Artist Profile: Jenson Leonard

“Yacht Metaphor: The Collected Work of @CoryInTheAbyss,” curated by Georgie Payne, April 3 - May 30, 2021. Screenshot, April 14, 2021, Courtesy of Georgie Payne.

The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies. 

Georgie Payne: Since bursting onto the meme scene in 2015 under the handle @CoryIntheAbyss, you have been known as a prolific poster of ornate and heavily parodic original content (OC) which pits American visual culture against itself through pastiche and satire. When I approached you for our recent collaboration, “Yacht Metaphor: The Collected Works of @CoryInTheAbyss,” a multi-part exhibition of your work that took place both online and IRL at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, one of my big questions was how to translate such a sprawling body of work to a more condensed gallery form. Can you talk about that process?

Jenson Leonard: I made all of this work for years, not sure where it was going to lead me.  The work happens intermittently, when I have the time, or I’m desperate enough. I post and I post and I post. I’m usually not quite sure why I keep doing it, but I can’t stop. Is it compulsion, bouts of mania, am I simply an instrument of God? Scroll down to the humble beginnings of my page and you’ll see I started off in 2015 making Twitter format memes: real minimal works of images captioned with text. As you scroll up, the memes become more ornate, more involved, as my Adobe chops develop. All the while I'm making this work there is no teleological end point, no sense of finality about where this work is going, or what it all means. I’m literally just using the tools at my disposal to get some shit off my chest. Being asked to do an exhibition has helped structure that telos, it reminds me that on occasion, the world can reciprocate my energy and help me understand my place within it.  

Last October, you approached me with the idea of doing a “meme retrospective” which meant looking back at my archive of over a thousand memes generated over the past six years. Suddenly I shifted from working in isolation to collaborating with you in Zoom calls and Instagram DM’s over six months, spitballing ideas back and forth across Google docs and spreadsheets, until we had the foundations of this sprawling URL to IRL exhibition. Sure, there was an initial uncertainty about who you were, but I knew you saw the merit of my work. The decisive moment for me, where I was like “oh okay, Georgie’s Bout it, Bout It,” is when I sent you an initial draft of the exhibition banner, which was a totally flat and sanitized version of what I do, and you instantly sniffed that out and encouraged me to double down on being the the truest most over-the-top version of myself. You suggested bringing manuel arturo abreu into the fold to create an exhibition text that follows up on our 2017 AQNB interview. I brought on my good friend Clay Colonna to handle the web development (fun fact: he is an admin on the Cory In The Abyss Facebook page). NoMüNoMü  sponsored the billboard, and External Pages hosting the online exhibition was the cherry on top. 12/10 would collab again, Georgie.

“Yacht Metaphor: The Collected Works of @CoryInTheAbyss,” curated by Georgie Payne, April 3 - May 31, 2021. Installation shot of Jenson Leonard, “Yacht Metaphor,” Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Courtesy of Olympia Shannon 2021.

GP: When we began talking about the project, we were feeling out how to create a new space for exhibiting and looking at your work, both as net art and as an educational tool, and how to highlight the brilliant references embedded in each of the images. Can you describe your concept for the Yacht Metaphor website and how it changes the way viewers engage with your work? 

JL: With Yacht Metaphor I challenged myself to create a hub for my memes that moved them away from the extractive parameters of Zucc, sandwiched between selfies and targeted ads. I wanted the site to be an artwork in its own right...a more realized extension of the Cory In The Abyss concept.  You could say Yacht Metaphor is part of the expanded cinematic “Coryverse.” If the meme page exists in the abyss, in the endless cycle of production and circulation of content on social media platforms (which it has for some six years now), then YM represents a much needed breather, a moment where admin comes up for air to celebrate. 

The title has a sort of wry self awareness to it; it knows how many infinite, oceanic, metaphorical associations it has. It sounds like some braggadocious shit you’d hear on a Ghostface Killah record, while also suggesting the “contained potential”' of the vessel as articulated by Negritude thinkers like Edourd Glissant referencing slave ships. The site mimics the GUI elements of the video game title and menu screens of my youth. The meme select menu contains a solitary server at the bottom of the ocean à la the internet's underground, transatlantic fiber optic cable infrastructure, and an interactive dock that lets users select through twenty-five or so of my zestiest heaterz from 2016-2021. William Basinski’s Watermusic hums in the background. An annotation feature allows users to look under the hood of the meme to observe the cultural and theoretical concerns that inspired it, functioning as a kind of meme schematic, mapping out the social relation of thinkers and ideas my work is in chorus with. Equal parts museum didactic, Wikipedia entry, Snapple fact, and creation myth, Yacht Metaphor recalibrates what is meant by “dedicated server.”

