The Legacy of Nasim Najafi Aghdam
The YouTube shooter is not only a compelling avatar of internet culture, but may also be among the most relevant contemporary artists of our time.
It was most definitely a case where fake news thrives; a Twitter army hastily reporting just hours after a shooting that this was the woman who was initially reported as attempting to kill her boyfriend at the San Bruno YouTube headquarters. Looking at the links being sent around, it seemed far too perfect, too absurd to be true.
But somehow, it was true. Well, not entirely — the boyfriend part was fake — ostensibly an attempt to keep a “terrorism” narrative from surfacing, as initial reports had described an Iranian woman wearing a headscarf, which of course, means…
As to her identity, it was true, if nearly impossible to believe: This was her. This was the skinny Persian woman with the Frida look and eerily flat affect, author of hundreds if not thousands of videos and photos which appeared to be a mix of vegan and PETA activism, critiques of modern societal values including body image, mental shallowness, weak ties of friendship, greed and technological materialism. (She was also a prolific publisher of recipe, crafting, health and exercise videos.) All told, she can only be acurately described as a highly productive working artist, an influencer with thousands of followers on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and just about every major platform including Telegram, where a large amount of her content was still live at the time of writing. It’s worth noting that I don’t speak her language, (assumed to be Farsi) so my understanding of the literal message is limited to those works in which she speaks English or is subtitled. But some assumptions are fair to make.
Much of her recent work relates to YouTube’s decision to ban her videos, and it’s presently unclear what the reasons for the ban were, but some of her parody work did include racial stereotypes, and commentary about subjects she felt were better candidates for restriction, like anal sex.
As of what we know now, her assumed motive was related to these same concerns over Google’s recent attempts to more aggressively censor content creators. Initial evidence seems to indicate the age-restricted designation motivated her to drive the 500 miles from her home in San Diego and shoot three YouTube employees with a legally-obtained 9mm handgun, before successfully killing herself. According to police reports, all of her victims are expected to survive.
Rather predictably, the fact they will survive may have something to do with why this story won’t rise to the notoriety of other shootings with victim fatalities. But the coverage of this story will also have something to with what this unusual woman represents in the culture, and the preferred narrative of today’s media.
First of all she wasn’t a man. She wasn’t right wing. She wasn’t white, even though she had very pale skin. She wasn’t Christian, a gun nut, or Muslim, but reportedly was Baha’i. She was an animal rights activist, avid vegan, and was labeled a bodybuilder. She wasn’t carrying an AR-15, however many news outlets made sure to include the “semi-automatic” description of the handgun she used. Right out of the gate, this is a difficult story to wrangle for most outlets, as her identity or pattern of behavior doesn’t follow a consistent or familiar line of logic.
And yet it is still a story with deep, important meaning and symbolism.
What else was Nasim Aghdam? For one, a quite fashionable and arguably beautiful woman with myriad costumes (many of which she appears to have made herself,) countless wigs and hairstyles to adorn her lavish green-screen videos, many of them featuring her dancing or moving sensually to music. She seemed a strange cultural fugitive, and an example of a soul tragically incompatible with the modern world (with critiques of both east and west.) Either she or a collaborator was clearly of above-average competence with computer graphics and video compositing; the production quality, while still modest, is firmly in the category of “good.” Many of her photos and videos also feature a beloved pet rabbit, whose death she documented late last year.
Today, the laziest and most predictable story is that she was just insane. Even with plenty of evidence of mentally ill behavior, to go no further than this and to simply label her as a case of another “crazy” would be more than dishonest, it would be a cultural tragedy. The depth of Aghdam’s story is impossible to ignore if you’re looking at it with any degree of curiosity or intellectual rigor. (A lack of which we’ve come to regularly expect.)
She, like many other “shooters,” is most certainly a casualty of a technology and electronic media tsunami. But we have never before seen a personality like this. Her videos were often parodies, of culture and characters in and around the issues she was passionate about, mostly related to diet and animal cruelty, but with plenty to say about culture at large. The work contains a strong anti-materialist theme, and multiple statements about her self-image as a small-breasted woman, she even used an artifical bodice to drive the point. She also seems to have been well aware of the detrimental power of social media, and the associated sickness which has become the subject of so many recent articles accompanying Facebook’s demise.
