Mike Winkelmann works in a room with side-by-side 65-inch TVs constantly tuned to CNN and Fox News and on computers that are suspended above a bathtub because their 12 combined graphics cards generate too much heat. It’s an odd setup, but perhaps it speaks to the increasingly bizarre and post-apocalyptic artwork that Winkelmann has been putting out recently. “This year, in particular,” Winkelmann says, “I’ve decided I’m just going to do whatever I want.”
Winkelmann, a digital artist known widely as “Beeple,” has amassed a million-plus followers with a 12-year-running commitment to producing and publishing a piece of art every single day. That’s in addition to a steady output of short films, VR and AR work, and Creative Commons VJ loops, plus the commercial work he does, from album art and concert visuals to concept and film work.
Recently, Winkelmann’s art has taken a thematic turn toward a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by Hillary Clinton / Donald Trump cyborgs, Michael Jackson host wombs, and everything in between. Post-apocalyptic art surges during times of environmental, sociopolitical, and technological anxiety. Planet of The Apes was created during the Vietnam War, The Road after 9/11, and The Matrix the year before Y2K, to name a few. While post-apocalyptic art seemingly transports us to a fictional and distant future, in actuality, these imaginings insist we contemplate the present.
The Verge spoke with Beeple about his prolific creative output as well as his strange and grotesque post-apocalyptic creations.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you have any creative practices or rituals that keep you accountable to your commitment to produce a piece of art every day?
Yes and no.
I would say the only commitment is to making a picture. The Everyday project is making one picture from start to finish and posting it somewhere on the internet each day before midnight. That’s the only ritual I adhere to. Beyond that, where I do them, when I do them, how long I have to do them, and who’s around me when I’m doing them is all completely dictated by what’s going on that day.
Normally, I just do them at night after the kids are in bed, and I’m alone in my room. But I’ve done them all over the place and in all different circumstances: airports, cafes, emergency rooms. I look at it more like brushing your teeth. You don’t have a big ritual around it; you just go in and brush your teeth.
Looking at creativity as something that’s much less precious will help you stick with it long-term. Along with that, people around you will be a lot more supportive if you’re a bit more flexible and a bit less douchey about it. Like you’re not so pretentious in terms of, “I’m an artist, I need to blah blah blah.” If you take it down a notch and just look at it as something you have to do today, just like taking a dump or eating supper, then it will be more sustainable in the long run.
How often are you posting things that you don’t like or don’t want to show the world?
It’s completely unrealistic to think that every day you’re going to sit down, be super-inspired, and have a bunch of time to make a piece of artwork, and be like, “Oh man, this is great.” I look at each one of these Everydays as a sketch. The tools and workflow hacks that I’ve figured out get my pictures to a place where they look fairly finished, but to me, they really are sketches.
In terms of putting out work that I don’t like, that happens very often. What helps me mitigate that is that I know there’s always tomorrow. If I put out something that’s a total pile of shit, tomorrow, I will have another chance to make up for it. And I think that if I put out something that’s totally shitty the day before, it’s like, “Okay, I got to fucking get this together. Yesterday was fucking terrible, you’ve got to sit down and put some real fucking effort into it today.”
I wouldn’t consider myself a highly motivated, disciplined person. I would actually consider myself very lazy, but I figured out this way to hold myself accountable. The momentum of this project carries me forward and pushes me to try much harder than I normally would. I know the scope of how long I’ve been doing this, and it’s not like, “Oh, I just don’t feel like it today,” or “This picture sucks, I’m just not going to post it even though I’ve got a fucking streak of 12 years here without missing a day.” Nah, I’m going to post that picture.
Were you born with a really strong imagination, or is that a muscle you’ve been working?
In general, art is a numbers game. People don’t have a lack of ideas; they have a lack of deadlines. When you have a deadline every single day, you will have no choice but to come up with an idea. I think everybody has way more ideas inside them than they realize. Going up to bat every day, I feel you can game the system, in that when you put out a lot of work, X number of things are bound to click with people. I think it also helps you iterate and home in on these ideas. These are ideas that I’ve slowly developed over the course of years.
Do you read the comments or care about how the picture has been received by your followers?
No, I try very hard not to read the comments and look at how many likes my posts are getting. I feel like feedback on the internet is not super helpful. It’s very unfiltered. You don’t know where that feedback is coming from. It could be coming from some 12-year-old kid who you don’t know, and if you saw that person in the real world and saw that they know nothing about art, then it’s like, “Why the fuck would I listen to their comments on this?” That’s just noise.
