The way I’ve always understood them, psychedelics are much more than extremely potent drugs– far from being toys for recreational escapism, they’re actually a means of temporarily nullifying the crushing reality of routine by rendering the everyday in the starkest, most exaggerated terms. The truth becomes obvious and untruths are revealed.
That’s not to say that psychedelics are all serious self-reckoning. Actually, moments clarity are often set against a backdrop of hyperreal visions and spiked sensory perception– it’s totally possible to come to terms with the death of your grandfather while giggling uncontrollably about how unbelievably outlandish it would be if McDonald’s organized a WWE-esque wrestling match between Grimace and the Teletubbies to help in the fight against homophobia and “toxic masculinity,” then deciding, only moments later, that not only is this perfectly conceivable, but it might have already happened.
However a new web-based reality miniseries called HIKEA, which popped up on YouTube a week ago today with a pilot episode shot in Bushwick, portrays psychoactive substances as just the opposite. Guests on the show are asked to consume psychedelics and build a single piece of Ikea furniture– which is at once the most boring and frustrating task anyone could ever dream of asking someone to do on camera. Depending on your view, having to complete a task like this while tripping might sound like a totally harmless exercise, kind of like a puzzle, but for the rest of us, those who’ve been to the dark side and back (whether that means you’ve licked a whole sheet of acid or have assembled an entire apartment full of Ikea furniture), the premise of HIKEA is more like a torture session. It’s one that could only be dreamed up by a pair of minds so devilish that the creators of Keeping up With the Kardashians look like human-interest documentary filmmakers in comparison.
Those of us who aren’t masochists probably can agree that step-by-step, build-it-yourself Ikea instructions have the potential to make any sane person want to set their apartment on fire. So as you might expect, the brave HIKEA guests find that taking psychedelics and trying to piece together flimsy particleboard with plastic pieces and 30 different types of screws that are almost completely indistinguishable from one another (despite what those crazy diagrams imply), is somewhat challenging.
Perhaps, like me, after first watching HIKEA, you brushed it off as just another seriously disturbing meme, a typical product of late-capitalist excess. My guess is that if Marx were around right now, he’d totally agree that HIKEA‘s portrayal of psychedelic experiences– what with their empty metaphysical realizations and distracting spiritualism– are not only another “opiate of the people” but are useful solely for bourgeois entertainment. In a world where psychedelics are no longer revolutionary and instead serve simply as entertainment for the pampered, bored bourgeois, tripping is about as extraordinary as an Allen wrench.
HIKEA, then, represents a later late-capitalism, where both money and time are in such abundance, that people feel compelled to do a crappy job of assembling poor-quality but overpriced dresser-drawers bought from a multi-billion dollar international corporation, throw some drugs in the mix (the ultimate expression of Western nihilism), film the whole debacle for internet fame and glory, before disposing of the sloppily rendered furniture piece, and starting the twisted cycle all over again. In this view, HIKEA is anti-utilitarian at its core, a fulfillment of the factory owner’s ultimate dream: consumers who toss out their products before they even use them and running out to buy more.
Crazier yet– Ikea, the multibillion-dollar, multi-national corporation, was actually built on the backs of East German political prisoners. Yes, for serious. As the Times reported in 2012, an investigation conducted by independent auditors at Ikea’s behest found that the company “knowingly benefited from forced labor in the former East Germany to manufacture some of its products in the 1980s.” In a separate incident Ikea’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, was found to have Nazi ties, and eventually admitted to having supported the Nazis at one time. Later on even more evidence turned up that Kamprad had allegedly worked as a Nazi recruiter. So it’s not a stretch to say that, perhaps, Ikea was founded on fascist principles.
Now, of course, Ikea reads more as a cheery lifestyle and furniture maker that emphasizes compact, Spartan living with a stylish twist, the emblem of friendly Nordic socialism. I mean, isn’t it proof enough that they share the same color scheme with the Swedish flag? Now that the DDR is gone, there are no more East German slave laborers. And Ikea has kept their products cheap-ish by leveling much of their labor costs on to their customers. As the logic goes, this makes the furniture somewhat, sort of affordable– but only if you have those extra eight or so hours to build the stuff yourself.
