“You Can’t Win It”: Jon McCurley on the Art of Facebook

Jon McCurley. Photo by Daniel Vila.

I woke up this morning to find that Jon McCurley was emitting tiny wails from the “isolation chamber” of Facebook late last night, a series of concise, lonely status updates like stacked-up hollowed-out cinder blocks.

this feels like im going on a trip by myself a little bit 

this is like being in a cast

im probably the only person for miles

out of no where im thinking things like i should read a book, i should paint this room

wow this really is like writing on a cave wall

I’ve been following McCurley’s Facebook presence – as many do in the Toronto artworld, but also a larger, if substrate contingent of international comedic performance artists must peer in – long enough to know that he was building to something minute with these large laments.

how do i turn off this feed blocker?!

The “reveal” was at the first, however, something that reads like a punch line if you scroll backward through his litany of updates and find it as both a footer and a starting point. More commonly, however, you’ll experience McCurley’s unique brand of neurotic, existential, deadpan, failure-bent Facebook updates popping up through your newsfeed like little orange traffic cones, demanding pause or a slowed-down reading. He’ll sometimes direct you to a laugh with the typed-out equivalent of a squinting, teeth-bearing, giggling, defiantly mischievous emoji (imagine you had a feed blocker on and then late at night a status still appeared like …hello jon hehehehe). Updates will come whistling through like paper airplanes boastful of their blank page. Or in a series, like the one above, where McCurley is producing a rhythmic anxiety, a tripping alarm building to a pitch that usually sounds like a friendly kettle going off in a distant kitchen.

Sitting with McCurley, 33, in various coffee shops across Kensington Market, his home base, a suitably village-like enclave within Toronto’s larger metropolis, I am delivered an important reminder that his online presence is a far cry from his “IRL” personhood. People stop him to say hello, swinging in and out of doors with familiarity as he sits like the neighborhood chairman. He is soft-spoken, generous, sometimes furtive or shy about his work, yet genuine and direct, and very funny – but in a different way than he is online. In person he often drops into a past self that’s thinking through the failure of something to deliver present commentary on the absurdity of what he’s created.

What he’s created includes a successful collective with Amy Lam, named Life of a Craphead (Art in America calls them “experts at crafting bizarre comedic performances that distort and dismantle funny man/straight man tropes”; Canadian Art terms them “comedy’s equivalent of Arte Povera”; and the Globe and Mail simply calls it “dangerous … a theatrical kamikaze routine”). McCurley is a leading contributor to an emerging moment in contemporary art that foregrounds humor in a thrilling, often uneasy way. Performance best embodies this, though Life of a Craphead has also channeled their challenging stripe of deadpan critique through an installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), a moment of jarring between the DIY and low-fi aesthetic and agenda of the collective and this iconic white-walled institution (it helped shorten the gap that LOAC was positioned in the basement, where they riffed on and exaggerated the absurdity of their pedestal by exhibiting a “50-year retrospective” that stretched into 2056).

However McCurley has also extended this practice onto Facebook. He has created a character that is consistent and unflappable in his voice, his failures, his melancholy and often cute cast of soggy-shoe self-deprecation. Below is a smattering of his recent updates that spans the funny and existential to the self-reflexive and political. They are followed by an interview in which McCurley considers – for what, it would seem, is the first time – the voice he’s created, and the vagaries, risks, and potential of artful Facebooking. 

whyd it snow so much

thinking abt being surrounded by kraft peanut butter bears all the time, making all decisions as a group of 3

imagine when you finally get to heaven its really nice and its so peaceful and you have to pay very very minimal rent but you still have to pay rent

my phones so slow when i tap safari i wait i fall asleep i dream im on a safari

my phone is so old I googled myself and got pics of my parents at their old place and stuff, no me anywhere.

but seriously, very old phone, I googled trouble and a sherif asked me to leave

bjork prob wakes up middle of the night and goes bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-bum-ba into audio recorder and then 1 year later im like bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum

imagine when u turned on sleep mode your computer got really dry and had to get up and drink a glass of water a couple times

imagine when you turned on sleep mode ur computer continued to stay up and screw around for another few hrs

sometimes when im in a bad mood i imagine myself as a bee eating a big pot of honey and sticking my tongue out at the camera and stuff like that

my plant shop would have a section of plants that weren’t for sale, ppl wouldn’t even be allowed look at them, I’d be like “you can look at these plants over here instead ok?”

