"I, of course, would like to be able to convince people not to cause suffering. That would be fantastic. I think that is the goal, to get people to understand the risks that they're taking and to not do those things."
Amanda Sukenick works under various names: Oldphan, Forever Wolf Films and Dragon Ball Toys. Oldphan is a YouTube vlogger, a video artist, a sculptor, a self described "armchair digital media archivist," a collector, and a fan. We talked a lot about stuff, the stuff of objects and collections, and the stuff that clutters our brains as well. When designing Amanda's portrait, we wanted to capture two spaces where Amanda resides and flourishes: the unique communal space of YouTube and the solo mad scientist's lab full of the remains and promises of wacky ideas (the studio). But what of all of that stuff in those vast spaces gets moved? In our initial communication, Amanda wrote: "What comes to mind is something along the lines of removing the debris, the barriers that prohibit people's philosophical understanding..." We created a messy situation for Oldphan to clear, but then dropped a cheesy green screen into the background to digitally open up the environment. It was Oldphan's idea to insert stock pictures of cardboard onto the chroma-keyed cardboard backdrop: "If I think about it, in a way, that is kinda where I want to most be. I wanna be in the environments this raw material allows me to exist in."
Lori: Who are you?
Oldphan: Well, I am an artist and I've been making art since I was a really little kid. Mostly drawing and sculpture. I kind of got disenchanted with a lot of that as I got older because it sort of forced me into a position where I couldn't perform in the ways I was itching to. I'm somebody that comes from that background, but then I feel like I kind of got set free by making videos. Through video, I've done all kinds of things over the last eight years. Primarily toy reviews and videos about antinatalism.
I have so many questions. I feel like we could talk about stuff forever. I think of you as a communicator and a talker.
I'm actually terrible at communicating in a lot of ways. A lot of the things I'm trying to communicate in my videos are ... They're really difficult for me. I kind of come out of this subculture of arguers on the internet and whatnot. That's kind of been my inspiration for the last couple years, but that's not really my talent, per se, making philosophical arguments. It's trying to find ways of making it funny and representing it visually and make it accessible to a very different audience than it has been. I feel like I'm often better at talking about talking than doing the talking sometimes, but yeah. I try to do my best.
What was it first like for you when you found YouTube as a platform? It started with the toys, right?
Yeah. I'd been on the internet since I was about twelve. I'd always wanted there to be a video platform like YouTube, but I was very closed up for a long time. I was really terrified about people knowing who I was or what I looked like or that I was transgender. All kinds of things about myself. That's an important fear to have sometimes when you're doing YouTube because it can be exploited and people can be really awful. When I initially found it, I was really excited. Also, because I'm a huge watcher of stuff, it was the best fix for that addiction a person could possibly hope for. It was something that I kind of pined after. I so badly wanted to do it and be a part of that. It took me a long time. It took me two years to get comfortable, gradually, with the idea of showing who I was and exposing these little things about myself. Eventually, it was about being somebody who has opinions about things and could withstand the backlash or not withstand the backlash. It's been kind of a gradual process of just trying to free myself from the chains I had, psychologically, put myself in before that.
Have you had any bad experiences with negative comments, and how did you find your way through it or out of it or despite it?
I definitely have. Certainly. If you're a fat, transgender person making videos about toys for Dragon Ball Z where it's all, I don't know... it just attracts a nasty crowd sometimes. I've always found that fascinating. Like, what causes trolling? I've kind of made a study of people that get trolled in a lot of ways. I started to finally realize that I didn't care as much as I thought I did, first of all. Then I tried to figure out how I could exploit what I loved to do and sometimes even get at those reactions. I did that a lot with my Dragon Ball stuff. Those videos got a lot of attention. They were posted all over. I was really popular on Brazilian 4chan sites for a little while. People would post the videos and make fun of me and stuff. I just thought it was all really hilarious. Then, when I started to get into more philosophical stuff, I realized that an interesting way to get through to people was to appeal to the things that [set them off]. If they have a chance at being able to hate you a little bit, you've got them where you want them. You can also, through that, insert your own ideas into that somehow. Sometimes that doesn't work, but for a lot of people it does. They come laughing and making fun, but they leave with something else.
For the sake of our audience, what is Dragon Ball Z and why was that the big thing that, not only you were personally really into it, but also that it took you to this realm of the community around it?
