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Frank Ocean’s Life’s Work

The utopian space of art and memory

There’s a part of Boys Don’t Cry, the 366-page zine that Frank Ocean released last weekend alongside his second album Blonde and visual mixtape Endless, where Ocean interviews his friend Lil B. Their chat is unstructured, drifting from Starbucks tea orders to “corporate America music shit,” but the most interesting bit happens early, when Ocean asks Lil B to help him specify exactly what kind of person leaves mean comments on the internet. “Who is it? Is it everyone around me secretly?” Ocean asks, half-joking, but not really. Lil B’s answer is unsurprisingly grim, coming from the guy who wrote the digital era’s “What’s Going On”: The internet, he says, is a risky social experiment, not entirely unlike that of the infamous Stanford prison study. Ocean doesn’t disagree but counters him gently: “At the same time, though, people are complicated to the point that nobody is any one thing. ...The internet is just another experiment showing us more sides of us.” It’s a portrait of an internet troll as one might exist in a Frank Ocean album, inspiring not answers but more questions. To what extent is the internet version of yourself your actual self? What about the version of yourself that you put in an album you wrote? What about yourself from four years ago, a person whose priorities you can hardly relate to? Or the self you only ever showed to that one person who you don’t really talk to anymore?

In cultural critic Virginia Heffernan's new book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, she attempts a taxonomy of the essential principles of the most important and baffling phenomenon of our lifetime, deconstructing what she calls “the internet’s most glorious illusion: that the internet is life.” Of course it’s not, she writes. Certainly the internet is social, emotional, sensory, infinite, in ways that compellingly mirror reality — but in truth, the thing is deeply artificial: a parallel universe with its own laws, language, chronology, and scale. The internet, Heffernan convincingly argues, is best understood as a “massive and collaborative work of realist art.” Put another way, it is the largest and most deceptive MMORPG ever made.

Participation in the work of the internet is not mandatory, but it is expected, at least in certain cultural spheres: including the one in which Frank Ocean is supposed to exist. The understanding we seem to have reached is that the living out of one’s life — the friends you see, the food you eat, the bits of culture you consume, and most of all, the way you choose to present it all — is part of the work of being an artist. Perhaps this has always been the agreement of celebrity, though never as all-encompassingly as right now. But it’s increasingly tricky to tell where the person ends and the public figure begins, and where the artistry fits into all of it. It’s hard to review The Life of Pablo divorced from the context of Kanye, the man and the idea. It’s hard to consider Views without considering Drake, the guy you used to think you knew. I’ve never read a review of Ocean’s beloved 2012 album Channel Orange that neglected to mention the now-iconic TextEdit doc attached to its release. The impulse, when it comes to Ocean’s projects, is to puzzle together his life by rearranging the loose pieces of the massive, chronology-resistant multimedia collage he has given us in parts over the last five years — a fun challenge that is ultimately futile.

We didn’t hear much of Frank Ocean in the four-year space between Channel Orange and now — a song snippet here, a writing credit somewhere else. As the follow-up album then known as Boys Don’t Cry was assigned possible release dates, all of which passed unremarkably, the conversation revolved around expectations: What are we owed by the artists we love? I found much of this discussion quite cynical. Sure, social media debates have a tendency for hyperbole — real-world logic warps within the internet’s incomprehensible sense of scale — which could explain why some exasperated Ocean fans expressed their desire for music like toddlers throwing a tantrum. But truthfully, I don’t think most music fans of the non-troll variety believe we are entitled to anything more than what capitalism promises: We give the good folks at Apple $9.99, and in return, we get some songs. Four years is long, but not that long — by no means unprecedentedly so. The gap in Frank Ocean music was not really the issue. The issue was that we were not allowed to see him, either — on his Twitter, which he deleted in 2013, or his Instagram, deleted as well, or anywhere else in the digital space within which we on some intangible level cohabitate, other than his mostly imageless Tumblr. (When asked why he left Twitter, his response was one word: “intuition.”) To opt out of the work of the internet, as Ocean mostly has, is a breach of social contract somewhere between minor bummer and outright betrayal; consider the frenzied reaction when Justin Bieber deleted his Instagram last week. If you do this, you are not upholding your end of the celebrity’s Faustian bargain, namely the clause that specifies that your life is part of your work and you will show it to us. That was your part of the deal.

