Geek Chorus

The avant-nerds

Geek chorus

Once upon a time, nerd meant a four-eyed, snorting misfit who knew Lt . Uhura’s first name. But a new breed of geek has arrived—out, proud and weirdly performance-inclined. Call it the rise of avant-nerdism.

By Howard Halle Photograph by Jess Hasselbusch / Time Out New York

After September 11, pundits gravely proclaimed that irony was dead. As it turned out, irony wasn’t listening. It not only survived, it flourished—and in some quarters, at least, it seems to have morphed into something beyond the concept’s traditional definition. Consider, as examples, the following: a reading series in which people share junior-high-school journal entries with kindred spirits; pitched lightsaber battles between organized teams; a weekend outing during which participants take over the Staten Island Ferry dressed as pirates. This is avant-nerdism: a new sensibility, an updated hip-to-be-square attitude—even a new rumbling of the collective consciousness.

The movement knowingly embraces all things geeky in a marriage of the cutting edge and the socially retarded. Fashionwise, its manifestations have been noticeable for years on the streets of Nolita, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. “People are nerdier-looking than they were in the past,” says Jen Miller, a.k.a. Saint Reverend Jen, the elfin host of the Anti-Slam open-mike night at Cake Shop on Ludlow Street. “Everyone’s dressing like they’re on my seventh-grade cross-country team.” She herself sports pointy, Spock-like ears as “a fashion accessory.”

But appearance isn’t a defining ingredient for the avant-nerd, as it was for, say, hippies or punks. Nor, for that matter, is ideology; instead, what matters most is a shared interest in strategy, in the sort of game playing or role-playing of groups like the Madagascar Institute, which recently staged a series of out-door historical reenactments in Washington Square Park based on that area’s storied past.

Another aspect of avant-nerdism is a small-d democratic belief in everyone’s potential. “I like to say that anybody who gets up and performs at my open mike is an art star,” Reverend Jen says. In this respect, avant-nerdism could have taken root only in a generation raised on gaming consoles and reality-based television: It represents a subversive repurposing of the solitary indulgence of the Xbox and the aspirational appeal of American Idol.

The trend, of course, is also the next step in what has been a growing acceptance of nerd culture over the past 20-plus years—roughly the span between the releases of Revenge of the Nerds and Napoleon Dynamite. (Or maybe between the latter and Real Genius, which also featured the actor Jon Gries, Dynamite’s Uncle Rico.) Avant-nerds can trace their roots to Trekkies, but also to 20th-century performance artists.

Performance-art historian Roselee Goldberg points out the correlation between groups like the Madagascar Institute and Toyshop Collective (the ferry-seizing pirates) and the mainstreaming of performance art in the ’80s and ’90s. “Whether you’re a well-known artist like Robert Rauschenberg or a member of one of these groups,” she says, “performing live is the link that allows the greatest freedom to experiment.”

This live aspect, the geeky preoccupation often framed as street theater, is avant-nerdism’s purest expression, especially when linked to the organizing power of the Web. Bill Wasik, senior editor at Harper’s Magazine, discovered this in 2003, when he organized the first “flash mob” by sending an e-mail chain asking people to suddenly gather in one particular spot—and then just as quickly disperse. Since then, much of avant-nerdism has borrowed from what Wasik calls “the idea that you can take connections that exist online and suddenly actualize them in this kind of real-world physical way, among the uninitiated.”

Of course, harboring some special knowledge unavailable to the “uninitiated” has been a hallmark of the historical avant-garde, just as having an unhealthy passion for a particular thing at the exclusion of having a real life has been a distinguishing characteristic of the historical nerd. “It’s not just being a fan of something,” Wasik explains. “It’s the grandiose way that you’re a fan of something.”

Case in point: Brad Pouly, one of Reverend Jen’s open-mike regulars, who takes the stage wearing Coke-bottle glasses and torn, ’70s-vintage disco clothing to belt out soul classics in a voice that sounds like Marvin Gaye’s. The Rev herself curates a troll museum in her apartment, which is open by appointment. “I recently had the president of the company in Denmark that makes the original troll doll drop by,” she says. “It was as if Michael Jordan had come to the house of a Bulls fan.”

In an article for Harper’s in which he describes his invention of the flash mob, Wasik wrote that it was a metaphor for the “hollowness” of hipster culture. But talking to him now, he says such “pranky” activities show that “you can transform what seems like a boring world into one with a glimmer of fun.” As for Reverend Jen, the scene represents people “who accept the lameness of this era and yet are still trying to make art in it. It’s still very much a counterculture—only it’s a counterculture as lame as the millennium it’s in.”