Featured March 27, 2019 Humor Literary Fiction

The Story of a True Artist

By Dominica Phetteplace
Mar 27, 2019 · 4,125 words · 15 minutes


From the editor:

This week’s featured story is the Pushcart Prize-winning “The Story of a True Artist,” now available online for the first time ever. Cam&Lo, dynamic YouTube star duo, are on top of the world with a Taco Bell endorsement and 800,000 followers. But when Cam ditches her to go solo, Lo must navigate the fickleness of internet celebrity and the gig economy alone. Author Dominica Phetteplace bridges science fiction and literary fiction in her stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and more, and her honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Award.

From the author: This story originally appeared in Zyzzyva in 2015. It won a Pushcart Prize and received special mention from Best American Short Stories.


I was once a star on Youtube.  With my friend Cam, we went by the handle Cam&Lo.

Our videos were all variations of the same theme, which we created together.  Most of the screen would show whatever videogame he was playing, with his joke commentary.  The lower left of the screen contained a box that showed only the top of my head.  Just my eyes, rimmed with liquid liner, and my blonde hairbow headband atop my black hair.  I would make various exaggerated expressions, depending on what was happening with the video game.  That was my commentary.

At our peak, we had 800,000 subscribers.  Which is a lot, though maybe not quite enough to justify calling myself a star.  But I felt like a star.  I got fan mail and hate mail.  I got recognized at Celebcon, where fans would stop and ask to take selfies with the top half of my head.

My parents never understood what made our work popular and funny and interesting. 

“I don’t get it,” they would say, “Can you explain it?"

“Exasperated sigh,” I would say, “If you don’t get it, then my explaining it won’t help.  Shakes head.”

But I did have an agent, and that agent helped us get an endorsement deal from Taco Bell.

“It’s very important that the sponsored content you create remains authentic to your audience even while it elevates the brand,” she said on the conference call.

Cam and I agreed even though we knew this already.  We agreed even though neither of us would ever be caught dead in a Taco Bell.

The video Cam put together showed him playing Battlefield, only all the bad guy heads had been replaced by Chalupas while the bullets had been replaced by Nachos Belgrande.  The top half of my head was where you’d expect it, only my eyes had been replaced by rotating Doritos Locos Tacos that occasionally shot lasers to give Cam an assist.  The hilarity was enhanced, as ever, by my hardworking eyebrows.

Actually, it was some of our best work.  And we got $5,000 for it.  My half was enough to put off foreclosure for another couple of months while my Dad continued to look for a job.  And if we continued to get more deals like that and grow our audience, my parents might not have to work at all, we could move into a Beverly Hills mansion with a swimming pool.  That was the plan.

But after our big Taco Bell deal, Cam announced he was leaving Youtube, thus severing Cam&Lo.

“Sad face.  It’s not you,” he said as he brushed his ironic Justin Bieber bangs from his face.  “I just need to pivot mediums in order to grow as an artist.  This disruption will be good for the both of us.  Find me on Vine, my handle is CAMCAM.”

Cam and I were artists in several different mediums, not just Youtube.  We were best friends and collaborators.  One of our installations in progress was the performance of trying to be popular.  Like all worthwhile art, this was very difficult to execute, but we were making progress.

We had begun to eat lunch in the courtyard with the others.  We went to parties on Friday nights.  The ultimate goal was to continue to look down on the popular kids while being popular ourselves.  It was going to be so awesome and meta, once finished.  Now it was never going to be finished.

Cam ended us in first period.

In second period he was posting his first Vines.

By third period he already had 100,000 followers and counting.

At lunch I wasn’t sure who to eat with, so I went to the courtyard as usual.

“Facepalm,” he said when he saw me.

“Sigh,” I said.

“It’s just that the Popular Kids installation is going to be a solo work from here on out.  Also, it’s now called Popular Kid, singular.”

I was too stunned to even say the words “stunned face” out loud, so I just turned and walked away.

“Wait,” he said.

