Extracurriculars is a recurring feature in which artists discuss their interests that are not art.
One of the best accounts on Twitter belongs to @BAKKOOONN, the handle of San Francisco–based artist and photographer Oliver Leach. Having amassed a substantial art following over the past three years, his feed is perversely humorous, sumptuously crude, aimlessly poetic, and endless in scope, whether the topic is depression (“please give me serotonin. i need it for my brain”), social-media etiquette (“unblock me, you moist villain”), the extreme right wing (“fed gestapo wont get last laugh i ate my guns come get em”), himself (“one day the man i trained will kill me in a field of flowrs; and he will be come to known as Big Bakoon”), or nothing at all really (“im a little lord in short pants, will some one please rub comfrey cream on my bottom”), and Leach is just as likely to tweet about cats on mushroom trips as he is to retweet Sebastian Smee or mock Ted Cruz. His own artwork is surprisingly muted, but just as niche and unnerving. Reminiscent of spirit and UFO photography, his dimly lurid images of suburban scenery are interrupted by almond-shaped gashes of light, like eyeholes that allow the viewer a glimpse beyond the mask of materiality.
So who exactly is the man behind the dog? I spoke to Leach over the phone to find out.
ARTnews: Tell me BAKOON’s origin story.
Oliver Leach: The name BAKOON comes from a mispronunciation of an extremely niche Japanese comic book character. It’s this sort of mentally challenged giant man who decided he wanted to become the richest person in the world. I don’t know—it just cracked me up. That picture of the dog in the red jersey—
Yeah, how did you find that picture?
Do you know LiveJournal? The blogging platform that was big in the 2000s and then sort of got co-opted by the Russians? I found that picture of the dog on there because someone had a script where they just ran a feed of every photo everyone has ever posted on LiveJournal and I would just watch it for hours, sifting for information.
Did you look through all that stuff for art purposes or just for yourself?
There’s not that much of a disconnect between the two, I guess—not anymore at least. Really, there’s not that much of a disconnect between anything anymore. But to give you a sort of narrative timeline for the stuff I post online, yeah, I was on the Internet posting on Prodigy and bulletin boards way back in the day.
Really? Do you use a lot of social-media accounts now?
I just have Twitter. I don’t use Facebook or Instagram or anything. I’m kind of obstinate in that way, I guess.
How did you initially gain followers?
I posted online for years and years—on forums and bulletin boards and etcetera.
Were you always in character as BAKOON?
Yeah, the character’s sort of just me, but a little cruder, I guess. But yeah, the friends I made online—the same 15 or so idiots I used to post with all the time—became programmers or comedy writers. They immigrated to Twitter before I did and they got followings by posting jokes and whatever.
Do some of your friends write for well-known comedy shows?
Yeah, like the bloggers Jon Hendren and Mike Hale—I’ve known them online for years. They go by @fart and @dogboner on Twitter. After that, I remember Richard Prince found my Twitter account early, and that led to some art [people]. I really like Twitter for art. Instagram kind of creeps me out for some reason. I’m not sure why.
Don’t you have an Instagram where you post your photos, though? I saw it when I was researching you.
I posted there for a weekend, but then I was like, “I don’t like doing this. I don’t like squares. I don’t like the stuff that people post on here.” I have this vague theory that Instagram is making art worse. Like if you look at work by students in M.F.A. programs, I think you can instantly tell which people use Instagram a lot.
It’s interesting because everyone in the “art world” knows who you are, but it sounds like you’ve never met any of them personally.
Oh no, no, I’ve never met most of them. I’m just—I guess I’m sort of shy.
How old are you, by the way?
I just turned 33.
Do people in your real life know that you’re BAKOON?
Yeah. Well, some of them do. I still like to keep it close to my chest, even though I have no reason to.
So your family doesn’t know?
Oh, they know. [laughs] My mother gets angry when I post pictures of wieners or whatever.
So, the big question: are you like your Twitter persona in real life?