im happy the bananas went bad!

anyone who loves winter secretly loves having a soaking wet bum all day and falling down in front of the supermart on bloor 

i’ve got a little red nose rn

goodnight my little phone

im scared of posting on here

i had a stress dream i was re-editing amelie

if the x files were real it would prob be abt stuff like ipad battery that stays 1% for long time 

eyes wide shut but tom cruise just snoops around outside the gate for 45 min before taking another $100 cab home

white male curator says work about race and gender is not interesting cancels project

my perception of twitter these days is that it is like standing on the side of a highway at night and when cars go by someone throws a cigarette at you

i bet in 100 years youll be like ‘siri take me to hamilton’ and ur phone’ll be like ‘i just got home can you wait i was just in Hamilton’

if vlc player was a person id say they are down to earth, zero bullshit, always on time, always ready for something fun, very smart, down for whatever, very happy,

What has this past week been like for you on Facebook?

It’s so emotional. For most of the week I was in such a bad mood that I was like, “don’t post anything.” Because when I do when I’m actually depressed, it’s not good. It’s so bald on how I actually feel; these are completely unhappy Tweets.

[Laughs] Can you give an example?

It feels so funny talking about these because they’re just updates. But I wrote, “oh man, January” last week, and that was like, oh, that’s not a funny Tweet.

But I’ll go for a really long time and be afraid of it. I’ll fear it. I’ll think of an update but try to go for a month [not posting]. Or I’ll think, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t have any ideas. I’m done. And then three days will pass and I’ll go [singing], “da da da da da.” [Laughs] And that feels very emotional. Maybe that’s what makes it fun. It really feels like you’re fighting something. Like you’re a sailor, fighting the ocean or something like that. I’ll never think of something good again. And later, oh no problem.

There was a trending hashtag recently, #beforeFacebook, which had people reminiscing about what life looked like before this constant personal reportage. You were on Facebook since the beginning, more or less. How do you think this platform has affected you over the years?

I worry it’s affected my sleeping patterns. I’ll use it too late. Or I won’t be able to sleep, and be in bed thinking, “I really want to check my phone right now.” “No, that’s crazy, that’s not healthy. Don’t do that.”

I remember all the changes I’ve made over the course of using it. Like, I went from a desktop to a laptop, and a laptop to a phone. And when I went from a laptop to a phone, I remember thinking, “that’s it, I’m done. I can’t use this.”

Because it’s too small?

Because it’s too hard to read anything. And now I use it more than ever on a phone. It changes so much as the technology changes. And it’s funny to think back on, because I was wrong.

Do you ever go back and look at the Tweets you wrote when you were first starting out?

No. When I’ve done it, by mistake, it feels very lousy. [Laughs]

Jon McCurley under a mural by his mother, Hannah McCurley. Photo: Leo Jarmain.

Jon McCurley under a mural by his mother, Hannah McCurley. Photo: Leo Jarmain.

So you’re not aware of how your voice has changed over the years?

That’s a good question. I’m aware that it’s changed, cause I’ll remember things. I spend way too much time thinking about status updates; it’s very silly. I think about it all the time, and it can’t be good. [Laughs] But I’ll remember how four years ago I said something, and think, “that was a good one.” But I won’t actually go back. I don’t want to spend my time looking at them.

You do have a unique voice. How consciously did you arrive at it? And is it something you’re performing or is it you?

That’s interesting. I think that the way everyone’s using it, they’re trying to get something out of it, which is likes. They’re trying to be popular. And even if they’re not trying, you’ll see it happen, you’ll see how getting likes will change their voice. They’ll post something and you’ll see they’re copying someone’s style. We all have different friends, but the person you might be the most inspired by is a friend from high school.

Personally, I think the voice I use is the result of a lot of failure. I think if I went back I’d think, “I’m a slob on here. I’m not smart.” But the other obvious thing is that I copied people. Saw how they used it. Just like writers. There are so many people where they’re so creative with it. But it’s so easy to be a total slob. To waste everyone’s time and be sloppy about it. It’s so easy because you’re publishing and it has no consequence.

Well just because it’s immediate doesn’t mean it has no consequence, though.