So I stopped and paused a moment before turning around.  I truly felt like the act of pausing and turning around would turn everything else around.  Cam was wrong and would admit as much as soon as I faced him again and then things could get back to the way they were supposed to be.

“Yes?” I said when I was ready for my apology.

“My lawyer is sending you a contract.  Check your email,” he said.  Then I stormed off for real.

The contract arrived in fourth period.  His lawyer used to be our lawyer.  Now his lawyer was asking me to sign over my moral rights to Popular Kids for fifty dollars.  Only a monster would ask for so much in exchange for so little, but financial straits being what they were, I took it.

I already knew my next installation would be the most powerful form of revenge I could think of.

The only way you can ever really hurt another artist is to create a work so awesomely brilliant and so similar to your rival’s that you obviate the need for your rival to exist at all.  Aiming for suicide-inducing greatness sounds risky and cruel, but Cam was too much of a narcissist to ever self-annihilate.  I could only hope to make him feel jealous and unnecessary, pretty much how I felt as watched his follower count tick up, up and up.

Of course each of us as humans contains the abyss, but by fifth period I felt like I contained nothing but the abyss. 

How could he do this to me?

Why, why, why?

My virtual therapist couldn’t meet with me until sixth period.  My virtual therapist is an internet friend named 2ARAH (pronounced Sarah) who is also an artist.  VT is her latest installation, an app where 2ARAH pretends to be a robot pretending to be a therapist.  It’s a very exclusive app, with a mile-long waitlist, but I got in by sending 2ARAH an autographed hairbow.

Why why why, I asked her, typing from the bathroom stall.  I was supposed to be in math class.

BLEEP BLEEP BLORP.  The edgy and brave thing about your art is that it makes the boundary between performance and real life porous and unstable.  I’m guessing that at some point during his role as your friend, Cam stopped being an authentic friend and started being a ‘performance’ friend.  BLORP.

Yes, but how do I become the greatest performance artist in the world?

Computing…

Computing…

BLEEP You cannot do it the way you’ve been doing it.  You have to find a radical new direction.  What is the most different thing you could possibly do?

I was thinking of starting an installation called Unpopular Kid.  

That is incorrect.  The most extreme art you could make now would have no performance component at all.  It would showcase your most vulnerable, most authentic self.  Terminating session…

VT then transmitted a series of very comforting emojis.  The screen went black before I could protest to her that there was no such thing as an authentic self.

“Etc etc,” I said to the graffitied door of my stall.  I wanted to write some graffiti badmouthing Cam, but since we had been inseperable until today, all users of this stall would know that I wrote it.  Instead I wrote “Marina Abramovic was here” with my lavender paint maker.  Whenever things got rough I always asked myself WWMAD?

            WWMAD?

WWMAD?

Afterschool I called our agent, Angela, to see if she had abandoned me too.  The answer was no, in fact Cam had left her and signed with someone new.

“I will continue to represent you but you need to begin to develop your brand independently of Cam.  That means you need to create new content,” she said.

I was in the library, on a computer terminal.  I was watching our Youtube subscriber count drip down to nothing.  Cam had posted a farewell video, himself, without even bothering to include the top of my head.

“I know our revenue wasn’t a ton,” I said, “But we were building up to something, weren’t we?”

“You were, that’s why I signed you.” 

“My family really needs the money.  We might lose our home.”

“Create a new account, new content.  Your fans will find you.  In the meantime, look for other work.”

“Sobs,” I said.

“Hugs,” she said.

I created a new Youtube account.  TrueLourdes, it was called.  My mom named me after Madonna’s kid, which was smart.  Most of my fans didn’t even know my true name, or even what my whole face looked like.  They were going to learn.

Even though I used to be Youtube star, I knew shit about Youtube.  Cam had always handled the technical end of things.  He’s the one who recorded, edited and posted.

I was the muse, the inspiration and the creative collaborator.  I was going to have to figure everything out on my own now.

Art could be made anywhere, at any time.  I looked around the library.  Chess club appeared to be in session.  I walked over to them.