I’m definitely lazier. [laughs] But yeah, pretty much.
Do most people get it? Or do some of the people you know in real life feel very confused?
Well, yeah. But there’s probably fewer of them now that real life and Internet art are becoming one big Venn diagram. That’s all merging into one big circle.
Do people think you’re funny in real life?
Yeah. I think I’m good at cracking people up. But I also like scaring people; I like eliciting a reaction. I was just telling somebody that I had this idea of Bernie Sanders going after Hillary Clinton through this subliminal imagery of a cat breast-feeding all of these snakes. And people were like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I’ve just been an idiot online my whole life and my real life intersects with it enough that it’s become a sort of niche now.
How long have you been BAKOON? Or, how long has that character existed?
Since 2008, I think. That’s when I started using that name on different websites. I started posting on Twitter sometime in 2013. I had just finished grad school and I was sort of depressed and tired of the Internet, so I thought I’d find a new venue. I guess the rest of the world has since found the same venue. I’ve stopped using Facebook because it creeps me out.
I know. I’m not sure why it’s still doing pretty well. It’s become somewhat obsolete for most individual users, too.
Yeah. I work for this photo curator here in town as an assistant and she lives a block or two away from—what’s his name? Zuckerberg. I’ve had a couple of run-ins with that guy. He’s a creep.
I bet. He seems like the kind of person who doesn’t blink very much.
Yeah! Zero facial expression. I don’t know, man.
Does he really wear the same thing every day? I read somewhere that he wears the same outfit every day so that he doesn’t have to waste mental energy on choosing his clothes.
I mean, to be honest, I have a closetful of basically identical clothes, but that’s just because I don’t give a shit.
Right, you just don’t care. Whereas he claims this is consuming a significant portion of his mental energy.
He probably has an algorithm he uses to calculate his daily energy output efficiency.
How much mental energy do you use when you tweet? Is it a really fraught process or is it more stream-of-consciousness?
It mostly happens when I’m standing in line for something or I’m waiting for a print. My process involves really long digital exposures of really dark projections, so I generally have time on my hands when I’m in the studio just to post about dogs with robot heads or whatever.
Do you feel like your account is unique in the Twitter universe?
Yeah, but I don’t really try to stimulate anybody. I just post things that I enjoy, and I try to make the Internet a generally more interesting place. I feel like people are letting down the ball. To be boring online is a terrible thing.
Your account makes me think of the Internet as this huge garbage heap where you can occasionally can find diamonds, or however the analogy goes.
Oh, thanks. But, you know, I’d say maybe 60 percent of the stuff I post is meant for one specific person to see and to laugh at.
Who is it usually?
A friend. Sometimes they’re in the same room as me. I’m a shy person, so I have to forget that so many people are going to read whatever I’m going to write. If I don’t do that, then I won’t post anything.
Do you try to keep things “on brand,” so to speak? Like, do you ever worry, “People might not respond well to this tweet, I should probably delete this.”
I have a rule called the Too Dumb Even For Me rule. I have a really dumb sense of humor and really dumb things make me laugh, so sometimes it’s just one step over that line. But generally, no, I think the brand [just encompasses] things that interest me and things that would interest other people, things that would frighten or disturb them.
I wish we would stop using that fucking word [referring to “branding”] and all advertising terminology, to be honest. I just post the shit that I like. It’s my personal aesthetic, I guess.
But I do find it interesting that accounts like yours are a fairly recent phenomenon. I think that your account wouldn’t have become as big even three years ago, but it’s really flourishing now that everything is so branded, ironically.
People like feeling comfortable. I just wish we could walk back the advertising lingo, though. Get rid of that, get rid of comments sections, get rid of Facebook. Also, get rid of the cameras on people’s phones. There are too many cameras.
Do you think we’re heading toward dystopia?
I’m sort of a stubborn utopian, somehow. I think things are going to get awesome. I think they have to. Goddammit. I think maybe we’ll get to—what had a good future, Star Trek, I guess? The Fifth Element? You’ve seen The Fifth Element, right?
