From the Pages: RED SCARE’s Rules of Attractions

 
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An interview between Adam Lehrer and the ladies of Red Scare, Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova with an introduction by Janna Shaw, taken from our current issue on Kreativität. Editorial shot by Heji Shin and styled by Burke Battelle

I had a house slave in Brooklyn. His relation to me was dusting my ceiling fans, mopping my floors, scrubbing the windows, mealprepping my lunches, and steaming my bedsheets. If anything was not totally up to par, there were supposed consequnces, but my flat was always clean, I was nutriously fed, and he left feeling useful or worthy, or whatever. 

Before I allow the image to form of a grotesque, pathetic man on his knees vying for attention, let me clarify a few things: he was tall, handsome, considerate, and well-spoken. He was a writer my age that had sold out for a financial firm in Manhattan. He enjoyed being aligned with creatives. He enjoyed being of service to them. He used his priveleages of time and money to benefit those he respected. Let us not be so quick to kink shame all deviants.

I was introduced to Red Scare when he asked if I would allow him to listen to a podcast while he cleaned. I initially did not listen alongside him- that wasn’t untilI later, when I began giving him assignments to write brief summaries of what he learned within each two hour episode. These summaries inlcuded scathing takes on the 2016 American election with particulary questionable remarks toward Hilary Clinton, breakdowns on escalating societal clashes, opinions upon the New York art market being used for money laundering rather than aesthetic expansion, and I was shocked by the numerous references to one of my favorite critics, Camille Paglia. I revealed my curiosity by beginning to listen alongside (or rather, above) him.  

Red Scare is a cultural commentary podcast that consists of two Russian-American „ladies“ (as they prefer to be referred), living in New York City as bohemian layabouts: the writer Anna Khachiyan and the actress/screenwriter Dasha Nekrasova. Anna studied art history at NYU, while Dasha studied philosophy at Mills College. Anna is a severe and statuesque beauty, entirely unapproachable by the looks of it, who I later find to be softer, sweeter, more patient and pointed in her interactions that I imagined she would be. Dasha, sucking on her vape pen, embodies the bored blonde Brandy Melville dream. Her favorite flower is a sunflower. She recently turned toward relegion as a practicing Catholic. Maybe it has something to do with the plaid skirts.

And me, eventually I moved to Berlin. I no longer have a house slave (I am always acceping applications), however I still have the ladies of Red Scare to keep me on the American pulse, and up-to-date with the feminists, the red hat wearers, the sex cults, and all the sample sales I fled.

I asked writer and critic and co-host of the podcast System of Systems Adam Lehrer to sit down with the ladies of Red Scare to give us a dive into what has been festering in their minds on the current climate of change and refusal of the American dream. I know Adam through his writing in the contemporary art realm, whose taste in music and art errs into territory of the greatly grotesque. And while I personally have fascination and appreciation for this, he has recently found himself undertaking a string of cancellations. I find Adam, Anna, and Dasha will share much in common, be it in praise or lamentenation. They discuss why being cancelled can be a compliment, how liberal journalists are probably voting for Trump, their favorite writers of nuance and directors of horror, and the sexual appeal of an oily polo shirt.

Adam: Cancel culture is something discussed endlessly, but it’s because we have all been tormented by it. I feel there are some shifts happening within the discourse around Cancel Culture. For instance, the material fall out of being “canceled” isn’t quite as severe as it could be, in that being “canceled” can also be converted into a new kind of social capital. But within a cancel culture, nothing moves forward. Given that Red Scare is a podcast of social commentary, is it getting more challenging to dive into these topics that seem to reproduce themselves endlessly?

Dasha: It gets more tedious than it does challenging. But it certainly is surprising how relevant these topics remain since the time that we first started the podcast. There’s no shortage of neoliberal critique to be done (laughs). Which is good, for us.

Anna: Good for us, bad for society (laughs).

Adam: Yeah. I think I may have told you this in DMs or something, Anna, but I was recently let go by a music publication that I was doing a column for. I had a column and I was a regular contributor. My column was on noise music. I’m a noise nerd.