“Excuse me, can I join Chess Club?”  It was all superskinny dudes and one superskinny girl.  They blinked at me like owls when I asked to join.  I took their blinking to mean yes.

“Also, I will be filming myself playing.”

Blink, blink, blink.

I entitled my first video “Losing at Chess.”  It only got a hundred views and a dozen likes.  Most of the comments complained about how fat and unattractive I was.  As if.

People think that because I cry a lot I am insecure.  Quite the opposite.  I cry a lot because I am not afraid to show emotion.  During the two-hour “Losing at Chess” video, I broke down into tears about a dozen times.  I wasn’t actually crying over the chess, I barely knew how to play, much to the consternation of my chess club teammates.  I was crying over everything I had lost that day. 

I wasn’t even tempted to edit out any of the crying.  Also, I didn’t know how.  That was the kind of thing I was going to have to learn how to do at some point.

To every comment that criticized my appearance, I replied “You have tried and failed to hurt my feelings.”  I was trying to generate a meme and I succeeded.  This became a popular comeback various places on the internet over the next week.  Somehow this did not translate into subscribers, views or likes and hence money, which is what I really needed to keep the lights on.

I oftentimes worry that only rich people can be true artists.  Only rich people can afford to not care about money, which is what is required for real art.  Cam was rich, or at least his parents were.

If it were just me, I wouldn’t fear homelessness.  I would live in a dumpster and call it an installation.  It’s just that I had two parents and two siblings and they would prefer not to live in a dumpster.  I oftentimes worry that you can’t be a true artist if you have a family that depends on you.

And what is the definition of prostitution anyway?  Prostitution is selling your body for money, isn’t it?  I thought of this as I was at Starbucks, filling out an employment application.  I ran into my dad, who was there for the same reason.  Neither of us was likely to get the job.  I was too young and he was too old.  We were competing against people with college degrees and good attitudes.  But we were both there because it was important to try.

“Maybe we’ll both get hired,” he said.

“Maybe I can use this for my art,” I said.

Neither turned out to be the case.

At least my mom still had a job.  She worked in a high-end boutique.  She let the customers know she had a daughter who could babysit.  But actually, none of the customers needed a babysitter, they all had at least one nanny, oftentimes more.

One of the customers did need help with a fashion blog she wanted to start.

“Oh, my daughter is great at the internet.”

This wasn’t true.  But for $10 an hour, I was willing to learn.

Dina needed someone to take and post pictures of her doing various fashion model poses while wearing various expensive outfits.  Her plan was to start a blog, then get really famous.  That was it, a two part plan.

“It’s actually hard to get internet famous for being cool,” I said.  “You have to be lucky and tweet all the time.”

I could never really get into twitter, it seemed a medium best suited for knock-knock jokes.  That’s why Cam had handled our account. 

Now I needed to get my own and help Dina set one up, too.  Ugh, fuck work.  I just want to make art tho.

So I created a Twitter installation called @ONECHARACTERLIMIT.  It was a response to the artificiality of Twitter’s 140 character limit.

@ONECHARACTERLIMIT was a carefully composed series of 140 tweets, each one character long.  My only followers were spambots.  That led to my next installation, @buttsecks, where I replaced random words from spam tweets with the word buttsecks.  This account actually got some real human followers, including Angela, who DMed me that I should create more videos, perhaps look into Vine.

It was impossible to look into Vine without also looking into Cam.

Two months after the end of Cam&Lo he had 1.2 million Vine followers. 

His videos mainly consisted of him telling jokes and/or crashing into things.  I think they were supposed to be “funny,” but I wasn’t sure. 

I was worried if I showed them to my parents, they would laugh.  That their faces would light up with comprehension, like, AH so that’s what the internet is for.  My parents didn’t know that I hated Cam now because I didn’t want to burden them.  They had enough on their minds.

I hinted to them that Cam might be having some difficulties and they assumed it had to do with his sexual orientation.  It wasn’t their fault.  They were from a generation that confused ‘being gay’ with ‘being an artist.’