I don’t think it was The Fifth Element anyway. But I hope we at least get to the point where we have little flying Chinese restaurants that will fly through your apartment window.
Right, I agree. Or, if we could actually hover everywhere, that would be nice.
Do you guys see many people hover-boarding in the streets? Here in San Francisco, it’s a mess.
I’ve never seen that here. What about Google Glasses? Do people still wear those?
It’s been awhile. But I remember at the height of it, I went to the bank to deposit a check and there was some guy wearing flip-flops or Tevas with one of those on, and he was taking $35,000 out in cash.
Yeah, it’s an illness in this town.
I think New York is at least consistent in its aesthetic.
Well, sort of. I lived there for years and years. I actually moved there—
You went to NYU, right?
Oh, yeah, this will tell you what kind of life spectrum I operate in. I moved to downtown Manhattan at the end of August in 2001, and a couple of weeks later it was just [makes an “ugh” sound]. Mega-9/11. Then I went back there recently and it’s totally unrecognizable now.
Yeah, it’s mind-blowing that they cleaned all of that up.
Well, not just [the 9/11 debris] but also downtown. Like, the locksmith I used to go to is now another one of those coffee places that makes the butter coffee. What is it that butter coffee is supposed to do? Does it make you poop?
Probably—maybe the butter is thrown in there to ease things along. A lot of people seem to drink it when they go to Japan. I have a feeling that you would like Japan.
Yeah, Japan’s great. I end up reading a lot of Japanese stuff online because I’m just kind of a night person, and that’s when they’re online. Nighttime is when I operate and interact with people the most online. And because of my artistic processes, it needs to be so dark in my studio that I have to work at night. That does not help.
Do you find sunshine depressing?
I don’t know about depressing, but not useful, I guess. Like, I don’t need it in my life. I think different places have different suns. I grew up in Texas and the sun there can get bad. And south of here, in the town of Sunnyvale in Santa Clara County, it literally feels like the sun is like three feet from your body.
Oppressive. How did you discover the things you’re interested in now? Texas doesn’t seem conducive to them.
I come from a family of super-liberals. My mother is on the board of Planned Parenthood, and my grandmother let the Black Panthers hide in her house.
Wow, that’s really fantastic. You like horror movies, right?
Oh god, yeah.
Did your parents encourage that?
I think that was all me. It was in second or third grade when I got in trouble because I would pop the heads off of action figures and paint them to look all bloody. Then I would get those small containers—you know the ones that carry those toys you can get at the supermarket for a quarter?—and I would put the bloody little heads in those capsules, suspended in clear Elmer’s glue. I would sell them to other kids. It was great.
Did they ever send you to the guidance counselor?
Well, it was dovetailing into when they caught Jeffrey Dahmer, and they sent me to a child psychiatrist.
Most serial killers torture animals, though.
Yeah, it’s torturing animals, it’s setting fires, and it’s wetting the bed. But torturing animals is the major one, I think. Growing up, I was obsessed with horror movies. A lot of the imagery in my work, on some level, comes from horror VHS covers.
Do you think of your Twitter as art?
If you’re willing to put up an argument for it as art. I don’t know if I’m willing to put up an argument for it, but I think somebody could. So I think, yes, potentially.
I think it’s related to what Jon Rafman is doing with his videos, but the difference is that he’s working from a third-person objective perspective and you’re working from a first-person perspective.
I should start tweeting from the third person. Like, “Oh, look, here’s BAKOON.” “Look, he’s eating a cheeseburger.”
But, in the same vein, I was talking to a coworker about your Twitter, and he was saying that it’s characterized by a sense of disingenuousness, emotional detachment, and body horror. Do you agree? I sort of don’t.
I don’t know. I try to be genuine, I guess.
I think you actually seem very earnest. Your account is very post-ironic, as terrible as that sounds. But I think people would view it as insincere, just because Internet culture hasn’t fully transitioned yet.