“Yacht Metaphor:The Collected Work of @CoryInTheAbyss,” curated by Georgie Payne, April 3 - May 30, 2021. Screenshot, April 14, 2021, Courtesy of Georgie Payne.

GP: In working on this exhibition, we have both noticed a hesitancy from the so-called singular and almighty “art world” to accept memes as serious forms of net art, or contemporary art more broadly. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how you see your work fitting within the lineage of net art.

 JL: To rephrase Justice Potter Stewart, “I know net art when I see it.” Seriously though, there is plenty of precedent for what I do: the whole instrumentalizing-the-internet-as-raw-material-for-my-art thing. Thanks to the contributions of Mendi + Keith Obadike, Jayson Musson as Hennesy Youngman, damali ayo’s Rent-a-Negro, and Rafia Santana’s #PAYBLACKTIME to name a few, there is a clear lineage of Black folks that have been creating art by any memes necessary well before net art’s canonization. I will spare you my tangent about the art world’s obsession with classifying logics and how it all just ends up slipping into some Art Systema Naturae colonial taxonomy bullshit. Like, are memes not the most acute example of the dematerialization of art? After reading Seth Price’s Dispersion I said, ok, how does this conceptual art piece about digitally distributed art not describe my shit to a tee? I’ve read Kaprow. Am I not doing a Happening online every time I shitpost? If my Happening goes viral is it not then a digitally orchestrated polychronic of Happenings? Re: Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism, literally all I do is “glitch.” I created an avatar that’s premised on a nigga being so amorphous, so bodyless, that it becomes indistinguishable from the make and model of the internet. At the end of the day what I do is a practice, it is extremely online, and there’s even some sublimity in there if you look for it. I know it’s trite but when you make yourself unfuckwittable, when you’ve already self-canonized, you transcend worrying about curatorial whims and finicky-ass gatekeepers. I’M ME, I DO ME, I MAKE GOD TIER IMAGE MACROS AND I CHILL.

Jenson Leonard, BLTN, 2016. Digital Collage, Courtesy of the artist.

Jenson Leonard, Kool Mutual Aid, 2017. Digital Collage, Courtesy of the artist.

GP: Speaking of god tier image macros, who would you say are your peers, or whose work are you looking at?

JL: I wouldn't be making memes if it weren't for Addy Borneman. RIP ADDY. Cancel me too I guess, but I won’t deny the influence of Gangsterpopeye on my work. Teenagestepdad always inspires. Djinn Kazama’s page is a masterclass on deep fried memes. Those are legacy accounts. The best pages tend to be the more obscure ones. Accounts like: @mspainttrash, aka the Lorna Mills of toilet humor...@mjkelzzz is objectively the funniest account on Instagram, @mclalan is dope...I am eternal 2 on Facebook is no longer active, but everyone should experience its particular version of hell at least once. Pastiche Lumumba of coursetheir work moves in and out of the meme-o-sphere. Imari Dotson is great. I wish y’all would stop with the Basquiat LARPing and maybe look at Rammellzee. Sondra Perry, American Artist. Brad Troemel is a Brad, but his institutional critique is undeniable. I could go on...just look at who I follow on Instagram.

Jenson Leonard, All Y'all, 2017. Digital Collage, Courtesy of the artist.

Jenson Leonard, Ancient White Proverb, 2016. Digital Collage, Courtesy of the artist.

GP: In your work you draw a lot from pop culture imagery and the visual language of mainstream news media, advertising, and mass entertainment (from the Kool Aid Man to Paw Patrol) to address issues such as class consciousness, police brutality, and the commodification of race. As a part of the YM project you adapted one of your most iconic works, Ancient White Proverb, into a large-scale billboard work. Can you share a little bit about this process, the limitations you faced in light of fair use in advertising, and how you feel about the end result? 

 JL: The biggest determinant of that piece was the billboard company’s legal team and their oversight regarding what combination of text and image best elided legal action. It was nothing like posting work on the internet lol. Four of five initial images I made for the billboard and were all shot down. What I finally ended up with contains no pop culture figuration, no mascots, no logos, no celebs, but I did sneak a Terminator reference in via the typeface. I stan closing the loop by taking my digital works and transmogrifying them into the physical realm. They always end up saying something that couldn’t come across on the screen.