I didn’t know if Cam was gay or not.  He didn’t share that part of himself with me.  We were never romantically involved, but the love we shared was deep nonetheless.  We were united with a vision and mission.

And now I hated him. 

I commented “Sell Out!!” on one of his Vines.  He replied that I had tried and failed to hurt his feelings. 

I couldn’t stop comparing myself to him.  FKA Twigs once said that too much medicine is poison.  Comparing yourself to others is the medicine/poison of the art world.

Why couldn’t I be understood by him?  Why couldn’t I be better than him or at least more popular?  What had I done?  Was it something I said or was it that I just wasn’t good enough?

I couldn’t help thinking back to every snarky thing he had ever said to me, as if those were the only things that mattered. 

Angela and VT both agreed that the best thing for me to do was to focus on my work, both the art and the kind of work that pays money.

After school I would photograph Dina making fashion blogger poses.  She would stare at the ground, gazing at her stilettos while curling a lock of hair around her finger.  Or she would lean against a wall casually, as one does, hands in pockets.  Close up of her manicured hand clutching an expensive handbag.  These shoots were highly derivative, and not in an ironic way.  We collaborated on different ways of copying the most famous fashion bloggers. 

The genre was: expensive clothes on a thin white body, acting naturally.  Dina rejected all my suggestions for making our pictures more original.  I thought she could wear monster makeup or Mickey Mouse hands.  I thought she could cosplay as beloved 90’s sitcom characters (Steve Urkel! Chandler Bing!).  I thought we could replace her head with different dinosaur heads in photoshop.  I suggested she buy herself some sort of novelty headband, like maybe cat ears or a unicorn horn.  Dina ignored my suggestions and continued posing like a bashful ingénue with the wardrobe of a socialite. 

Dina fired me after a month.  It wasn’t because of all my wacky suggestions. It was because I failed to make her famous.  

At this point it became clear that we were losing the house no matter what, it was just a matter of when and it could happen any day.

“It’s not your fault,” said my dad, even though I knew if had been just a little bit luckier or a little bit more clever, it would have been enough.

“Great suffering produces great art,” my mom said and I nodded along even though I didn’t agree with this statement at all.  Art comes from a place much more mysterious than Planet Hardship.

“I’d rather be poor than stupid,” I told myself.  But then, would I?  Would I?

While visiting the food bank I took a series of selfies that got a fair bit of attention.  I was trying to interrogate the notion of a selfie as a status marker.  I got regrammed by Hans Ulrich Obirst, which made me feel like a real artist.

I started a Patreon account because I knew I still had some fans.  Hans Ulrich chipped in $20.  So did Cam.  Wish I had been in a position to decline that donation, but I wasn’t.

All of this resourcefulness, all in the name of drowning just a little more slowly than before.  My mom looked for a second job while my dad continued to look for a first job.  We moved into a motel room while we looked for an apartment. 

Angela booked me a job as a “fan” at Celebcon.  You could buy likes and friends, so it made sense that you could also buy “fans” or at least people willing to pretend for a few hours.

Celebcon was over in Anaheim, just an hour away from my house.  It was the premier convention for Internet video talent.  I had attended last year, but as a creator.  I had never paid anyone to be a fan, so I knew that every person who told Cam and I that we were great was telling the truth.

There were creators much more famous than us in attendance.  Legitmate stars with millions of subscribers.  Fans would go crazy over these true stars, you would hear screaming and a mob would form.

This would get the attention of any television executives in attendance.  They might not understand the internet, but they understood the power and influence of sobbing teenage girls.

The weird thing about the biggest Internet stars is that they all wish they were on television, even though nobody watches television anymore.

“The internet is more influential,” said Angela, “But TV is more profitable.”  This didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but if I understood money a little better, I might have more of it.

This year at Celebcon, the biggest Internet stars were hiring fans to make a scene in the hopes of building hype and ultimately scoring a TV deal.  It was so crass, it seemed like a perfect setting for an installation.