Well, Dragon Ball, it was first a manga, like a comic book, in Japan by Akira Toriyama. Then it became an anime. It's hugely popular all over the world. It's one of the most famous animes and mangas ever created. It's sort of like a martial arts fantasy story. It starts out with Goku, who's a really strong little monkey boy and then he grows up and has a kid of his own. It's just very interesting. I loved it because I love the artwork. I love Akira Toriyama's drawing style. I think that he is an absolute master of black and white. I also have always really had a crazy strong interest in fan communities on the internet. I have been involved in them since I was twelve. Before it was Dragon Ball, I was a huge Phantom of the Opera fanatic.
I've always really wanted that to be more of something that would inspire art, to use those kinds of communities and those kinds of ideas as my inspiration. YouTube just gave me a unique way of being able to do that, to start. For me, I love the show, but the main thing for me was the toys. I had this enormous collection of the toys. YouTube just gave me a really interesting way to show them. It's stuff that would never really have an audience otherwise.
What does collecting mean to you?
I collect mainly figurines and miniatures. It's basically how I learned how to sculpt for the most part. I think that really was a big part of it initially. I don't know. I've spent most of my years obsessively collecting things. I'm much more down on it now, sort of, in a lot of ways. I just feel like it's so addictive and I've had to slow some of those wheels down in a lot of ways. What I mainly collect now is videos, other people's videos and try to preserve video.
With the collecting of videos, what do you do? Do you download them and back them up?
I download them. There's probably like, I don't know, like 60,000 videos just on this hard drive. I'm like a squirrel saving nuts for the winter. I'm kind of like an armchair digital media archivist. I do build Omeka style websites that feature all this content and just try to ... It's been kind of a difficult process, but the hope is to create a redundancy of that material so that it has a better chance of being able to survive.
In your history, the toy videos started to transform slowly into philosophy. Was there a point where those two things both existed within the same video, somehow?
Not really. I've tried to find ways of doing that, actually. Basically what happened was I was really doing the Dragonball Z toy collecting a lot and I was a YouTube partner, so I was making money from my videos. It was kind of turning into a business. I still do it sometimes. I haven't stopped entirely, but I started watching videos by people that were talking about philosophical issues like inmendham and DerivedEnergy. I was hugely inspired. I did sort of totally abandon, at one point, the toy stuff to be able to focus on that. As time goes on, I am trying to find ways of integrating them. First of all, it was just weird because I had this audience that knows me for the toy stuff. I'm really quite proud of what I was able to build with that. The other ones, I'm equally proud of, but how do you make those mix? Especially because a large part of my Dragonball toy audience were actually children. Or they were when they were watching them eight years ago. To bring subjects like the right to die and antinatalism into that, that's a difficult one. I do have a couple of my more funny antinatalism videos on my Dragon Ball Toys channel and there's been some very interesting reactions.
Can you define Antinatalism and that kind of conversation? Then talk about how you first came across it or decided that it was an important thing to talk about.
Simply put, antinatalism is the belief that procreating is unethical. This is an idea that has been around since recorded time pretty much. It's a very very old idea that's had many many iterations over the years. I first discovered it for myself in 2011 when I discovered the videos of inmendham and DerivedEnergy and people like Metamorph, who's Jim Crawford, the author of Confessions of an Antinatalist. Like I said before, I watch everything, so I clicked on it and was fascinated. It just sort of was a chance thing. The ideas were so new to me and they really did absolutely fascinate me. I took about a year, actually, before I really decided that, yes, this is what I believe. This is what I want to dedicate a big portion of my work towards.
Antinatalism throughout history has mainly been a critique of human life; a criticism of humans procreating. What happened in 2011 is that there was this other offshoot of that idea called EFILism (LIFE backwards), which was the invention of inmendham. It was a critique of all life. Basically that all life is unethical. Sentience is unethical. The suffering in the world is unethical. That was the first time that the subject had ever really been spoken about on the internet by any gender we can think up, any age. It was really just a very exciting thing that was happening and it was hugely inspiring.
How does the specific way that conversation works on the internet or on YouTube work for you? How does it make it more possible because of its structure? What are some of the limitations?