While the flat affect betrays a certain state of mind, she was clearly no dummy; but a thoughtful writer and actor, publishing an impressive volume of autobiographical visual work. In every way, including the strangely ironic nature of her entitled activist self-presentation, she falls firmly in the category of contemporary video art, and despite any dissimilartity of intent, the work itself functions quite comfortably in the same realm as that of artists like Bruce Naumann and Ryan Trecartin. From its inception, video art has always been an automatic commentary on the medium, nearly always trapping its subjects in a kind of cruel purgatory, under apathetic observation from beyond the glass. And so Aghdam, whether or not she possesseed any aspirations to comment on or contribute to the canon of contemporary art, is now indusputably at the leading edge of the avant-garde, perhaps in a class all her own, by function of her (unwitting) outsider status, combined with the uniquely absurd and politically germane circumstances of her demise.
She is the “shooter” who moved on from cameras to guns.
The work is highly critical, politically charged, questions notions of civilization, technology and progress, and even echoes the same kind of thinking seen in Ted Kaczynski’s notorious manifesto, the increasingly cited work titled Industrial Society and its Future.
When analyzing the thought process of a known criminal, the immediate response is to question if admiration of ideas equals admiration of criminal acts. The Unabomber Manifesto was such a document, published in the Washington Post in 1995. At the time, it left many readers speechless and largely unable to express opinions, for fear of the appearance of advocacy or support for Kaczynski’s heinous crimes. But a great many knew the words he’d written to be full of truth, and this impression has only grown ever since, as the predictions of a “raving-madman” continue to unfold before our eyes.
It’s a concept which extends far into the realms of all mainstream art, to fugitives like Roman Polanski, defendants like Bill Cosby, admitted offenders like Louis C.K., and even further into cases of accused/alleged conduct, as in the case of Woody Allen. The question in all cases: Can we separate the works from the author/actor? Some claim they cannot… but it is a lie; it is only strong societal pressures which force their hand, these are the same people who would be unlikely to be swayed if their beloved David Bowie or Prince were posthumously found to have been guilty of abuses or misconduct.
Some may argue it is cruel or inapproprite to assign this woman such status after a tragic event, and yet it is impossible to argue her death isn’t full of rich meaning. Everything in this world, with no known exceptions is political. And so today, the very thrust of contemporary art is nothing but a mirror of a media-addled political culture driven to the brink, a frenetic search for the meme to end all memes.
Nasim Aghdam is that meme.
But she’s so much more than that; this is an entirely new genre. Her videos and photos were up long enough after her identity was revealed to allow a dedicated population enough time to archive and share, to create endless compilations, deviations, alterations. The catalog she left behind is so rich it is impossible to imagine the scale of recontextualized material to come. It’s important to note that she (and perhaps as-yet unknown collaborators) made this. This isn’t the work of Redditors or Twitter mobs. Yet.
She’s a free speech quandary.
She’s an identity puzzle.
She’s a tragic figure.
She’s a mental health policy trap.
She’s a sex symbol.
She’s a short-circuited gun control debate.
She’s a Neo-Luddite.
She’s a content creator, a YouTuber, a casualty of the attention economy.
She’s the hiding-in-plain sight voice no one would listen to.
She’s a feminist rabbit hole.
She’s a political land mine.
She’s a commentary on animal← →human rights.
She’s Solanas meets Kaczynski.
She’s a STOP sign. (credit: D. Boone)
Maybe above all she’s a prime example of the disproportionate damage done to women in the age of internet, a scorned sex worker of the technocorporate state. She’s a case study in the unique combination of modern media, ubiquitous cameras, sharing without generosity, all amounting to a stunning portrait of the modern female narcissist, in the spitting image of — who else ?— Frida Kahlo. In solemn consideration of everything Aghdam represents, and everything she left behind, and despite any pearl-clutching or arguments from the Art World to the contrary, it’s impossible not to label her among the most relevant artists of our time.
The case is perhaps better made visually.
Below is the last and rather uncharacteristic image Nasim Aghdam posted to Telegram, dated 03/29/2018.