Anna: I think cancel culture as a topic is still so pertinent because the people that are most concerned about it have gig economy jobs. The term itself is stupid, but it is reflective of deeper socioeconomic issues that are worth talking about. It often reminds me of what was happening around 2015, 2016, with the “free speech” debates on college campuses. More reasonable critics would write off those debates saying it was a “college phenomenon” that wouldn’t reverberate beyond those specific campuses, that it wouldn’t come back to rear its ugly head in a more systemic way. And then, it did.

Adam: I think there’s an element here that is vastly overlooked within cancel culture. There’s a tremendous lack of empathy going on. At the end of the day, I was a downwardly mobile middle class man before I was canceled, and I remain one after. But it’s not like I’m writing about art, music and books because I want to get rich. I write because it is a mode of expression that I’m passionate about. I still have to work a day job. It’s like they wanted to disconnect me from my passion, not my paycheck. It’s hard to explain.

Anna: It reminds me of what Dasha often says: “You can’t be cancelled if your heart is pure.” Or, rather, you can be canceled, but it doesn’t matter because your conscience is still clean.

Dasha: I think why people are so continuously triggered by us is that they can’t cancel us. There is no one who can fire us from our jobs. There’s no HR department to complain to.

Adam: I’m not sure if you saw this David Zwirner announcement about Ebony L. Haynes running an “all-black art gallery” under the Zwirner brand, which I think is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. But what was more disturbing to me, other than the flagrant marketization of identity, was when I went on Instagram and saw that the announcement post didn’t have one skeptical argument about this idea that black art and white art are so innately different that they require their own separate galleries now.

Anna: Like I always say, you don’t need a policy of segregation. People have a tendency to self-segregate. Look at a high school cafeteria.

Adam: I’m sure there are people skeptical of this identity atomization, but in the art and literary worlds, there’s incentivization of social capital and money for artists to “toe the line,” so to speak.

Dasha: In the art world, and in the literary world too, the resources are so scarce. Gallery space is so limited that it becomes an incredibly cutthroat environment. So it yields those kinds of politics.

Anna: My biggest concern out of all of this is that the media and the academic world abandoned liberals. Trump correctly pointed this out. They have a very dark and dystopian view of America as a uniquely racist place. I don’t think that’s true observationally, experientially, or culturally. I think people in real life get along a lot better than than the media portrays it, and that this top-down, discursive policy [as demonstrated by David Zwirner] will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You see this happening in the most parasitic sectors of the economy that depend upon rich people: art, music, media.

Adam: It’s a money laundering scheme. I think of an artist I love like Ida Applebroog. Over the course of her 50 year career, she has boldly refused to do any “feminist” or all-woman exhibitions. Her whole thing is, “Why should I have to be bastardized into a gendered genre of art, when we are all making art?” I don’t think, given how precarious and competitive it is right now, that many are brave enough or secure enough to make that kind of bold choice. If you’re 25-years old, and you have $200,000 in school debt, and someone asks you to be in a “Queer, POC, trans” art show, then you’re proably going to do it because you need the attention, or the money, even if you don’t want that identity to define your work. There’s a transactional aspect to it.

Anna: I’m an optimist, though. I think the worse this gets, the more a genuine transgression and opposition will appear. Hopefully.

Dasha: It’s true, we saw how the culture wars of the 1990s played out. Eventually there was a burnout of entertainment, so we got things like South Park and Tom Green.

Adam: It’s the old Gramsci idea of cultural hegemony, but now it’s only the left that is concerned with capturing the culture. It’s similar with the activist movements that keep happening and accomplishing very little. BLM started in 2014, yet police brutality and mass incarceration are alive and well because these movements are purely cultural and not political.

Anna: Both sides need these extremist ideologies to galvanize and energize their base.

Dasha:
The right has the specter of Antifa that’s totally fabricated, while the left fixates on the Proud Boys.

Adam: And there’s like six Proud Boys all together (laughs)

Anna: And like two of them are Samoan.

Adam: A friend of mine, an artist, told me he went to some Proud Boys party downtown, and he said he saw gay people, trans people, and people of different colors. My friend asked what was going on and a Proud Boy said “Proud Boys are more tolerant than the left now.”

Adam: Should we talk about Biden?