The contestants on HIKEA prove to be an even more advanced form of free labor. They have so much pent-up energy, thanks to the extreme mechanization of the supremely wealthy hegemonic society in which they live, that they must release it somehow. Ideally, they’ll do so by way of an activity that expends psychic energy at a very high rate– otherwise, what’s the point of even getting up in the morning? If they don’t put all that extra caloric intake and not-moving-at-all to some use, they risk becoming chronic masturbators or, worse, members of some self-castrated men’s groups whose major concern is the usurpation of Western/white/cis/straight/male power by a more equal societal order. This may explain the Craigslist volunteers willingness to be guests on HIKEA.
Worse still, the pilot episode was shot in Bushwick, a neighborhood where the proletariat is suffering greatly from colonization at the hands of the bourgeois. Identity crisis, boredom, and a looming sense of purposelessness have inspired the bourgeois youth to settle in the historically working-class neighborhood. It’s an attempt to acquire “authenticity” from proximity to both the proletariat and bohemian artisans, in the only way that they know how: by buying up property and/or blockading themselves in comfortable facilities safely locked behind iron grating and a doorman.
If you thought that HIKEA couldn’t get any more freaky with the commodity fetishism thing, consider that Hikea Productions was actually created by a duo of copywriters named Alex Taylor and Hunter Fine. Yup, you heard right: HIKEA was created by two advertising professionals. Which, actually, explains a lot– the show feels a lot like an experiment in viral-video making, and it’s a scenario that could only be imagined by someone who’s seen way too many product-testing focus groups. Could you get more bourgeois pig than that?
But the deeper I dove into Hikea Productions, the more it appeared to me that this whole capitalist-overlord thing might be nothing more than a clever facade. In fact, HIKEA seems to be dismantling the very flimsy furniture that Ikea is built on, and negating the oppressive capitalist ideals that it represents.
What first tipped me off to this is that Taylor and Fine don’t simply toss the furniture out when they’re done. “We let [the guests] keep the furniture, which feels very benevolent, but the reality is that it just means we don’t have to drag it away,” the former told Vice. Ok, so they’re not total nihilists.
And the production team seems interested in tapping the DIY nature of Ikea furniture to simulate actual labor. Psychedelics, on the other hand, are utilized not to anesthetize the petit bourgeois/future landlords/aspiring factory owners, but to agitate them into participating in their own radical reeducation.
“Building Ikea furniture may be the only chance most of us get to take the tools out of the closet and actually build something,” Taylor told Adweek. “We’re not carpenters or builders, so it can go a lot of different ways. But it’s something we all know; many people have built their desks after drinking a few beers or smoking a joint, and this is just the next step.”
The next step, indeed. And the reeducation seems to work.
After eating a hefty eighth of magic mushrooms, Keith, the brave psychonaut of episode two, attempts to assemble the Micke desk ($79.99), which Ikea designer Henrik Preutz describes, in extremely spacey terms, as “a real dream product with maximum functions in a minimum space.” But a closer read demonstrates that, actually, Ikea has created a desk (i.e. an accessory for decisively non-proletariat work), that will only further alienate the worker from their proletarian brethren by disguising any evidence of work at all. “It’s easy to keep cords and cables out of sight but close at hand with the cable outlet at the back,” reads Ikea’s description of the Micke model.
Enemies of the proletarian revolution– you’ve been found!
Before embarking, Keith looks bravely into the camera. “I’m ready to built,” he declares. “I feel like I’ve been summoned here to do what many have done through the ages.” But his optimism only lasts for a moment, and eventually Keith breaks down. He’s forced to walk away, overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task. It seems like he’s refusing to go on.
Anyone who’s assembled Ikea furniture will recognize Keith’s feelings– it’s that same sense of being utterly lost while trying to decipher the ostensibly simply directions, only magnified because he’s tripping balls.
“This is like a fuckin’ joke,” Keith declares. “This is a book of lies.”
But the producers encourage him to return to the task. Eventually, five hours and 37 minutes later to be exact, Keith “finishes” the desk (after skipping a few steps). But it doesn’t seem to matter, the desk at least looks complete. More importantly, Keith has come to a few conclusions. “Gonna have some stuff left over so it doesn’t matter. Furniture– it’s wood, it’s metal– you gotta put it together just pieces,” he says rather poetically. “The interconnectedness of man and nature, self-actualization, self-awareness.”
