When I meet the writer, artist, and trend forecaster Emily Segal poolside at her apartment complex in Los Feliz, she thoughtfully brings out miniature cans of bubbly water and green tea for us to sip in the breezy sunshine. You might look at the two of us and say we are “doing the memes” of an L.A. interview, just as “doing the memes of a Berlin summer would be drinking beer in the middle of a field and staying out for 18 hours on ecstasy,” as the narrator of Segal’s debut novel, Mercury Retrograde, explains it.
Segal is best known for co-founding K-Hole, the New York art collective and trend-forecasting agency that coined the viral term “normcore,” originally used to describe a philosophy of “opt[ing] into sameness” but widely interpreted in fashion terms as “dressing like Jerry Seinfeld.”
Segal grew up in Manhattan, and, after studying comparative literature at Brown, returned to the city and fell into trend forecasting through a brand-strategy day job. Broadly speaking, trend forecasting aims to trace and analyze emerging patterns in the cultural landscape and distill them for brands and other clients to anticipate consumer desires. But the practice has arguably always been more art (or occult) than science—Segal and her compatriots at K-Hole just took it to a surreal extreme.
After K-Hole dissolved in 2016, Segal continued to forge a hybrid practice in the growing gray area where art and branding overlap, consulting for Louis Vuitton, Nike, and MTV. Eventually she decamped for Berlin, where she started writing (longhand, in a notebook) what would become Mercury Retrograde.
A big-name publisher might describe the auto-fictional coming-of-age story as “Bright Lights, Big City meets Black Mirror,” but Segal decided to self-publish Mercury Retrograde with Deluge Books, a queer experimental press she co-founded last summer with friends Hannah Baer and Cyrus Simonoff.
New Age Nostradamus
Sharp, witty observations on the lifestyle and fashion codes of our present day course through the book. On the opening scenes of a Munich innovation conference: “Mini bagels and abstract geometric foam mesh furniture filled the space.” A wealthy woman at a Miami art fair (unnamed but almost certainly Art Basel) wears Vibram toe shoes but is given away by her “deep honey golden highlights, unfakeably expensive.” When a start-up gets V.C. visitors from the “Andreessen mothership,” Segal writes that “suits didn’t wear suits anymore—they wore Tibetan prayer beads coiled around their wrists.”
There is a “Page Six” quality, also, that has made the book a word-of-mouth hit in the art world since it was published at the end of last year, with readers eager to identify the blind-item silhouettes of well-known curators, collectors, and architects.
Segal says the founding of Deluge was spurred by frustration with the glacial pace of book publishing compared to the high-speed worlds of tech—and even art—that she is used to. “I started researching what it takes to start a press, and it turns out it’s like starting a sweatshirt company,” she says with a laugh. “Of course, it’s not as easy as that, but I tricked myself into thinking it would be—the necessary self-deception.”
Deluge is publishing three other books this year, as well as selling some actual sweatshirts and other requisite merch. In the meantime, Segal is exploring other avenues of independent funding and distribution for literature, namely the controversial yet buzzy form of NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
Many true believers proclaim that NFTs are the future of art and the creative industries, citing the potential for transparency and for artists to connect directly with their audiences, but Segal is less sanguine. “I’ve been through many cycles of techno-optimism and techno-pessimism since I was a teenager—it’s not my first rodeo,” she says. “But what I find exciting about the current NFT madness is that it’s an opportunity to collectively reassess how cultural material is valued and how capital flows around things like art, poetry, and books.”
“Suits didn’t wear suits anymore—they wore Tibetan prayer beads coiled around their wrists.”
In April, Segal launched a crypto-currency crowd-funding effort through Mirror (a publishing platform for writers experimenting with NFTs) to support the completion of her next book, Burn Alpha, a homoerotic teen thriller set in a mid-2000s-era Manhattan private school that she intends to be “really pulpy.” Patrons pledged a total of 25 ETHs (at current value, about $50,294) in less than 24 hours (she capped the campaign at that figure), and Burn Alpha made history as the first-ever novel to be crowd-funded with crypto-currency.
This was followed by re-uniting with her old K-Hole collaborators to launch an NFT commemorating the 10th anniversary of the collective (they minted the original “normcore” diagram, naturally). Last month, Segal also debuted three visual poems as NFTs. “Why can’t poetry be more like a meme?” she asks. “I always want maximum fluff and maximum seriousness at the same time.”
Segal considers it all an experiment, her attempt to make a play for the significance of writing in the overheated NFT gold rush, though she does see NFTs as a signal of something bigger breaking on the horizon. “All this immaterial art having a huge moment foreshadows potentially a new Internet, and new forms of decentralization where institutions fall away,” she says. “But what form it will ultimately take is up in the air.”
Segal relates this to other key trends that she still researches as one-half of Nemesis, a think tank and consultancy she runs with the Berlin-based musician, architect, and designer Martti Kalliala. Their most recent public-facing memo was “The DOOM! Report” last fall, which explored “the end of trends” predicted by various major news outlets in recent years.
But Segal believes the past year alone shows that trends, as in the emotions surging beneath the surface of cultural consciousness, are not going anywhere. “Mainly, we’re dealing with the breakdown of consensus reality, and a huge amount of chaos and mass grieving,” she says. Segal expects these to ripple out in ever surprising ways, and will be here to keep scrying their effects in her “tacky contempo form of divination,” as she jokingly refers to her profession. “Somewhat ironically, I’m more interested than ever in what people think about the future.”
Samantha Culp is a Los Angeles–based writer and filmmaker