Dasha: He tells on himself constantly because his constituency is the same as Trump’s, basically.

Anna: They have symbolically different belief systems but it’s the same wealthy donors. The Democratic base, as I understand it, is basically affluent suburbanites and welfare recipients. And I think it’s important to point out that welfare recipients are not to be confused with…

Adam: The working class, yeah.

Anna: Exactly. They’re not the same thing, and that’s not a judgement or put down of anyone. The working class is not the democratic base, which is probably why you see Trump polling well with Hispanic people. They are going to be the next frontier people who will be considered politically white and kicked out of the POC caucus. People love to say that working class people were voting against their own interests in voting for Trump, but it’s not always true and it’s incredibly condescending. It’s not that working class people are allergic to the principles of leftism, it’s that they know who the leftist governing class is and they don’t trust it to govern them.

Adam: I believe the failures of Bernie (Sanders) and (Jeremy) Corbyn are directly related to the contradictions in class and ideology within the left. If I’m a working class person looking at these over-educated, alienated socialists, even on the aesthetic level, it’s likely that the working class person will see that they have nothing in common. That’s when you get: “I’m voting for Trump, fuck you!”

Dasha: I don’t think the media can be disregarded from these elections. I think the liberal media class wants Trump to win because they’ve formed a profitable apparatus around resistance-based media coverage. Trump is their bread and butter. All their critiques are very evidently performative.

Adam: I want to talk about the Philip Guston retrospective cancellation. The woke young libs are saying, “Fuck Philip Guston he’s an old white guy, he’s not allowed to use these images.” But instead of older liberals saying what makes sense, which is that Guston was an artist and thus allowed to use images that we might find unnerving, terrifying or seductive, they are claiming he’s a “proto-woke artist,” and that becomes the defense.

Anna: The shocking thing here is that this wasn’t a proper cancellation, as it was preemptive. These were museum administrators and bureaucrats deciding in advance that they needed to cancel this themselves because they anticipated a Hannah Black essay going live attacking the show. Which is beyond cynical, because they definitely don’t think that Guston is a…

Dasha: White supremacist?

Anna: I can understand how some 24-year-old Pratt adjunct would entertain that idea. But not a 48-year-old museum admininstrator…

Adam: I guarantee no one is more disappointed about this exhibition being canceled than Hannah Black is. I’m sure she already had the essay ready to go.

Anna: They robbed us of an entertaining discourse! She probably had her essay queued up and ready to go like the New York Times had Hilary’s presidency win ready to go.

Adam: What I kind of like about Hannah Black is that she’s smart enough to know what she’s doing. She’s so cynical that it’s not even that mystified. As long as you’re not totally brain-numbed on woke ideologies, you can see the functioning of these tactics clearly. She’s made a brand out of herself as the art world’s woke cop.

Anna: Yeah, good for her, I guess.

Dasha: What’s sad to me is about the development in the art world is that institutions should be protecting artists and they don’t even pretend to do that anymore. They are capitulating to demands that haven’t even been made of them.

Anna: Philip Huston was a Jewish artist compulsively drawn to Nazi and KKK imagery, as a person who was once a targeted minority by these very groups he is painting. I get that desire to understand the psychology of your oppressor.

Dasha: Yeah, there’s a history of Jewish artists exploring anti-semitic imagery.

Adam: Sure, I see Guston kind of connected to Phillip Roth, or even to someone more recent like Jordan Wolfson. What we’ve totally lost, though, is that we don’t even need to ideologically rationalize these things. An artist can use any images he wants that fascinate him, perversely or whatever. Make art perverse and naughty again.

Dasha: Jon Rafman’s cancellation felt very similar to me as Nazi censorship of Jewish degenerate art. Not that Rafman is a degnerate… but the idea that degeneracy is something that needs to be eradicated? It’s a very anti-semitic trope.

Anna: The people who get nailed to the cross first are those who have the least serious accusations against them. It’s not rapists and pedophiles, it’s always some guy who was an asshole to a girl once. Never anything criminal.

