I had just returned home to Los Angeles from a month-and-a-half-long European trip filled with exhibitions, readings, and parties. Two months earlier, I had proposed to the artist Rachel LaBine, my girlfriend of four years. I hadn’t written an essay or short story in what seemed to me a long time.

A few months before that, Robin Peckham had asked me to write something for the upcoming issue of LEAP. He said I could do whatever I wanted. I said I needed more time. He told me that would be no problem. A few weeks later, I told him I wanted to go to Las Vegas for the fourth of July with my friend, British artist Ed Fornieles. I told him I’d report back in a few weeks.

Ed Fornieles, Keith J. Varadi, and Dean Kissick

The man showed him the cigarette he was already smoking. Then the dude mumbled some more words at us. Ed said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t understand you.” The man repeated, but much louder, “Y’all fuck with coke?” Ed said, “Oh, no thank you. Have a good night.”

Dean’s face ripped off

I hadn’t looked at my watch or phone in hours and this is when I realized it was going to be very bright outside. When we got into the light (and the heat), my legs could no longer hold me up. I told Ed I needed to head back to the hotel. He said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. I feel too much right now. This is going to be a long one.” I asked, “Are you sure? Are you going to be okay?” He said, “Yes. Just give me enough money for a beer and some cigarettes and I’ll be fine.” I gave him 20 bucks and we hugged for possibly too long. I know this because a man smoking a cigarette nearby winked at me as I walked towards some cabs.

I got into another cab and this cabbie wanted to talk. He wanted to talk to me about the weather. He wanted to talk to me about steakhouses. He wanted to talk to me about being a cab driver. At this point, the only person I could talk to was Ed. So I just didn’t respond.

Once I hit my bed, my legs felt good again. My entire body felt good again. I closed my eyes and started rapidly filtering through ideas for what to write about and what to do with this story or whatever this trip would eventually become. After sifting through this raffle for probably an hour or two, my mind became as fatigued as my body and I began to fade. I was thrilled to get some sleep. But then, my phone started buzzing. Ed was sending group texts to me and Dean.

“Tripping so hard”

“My arms are reptile”

“Keyboard radiating”

“Just sitting here”

“Not wanting realit. To penetrate”

“Even though I know that’s a thing”

“So strange to work on two dimensions”

“On a peak bench”

Each time I’d start to doze off, I’d see sirens. At first, I was alarmed it was some sort of premonition about Ed getting arrested or something. Then, I saw an ambulance and I began to fear that if I’d fall asleep, I’d never wake up.

After lying in bed, reading WebMD on my iPhone for about an hour, I was convinced something was wrong with me. My chest was thumping, my stomach was in knots, my left arm was now numb with pain shooting down it. I was having a heart attack. I finally decided to wake up Dean and tell him I was having a heart attack. Dean assured me I was simply having a panic attack. He said I was probably just worried about Ed. I agreed. I calmed down a bit. I thanked Dean multiple times.

I checked my e-mail. I received this e-mail from Amalia:


I laughed to myself. Then I thought about when the three of us started to see neon beginning to melt the horizon the night before. I thought of Dave Hickey. He became obsessed with Vegas when he moved there. His descriptions of the city were beautiful, inside and out. But I was always skeptical. Was he actually in love with this city, or was it just a shtick? Does anybody truly believe in what they say, or is everyone just putting others on?

People like Dave Hickey end up taking on the roles of cult leaders. They end up having cults to lead; or at the very least, they have cult followings. Dave speaks with passion, he writes with passion; people are passionate about him.

I’ve noticed that Ed has a similar thing going on with him. But he has less of the religiosity of someone like Dave Hickey. Ed is more methodical. Ed is more cunning. Ed is more dashing. Ed is also very British, and Dave is a self-caricature of a real deal American cowboy. They are both exceptionally charming and charismatic in their own ways, which is why Dave is considered a genius and was given USD 500,000 as compensation for his genius and why Ed is given carte blanche by institutions to put on ambitious exhibitions. I give props to both men.

Amalia Ulman

However, there is a particularly distinct difference between the Cult of Dave and the Cult of Ed. Dave has firmly claimed to be part of the anti-establishment for his entire career. Ed, on the other hand, embraces the corporate world and celebrity lifestyles with open arms. He has constructed entire projects based on sitcoms and reality television, social media, and for a decade, he dated the actress who recently played Stephen Hawking’s wife in a widely released, widely celebrated film.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that perhaps my generation generally believes the best way to subvert is to join. Is this because we have seen that people like Dave Hickey’s rock star friends have all become junkies or sellouts? An aside: is this why he has retired from the art world multiple times? Maybe. And maybe those of my generation join as a subversive act because we grew up listening to bands like Rage Against the Machine. Do we now ask, “What machine were they even raging against?” This was a band that wrote albums consisting of songs about revolution, albums that were released by the major label, Epic Records—the label they were signed to from the beginning of their career. But even I’m guilty of having the attitude of: “Yeah, but who doesn’t fuck with Rage?”