That's a really interesting question. It works for me and it works against me in a lot of ways. Let me start by saying YouTube, over the last eight years, has become so much more of a capitalist, doing it for the money, kind of platform. In the old days, I think there was much much much more of an opportunity to make a video, have your ideas be heard, and to have it reach a much larger audience. If you're not really part of the ad revenue partner kind of thing on YouTube anymore, you don't really have as much of a reach.
I really am very much against that. There needs to be a public library style YouTube. There should be the public square. There should be the sounding board and the debate platform. I think that there's so many ways to answer this, I guess. In some ways, the ability to be able to turn a camera on and work through an idea with yourself, be alone with the gadget and work out an idea and then get an immediate feedback, whether it be good or bad, is just really valuable.
I can see how it could be not valuable for some people, but for me it was really valuable. In working on my movie, The EFIList, it was so important because every little bit of it I would make, I would shoot it, and I would put it up and get an immediate response. A lot of people tell me that they're really turned off by that being part of the creative experience, but it just really works for me to have there be almost like a diary aspect, like a kind of what I did with my day, then the art itself, and then that interaction on top of it. I hate to use a term like this, but psychologically, for me, it's grounding. It makes the creative process, for me, a little less ... dissociative is not quite the right word, but it keeps it all together in a very useful way for me.
There's also something about how the audience has access to the stuff you're putting out. Which is very different than it is for me. I'm a filmmaker and if I put stuff on Vimeo, it holds my stuff and I can send someone there. People might find it there. Vimeo, we know, is already fairly different from the YouTube community type thing. In general, that's even secondary to the fact that my goal is to show it in a movie theater in front of an audience. There's this thought that there's immediate feedback in real time because people are in the room watching the movie while I'm playing it. However, there's no definite space for feedback, right? People can just watch it and leave, which is mostly what happens. That's it, it's over. It was such an organized time. It's like 9:00pm on Thursday, once. Or maybe again the next week or something. There's something about being able to go to ... It's like a library or a bookshelf. You know that that thing is there and you can return. Something new will be placed on it periodically. That's something that makes it more of an ongoing conversation than even if people are live in the room. It defies time, or something like that, and walls.
Yeah. It's just sort of always there and it's always building. Even silly things like the view count changes. Any time, day or night, on an old video, I can get some kind of response that really just ... I also get those response that try and tear you apart, too. I think that's why it's a very difficult system to adapt to for a lot of artists, because people will say things just to be awful. That can be a hugely disruptive intrusion on the creative process. But, I don't know, it really always sort of has made me stronger for some reason.
What moment or thing or maybe if you have a specific story, what makes you feel the most powerful?
Most powerful? I don't really feel particularly powerful, I have to say. I really don't. I love it when I can make something that I feel great about. It is an amazing thing when people feel the same way about that thing that you've made. It is incredible where you are making something with some sort of agenda, not political, but philosophical agenda, where you really want people to start thinking about things. And they do, even if they're not really starting to think about in exactly the way that you want them to, the idea that you have some sort of spoke in that wheel of getting people to think about certain ideas. I don't know if that necessarily makes me feel powerful, but it makes me feel a little bit more useful, so to speak.
Yeah. What do you think about the word power? How would you define the word power? Is it kind of an ugly word to you, or do you use it in various ways?
I think power can become ugly so incredibly fast. I guess, to me, it's sort of a cartoon word. It's everything that I love about Dragon Ball Z. How can I really put it? It's one of the world's most dangerous forces. It's not really a good thing for human psychology, but it's certainly so much of what drives us in so many ways. I don't know.
If you're a philosopher on the internet, or you have some ideas that you want to get across and share with people, what are some of your goals with that? What do you hope happens in response? What's most likely or best case scenario? What are you looking to achieve?
I, of course, would like to be able to convince people not to cause suffering. That would be fantastic. I think that is the goal, to get people to understand the risks that they're taking and to not do those things. At the same time, I think I've gotten so much better over the last couple of years, I really do, but the argumentation side of things has never really been my huge strong point in terms of philosophical truth, philosophical argumentation. Again, what I really hope to do is just be able to inspire a conversation and to do that through different methods. Do it through art. Do it through comedy. I think it's starting to be more and more effective, certainly not specifically because of my efforts at all, but [antinatalism] is starting to become more of a topic that people are talking about. And I think that as that's happening, I think my goals are sort of changing. I'm not entirely sure what that is yet, where I'm best needed so far as to fill that goal. I know that I want to keep creating more art about it. I just hope to be able to widen the width of that conversation as much as possible.
