Curated by Highsnobiety and presented during the time period formerly known as Paris Men’s Fashion Week, Not In Paris 3 is our third in a series of bi-annual digital exhibitions celebrating creativity in the age of remote interactions. Head here for the full series and cop our new merch via our online store.
Since MSCHF released its first drop in 2018, the Brooklyn-based collective’s works have paid off tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt, attracted a lawsuit from one the most powerful companies in the world, and helped students struggling to meet their essay length requirements. But one of their most unexpected hits was the 2020 release This Foot Does Not Exist, which will send you pictures of computer-generated feet if you text +1 (405) 266-1401.
“It's, for whatever reason, one of our most highly engaged with drops. We’ve had like millions of people text it for AI-generated feet pics,” says MSCHF creative director Lukas Bentel.
“I will toot our horn a little bit that it's part of a couple MIT digital media courses right now,” fellow creative director Kevin Wiesner adds.
MSCHF is neither an AI platform nor a foot fetish website, but This Foot Does Not Exist exemplifies much of what the group is about: creating projects that look like practical jokes, undergirded by social commentary on consumer culture, academia, or the art gallery industrial complex. “The foot pic is that rarest piece of pornographic content: produced by casual and non-professional creators, yet which nevertheless is unlikely to haunt its creator in the future as long as it can be offhandedly dismissed within the humorous context it inhabits in the minds of a non-fetishist audience,” reads the accompanying manifesto for This Foot Does Not Exist.
While explanatory manifestos are an integral part of MSCHF’s now dozens of drops (now, including their Not In Paris release), which are released approximately every two weeks, they’ve intentionally kept the process behind their works largely a mystery. “We're chasing the magic of seeing these things when they're done, and just kind of springing fully formed,” Wiesner says.
Even internally, Bentel notes there is some debate about what the group really is — to some a brand, to others an art collective. But the art label is useful for letting consumers know how to engage with MSCHF. “Our gallery spaces are not the gallery world all the time,” he adds. “They're mainly the real world, as much as possible."
“We're trying to do a lot of the things that traditionally artwork objects might do, where they're objects to convey a point of view about something,” Wiesner says. “And we are consciously trying to do the same thing, but with commercial objects.”
But the lack of consistent medium is key to the group’s ethos. “MSCHF has absolutely no predictable coherence to its outputs. Like, we're gonna make shoes, we're gonna make paintings. We're working on a video game right now,” says Wiesner.
“It's almost like a core tenet that we'll never be able to be explicitly pinned down and have to design our way out of that,” Bentel adds.
As MSCHF continues to release new drops, which you can track on its website or app, Wiesner and Bentel walked us through some of the collective’s most impactful creations thus far.
The Persistence of Chaos Drop #01, 2018 thepersistenceofchaos.com
MSCHF made its debut by mixing fine art and technology and, as the group would prove to be very good at, selling off the resulting mash up for a hefty sum. Made in collaboration with Chinese artist Guo O Dong, The Persistence of Chaos infected Dong’s broken down 2008 Samsung laptop with six pieces of malware obtained from computer research departments.
“This is back when MSCHF was kind of a very nebulous entity. We just knew that we had a lot of ideas we wanted to do and we were going to see if we could do them,” explains Wiesner. “We wanted to turn it into a bomb. And it turns out that these crazy pieces of malware, because they're kind of old, they run on like old versions of Windows, they’re not that threatening anymore. You can just get them for research purposes.”
MSCHF live streamed the running of the malware on the laptop on its Twitch channel, which scandalized some of the million viewers who turned in despite its rather mundane process. “Nothing was happening. It was like on a pedestal, with a flashing light on it,” Wiesner says. “It was the most boring thing I've ever seen, but the chat was great.”
“Somebody, I believe, tried to report us to the FBI. They sent us a screenshot of like, firstname.lastname@example.org, and they were sending them a report about us,” he adds.
But the work found a dedicated audience. MSCHF’s CEO and founder Gabriel Whaley arranged an auction of the piece, which eventually commanded $1.345 million — though that figure represents a drop in the bucket compared to the damages caused by the malware on the computer. The viruses, like the email scam ILOVEYOU and the bank account hacking malware DarkTequila, caused in total around $95 billion in financial damages and losses.
