their videos, clips that seem to be bizarrely out of place or included only for the sake of being absurd. The “jack my swag” line from Rose’s viral video initially appears to simply be a comedic foil. However, when placed in the context of O’Donnell’s political follies and the cultural obsession with Harry Potter, a deeper meaning does reveal itself. An easy read of the piece would suggest that O’Donnell is the butt of a joke, but with some analytical thinking, “Am I Evil?” starts to seem more like a reflection of a culture that feeds off of demonizing itself—like the ouroboros eating its own tail.
I’m Not into Live Music Anymore
I know. Lame. I’m not sure when that happened—maybe a couple of years ago. I used to be obsessed with live music and spent the majority of my social time at concerts, house shows, and everything in between. But after bearing witness to the Extreme Animals set on Tuesday night, it’s apparent that I need to rethink my perspective.
The DVD version of The Urgency, which I got to view the weekend prior, is an outlandish visual concept opera that demands multiple viewings to actually begin to understand it in any significant capacity. The myriad elements are confusing as all hell, but like Ciocci and Wightman have stressed, there exists a critical angle to the works even if there doesn’t appear to be explicit criticism. It exudes their keen interest in youth culture, specifically the generation described as “internet natives.” Monster Energy Drink logos, clickbait vocabulary, webcam clips, and slogans like “NO PARENTS NO RULES” assault the viewer, offering an experience that is, in all seriousness, uncanny. But after repeated viewings, any sense of irony one might have perceived becomes absent; The Urgency is a careful rumination on the paradoxes of internet privilege. We can access virtually everything, but we have little control over any of it or how our online activity is being monitored, packaged, and sold.
Seeing the material performed live is, expectedly, a radically different experience. Sonically, the live set is brutally loud as Wightman shreds his BC Rich Beast guitar and Ciocci stalks the front of the venue screaming maniacally into a microphone, manipulating parts of the pre-recorded audio through a variety of effects pedals. Instead of playing along verbatim to the DVD tracklist, songs were rearranged and reinterpreted into a completely unpredictable, chaotic set. Aside from a few bits here and there, recordings of Extreme Animals rarely feature vocals. The dynamic that occurs when Wightman plugs in and Ciocci opens his mouth effectively shifted The Urgency from an engaging piece of new media work about internet politics into borderline frightening live music experience.
Granted, I was stoned as a bat, which probably attributed to how demonic they seemed live. As I looked around though, nearly everyone in the audience had that look on their face (I’m sure there’s a German word for this?) of simultaneous ecstatic elation and hallucinatory paranoia. If you’ve ever taken mushrooms and looked in a mirror, you know what I mean. Ciocci is like a hybrid of Iggy Pop and Frodo Baggins—unassumingly reserved at moments, then out of nowhere he’s swinging a chair violently around his head and charging the audience, all the while howling like a wolf in heat. Wightman alternates between wide-legged, chugga-chugga headbanging and obscenely proficient fingertapping solos that would please even the strictest Dream Theater fan. The audience danced, gawked, recoiled, and laughed out loud at various times. What they didn’t do was appear the slightest bit bored for even a millisecond. Extreme Animals’ name, while technically ludicrous and possibly awful, is actually the only name for them that makes any sense at all. After all, what is the most extreme animal ever? A human being.
I left Silent barn soaked in sweat, half drunk, and completely satisfied. Maybe the reason that I thought I’d grown out of live shows was because I was going and seeing bands who couldn’t be bothered to really embody or even care about their material. The conviction with which Ciocci and Wightman unleash their art live reminded me of the first time that I saw At the Drive-In play a show (shut up, At the Drive-In was amazing). With a total commitment to their material and an equal-parts cocktail of intensity, severity, and sincerity, they shook me up and then took me down a peg or two.
I’m sure everyone is expecting a snarky wrap-up, but I just don’t have it in me. Extreme Animals helped me remember why I got into art in the first place: I fucking love it, and it gets me off.
The Urgency by Extreme Animals is available for purchase through Undervolt & Co. as a DVD or a digital download.
Sean J Patrick Carney is a concrete comedian, visual artist, and writer based in Brooklyn. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing and, since 2012, has been a member of GWC Investigators, a collaborative paranormal research team. Carney has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Virginia Commonwealth University, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and New York University. Follow him on Twitter, here.