But for the most part I think this is what makes it so interesting. Because it’s so easy to come off as lazy, and for the most part that’s how it’s used. Because it’s so simple and available that people aren’t trying to be creative.

You said to me recently that it’s very easy to stand out for that reason.

Well the format is so basic – people just use a smattering of words. So the difference between blah (a waste of your time) and blah (something inspired) is just a couple of words here and there. And that’s exciting.

When you mentioned not wanting to post when you’re in a bad mood because it’s too direct or too vulnerable, does that suggest that you only like to post emotional truths through misdirection?

What I think is fun, now, is to try to really nail emotion. That seems to be what I’m trying to do now. You can make people laugh by saying something that actually isn’t very funny at all. When I was doing stand-up, that was something I found very exciting. With momentum or with rhythm you can make everybody laugh, but actually there’s no joke. Actually it’s something very sad. It’s magic or something. So thinking about this stuff, when you’re really trying to nail a certain feeling, people will laugh.

When I’m in a really awful mood I don’t have any control over it anymore. So I’m writing, “fuck this.” And that expresses quite a lot of emotion but you’re not giving people an opportunity to interact with it. Like if you’re clearly not in a good headspace and someone tries to react – to like it or something – that whole social interaction is confused.

I think it’s very clear when someone’s in a troubled mental space trying to use Facebook. And when that happens there’s totally another social way of dealing with it. You definitely don’t share that stuff, you don’t like that stuff, but everyone’s aware of it. Everyone in your whole community will know. Maybe it’s about control, or something.

So how much does this share in common with stand-up for you, and where does it deviate?

Well I often think about why the other stand-up comedians I know don’t really go for it on Facebook. The ones who are extremely talented don’t try to – don’t spend all their time trying to be successful on Facebook, as well. And that I don’t understand. To me, they’re very much the same. It’s the same format but much more forgiving because you can spend an entire week thinking about it but appear like you came up with it on the spot! [Laughs]

Well isn’t that true of stand-up, too, in a way?

I guess they’re the same but it doesn’t just have to happen at 9 o’clock in front of a brick wall.

When I did stand-up, for no good reason, not on purpose, I had this character. Very serious and dry. In person I’m not like that. but on stage I wasn’t smiling, I was trying to do this material very seriously, out of necessity.

You need a base.

You need to try something to make it work. And maybe something about Facebook “style” is the same. If you do it enough you figure out all the things that work for you and all the things that don’t. Like, I did this thing where I switched Facebook accounts with someone and we didn’t tell anybody. And now I have his whole world in front of me and he has my whole world in front of him – and I don’t know his friends. I was trying to write like him, and, “I can’t do it. I’m not doing this very well. I haven’t figured this out, or studied his style. I can’t pull it off.”

So is Facebook like stand-up? It’s similar. But statuses end. You write and then it ends. And in that 100 words or 20 words there’s all the structural stuff that you don’t get in person. Because you’re still there at the end of the sentence.

Have you ever kept a journal? Is it similar to your online status updates?

I have but it’s atrocious. It’s so boring and so flat. It’s not good writing. And then I’ll think, “will my journal be reading these statuses?” Because they’re really trying to do something, they’re trying to get people to respond to them. There’s an audience. They’re so colorful and dynamic. So if this goes on for another fifty years [laughs] – God forbid! – I will have a journal.

How would you describe the character that you portray on Facebook? Who is that person?

I think it’s very personal and may not paint me in the best light. But what I try to do is capitalize on self-deprecation in a way that I don’t really see that much. Everyone has different emotions and experiences but for some reason what works for me is riding a fine line of complaining about everything and expressing how shitty things are. There’s something about it that’s not real because I don’t act like that person.

I don’t think of it that negatively, your Facebook persona.

Well when I look at how other people use it and then how I use it, it’s very clear to me that I’m trying to express particular experiences that are consistent. And it’s not good stuff, it’s bad stuff. And people like it because everybody has those things. Like, I made a Tweet a couple days ago about being so broke I can’t buy groceries. And then getting paid and going to the grocery store with a duffle bag. [Laughs] But tons of good things happen. Lots of things happen that are totally fine. But then when I thought about what I was going to Tweet, I thought, “I have to Tweet about how I have no money. I have this huge money problem, I have to talk about that.” But I don’t talk about how I have this amazing relationship ever, I don’t talk about my relationship with my family ever, or a positive relationship with my friends, or how I get to do creative work sort of as a job, sort of everyday. I do talk about my shitty job that I still have. But why don’t I talk about working on this art project that’s really fun? Partially because nobody cares.