Hustler Club

If the new revolution is primarily about getting your message out to as many people as possible, Rage Against the Machine set a pretty solid example. But if Zach de la Rocha or Tom Morello ever cared about making a greater impact on their generation than that of a sound byte from Michael Moore, they shouldn’t have hired him to direct a corny-ass music video for them. And if an artist’s goal is to get people to actually think differently or feel differently, which is what I argue it ought to be, then he or she probably ought not to aspire towards being like The Fat Jewish.

I would argue that Ed is doing a compelling job of providing fresh insights on cultures and economies, beyond surface value social media “hot takes,” despite regularly using social media to do so. More specifically, he is curiously investing time and research into the complex, contradictory nature of Middle American interests and how these manifest in other places, such as Hollywood or London. Ed’s most recent work questions societal cycles and feedback loops, or asks what it means that when attempting to be reflective of cultural peaks and valleys, those in the arts and entertainment industries seem to prefer to create natural disasters over accepting standard seasonal weather.

In other words, they try to jumble the experiences of an “American everyman” (learned from the successes of Everybody Loves Raymond) with various tepid examples of acceptance within a post-Obama United States—a married gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, non-threatening black neighbors, a saucy Latina, a sedated Al Bundy (literally played by Ed O’Neill, the actor who played Al Bundy)—in order to create a series intended to appeal to “moderate, reasonable” people everywhere. Is this farcically forced amalgamation the ideal imagined scenario though? Is Modern Family even remotely emblematic of some sort of contemporary experience? No. Probably not. But back in the ultraconservative 1950s, neither were Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. But they were fun and they gave hope to people. And despite some of the sinister and snarky aspects to Ed’s work, I think he’s mainly trying to have fun and be hopeful. This agenda contradicts what one typically learns or assumes is the role or responsibility of the artist, and I am a strong advocate of this as a positive thing for art, now and moving forward.

Independence Day

When I returned from Vegas, I began watching UnREAL, the new Lifetime series about the behind-the-scenes realities of reality television, based on the true story of a young woman’s post-grad life working as a producer. The main character, Rachel, reminds me a lot of Ed. She often does very questionable things—things that people around her seem to want to allow her to do, things that seem to make for solid entertainment—and I, like probably most of the show’s audience, empathize with her, even when she compromises someone else, but certainly and obviously more so when she willingly allows herself to be compromised. Ed does this, too—surprisingly often. I appreciate this performative questionable vulnerability, and I wish more artists did this with their work and with their lives. For me, it’s far less important to know how realistic this vulnerability actually is than it is to simply have people experience what it means to put one’s self in a position of such vulnerability in the first place.

Having said this, I continue to ask myself, “What’s up with this new Instagram avatar project?” I had tried asking Ed about this multiple times prior to, during, and after this trip, to which my inquiries have consistently been met with some sort of rehearsed pseudo-feminist, post-internet monologue about the ways in which men and women are able to function online. Personally, I feel like he essentially wants to publish a bizarre graphic novel that will primarily function on social media and then sell the corresponding fabricated wall works at art fairs, which seems kind of shrewd in the same way that producers play contestants off of and against each other on a reality television show. Have it both ways. “Have it your way.” It’s all about the brand: Ed Fornieles, copyrighted and trademarked.

Maybe that’s not what he wants. But I also don’t think he wants to function like Rage Against the Machine or Amalia Ulman. However, the question remains: “Who doesn’t fuck with Rage Against the Machine?” And I guess these days: “Who doesn’t fuck with Amalia Ulman?” She’s Queen Bey of 89+, a machine that undoubtedly rages against nothing. Though, it is a machine that does undoubtedly assist young artists in getting their message out to as many people as possible, and, perhaps in some cases, as efficiently as possible.

Vegas in Short(s)

You know, it’s funny how things work. It turns out Dean chose to write a piece for i-D about Amalia a while back. He said it’s probably his most well-known piece up to this point. I guess a journalist sometimes just goes where the story is most convenient.

And really, it’s ironic how things work, as well. It turns out Dean additionally decided to write a piece for Spike Art Quarterly about Vegas when we got back from our trip. He said it’s probably the most beautiful publication he’s written for up to this point. I guess this particular journalist ultimately just goes where the story is absolutely most convenient. Props to Dean, too.

Is notoriety the most sought-after aspect in culture? Is it beauty? Is it relatability? Or is it convenience?

While I was watching Independence Day in our hotel room the night before we were going to be leaving this city for the one we now call home, I wrote a note to myself in my phone: “Everybody wants to be somebody. Nobody wants to say anything.”

I don’t think this is necessarily true, but then again, I don’t think it is possible to ever know what is true. The world is filled with mirages. The art world exploits them. This is the world we—or at least Ed, Dean, and myself—choose to live in.