Marcel Duchamp's readymades disturb the conventional notion of what art is. A metal wheel sitting on top of a stool isn't what we would traditionally think of as art, but because Duchamp said it is, it is. Art is stuffy, and Duchamp injected his works with a witty wink-nudge to that stuffiness. "[I]t's only because of humor that you can leave," he said, "that you can free yourself."
If he were alive today, Duchamp might have been a moderator on the subreddit /r/fifthworldproblems. While most of Reddit blends aggregation and forum functionality with users posting links, images, videos, or text that other users comment on, /r/fifthworldproblems is more an art project than a place to share Imgur photos. Here, users gather together to discuss the mundane challenges they face as powerful eldritch creatures of the Fifth World.
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The "fifth world" is an extension of the Cold War-era "three worlds" ideology, where the first world is the capitalist West, the second is the Soviet Bloc, the third the developing world, and the fourth is uncontacted peoples. So what would the fifth world look like? It's a place stripped of normalcy and tinged with what the mods refer to as "dark surrealism."
/r/fifthworldproblems was created three years ago by redditor Happybadger. He's described by moderator spacemanaut as "ur-god emeritus and mother brain of the subreddit," and the moderation team was hesitant to speak with me without his go-ahead. "We're not allowed to discuss specifics," spacemanaut tells me via reddit private message, "But membership initiation involves ritual sacrifice of a mid-sized aquatic mammal as well as agreement to, if necessary, take on a second shoulder-head (for tax purposes)."
In the Fifth World, Reddit itself is part of the artwork. Redditors remain in-character at all times, speaking as occupants of the Fifth World, and participants in Happybadger's three-years-running art project.
"[P]eople like being dark gods, people like space, and people like cryptic symbols," Happybadger explains. "[S]o my approach has been accommodating them, while using my own contributions and the visibility of mod posting to steer the conversation toward ideas that I think have a lot of potential and funny behind them." He moderates with a light hand, ensuring posts are unique, in-character, and not leaning too heavily on pop culture for inspiration. "I want people to take a very basic idea—this is a world where the fabric of reality is turned on its head—and create their own interpretation of it. Pop culture references give a ready-made template for creative expression which simultaneously strips it of any creativity and turns the whole thing into a circlejerk." Other than that, Happybadger lets the community run wild with the theme, as long as they remain in character. He likes to use his status as a mod to "inject" ideas into the community—like the arrival of Zalthor as presidential candidate—but their success is dependent on if the community latches on or not.
Zalthor is an amalgamation of "Bill Clinton's sexual escapades and Richard Nixon's defensiveness and Barack Obama's image and Teddy Roosevelt's over the top bravado" and his posts exist to push redditors to use the Fifth World to explore and critique people and events going on in the real world. Zalthor's candidacy led to the creation of /r/fifthworldpolitics, which encourages ongoing surrealist critique of the upcoming US election, through candidates running against Zalthor. All interested candidates must submit "name, home planet, ages in quantitative AND transdimensional times, and US birth certificate."
Zalthor is Happybadger's auteur hand in the forum—it's not a rule, and it's only canon if the community accepts it, but it is the artist suggesting the content move in a way that he deems most compelling. Zalthor's posts include multimedia, not just for laughs, but to show users that Fifth World art can go beyond text posts. It hasn't fully taken off yet, but the existence of offshoot subreddits like /r/fifthworldpics shows there's interest.
/r/FifthWorldProblems differs from shocker subreddits like /r/spacedicks in that it's not there to revel in violence or offend for the sake of offending. It's pleasantly strange, and the delicate bizarreness of the posts – standard Reddit fare, tinged with a touch of the uncanny—is humorous in its unexpectedness.
"Upvote for visibility" is typically a request that users upvote a post in order to push it to the top of the subreddit. In /r/fifthworldproblems it is a request to become visible in a corporeal sense. In one piece of advice, a user riffs on the response format of redditor Unidan, the "excited biologist" who is known for enthusiastically sharing ecological and biological knowledge. Fifth World redditors ask for their version of travel advice, bizarre relationship advice, and participate in very surreal "Ask Me Anything" posts.
Like Duchamp's readymades, /r/fifthworldproblems lives somewhere between art and not-art, daring the viewer (or participant) to choose a side. Reddit is a place where art can be shared, but usually, the content itself is not art. But in the Fifth World, the subreddit structure allows the community to create art as a collective. Happybadger recognizes that /r/fifthworldproblems is unique, and with the introduction of new "canon" characters like Zalthor, he encourages the community to tackle the concept of the "Fifth World" in more complex and challenging ways.
This theater of the uncanny has expanded into an empire of the weird, organically, with no guidance from the moderation team. There's /r/28thworldproblems (like the Fifth World, but about ants), /r/fifthworldpoetry ("Did your auto-soul ring briefly in harmony with the celestial matrix?"), the 45th world, the 54th world, and the infinite world. Reddit's easy-to-use framework and popularity online allow users to create art in new internet-specific ways. /r/fifthworldproblems represents an online democratization of art—the subreddit structure allows one artist with an idea to create an ongoing performance where other users can float in and contribute to the performance canon in ways they deem fit, guiding and shaping the piece as they go. Duchamp's works let the viewer in on a secret—that art is a bit ridiculous. Happybadger and the Fifth World community let the viewer create the art itself, and it can be as wild and ridiculous and surreal as you desire—just don't drop any Welcome to Night Vale references. Zalthor 2016!