I think the whole other half of how I use Facebook is how and when I like stuff. As I’m sure it is with anybody. And my attitude towards that has been to be extremely generous with likes. I have about 1,500 friends and I’ll go and like 50 things in a row. But that’s also the fun part. Because there’s lots of stuff that I won’t like. How you distribute that, or how your name pops up in someone else’s life, reflects your personality. Because when I try to think about the most humiliating part of my day and put that into a phrase, it’s not like that when I’m liking other people’s stuff. I’m not trying to humiliate them at all. If someone’s having a great time in their art career, I’ll support that!

I wrote something vulnerable a few nights ago and the first thing I wanted to do when I woke up was delete it – which I did. But that’s a strange impulse, isn’t it? What do you think that’s about?

I think it’s about control. So if you can control yourself you’re not going to brag about stuff because you might think it’s embarrassing. “I’m not going to tell everyone we got this funding or this opportunity.” But, “I’m going to tell everyone I fell on the stairs because I’m not really embarrassed by that.” But boasting about success, “That’s in bad taste. I don’t feel good about that.”

But having said that, it is very exciting when people are like, “I’m in control, because I’m going to post about how I have a real problem.” And in this format, they are in control. Because they don’t care; they’re actually not embarrassed about it. This is what makes this stuff fun. It’s a social network, but it’s also the social as real life.

Does it diminish the quality of something if your public can see that something was edited? Do you think about that?

Yeah, but I kind of don’t care. But you do see it. You can use it. You can have a two-word update and edit it, and people will wonder, “what did they edit?” [Laughs] But it’s obvious that Facebook is very manicured, in the fact that it’s intentional.

As an editor, I admire your creative and inflected use of grammar – like ending a list on a comma.

Things like that – I’m a very bad speller, I’m bad at grammar. I don’t even sound like a smart person when I email, now. Like, I’ve lost control of emails. What is happening to me? I definitely can’t write in an essay style that sounds smart. It’s not a skill I have anymore. So part of what’s fun for me on Facebook is deciding, you know what, I’m never going to use grammar. Or, I’m going to make-up grammar.

From everything you’ve said you don’t sound like you’re worried about the effect social media is having on this generation and the ones coming up beneath us. The imprint of it on our lives and minds and social functioning.

No I definitely don’t worry about it. I think it’s great; it’s one of the best things in my life. I think it’s extremely relaxing, maybe that’s the number one thing. It’s fun. Relatively free. So valuable. I don’t see bad things about it.

What do you think about the competing platforms? Twitter, for instance?

I think Twitter is the superior platform, because it’s harder. But maybe, for whatever reason, people in Toronto have taken to Facebook. Whereas when I’ve traveled, people are more on Twitter.

When I got to Twitter only a couple years ago I found it way more difficult to find your own voice, and to interact with people – it seems so lonely. But once I had a successful Tweet. I was at a Budget car rental place, and the song “Fat Bottom Girls” came on the radio, and it was playing so loud that the Budget Rent-a-Car people were shouting into their phones. And I put it, like, “what? Why don’t they turn the radio down!?” And I experienced what a lot of people have experienced on Twitter, which makes it so exciting: like, 500 shares, and thousands of people liking it. That day, 200 teenagers followed me. [Laughs]

That only every happened once, even though I really went for it. Like, “I’m going to make one million dollars on here!” And then, Tweet, Tweet, Tweet, nothing. Losing followers … [Laughs]

I don’t use Vine or Snapchat because my phone is too old and perhaps I’m too old. You know, none of my friends were on them when they blew up. But I’m sure it’s a blast. I’ve talked to my nephew and my cousins and they’re like, “we don’t use Facebook, we don’t use Twitter.” Maybe they don’t even use Instagram. They’re like, “Snapchat,” and a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of.

What do you think people do wrong on Facebook?

Simple stuff, like being mean. Or being insincere, that’s very bad. I recommend that nobody does that. Just wait until you have a better idea in a few days. [Laughs]

But Facebook is like skateboarding: you can’t win. It’s only about the individual.

You can’t win!

You definitely can’t win. [Laughs]

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