Adam: Moving forward with the topic of art more broadly: I first heard of Red Scare when you (Anna) went on Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast. It was refreshing to hear someone who agreed with me politically, and who also shared much of my tastes in art. You mentioned Thomas Bernard, Houellebecq, Fassbinder, Haneke and a bunch of other artists I love. Is there a specific mood, atmosphere, or sensibility in art, books, or films that you’re constantly seekng?

Dasha: To be incredibly broad, I appreciate things that deal with nuance.

Anna: I like bourgeois psychodrama. I should say I was really nervous when I went on Bret Ellis’ show because I’m a big fan. I told him my favorite writer was Bernhard, but I should have said the first writer who really spoke to me was Alberto Moravia. He was an Italian half-jew from Rome, banned by the fascists. He deals with bourgeois psychodrama, the differences between male and female psychology, and all the topics I’m interested in. That’s a lineage I like. Fassbinder and Haneke are my favorite filmmakers: they plumb the depths of the baseness of human behavior, especially amongst stifled middle class people. I think I like that kind of violence as opposed to bodily violence or gore. I prefer psychological violence.

Dasha: I’m a fan of horror movies, and literal violence. Aesthetically, I’ve always been preoccupied with the subliminal, the in-betweenness of things, the nuance of affect and the qualities of grey area. And also topics that are considered problematic nowadays.

Adam: Dasha, who were the filmmakers that made you want to be a filmmaker?

Dasha: The film I just made is formally inspired by Polanski in its psychological horror, but it also has some camp elements. Its guiding principle is that it’s a love letter to Stanley Kubrick. I think he understood something very profound about power that he was preoccupied with creatively. And while it isn’t formally inspired by him, it honors his paranoid worldview: that there is an elite power structure whose interests run counter to the lives of ordinary people. The movie takes place after Jeffry Epstein’s death. Two girls move into an apartment that belonged to him, kind of like in The Tenant, and revolves around the specter of that ethereal trauma.

Adam: Anna, you mentioned doing a book?

Anna: I think I might do a book of essays or something. Fiction might be out of my league. There’s that Fran Lebowitz line “Why aggravate the situation?” Like, Houellebecq has already done it. But I think there’s space for a women writers in the vein of Bret Easton Ellis or Houellebecq, who’s actually ruthless about female psychology, which no one talks about.

Adam: Let’s talk about the dynamic between your personas. I’m not familiar with the story behind your friendship or working relationship? Were you two already friends before the podcast?

Dasha: We were friends, but not close friends. We started as Twitter friends, preoccupied with similar things, particularly the liberal feminsit critique. We are also both Slavic, and so when I relocated here from Los Angeles, it seemed like a good opportunity. There was the 2016 election cycle, the Hilary campaign, the subsequent Me Too movement, and the predominant “Girl Bossery” that seemed to be defining contemporary feminism.

Anna: Back in 2016, people were still very naive about liberal feminism. We both got so much hatred and pushback for critiquing it. We were saying, “This is an ideological propaganda apparatus for the capitalists at large,” but now everyone knows this. All the feminists know it, even if they don’t object to it. 

Adam: I wanted to talk about how you have helped make people like Slavoj Zizek and Steve Bannon a new kind of sex symbol. Your idea of sexual charisma and magnetism differs from physical attractiveness. Is there a way you could define attraction?

Dasha: Anna, you made the point that sexual attraction was about abjection.

Anna: Yeah, I think sexual attraction is about abjection and humiliation and it’s not about perfection. It’s difficult for me to be attracted to conventionally perfect looking people in general. I think it’s easier to admire them from a distance than to be dazzled by them. No one wants to have sex with a wholesomely beautiful person. Look at porn. Look at what people are watching verses what they are actually attracted to. There’s a lot of preference falsification.

Dasha: It’s that whole idea of defilement that’s intrinsic to sexual relations.

Anna: I also want to point out I’m not actually sexually attracted to Steve Bannon or Slavoj Zizek.

Dasha: I think Zizek has something…

Anna: Zizek’s central appeal is he’s a decrepit Slavic man who has a great attitude.

Dasha: And he’s funny.

Anna: He’s confident around women so he pulls chicks.

Adam: Even though porn aesthetics are changing, and porn models are increasingly almost model-beautiful, there’s still abjection because we see them fuck.

