The line between fantasy and fact has always been blurry for Kurt Andersen. The BarbieWorld casino in Las Vegas, the TV show of obituaries called “Finales,” the helicopter journalism on the Chopper Channel, Adam Sandler’s remake of the art-house film “Koyaanisqatsi” and the talk show hosted by Al Roker and Monica Lewinsky may be vaguely familiar blips on your pop culture radar –– except they happen to be just-plausible-enough inventions of his irreverent 1999 debut novel, “Turn of the Century.”
For his next book, Andersen will tack in an opposite direction in search of edifying absurdities: a nonfiction examination of how modern American society has for the last 50 years distorted reality to serve more convenient mythologies. It’s called “Fantasyland.”
The founder of “Spy” magazine, a former Time design critic, and now host of public radio’s “Studio 360,” Andersen’s novels, including the most recent “True Believers” (2012), are distinguished by wide-ranging cultural intelligence. In town this weekend for the Wolfsonian-FIU museum’s “ideas fest” called Power of Design 2014: Complaints, Andersen talks about fantasy, music and the value of complaining.
On Twitter you mentioned that lately you’ve been writing while listening to the Harold Budd album “She is a Phantom.” His music was new to me, so thank you for that. It’s quite beautiful. How is the book coming?
Coming is the operative word. No time soon. I’ll finish it this year and it’ll come out in 2015. I was working on a novel, and still am, but then I had this idea for a nonfiction book, and I mentioned it to my agent and my publisher, and they said, “Oh, it’s timely, you’ve got to do it. Put the novel aside.” … It’s, uh, a reported essay about this A-ha! moment I had realizing what defines America these days and has for the last 50 years, really once I started getting into it, forever. It’s called “Fantasyland,” and it’s sort of about the American predisposition to fantasy and magical thinking and delusion and self-mythologizing of various kinds.
There’s the literal fantasy of Tolkien and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but also our politics. The crazy edge of gun rights is driven by fantasy. The 9-11 truthers are driven by fantasy. It has its roots for me in the late 1960s, you know, it’s sort of the downside of the ‘60s, when everybody’s idea, belief, truth was valid, suddenly. I think it’s gotten a little out of control and I think the Internet has enabled it to get even more out of control.
It used to be the nutty guy that lived next door was just the nutty guy who lived next door, but now he can find all his brethren all over the world to form a tribe that reinforces that his insane beliefs are correct.
It used to be, for better or worse, that there was a true mainstream that essentially delegitimized the crazy, but that ceases to exist. So we are left in this crazy garden of fantasy.
The Wolfsonian event that you are down for in Miami Beach takes place on opening weekend for Winter Music Conference, sort of a SXSW for DJ culture. Do you think the audiences for the Wolfsonian seminars and Winter Music Conference are mutually exclusive?
I hope not. The Venn diagram probably has a small overlap, and I want to meet those overlap people. On this radio show I do, this is exactly the kind of overlap we do. DJ-beat people should be in the room, in the conversation with people talking about the way to build cities. Now it doesn’t often happen, but it’s a goal.
Modern music has a reputation for being a hothouse of technological innovation and risk-taking. Do you agree with that theory?
Well, I guess… Everybody can make music because of the digital tools that now exist, and everybody can distribute it. I guess you could say that the upside of what I was saying about crazy people and crazy beliefs is that all these different micro genres can have their audience and their scene, and that’s great.
On the other hand, another of my hobby horses is how little the pop culture and the design culture and the physical culture, and the way people dress and look, has changed in the last 20 years. So in many ways one doesn’t see that much innovation. Since hip-hop was invented, going on 40 years ago, certainly the last 30 years, show me something new.
It’s interesting that everything is possible now, the tools are there to innovate, but I’m kind of waiting to be astounded by the next new thing.
The theme at the Wolfsonian is “Power of Design 2014: Complaints.” What appealed to you about these sessions, other than being able to escape the New York weather?
There are a million conferences like these, and I used to go to the TEDs, and I still go to Aspen (Ideas Festival), but this seemed different to me in a variety of ways. It isn’t about people in an industry trying to network to get the next deal or the next job. It’s actually about ideas, people from all different sides of the culture and the world coming together to talk about these non-obvious subjects.
And the fact that it wasn’t so self-serious, that this idea of “complaint,” which obviously will be a loosely worn theme, but a real one, there seemed to be something somewhat tongue-in-cheek about that, and I liked that. And, I confess, I have never been to the Wolfsonian, and have always wanted to go there. When it started I said, “Wow, that sounds fantastic,” but life has not taken me to Miami in a long time.
A skeptic, of which we have many, might say that unless something is physically done, something tangible accomplished at the Wolfsonian, it’s just talk, a waste of time and coffee. How can you judge success or the value of something like TED or these Wolfsonian sessions?
I would say hearing things that I haven’t heard before. Dots freshly connected. … For instance, just this morning I was thinking about this Intelligence Squared conversation happening Saturday night. [Pulitzer Prize-winning author] Michael Chabon and [virtual-reality pioneer and Internet critic] Jaron Lanier talking about what is bad and good and in between in the digital world? That strikes me as potentially fantastic. I kind of know what each of them thinks, but to have these two big brains in one place for one hour talking about that subject in a new way, there will be plenty of fresh connections. If I go to a thing like this and I’ve made notes that say, “Three fresh thoughts,” that’s a good day. And I’m sure this will bring even more than that.
Usually you’ll go to these things and say, “Oh here’s that person talking about the same thing he always talks about.” I like the gleeful eclecticism of this thing, maybe because it’s the first one. It was people trying to invent a new version of this thing, and I found that very appealing.
To the “Complaint” theme, which we have in abundance in South Florida. What role does complaining serve, or humor, in the problem-solving process?
You can look at things like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and they give people a template for thinking about the news that is useful for the conversation. You can’t say, “Oh, Stephen Colbert has changed the nature of campaign financing." He hasn’t. However, it makes that a subject that is interesting, its ridiculousness and corruption and stupidity, and made that evident to a couple of million people in a way it wasn’t before. That’s one way humor can have an effect.
About complaining … As somebody who has run businesses, people who just complain and whine, especially if they work for you, I’m not a big fan of. But, if complaint and critique can be important, fresh … Again the kind of earnest idea of this conference is that it is out of complaint that solutions come.
One of these panels is about air travel. I don’t think there’s anything more important in American life, in global life, that generates more unhappiness and complaints, than air travel. … I’ve always been interested in the fact that the suitcase with wheels was so relatively recently invented. In my adult lifetime that was invented. Obviously, there was a complaint: “Why the f--- do I have to carry this thing?!” It was a complaint that generated a kind of “duh” solution, in retrospect. “Complaint” is a less earnest way of identifying a problem, and can it be solved.
And, of course, airplanes themselves have not adjusted to the fact that everybody now has carry-on luggage and has to stick those things overhead. So we can complain about that.
IF YOU GO
“Power of Design 2014: Complaints” runs Thursday-Sunday at the Wolfsonian-FIU museum (1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach), with free events on Thursday and Sunday. Also free (but ticketed) is the Kurt Andersen-hosted session “Prophets of the Digital Age,” 7 p.m. Saturday at Perez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd.). A four-day pass for all events is $1,000. All discussions will be live-streamed and posted on the Wolfsonian website. Hit the link for more information about “Power of Design 2014: Complaints.” Info: 305-531-1001 or PowerOfDesign.Wolfsonian.org.