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Since the 1990s, the digital age has been making it easier to be creative and show it to the world. There’s nothing new saying that, but over the last four years especially, the options for artistic or literary trial-and-error have exploded: A “blog” is no longer a funny-sounding word (and cyberspace is riddled with forgotten ones’ corpses), Facebook evolved into everybody’s living room, digital photography became ubiquitous, and new platforms – Tumblr, instagram, Pinterest, Twitter – brought new opportunities to share a creative spark with an audience. Going viral means moving from obscurity to acclaim in an instant; its promise is our generation’s take on the lottery ticket, though “success” could mean much less than that. And not only are these things possible now, not only is exposure a mere click away, but it’s all free. And nowadays there’s less disincentive of professional risk by taking your art to the edge. Maybe it was through our own biases that we saw a populist quality in Olsen’s photographs; he said he never intended to make a statement about economic class or anti-elitism, calling it, instead, “documentary style,” though he’s happy to describe the scene he photographs as “alternative.” In 2000, Olsen began attending the Art Institute for photography, but didn’t stay there. “It was too commercial,” Olsen said. “I can’t see myself taking pictures of families or weddings or portraits. I’d rather photograph naked hairy men. I’m fascinated by the gay ‘subculture,’ it’s where I fit in.” What Olsen’s photography is for certain, though, is provocative. It’s a reminiscent of a thread between many “alternative” gay culture-setters – present and past, from great to mundane – combining an artistic context with unmodified realism, eroticism, subversiveness and grit: Allen Ginsberg (poet), Ryan McGinley (photographer), BUTT Magazine (magazine, website), East Village Boys (blog). Olsen said he fell in love with gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work since he discovered it as a teenager, and looks up to Herb Ritz and Keith Haring. “I guess all my influences have been provocateurs,” Olsen said, “pushing the envelope. Robert Mapplethorpe was explicit, but the quality – wow.” The images Olsen takes are out there (pun intended) on the Internet, but the artist, as well as the unruly bunch he loves to photograph, calculates that they won’t suffer personally and professionally for being associated. Since colleges and career counselors warn people to be careful putting even seemingly-innocuous information on Facebook profiles, the number of locals willing to show up on Otter J, in ways that can be far more of a liability than your typical “overshare,” is notable.
[ [ cover story ] ]
In this culture, evidently it’s the idea of the career or life that would be risked by this sort of expressive freedom – not the digital record that would put it at risk – that feels like “baggage.” We’re in the middle of a dramatic cultural shift, especially in Colorado. The move toward suburban sprawl reversed with a renewed interest in cities. Over the last decade, being gay has gone from an “issue” that politics tiptoed around, to a legitimate public identity. In a shorter period, Colorado has gone from red state to blue. Maybe this all is because of increasing racial diversity in America; the arrival of a multiculturalists’ generation that was always destined to change things. Maybe it’s a society that just got plain fed up with the Religious Right; both the right and the left have become more libertarian in reaction to the Bush years. Or maybe it’s that Denver’s population is reaching a critical threshold of size that we’re suddenly more “urban,” a real city like never before. In any case, with the change comes a tolerance – or at least expanded niche – for the expressive, eccentric or deviant. It’s safer than ever to come out at work. There’s less chance of putting a future (or current) career at risk by, say, smoking pot, having a highly-visible tattoo or piercing, drinking in front of the boss – the list could go on – or showing up wearing only underwear (and less) on a prominent local art blog, plus around town on calendars, cell phone cases or t-shirts Olsen sells online featuring his photographs. There’s a recipe for a thriving alternative and creative community in Denver, a kind that San Francisco, Austin, Seattle or Brooklyn are known for but we don’t really have much of a name or recognition for here, for now. When we someday look back at this moment in history – at this generation, this culture and this political landscape – we don’t yet know it’ll be portrayed except as big change. Change for the LGBT movement, for media, for technological connectivity and for politics. The 2008 elections completely obliterated the old concept of who can reach the highest levels of influence and success in life, yet was almost simultaneous with an economic shift that humbled tens of millions, even as it drove a new political element to the surface re-thinking how Americans will view work, wealth and personal spending. Revolution, even the best kind, never comes without some pain and sacrifice, of course. The question that’s left is ours to answer: Is now one of the most difficult times to be young – or one of the best? ]
march 20, 2013 | outfrontonline.com
COVER STORY: Young, Gay and Broke: gay men who live outside the margins of traditional society.