Main Character Syndrome: a Conversation with Kris Pierce

by William Sarradet December 9, 2022

During a trip to Galveston this past October, I was given a gallery tour of the Galveston Arts Center by Curator Dennis Nance. The main gallery featured a solo exhibition by Dallas-based multimedia artist Kris Pierce. I am familiar with the time-based video work Pierce has shown in North Texas, but this properly large solo exhibition is an expanded viewing experience of his work, both in dimension and discipline. I caught up with Pierce to ask him some questions about the show, his process, and how technology is shaping our view of the world.

Kris Pierce, Vampire Jukebox, (still image) Dimensions Variable, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

Kris Pierce, “Vampire Jukebox,” (still image), 2022, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

William Sarradet (WS): Your exhibition at the Galveston Arts Center features a fascinating balance between painting and video. How does it feel to show this work in Galveston?

Kris Pierce (KP): Galveston is a really interesting place! There’s a fascinating dynamic between its resident population and its influx of visitors, especially given the high traffic area where the Galveston Arts Center is located. I think that environment creates opportunities for a diverse audience to see and interact with the work.

I’m naturally attracted to visceral, kinetic things. And I think that manifests in the work in unexpected ways, like stolen TikTok videos, Snapchat filters, animated Gifs, arcade components, and video game environments. I think the aesthetic of that world naturally bleeds into the paintings as well. For people that don’t normally engage with art, those types of things may provide a familiar entry point, especially for younger generations. Galveston is the perfect platform for connecting with that audience. Bikers, spring breakers, day drinkers, and vacationing families are all fine folks that may not intersect with art as often. That wider audience, along with your traditional art seeker, is highly appealing to me. 

Kris Pierce, "Ba nanza," 48” X 54” Acrylic, Enamel on Canvas, 2022

Kris Pierce, “Ba nanza,” 2022, acrylic and enamel on canvas, 48 x 54 inches

WS: Your work explores a range of generational themes. How do you sort through the right imagery to express concerns of collective psychological shifts?

KP: I think generally I approach imagery as material. There’s a layer beneath the aesthetic that captures the culture of the moment. To some degree, it’s hard to articulate what may qualify something as capturing the collective zeitgeist. In digital space, hashtags are one way that the collective “we” choose to collate things we deem of importance. It’s a cheat towards separating what is and is not socially valued. The images and language that sustain feel likely to become evocative of their era. Generational images of the past rose to the top through less democratic means, but nonetheless their ability to capture the “spirit of 60’s,” or whatever era, provides a point of intersection, similarity, or difference that says something about where we are as a society.

WS: Your exhibition features many paintings, some of which contain digital hardware like LCD monitors. The focal point of the show is a sculpture which displays a video feed as it streams inside of a live virtual world. Tell me about how you describe your virtual environments to viewers.

KP: I think the distinction I would make would be in relation to the term “time-based media,” which is how you would typically define content you view on a screen. In contrast to that, I would describe Vampire Jukebox (the central work in the exhibition) as real-time. Historically, time-based implies things move in a linear fashion, while real-time content is dynamic in nature. Being able to use modern tools (like a game engine) as a platform, allows me to plug into any number of inputs to create a live stream of data, images, and really whatever, to populate and drive the work. 

A lot of this happens on the back end, specifically using code to access data from various sources, or in this case, Twitter. Because the projected component of the sculpture runs in real time, the work constantly evolves. Video sources, text inside the piece, and other components stay fresh in a way that a purely linear time-based work couldn’t. I think of these virtual environments as a mirror of what is happening across the web, just recontextualized within the work. It’s akin to a living organism. Its real-time nature makes the work topical and relatable in ways that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. You get a different experience each time you see the work, an experience assembled from the vast social hive our society is building this very moment. The possibility of realizing that inside the work is exciting to me. 

Kris Pierce, "Vampire Jukebox" (Detail), Dimensions Variable, 2022

Kris Pierce, “Vampire Jukebox,” detail, 2022, dimensions variable

WS: Did you look anywhere in particular for writings or theories about technological impact on society?

KP: The central theme of the exhibition relates to an emerging psychology term referred to as “Main Character Syndrome.” In short, it refers to an online phenomena where people act out fictionalized versions of their lives across social media. You’ll also hear the term “Main Character” or “Main Character Energy” used a lot across social media to describe people who project a degree of tone-deaf self-importance or narcissism. This Main Character label can of course be used to describe any number of people across time, but in regard to technology, the phenomenon emerged amid the pandemic as a way to reclaim one’s sense of self in a world that has felt extremely isolating.

Technology has provided a unique stage for people to act out their Main Character fantasy. TikTok is the most active platform for Main Character content creators. A quick search for #maincharacter shows the scope of how this manifests itself, sometimes in really sweet and endearing ways, and other times in ways that feel completely unhealthy. There’s been a lot of writing as of recent on “Main Character Syndrome,” especially given the rise in cults of personality that have dominated popular culture over the past 8 years. All of that heavily informs the work in the exhibition and my larger studio practice.

Kris Pierce, "Party Line," Installation view

Kris Pierce, “Party Line,” installation view at the Galveston Arts Center

WS: How is networked technology shaping humanity’s collective consciousness, particularly in the U.S.?

KP: The core content of these “businessman paintings” comes from the chauvinistic cartoons that were common in magazines, comics, and newspapers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The Western male archetype perpetuated by these cartoons was one whose behavior, no matter how offensive or degrading towards others, could be chalked up as nothing more than “locker room talk,” and could be pushed off by the idea that  those within a position of power were “just boys being boys.”

The same way that memes today perpetuate class constructs within our society, these comics conditioned what was acceptable behavior for this power class — behavior that capitalist society peddled as its archetype of success. The Western male image of this era is singular. It is one in which social groups are othered in a way that we are supposed to laugh at.

This “harmless” Mad Men-era male seems to have manifested into increasingly dangerous aspects of our lives, including politics, global dynamics, and war. It projects across television, Twitter, in state leaders, tech bros, and industrial titans, in what feels like a bizarro new Gilded Age. This attitude sewn and signed off on in our past is extended into this new class of playboys and represents another manifestation of the “Main Character” persona.

These works use this coded history to set up visual relationships exploring these ideas, where we’ve been, where we are, and the dynamic between these fictional characters and their real-world manifestations. I see it as a way to reorient and reclaim history’s one-way conversation.

Kris Pierce, "Spooky Action at a Distance," 192” X 48” Acrylic and enamel on panel, commercial display, custom power cable, HD loop 25 minutes, 2022.jpeg

Kris Pierce, “Spooky Action at a Distance,” 2022, acrylic and enamel on panel, commercial display, custom power cable, HD loop 25 minutes, 192 x 48 inches


Kris Pierce: Party Line is on view at the Galveston Arts Center through January 8, 2023.

William Sarradet is the Assistant Editor for Glasstire.

All photos by William Sarradet unless otherwise noted.

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