Do you have any particular goals or dreams for yourself? Are you looking towards anything in particular? With job or location or anything?
I hope to be able to stay in Chicago. I hope to be able to teach. I hope to be able to have a little life and be able to support myself, really, and to keep creating work. I oscillated a lot for a lot of my life about what kind of medium I want to really invest in. I really do want to be a filmmaker. I hope to be able to keep making movies and have them seen. More than anything, I just hope that I'll be able to spend whatever I have of the rest of my life making more work.
You were recently on Tosh.0. I'm wondering you could just talk about that experience and what it meant to you.
That was just amazing. That happened because a piece of my movie, The EFIList, the baby elephant scene. Which I have to say, when I first uploaded that, it was up for like three months and it had like five thumbs up and like a hundred views and really people didn't like it at all. Then it got on reddit and all of a sudden it got about 30,000 views overnight, which is really low actually, that's hardly any kind of huge viral thing or anything. So, I was very surprised when I got contacted by them. It ended up being a great experience and it was really just the time of my life. It was amazing and highly unexpected.
I just want to say, they were really fantastic about it. When I first told them what the ideas were behind it, I thought they were really kind of shocked at first, but I talked to them right after and they were like, no, we had all kinds of really great discussions about it in the studio. I think they did a really good job handling the subject. They really did push the idea of this being an argument against suffering, which a lot of people neglect when talking about this issue.
To my knowledge, this was the very first time that antinatalism has ever been discussed on television. So, I was so happy that it came out the way that it did. It was a pretty good public introduction to the subject for a lot of people.
Yeah that's nice, because it's a comedy show and because you respect and get a lot out of using entertainment and comedy to communicate your ideas, it's actually appropriate. I mean, maybe it'd be fine if you were on 60 Minutes or something, but there's something special about the way that your message works and wants to use that positive comedic energy. All of that is fascinating, about the ways that we learn, like, if we need to be told things really seriously or maybe it's actually better to absorb on the side while we're laughing or enjoying ourselves.
I really think it's quite awful, really. I think you have to entertain people to get them to care about anything. I hate to say that, but it is unfortunately really true of a large number of people. I think that really is unfortunate. I think people should be able to recognize a thing like suffering and not have to have it made into this joke.
Even the use of the baby elephant is kind of bizarre because it's not really a funny scene. It's funny because this very strange person is doing it and it's all really bizarre. It's this baby elephant who, obviously his mother has just been killed. All this panic and awfulness. Regardless, it does work, which is amazing if you do present things in that kind of way, you can at least inspire dialogue.
I also want to say, you're a very kind person and you seem very generous and easy to talk to. But there must be assumptions about antinatalism and that people who are into it are just: "I hate babies" and "You can't do what you want to do. Everybody should just die." There must be some assumption that it's anti-life, satanic, "pro"-abortion, all the wrong words. Is there a way that you can talk about your demeanor and approach to people in communication as a part of these heavy and easily misinterpreted topics?
Yeah. It's not like I'm always successful or I follow through on the better traits of my character, but I do want to treat people well and I want to be able to explain these things calmly and in a way that won't turn people off to them. The most typical answer in these conversations that people give once they hear about antinatalism is, "Why don't you people kill yourselves?" That is the most typical answer. Yeah, I've heard it all.
How do you respond to that question?
My killing myself is not going to make this problem any better. In a way, I have to stay alive. If a person really believes that they understand something that the rest of the world doesn't, and it's about stopping people from suffering, I have a responsibility. That's basically what I think is one of the most important things here is that antinatalism does bring a kind of a responsibility to try to have that conversation however you possibly can. There is a lot of anger in antinatalists. I can say that. There's a huge spectrum of people with all different kinds of approaches and some of them are quite angry. I think sometimes that's very valuable, to tell you the truth. I'm certainly not down on those techniques at all. I'm just not good at that. I'm not good at staying angry all the time or delivering my message in that kind of fashion. In some respects, I wish I kind of was. I try to do it the only way I know how. Sometimes my imagery is very aggressive. I'm kind of a perverse person in some ways. Before this, I drew pictures of monsters with giant penises for like three years. That kind of gets in there. That can be a deal breaker for some people. I try to take an even approach as possible.