Yeah. I admit I can be a cynical prick, though. And I am mean to politicians.
I can tell that you’re really interested in politics, but I find it refreshing that you don’t tweet about just any big event. For example, you didn’t tweet about Kanye’s new album.
I couldn’t give a shit about Kanye. The world and the Internet world are not necessarily two different things. He’s like the biggest pop star in the world and he’s flipping out and having an episode. We talk about him and we suck his blood. It’s fascinating. And Hillary Clinton saying “Haters gonna hate” and throwing shade. This [election] is a weird one. And then there’s Donald Trump and all of these 4chan Internet Nazis who [talk about him like they’re] on a dating forum.It’s weird. It’s really weird.
It feels like no one takes anything seriously anymore, or people don’t have this respect for protocol like they used to, which is both a good and a bad thing. Do you know who you’re going to vote for by the way, or if you’re going to vote at all?
No, but I’m going to vote. And, if Bernie wins the Democratic primary, I’m not a monster.
Yeah, I don’t follow politics very closely, but Bernie’s just so hilarious to me. I think it’s his name.
He’s fine, yeah. I want to give him a hug. And Hillary’s a reptile, but sometimes you need a reptile. I mean, Obama’s a once-in-a-lifetime president.
Yeah, he’s a unicorn. So, what’s going on with your art? Are you going to be in a show somewhere soon?
I’m working on a show at this place called Aggregate Space in Oakland right now with the sculptor Dimitra Skandali and my photo partner Amelia Konow. It’s going to be a big, spacey sort of facial meltdown. Otherwise, I’m looking for a spot in town to put some stuff up. I’m fixing a subset of this series on UFOs I’ve been working on, but will probably never finish.
Do you think that UFOs are real?
Probably not, but they’re a symbol of something impossible which is sort of a beautiful thing. Like the manufactured UFO images from pre-digital times—they’re gorgeous. They’re some of the last examples of genuine photo manipulation for duplicitous means, but done for an art purpose I think they’re gorgeous. That’s sort of what I want to emulate.
There was this amazing show at the Met a few years ago on spirit photography, and I went probably eight times. Do you know Ted Serios? He was this mega-drunk in the ’70s, but he was known for doing these psychic Polaroids. He had this magic device that you put up to your forehead and he would also take Polaroids of things that were far away that were obviously fake.
I don’t believe in that kind of thing, but I also don’t not believe in it either. It occupies this weird gray area in my mind.
Yeah, it’s like this post-religious spirituality. Like, “I’m not religious, I’m superstitious.”
Yeah, I agree. It’s easier to believe in superstitions because they almost seem scientific.
Yeah, and it uses an “if-then” logic. If you do this, then that will happen. It’s not like, “If you do this, the man in the sky will be angry.” And it’s on your own terms, too.
My setup is sort of designed around spirit photography. I have this old Kodak ectographic reel projector that’s modified and I just shoot ghosts out on the wall and photograph them.
Have you ever had your aura photographed?
Yeah—I live right next to Berkeley. [laughs] It was an orange-ish red color, if I remember correctly? I don’t know if that’s bad.
I don’t think any of them are bad—they’re just supposed to show what kind of personality you have, or something. I think orange-ish red means that you’re a pretty down-to-earth person.
I once took an aura photograph with somebody else where we had one hand on one terminal and the other hand on the other terminal. It’s sort of like Kirlian photography—do you know about that?
No, what is it?
It’s when you photograph a living thing on an electrified field and it produces this sort of coronal aura around it. They did it with someone who was missing a finger, and it produced an aura around where the finger used to be, shit like that.
You should talk to Tony Oursler—he has a huge collection of occult books and objects. He has medieval spellbooks, a few of Aleister Crowley’s writings and possessions.