It’s all very hazy, but there’s only one conclusion I can make: the psychedelic experience, combined with an arduous building experience, has convinced Keith of the materialist fundamentals of capitalist society and the unequal relations of production that capitalist order depends upon.
HIKEA brilliantly deconstructs Ikea by investigating its most recognizable feature– the indecipherable, mysterious step-by-step booklet. Clearly, the producers know that how we think about products run deep. After all, Ikea instructions are so much more than simple step-by-step procedures, they’re also a means of thought-control, of shaping the consumer’s mind into a very “Ikea” way of thinking that’s both pliant and obedient.
Ikea directions require that we suspend our belief in nearly everything we’ve been taught from our first day of school. To build an Ikea desk, chair, table, or bed to completion requires that consumers set aside our logical understanding of basic mechanics, rudimentary math skills (e.g. a $100 desk plus five hours of work actually evens out to a cost of $210 for the the average New York City wage earner). We must forget any reasonable expectations we have for simple outcomes, A + B = C. We have to make a deal with Satan McMoneyhands himself.
HIKEA demonstrates that even with the end product, the Ikea step-by-step asks us to put our faith in structures that, in any other situation, we would interpret as weak and overpriced, and it asks its customers to believe that, they too, can transform transform shoddy, unattractive supremely shabby, and short-living furniture into a gorgeously designed dream apartment.
As the producers’ mantra reads: “Building Ikea furniture is hard. Building Ikea furniture under the influence is nearly impossible.” I believe that what they’re really trying to say is: Building Ikea furniture under the boot of capitalist oppression is hard, but building it under the influence of psychedelics and class-consciousness is nearly impossible. Obviously.
However, as advertisers are want to do, the producers speak in an opaque code. Taylor, for one, has denied any ill will toward Ikea. “Yeah, we’re not saying anything bad about IKEA,” he told Vice Canada. “If anything, this subject works because IKEA is such a vital part of our lives, and I think that’s why people are seeing these videos, relating to them, and enjoying them.”
It seems likely that the producers are hoping to dodge any lawsuits that might come their way, or perhaps they are simply parodying what any blind victims of capitalist oppression would say.
The contestants however, are more explicit about their leanings.
In the first episode, Giancarlo and Nicole are asked to build a set of relatively simple looking drawers after taking some acid. Giancarlo guesses that he’s taken acid “like, I think, five times,” and it just so happens to be Nicole’s very first acid trip. As time goes on it’s clear that the two are really feeling the drugs, but their progress on the furniture moves at a snail’s pace. “Are we missing pieces?” Nicole wonders, smiling maniacally and kind of sucking her hand and then her purple, dip-dyed hair. “I’m getting so distracted,” she says.
Eventually, the pair are on the verge of completing step one, as Giancarlo ever so gently hammers a tiny dowel into the board using a mallet. He demonstrates the kind of meditative methodicalness that makes you wonder if the video’s switched to slow-mo (it hasn’t). After a mild celebration, Giancarlo becomes distracted by something outside the window. Moving toward the pane, and squinting out at the struggling, wintery sun he starts to babble and stare both longingly and joyously, in that special way that only psychedelics can inspire.
“The neutrality of any emotion, it is…” he pauses for a moment. “It’s just there.”
So far, Giancarlo’s meanderings are about as powerful and insightful as the burblings Telletubbies would emit after getting body-slammed by Grimace at that WWE match. After nearly four hours of aimless building, the project ends in a rather dejected conclusion– a bland piece of furniture that brings no joy, no sense of triumph or accomplishment.
But, finally, Giancarlo and Nicole come to a wise conclusion together. “Fuck it, I wanna go outside and play now,” Nicole says. The two dash outside and begin to roam the streets, resting once they find a lovely little swing set.
“It feels good to get outside, it does,” Giancarlo says, smiling big.
In the end, both groups come to a realization that Ikea-furniture building has a sort of unnaturalness to it. It’s also antithetical to their psychedelic experience, which is what makes the show so friggin’ hilarious in the first place. As the HIKEA contestants come to the understanding that, only by throwing off the chains of their Ikea/corporate overlords and smashing the cheaply rendered, poisonous furniture designed to keep the petit bourgeois classes anesthetized to real proletarian experience, will they realize their full potential as humans and probably stage a Marxist revolution. Just as soon as they come down from that acid trip.