But in spite of Ocean’s reputation for being withdrawn, that Tumblr has remained a portal into his world. The writing there is unmistakably his: honest, specific, intimate in a way that is not necessarily revealing at all, yet nonetheless shows more than a photograph or even a song. The site’s chronology is confusing — to go backward, you click the button at the bottom labeled “RIVER”; forward is “LAKE.” Dates and times are not displayed, so I couldn’t say exactly when the post appeared that begins, “i’ve been meaning to write you more. different hotels every night aren’t so bad really. in fact- all the moving house could inspire a photo series.. not for the gram, knowing me it’s probably only for whoever controls my estate in the future and enthusiastically develops all the rolls of film i forgot to.” The anecdote is all very Frank Ocean, even for those who might mock his music as trendily small-batch, artisanal R&B. (He would take analog photographs, wouldn’t he?) Personally, I don’t especially care what kind of camera Ocean might use, or what that might mean. I’m more interested in what he’s decided to do with the photos — namely, nothing. The work is created so that it might exist, not so that it might be shared. I had almost forgotten you could do that.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether Endless — specifically its visual element, a 45-minute carpentry exercise culled from a 140-hour one, wherein a small army of Oceans slowly build a staircase — is a response to the growing demand to be privy to Ocean’s creative and personal headspace. It’s possible he simply wanted to build some stairs, though that doesn’t seem like a particularly Frank Ocean thing to do. Probably the act had some allegorical significance: labor, self-actualization, ascension. But I like to think about the staircase, on some level, as an elaborate little joke, too — a straightforwardly vague answer to thousands of strangers requiring an explanation as to what he has been DOING for the last four years, as if it were any of their business or remotely answerable on any honest level at all. But: “What have you even been doing since 2012?” “Oh, you know. Building some stairs.”

The work of creating the internet — an infinitely malleable space whose size can be understood no better than one can reasonably think about forever — has permanently mangled our sense of proportion. The perceived drag of Blonde/Endless/Boys Don’t Cry’s four-year gestation is a trifle in relation to the work of Michael Heizer, for instance. Heizer, who is 71 (and whom Dana Goodyear profiles incredibly well in this week's New Yorker), has been known for decades as a pioneer of an artistic movement called earthworks, one with which he never truly aligned as much as he helped shape it. His presence in the art world is real but generally remote. Most of Heizer’s works are incapable of existing in a gallery setting as anything other than photographs; his sculptures are made from and embedded inextricably into the earth, many of them more negative space than anything else. Above all, they are immense. “Double Negative,” one of the first massive projects of the earthworks movement, consists of nothing more than two skyscraper-sized cuts across the top of Nevada’s Virgin River Mesa. It is best seen — more accurately, it is only seen, in any complete sense — from above, via helicopter or plane. It goes without saying that not many do. The work is exclusive, in a language completely foreign from the sense that word normally has in the art world.

His latest work — if “latest” can reasonably be applied to an endeavor that has taken more than four decades — is an investment of seemingly impossible magnitude. Heizer began work on what he calls “The City” in 1972, when he was in his late twenties. The sculpture is now a mile and a quarter long, stretching across the Nevada desert somewhere between the Alamo and Area 51, where he has lived for most of his life. It consists of pits and mounds made from rocks, sand, and concrete (and, in a sense, sky); it is awesome in the most literal sense, and according to Heizer, it is very nearly completed. The project has resulted in severe respiratory compromise, chronic pain, and a decades-long morphine addiction, but though it has very nearly killed him, the work is Heizer’s life. On some level, art always outlives its creators, but “The City” is set to exist on a humbling plane of permanence, embedded into our very planet. It will change as the earth changes, but it will persist. Last year, President Obama granted the land that “The City” occupies national monument status. In other words, it will be there for whatever amount of time “forever” realistically means. No one has seen the nearly completed behemoth yet, save the New Yorker profile’s author, Heizer’s collaborator and ex-wife Mary Shanahan, and the workers who helped build it. It is said that the work will become open to the public in 2020. In a 1977 ARTnews interview, when “The City” was in its relative infancy, Heizer balked at questions about his life outside of his process. “All that personal stuff is beside the point,” he deflected. “What’s important is that I have a lot of work ahead of me.”

Frank Ocean’s life’s work is not about the earth but the people in it, all wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to. The scope of a piece is often quite small, but the emotions can feel monumental, dizzying: “Imagine being thrown from a cliff. No, I wasn’t on a cliff. I was still in my car telling myself it was gonna be fine and to take deep breaths.” Blonde, Endless, and Boys Don’t Cry are a large collection of miniature memories, specks of self preserved in words and strings and slabs of wood, documenting the hundreds of lives that make up one lifetime. “I won’t forget the summer. I won’t forget who I was when I met you,” Ocean promised in that 2012 post. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly how I feel about Blonde — the most essential of the works he released last week — or how it stacks up to Channel Orange. What I know is that it upholds that four-year-old TextEdit promise to remember every one of those fragmented selves. It feels like an archive of every person he has been, and every person who allowed them to exist. He even reminds one of them on “White Ferrari,” my favorite song on the album for the moment: “I care for you still, and I will forever / That was my part of the deal, honest.”

That promise enters full bloom on the following track, “Seigfried.” “Speaking of nirvana, it was there,” Ocean says, as though he's pointing to the space next to himself in bed. “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought / That could think of the dreamer that thought...” — and so he continues, for longer than you expect. On first listen, the line struck me as uncharacteristically inelegant, a Bright-Eyes-album-title type of thought. But I get it now, after listening more. This is what Frank Ocean has been building, the life’s work: more of a state of mind than a place, where the selves of your past lives and all the people they loved and learned from exist, here, in one place, safely, forever. Maybe he no longer knows them very well anymore, and maybe there’s a reason for that — he hurt them, or they hurt him, or they just faded away from each other. But they’re there, and that’s something. Maybe, in this utopia he has built across songs and Tumblr posts and staircases, some of those selves have crossed paths with one another. Maybe some of them will write songs about him, too.