The billboard image was sourced from a meme that reads “I DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE PURPLE-ANCIENT WHITE PROVERB.” The original meme features forlorn Mcdonalds mascot Grimace standing at the stairway to white heaven. The billboard rendition swaps out Grimace with a color saturated vista of the Hudson Valley. In the transpositioning of the meme from screen to billboard, there’s an illustration of that white liberal “colorblind” sentiment’s ubiquity. Of course the billboard was positioned across the street from a row of  homes that had Blue Lives Matter flags hanging out front. Seeing an image I made on my dusty laptop screen manifested on an eleven foot by twenty-two foot ClearChannel billboard was like listening to We Major for the first time. The harpsichord arpeggio in the song encapsulates the glory of seeing your meme transverse the scales of its digital provenance to become a massive, selfie ready, situationist billboard. Not everything I make warrants translation, but I love the idea of my work being transmedial, having not just a virality, but a fungibility about it. Viral memes becoming sculptural objects, said objects having an AR component that recourses back to the memes, etc. God, anything but a meme t-shirt.

Installation shot of Jenson Leonard, Ancient White Proverb 2K21,” curated by Georgie Payne. 11x22ft billboard. Located at 1309 U.S. Route 9, Tivoli, N.Y. from April 19 to May 17, 2021. Courtesy of Georgie Payne.

Installation shot of Jenson Leonard, Ancient White Proverb 2K21,” curated by Georgie Payne. 11x22ft billboard. Located at 1309 U.S. Route 9, Tivoli, N.Y. from April 19 to May 17, 2021. Courtesy of Georgie Payne.

GP: In your conversation with manuel arturo abreu for the Yacht Metaphor catalogue essay, you hint at the idea of “retiring” from meme making—can you speak a little bit to this, and to your exhaustion with memes at the moment? 

JL: Last summer, in the thick of the uprisings, there was a week I gained over 2000 followers after a spat of bigger (read: white) meme pages thought it timely to share my work. The morbidity of it all disturbed me on several levels: that memes I made about police brutality as far back as 2016 were being dug up as an opportunistic cause célèbre for bigger pages, that the memes themselves are evergreen and still apply to the functioning of the state apparatus, and that my page’s growth is now intrinsically tied to the circulation of images of Black death. Like, it took a succession of Black people being murdered by police for a significant portion of the internet to be reminded of my existence. Believe it or not, I have lots of memes that aren’t focused on the fucked up overdetermination of death in Black people’s lives, but to see only that part of my work embraced by pages that otherwise don’t fuck with me was enough to make me seriously consider hanging it up. I mean, I won’t. The game needs me. But I will make myself even less available in that space. It’ll feel like fucking christmas when I post. Luckily the strength of the meme work has helped me transition to other avenues. Right now I’m wrapping up a residency at PioneerWorks in Brooklyn working on a very chaotic short film premised on Aria Dean’s essay Notes on Blacceleration. It's basically like what if Beeple and Hito Steyerl kissed at the intersection of financial speculation and the end of the world. Michael Jackson is somehow involved too. 

Jenson Leonard, Mavis Beacon Type Beat, 2016Digital Collage, Courtesy of the artist.

Jenson Leonard, Sacre Doh!, 2021. Digital Collage, Courtesy of the artist.

Name: Jenson Leonard (aka @CoryInTheAbyss)

Age: 31

Location: Philadelphia, PA, home of the MOVE bombings and wooder ice.

How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?: [email protected], my AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) screenname from 1999, was my first stab at digitally-mediated poeticsthe whole donning a digital avatar and asserting a digital self. It was one of the first of many gamer moments.

What did you study at school or elsewhere?: I went to Duquesne University, a lumpen Jesuit school, for undergrad. I dropped my digital media arts major two weeks in, finally settling on creative writing. Five years later, I attended grad school at Pratt Institute for Creative Writing.  

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?: I’ve worked a variety of jobs, specifically in the restaurant industry bussing tables and food running. I also worked nights at a UPS warehouse loading packages off of a conveyor belt and I’ve worked for the census bureau doing data entry. Right now I’m work-liminal (i.e. unemployed) but I’d teach at your art school if you’d have me.

What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!):