Anna: Sex is gross, it’s like slapstick. Unflattering angles. If you zoom out and divorce yourself from the erotic bedazzlement and see two bodies slapping themselves together, it’s just comical.

Adam: You just did an episode where you walked around Manhattan, shopping. Are you interested in fashion these days?

Dasha: I’m not very informed on contemporary fashion. I think Anna and I both privilege style over fashion.

Anna:
I appreciate fashion, but am fairly disinterested.. It’s not like in art, where you’re protecting some ethical or moral principal or something. I like fashion because it’s incredibly stupid. I was sitting at a restaurant the other day for dinner, it was during New York Fashion Week, and I saw this horde of young people dressed to the nines. It was a lot of gay guys wearing 6-inch platform shoes with backless blouses. And it just looks so stupid. You look like a victim.

Adam: I have this thing about men’s style in which men need to stop experimenting with looks around the age of 25. After that, if you’re wearing a punk rock t-shirt with skinny jeans one day, and you’re wearing this Rick Owens fucking dress the very next…

Dasha:
I really admire aesthetic consistency in men. I don’t want them to throw curveballs. No need to get experimental.

Anna: I don’t want to see ankles or armpit hair on men unless we’re having sex or I’m watching them play sports on TV. I’m a big proponent of Sharia Law for men. Like I said, I’m not sexually attracted to Steve Bannon, but I do think he objectively has great style. He found his style and it works.

Dasha: A Barbour jacket is a great staple.

Anna: The trick for a man is to look presentable but not gay. Unless you really are gay. Then go knock yourself out.

Dasha: Which again is why a slovenly man like Slavoj Zizek is sexually attractive. He is always just wearing an oily polo shirt.

Adam: Any brands you like?

Dasha: I really like Miu Miu.

Adam: Anna, you’ve said you like what Demna (creative director of Balenciaga and founder of Vetements) is doing?

Anna: I don’t know if I like it, but I get it. What he’s doing as an older millennial Soviet immigrant, he’s really just trolling people. But then I remind myself that you shouldn’t always give fashion people too much credit. They’re not always the brightest. Yeah, I like Miu Miu and Prada, that concept of artificial scarcity where you have to go to a brick and mortar store to buy a pair of shoes that are sold out online.



Adam: Both of you have talked about Ketamine on the podcast. Is Ketamine still a thing? Is it psychologically beneficial to take it in these fraught and perilous times?

Dasha: Everyone is saying that the drug supply has been compromised in New York. Word on the street is that there are a lot of dirty drugs going around, so I’ve been abstaining. But early in the pandemic, I was self-medicating with Ketamine. I think it’s a very interesting drug. This woman Marcia Moore wrote a book called Journeys into the Bright World about her ketamine experiences after she married an anesthesiologist. It’s become very popular in treatments of depression, and it makes sense to me that dissociation could alleviate depressive symptoms. Ketamine has positive mental effects on people.

Adam: I’ve taken it a few times and I liked that it was a psychedelic experience without the paralyzing fear that can coincide with LSD or mushrooms.

Dasha: it’s not as much of a commitment because it’s shorter acting.

Anna: The only time I’ve taken it was at Dasha’s New Year’s party, when I accidentally stuffed all the Ketamine into my bra. The security was coming up to us and I was like, “Oh my god!” and instintually hid it. Then the next day, people in our group chat were like, “I can’t believe people would steal our ketamine at our party. What kind of a person does this?“ But it was fine. I went home and vomited all over my boyfriend’s couch and this bag of ketamine fell out of my bra.

Adam: What traits in your mind make a great woman?

Dasha: Waist to hip ratio.

Anna: Bra size in comparison to arm circumference.

Dasha: It’s all about proportions really.

Anna: (Russian accent) I like women strong like bull. If she can carry two full buckets up a mountain (laughs) I like people who are frank.

Dasha: And honest about their motivations.

Anna: What’s the Jenny Holzer thing: “It’s despicable to hide your motives.” I think she’s talking about feminism in particular. I like a hooker with a heart of gold, who is sexy and sexual but are not treacherous. It’s a rare combination.