“No installations,” said Angela.  “Just show up.  Cry, scream and then count your money once you get home.”

Angela gave me a list of celebrities to mob.  Cam wasn’t on the list, but I knew he would be there.  With over 20,000 attendees, it would be easy to avoid him.  Especially now that I was no longer a star.

I wore my hairbow to Celebcon.  If anyone recognized me, they did not acknowledge me.  I was normal now.  

I set to work right away with my fellow fans.  We ran after our “faves,” who were in reality, our bosses.  We begged them for selfies, we screamed their names, we cried if they had the decency to bump elbows. 

Because I was the tallest and my hairbow made me easy to spot, I became the leader of the “fans.”  I was both in charge of the group and a part of it as well.  This felt like acceptance.  I was determined to do a good job.  I was determined to do the best job.

The weird thing about pretending to be a fan is that it becomes transcendent.  I found myself no longer pretending to care, but actually caring.  My screams became genuine, as did my excitement, as did my tears.

This was crowdart.  I had never experienced such a thing.  It was a high.  It made me want to run faster.  It made me want to push my way to the very front.

It was in the midst of a crowd sprint that I spotted Cam.  I stopped suddenly which caused a multiperson pileup.  I changed direction and ran towards him, which confused the group since we were supposed to be going after Claire Le Museum.

Cam was surrounded by a mini-entourage.  Nobody I recognized.  I assumed these were fellow Viners, his new crowd.

He froze when he saw me and the group of “fans” that had trailed me.  Perhaps he thought they were my fans.

Good.

I saw a look of pre-emptive embarrassment flash across his face.  Despite the estrangement, he still knew me better than anyone.  He knew I was always performing, not just when the cameras were on and not just to please other people.  He knew that the person I had always wanted to impress most was him.  And now that he was out of my life, the only person left to impress was myself. 

And unlike him, I did not embarrass easily. 

And maybe Cam’s embarrassment was at the root of our split.  I was a nonconformist in both “cool” and “uncool” ways.  I had a large body and a weird sense of humor.  I had brown skin and a poor family.  I had a hairbow, which I wore at all times.  My pain, my sorrow, my ambition, my aspirations, all so embarrassing.

There was altogether too much of me for him.  That’s why he only showed a piece of me in our work together.  Show too much of me and I might overshadow him.  Keep me at a distance and he might shine brighter, right?

  I scanned the faces of Cam’s entourage and wondered who among them, if any, he had chosen to collaborate with.  I was about to show them what it meant to be a true artist.  Cam’s crew was quiet, and the quiet awkwardness rippled out into the mass of people somehow.  Everyone knew something was about to happen.

I only planned the first part.

“I am your biggest fan!” I screamed at Cam, before I dropped down to my knees and began to sob. 

I did not plan what happened next.  My fellow “fans,” confused about what to do and in need of the money they were supposed to earn today, copied me.  So they too, dropped to their knees, thinking it was some sort of reference to something.

They also began to cry, but fake cry, because not everyone is as good at crying on command as I am.  Others in the crowd joined in, probably thinking that this was some kind of flash mob.  Cam tried to walk away, but this had become a spectacle and he was at the center of it.  He was surrounded. 

On the periphery, I could feel people recording this.  I sobbed all the harder.  I was the pathogen and this was about to go viral.  I finally understood Vine.  This footage would make great Vines.

“Sob,” I said, between sobs.  I was sweaty from all the running I had been doing and I could feel my hairbow was crooked and about to fall off.  I didn’t care.  This was the real me, off center and full of feels. 

In my teary vision I could see phones raised up by both hands and selfie sticks.  There were screens everywhere, cameras pointed right at me.  They were christening me, I was being rebaptized into celebrityhood.

Those people saw me and they wanted all their friends to know that they were there when it happened.  Their pictures would be evidence that they had been part of something larger than themselves. 

I was a star, that meant I was important.  I mattered.  And because they were there with me, they mattered too.

This story originally appeared in Zyzzvya.


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Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace writes literary and science fiction.