What in life brings you the greatest joy? You depict the suffering with the baby elephant video and you have to frequently talk about this idea of there being a large amount of suffering and that most humans are doomed to suffer in their lifetime. What brings you the most joy in life, to counterbalance all of that stuff.
I'd say making art. For me. I think, in my life, I'm amused by so much. Not many antinatalists have giant toy collections. I think I'm very capable of taking a great deal of joy. Insofar as how I deem my own life, I don't particularly think that it's worth the rest of the suffering incurred. I'm still young. I haven't faced death yet. I don't know what that's like. I think life is a whole bunch of stuff. It isn't one thing. Antinatalism is more saying that the scales are a lot heavier on the suffering side. To impose that and to create need for no need is just unethical. It's something that you're doing without consent. You can't guarantee making a person like me where it's more maybe of a fifty/fifty thing. Not only are you going to create suffering, but you're bringing this huge possibility of creating the people causing the suffering. That's an important thing here, too. I think it's possible to take all kinds of experiences from life.
In terms of art making and process, the way I look at some of your work, some of your process of your drawings and the dioramas, they're so meticulous and they take so much time. Maybe you could say that they're obsessive in one way or another, and I mean that in a positive way. Then there's the videos. I think you're meticulous in their details so that you can communicate correctly, but visually, you're into this sort of underground, B-Movie, sloppy aesthetic, too. How do those different processes work for you?
Part of it was a money thing. I had to do a Sisyphus sketch for part of it. It's like, I have a chair, I have a table, the table's at a slant, and I paint it. I love that. I love not being bound by how much money you have or how much resources you have or don't. What do I have in front of me and how can I make this thing happen? But I also think that it ties in with a major theme of the movie and the philosophy itself, which is this idea of unintelligent design. We're not designed by some kind of god. It's just DNA doing what DNA does. It doesn't have a thought for "this is stupid" or "this isn't going to work" or "this is going to cause suffering." It didn't go to college. It's not a smart thing.
I like that my DNA didn't go to college.
I can't take credit for that one. That was inmendham. It's true. It's just a dumb molecule. I think that the style kind of ties into that a little bit. It's this pig and it's bleeding and it's ears are just taped on. I think that highlights the slipshod nature of what nature is. I also love B-Movies, as you said. I love those kinds of aesthetics. I'm deeply influenced by them.
What about that other part of you that does more really detailed, meticulous work. It takes you so long to create those dioramas, for instance. Is it nice to go back and forth between two modes of making?
It is. I get really hungry to do one or the other. My sculptures do sometimes take like a year to complete, and it's so wonderful to just be able to spend five minutes on something. I think I do need the ... I guess I need both. I need the art that takes me a year and I also need that instant gratification. I would like to try to find ways of maybe combining that. I don't think I've really figured out a way of successfully combining what I do in video with what I do in sculpture. I do have some ideas on that, but I haven't really quite done it yet.
What you were just explaining totally plays into what we ended up doing for your portrait. Full disclosure, we didn't have a lot of time. I asked you to do this on Tuesday and we shot it on a Thursday. We decided we'd just go into your studio and figure something out. That's really what happened. We worked with the stuff that was in front of us, which is kind of fun. But you also had this friend you were quoting, about clearing prejudices out the way before you can communicate.
This is something my friend Imendham says quite a lot. It's not that people are incapable of understanding things. It's sort of metaphored by this idea. It's like they've got stuff in the way of their vision. There's branches in the way of someone's vision. Like the idea of god. If you think that god is going to come to the rescue or god knows all the answers or god has reasons for you suffering or doing this or that then you're not going to be using your brain, pretty much. You're not going to be using your reason and your logic. There are ways, through conversation, argument, debate, you can start to clear those branches. I'm not saying that I don't have stuff blocking my vision, either. I think that it is a powerful metaphor to visualize it as it's just stuff in people's path. It's debris. It's refuse in people's way of being able to see the things that are the truth in the world.
Lori's editorial note: Oldphan and I talked for another 45 minutes. If you're interested in more from Oldphan/Amanda, check out the links in this interview.