This is the kind of shit I want to hear about. I don’t want to hear about Kanye’s breakdown. I really don’t care. I listened to the new album, and it’s all right—it’s like a rap-pop album. It’s fine, but it has all these weird art allusions. Has he done any visual art?
I don’t think so, but he did that performance art piece with Vanessa Beecroft for his album premiere.
Oh, right! How old is Kanye?
He’s still in his thirties, I think.
Right, right. Well, anyway, I just think there’s more interesting music and visual art being made out there.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I still listen to everything I listened to when I was fucking 19. Like, awful punk bands and the Pixies and French electro, that kind of thing.
Do you like movies more than the average person?
Oh, yeah. I’m a movie obsessive. Horror specifically.
Me too. I don’t know much about good horror movies, though. Dario Argento is about the extent of it.
Oh god, yeah. I just watched Inferno again, have you seen that one?
No, I’ve only seen Suspiria.
It’s the sequel to Suspiria. It’s the second of the Three Mothers trilogy. Amazing ending. The third one is Mother of Tears, which stars his daughter.
I’m assuming you like David Lynch.
Oh, of course. I just watched Lost Highway again last night.
That’s my favorite of his movies.
It’s my favorite too! I think it’s the last great one.
Yeah, I love how rough it is. Mulholland Drive is so—
Oh my god, Mulholland Drive. People love it, but I just see the TV pilot edges of it. I mean, there are elements of it that are just gorgeous, but as a whole, I don’t know. Lost Highway is amazing. Like that one shot of the smoke entering the house at the beginning of the movie, by the doorway? That’s one of the best shots in film. I’ve ripped that off countless times in my work.
Which other photographers or directors do you like a lot?
Takashi Miike. His two biggest films are Ichi the Killer and Audition. He’s not so prolific anymore but he used to make five or six movies a year. He’d make one big one and then three little ones and then he’d make two more little ones. He was just insane. He would make these cartoonish gangster movies followed by melodramatic films about people finding their way in China, followed by samurai movies.
I will definitely be looking him up on the Pirate Bay. Well, this was great. You should come by the office the next time you’re in New York—everyone’s such a big fan.
That’s interesting, I never know whether people like me or not. I keep it pretty close to the chest. I’m just in my studio, alone, just banging my head against the wall. It’s good to hear. The thing about being a known critic is that it tends to make people into assholes. [In that context,] writing is actually a pretty nightmarish situation to me. I make side income writing about video games.
Where do you publish that?
Do you know Newegg, the technology website? They have an offshoot site called GameCrate.com specifically for video games. I feel like because [the subject is] video games, I can write about it and no one will yell at me.
Yeah, art is so—
No one cares about art.
[laughs] Of course. But I was going to say that within the quote-unquote art world, it’s very fashionable to make fun of the different players as well as art itself, which is something you don’t often see within an industry.
I think there’s a lot of bad art. But, I think that instead of being like, “Haha, look at this dumb thing,” you should be shaking the artist. Like, “Stop it! Stop it!” You know? I want to look at better things.
There’s definitely a lot of bad art, but I think there’s also a lot of bad art that many people think is good art.
That’s the Instagram effect, a little bit. My theory’s not fully formed, but it’s like Richard Prince’s stuff, for example. He can do whatever he wants to do now. I did a Photoshop of that Instagram portrait exhibition—I Photoshopped my [dog] avatar wearing different hats.
This is an odd question, but do you have a beard?
I 100 percent have a beard. Why? Is it scratching on the telephone?
[laughs] No, I just have a few unusual talents. I can tell when someone has a beard, and I’m good at knowing exactly how much time has passed. For example, I have a strong feeling that 17 minutes have passed since the last time I checked the clock.
Supposedly the human body is able to sense time really well. If you just stare at a clock telling the time when you’re supposed to wake up, you’ll wake up on time, on your own, without needing an alarm.
Yes! That really works. You can also just visualize what time you want to wake up. If I close my eyes and think “6:30” three times very intently—
You’ll wake up five minutes before. It’s another type of survival tactic.