MSCHF Highlights the Absurdities of Modern Consumerism—and Makes Money Doing It
An ice cream truck selling $10 popsicles in the shape of Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Musk’s multibillion-dollar visages. A service delivering A.I.-generated foot images with Magritte undertones. A $1,000 chimera of extracurricular participation trophies made for Tiffany’s. These high-concept pranks are the sort of off-kilter creations one can expect from the Brooklyn-based outfit MSCHF, a start-up accelerator of absurd and attention-grabbing stunts.
Founded in 2016 by former Buzzfeed employee Gabriel Whaley, who before leaving Buzzfeed was part of a now-defunct team there dedicated to creating experiences and telling stories in different formats, MSCHF is a seemingly indefinable operation (more on that in a minute). Creating novel experiences across mediums has carried over to Whaley’s new creation, which quickly built its name through a series of viral “drops.” The first breakout? “Jesus Shoes,” a pair of Nike Air Max 97’s customized with a frankincense scent and infused with “holy water.” (a release was done without Nike’s blessing.) This, naturally, was followed shortly thereafter by “Satan Shoes,” made in collaboration with Lil Nas X and containing a drop of human blood in each pair. The latter sold its 666 pairs out in minutes and this time led to a lawsuit from Nike (which certainly hasn’t done anything to keep the pairs from being resold for thousands online).
What MSCHF is exactly can be difficult to pin down (the organization’s LinkedIn profile lists it as “Dairy Product Manufacturing”). In an interview on the Prehype podcast, Whaley described the company as an “attention and fame machine.” It can be roughly understood as a V.C.-backed collective of artists dropping products semi-regularly that vary wildly across mediums, but for the most part poke fun at capitalist consumption while simultaneously enabling it.
How irony-drenched the products are changes from drop to drop. Sometimes—as with its T-shirts that display how much they cost—its products clearly have, if not outright contempt, certainly a sense of humor about their inevitable owners. Other times, MSCHF does something like turn medical bills into paintings, priced at each bill’s respective total and sold to clear the recipient’s medical debt, which, while still making fun of the ill-defined logic of pricing modern art, comes with much less of an acidic bite and verges on the altruistic.
“I’ve always been addicted to trolling people online in a healthy, positive, uplifting manner,” Whaley says in the Prehype interview. Where MSCHF’s creations fall on the line between trolling and consciousness raising may vary, but they’ve undeniably managed to succeed in capturing a spectacular amount of attention and money wherever they land—and all without anything more than clever ideas, word of mouth, and media attention.
A particularly remarkable thing about MSCHF is, once again, how well it plays ball with the very consumer culture it mocks. On the one hand, stunts like cutting all of the dots out of a Damien Hirsch painting and selling them all individually to gross a profit eight times that of the original $30,000 purchase could make one groan at the seeming wastefulness of it all. On the other hand, it’s at least a wastefulness too transparent not to have some awareness of it itself. If we’re doomed to merely accepting as a truism that all consumption under late-stage capitalism is unethical, there are worse ways to use what little agency we have than showing that it’s absurd as well.