Bubbling to the surface from the dark and mysterious depths of the internet, a piece of viral content appears. It’s often hard to trace how these big internet moments originate, or who is even behind them, but one collective is known to be the creator of at least a few recent ones: MSCHF.
Take, for example, Lil Nas X’s famed Satan Shoes, a pair of Nikes filled with human blood, which last year prompted conservatives like South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to wax poetic about the “fight for the soul of our nation” in a Twitter post. Fox may have credited unnamed designed company for the sneakers, but it was, in fact, MSCHF who created them.
In the past, MSCHF, whose name is pronounced like the word “mischief,” has been described as a brand or a business, albeit one that lacks any kind of coherent product. Founded in 2016, the hard-to-define collective has rarely been talked about as a group of artists.
“Which is strange, because we’ve always thought about the work we’re doing in terms of art,” said Lukas Bentel, one of the founders of MSCHF, during an interview with ARTnews, alongside Kevin Weisner, another founder.
Bentel and Weisner met at RISD in the early 2010s while pursuing dual degree programs at Brown University, Bentel for music, Weisner for materials engineering. Once they left RISD and met the eight other members that would become MSCHF, they made a decision to eschew the art world, though that doesn’t mean art collectors haven’t been nabbing their works for years.
“We wanted to make things that pushed beyond the gallery space, as opposed to the kinds of works that we made in college,” said Bentel. This meant walking away from the world of gallerists and curators in favor of seeking out engagement and feedback from a much broader public: the good people of the internet.
This is not to say that MSCHF doesn’t take its cues from post-internet collectives like DIS or artists like Brad Troemel, which likewise sought to bring Web 2.0 weirdness offline, into the real world. Bentel and Weisner even cite Troemel’s article “Athletic Aesthetics” as a crucial text for the collective. But where Troemel and DIS consistently created works that were meant to be absorbed by the art world, MSCHF took seriously Troemel’s “aesthlete” figure who produces work at a fast clip, refusing to pause for the postmortem. Since the beginning, MSCHF has “dropped” a new work every two weeks.
In Guns2Swords (2021), MSCHF launched a gun buyback program with a twist. Gun owners sent in their firearms, and MSCHF melted them down into swords that were then sent back in their place. In Spot’s Rampage (2021), the collective mounted a paintball gun to a Boston Dynamic robot dog named Spot. MSCHF wired the robot so that people online could manually control Spot remotely and have the dog spray a white cube space with paint.
In Keys4All, MSCHF sold 5,000 keys to the same PT Cruiser. Anyone with a key can drive the car—that is, if they can find it. So far, the car has traveled from New York to California.
Seeing the kind of real world interactions that MSCHF’s work provokes, it’s easier to understand why Bentel and Weisner cringe when the word “viral” is brought up.
Virality is often measured in clicks, posts, and likes, but the engagement that MSCHF is seeking transcends those modes of interaction. They’re similarly wary of the kind of media attention they get, which includes feature write-ups in the New York Times and TV segments on middle-American news programs.
“You’ll think, ‘Oh, I got a lot of press for this thing. That means a lot of people are engaging with it,’ but that’s not always the case,” said Bentel. “Meanwhile, I think Keys4All is probably one of our most active, successful projects—the car literally made it to California—but there’s not much press or conversation. There’s a disconnect there.”
“There are a lot of different virals,” added Weisner. “It’s in the overlap of spheres that you have the most potential that people will feel passionately about something. Sword people and gun people, Nike and Catholicism.” He brought his hands together and meshed his fingers before making an exploding gesture.
As a result, MSCHF has grown a passionate audience, that includes, funnily enough, the legal community. Because the group is involved in a seemingly never-ending stream of lawsuits, copyright lawyers and scholars follow their work religiously.
“I feel like they think that they are our audience, like we make this work to test legal theory for them,” Bentel said. Thus far, MSCHF has never lost a case, though they did settle with Nike, post-Satan shoes.
In addition to their legal scholar fans, they’ve found a large following in sneakerheads after making the Jesus Shoe in 2019, sold for $1,425, its price corresponding to the Bible verse where Jesus walks on water. The concept was developed as a way to simultaneously poke fun at the Catholic Church and hypebeast culture. But the sneaker community unironically loved them, and in time, MSCHF has come to love sneakerheads back.
Though MSCHF co-founder Gabe Whaley told the New York Times that the Jesus Shoe was making fun of the brand collaborations, claiming he would “shut down” MSCHF if they ever made merch, Bentel and Weisner both sported their Perrotin x MSCHF sneakers when I met them. MSCHF now even has a branch dedicated to absurdist footwear such as the AC.1, which just looks like a medical boot. There are also less absurd shoes, like the Gobstomper, which MSCHF made in collaboration with Jimmy Fallon that just looks like a normal sneaker.
For Bentel and Weisner, the fact that the group occasionally sells footwear doesn’t mean they’re selling out or that this somehow dilutes their artistic integrity. They operate as a business, and by doing so, they can afford to lose money on artistic projects that they care about. If anything, MSCHF sees their operation as honest, as opposed to certain blue-chip artists who aren’t recognized as what they are: businesses.
“There’s this idea of the genius artists that is breaking down right now,” said Bentel. “We are a group of, like, 30 people at this point. And then there’s Damien Hirst, who has hundreds of employees and is a huge company. But his name is on everything.”
Bentel spoke of Hirst in reference to Severed Spots (2022), in which MSCHF cut up Flumequine (2007), a Hirst etching filled with dots, which they purchased for $44,000. The collective is selling each dot at $4,400 a pop, and the negative outline of the cut up print for $75,000. It’s the second time MSCHF has created this work, and the repetition is meant to underscore how Hirst’s art is just business by another name.
“When we realized that the work was replicable, we were running through the supply chain,” Weisner said. “We were like, Oh, Hirst is our supplier.”
It can be easy to write off MSCHF’s art as art about commercialism that ends up feeding commercialism. The piece Wavy Shoes (2022) is an array of popular sneakers—Jordan 1s, Adidas Superstars, Converse Chuck Taylor Superstars—that are fitted with an undulating, curvy sole. This may seem banal, but even this small gesture has proven provocative: Vans is suing MSCHF for “wavifying” a pair of their classic sneakers. Even the slightest disturbance in branding can prove disruptive.
Some of the works MSCHF has produced—like Spot’s Revenge (2022), one of the works in the Perrotin show—existed in other forms before they made their way to a gallery. Spot’s Revenge has its roots in Spot’s Rampage, the work where a Boston Dynamic robo-dog was fitted with a paintball gun. Boston Dynamic sent the collective numerous cease and desist letters, even suggesting alternatives to how the work could be carried out.
“They suggested attaching a paint brush to it instead,” Weisner said, rolling his eyes.
Spot’s Rampage was a commentary on the militaristic uses of Boston Dynamic’s robot, despite the company’s efforts to brand the robot as cute and harmless. Their suggestion to neuter the piece to fit with that image didn’t play well with MSCHF. “So we ignored them,” said Weisner.
“When we didn’t stop, they just bricked it,” Weisner continued. He said that Boston Dynamic had remotely hacked the robot and broke it, so that MSCHF could no longer continue the project. A week later, various Spots were seen patrolling the streets with the NYPD.
“These people are caught in a constant, unbelievable, self-deception,” said Weisner.
In the middle of the gallery floor, the broken robot is mounted with block of machine guns. It resembles something out of a sci-fi concept illustration, and it’s frustratingly obvious. But like so many of MSCHF’s works, it’s also brutally effective, not for the object it became but for the hypocrisies it revealed.