On the other side of that, you know when you’ve got X amount of followers, undoubtedly, a bunch of people will like whatever you post. It’s not super helpful either to hear, “Oh man, this is fucking great” when I know it’s not amazing. I know I’ve totally phoned that in, and in my mind, it’s a total piece of shit. So when you hear all these people being like, “No, it’s fucking amazing,” it makes you think that your shit doesn’t stink in a way, and it fucks with your head and makes you not try as hard. I don’t want to get into that fucking mindset that anything I do is fucking amazing. Nah. I know when I’ve tried hard and there was some breakthrough or things clicked.
The thing that’s helped me is that I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I can assure you, those followers accumulated very slowly over the years. For the first three years, nobody was fucking looking at this shit. Nobody. And before I started posting art on social media, I was just posting on my website, and I know damn well, only two people saw it there. So I think I got very lucky in that it was never, “Oh shit, all of a sudden, a million people are fucking looking at me.” It’s gone up gradually, so I’ve been able to mentally build some resilience throughout that.
There seems to be a change of pace in your work toward more political narratives lately.
For sure. I’ve always been a pretty big news junkie. I’m very interested in politics and technology and the power dynamics between those two, as well as between technology and society. It’s slowly been ramping up in my work over the last year or two. This year, in particular, I’ve decided I’m just going to do whatever I want. I have a very dark, inappropriate sense of humor, and I’ve started leaning into that. I notice people really seem to like it, way more than the other stuff.
It suddenly clicked, I’m just going to say exactly what I think. People can innately tell when somebody is passionate and being themselves, and I think that’s something that people respond to more than when people are guarded and say what they think other people want to hear. When I post something with lactating robots, I’m not thinking, “Oh man, people really want to see this.” I assume they don’t want to see it. But then they actually do, which is weird. I think people are weirder — or at least, I found a group of people that are weirder — than you would think.
There are recurring and quintessential themes in post-apocalyptic art, and I notice some of them frequent your work as well: gender and breeding, governance, technological dependence, and popular culture.
I’m not somebody who thinks the world is ending. Everything’s just going to turn to shit, and we’re going to be huddled on the ground, eating fricking mud 20 years from now. I’m generally pretty optimistic, and I think things are going to continue much the way we have for all of society — terrible things happening, but there’s also a lot of good happening. A lot of the themes I explore are trends in society that I’m taking to the nth degree, imagining them continuing to get more extreme and ridiculous, over the course of 50 or 75 years. These are things that could happen but probably won’t, and are mostly just a funny way to look at things that are currently happening. The other thing I want to say is, I’m not trying to push an agenda, like pro-breastfeeding or pro this or that. It’s very much just trying to make something funny.
A pro-breastfeeding agenda isn’t quite what I get from your lactating Hillary / Trump cyborgs.
Probably not. The raw message is trying to make something funny so we can look at how ridiculous and extreme some of the things we’re already doing are.
Something I think about a lot are the power dynamics between our political leaders and the technological companies. How they have different ways of shaping politicians’ actions, and how politicians’ actions have different ways of shaping them, and how public response can, too. Who has power in what situation, and who is the dude suckling at the teat, completely dependent on whatever fricking thing Trump says, like Mitch McConnell. So, to me, that sort of Game of Thrones power dynamic is very interesting and something that I try to represent in a very humorous, ridiculous way.
There is a lot of symbolism around pop culture and Western mythology in your recent work — for instance, Netflix, Disney, and Baby Yoda. How do you decide what makes it into these post-apocalyptic futures?
Disney is this massive omnipresence, especially in the last week, how much Rise of Skywalker shit you see everywhere. I was on an airplane yesterday, and the napkin they brought me had a fucking Rise of Skywalker logo on it. Every fucking thing, just everywhere. Taking and reappropriating some of their IP and brands, I find fun. I think it’s interesting to imagine if you took these characters and infused them with AI far into the future, and they had a life of their own, what would they do and what could happen?
Like with the Baby Yoda robot dog. What if, in the future, you could buy a Baby Yoda puppy, and it knew to play with kids. But then it got screwed up, and it got confused, and the algorithm got messed up, and it started eating kids, and it got stray, and there were these attacks of stray Baby Yoda robots that used to be toys, but they got so much AI in the future that they got loose, and they’re fricking eating kids.
Comedy has always given us the opportunity to let down our guards and have uncomfortable conversations, maybe even hash things out. That’s what I think is so exciting about your work: through exaggeration, you’re giving us the space to explore and think through our position on things.
100 percent. If I have any agenda, it’s to make people on both sides question their beliefs. My goal is to make something that is so weird and so out-there that it makes you just think of questions instead of answers.