“There's a phenomenon where there's not a lot of art that appeals to tech people, like super deliberately,” Wiesner says. “And when it does, sometimes you just get people with tons of money who turn up for it.”
“Same thing as what happened with NFT's over the past couple of months, is you just have something that caters to a really, really niche interest, in this case cybersecurity, and it found a niche audience who knew a lot about it and was really compelled by it, which we didn't necessarily expect,” he adds. “We were just trying to riff on the more commonplace experience that people have with malware.”
Times Newer Roman Drop #03, September 2018 timesnewerroman.com
“A lot of what MSCHF tries to build when we're doing digital products is tools that explore loopholes, essentially. I would say finding loopholes is one of the things we do better than almost anybody,” says Wiesner.
Though much of MSCHF’s output has targeted the world of fine arts and expensive sneaker drops, its third drop used font design to assist students looking to hack their essay page number requirements. Available to download for free, Times Newer Roman is just like Times New Roman, albeit with characters that are 5 to 10 percent wider. Not enough to be visible to the naked eye, but enough to make the words take up a lot more space on the page.
“In our app right now we have a chat portal where people can send us messages. At that point when we had just started out, we just had a phone number, and people could text us. We got tons of kids in school who would send us messages of, ‘I just wrote a paper on this thing and you saved me.’”
Times Newer Roman and a later MSCHF drop, M-Journal, which turns any Wikipedia page into a citable academic paper, had their share of detractors of course. “It's the classic thing right like, ‘Oh, you're giving kids the tools to cheat and actually that means they don't learn how to do real research. You're hurting the students in the name of cheap thrills, or whatever,’ Which like yes, sure, I guess,” Wiesner says.
Jesus Shoes Drop #07, October 2019 jesus.shoes
The constant one-upmanship of sneaker-celebrity-megabrand collaborations of the past few years has a natural endpoint, MSCHF believes: a sneaker made in collaboration with Jesus.
“In some sense it was a critique of that whole celebrity collabs, sneaker worship culture. And as a critique it ends up just playing into it even moreso,” explains Bentel.
“Ostensibly a collaboration is supposed to be two equal partners working together on something. And then you look at this monolithic multinational Nike company, behind Coca Cola it's probably one of the most recognized [brands] in the world,” Wiesner says. “So if they're supposed to collaborate with someone on equal footing, you need symbology that carries the same weight. You don't have a lot of options at that point. One of them happens to be the Catholic Church.”
To create the Jesus Shoe, MSCHF refashioned a Nike Air Max 97 with a crucifix, a Matthew 14:25 inscription (in reference to Jesus walking on water), blessed them with frankincense and injected the Air Max bubble with Holy Water. “The thing about Holy Water, which is great, is it has this whole mythos around it. But also, it's essentially just an industrially produced material. Like we contacted the supplier,” Wiesner says.
“You can literally go on Amazon and buy giant tubs of Holy Water from various parts of the world,” Bentel adds, with MSCHF’s own choice coming from the River Jordan.
Though poking fun at the sneaker community, the shoes found a receptive audience among collectors, with the likes of Drake snagging a pair. The Jesus Shoes quickly sold out and went on the resale market for double their original $1,425 price. “This project really exemplifies something that’s present in a lot of our work. When we're putting something out there, an interesting art object or a statement on culture, we always try to put it right in the space that we're critiquing,” Bentel says of the decision to make the shoes readily available for sale rather than place them in a gallery.
“That was our first foray into more of the streetwear scene, like working with shoes, which are such great cultural objects at the moment. They're almost like what paintings were 100 years ago,” Bentel says. “In our right mind I don't think we thought anyone was going to jump through these. And they all sold out like gangbusters.”
Bull & Moon Drop #08, November 2019 bullandmoon.com
“I did it. I found the worst app in the world,” wrote Twitter user @melhuman upon discovering MSCHF’s Bull & Moon app. Bull & Moon combines the power of two spheres at once reviled and worshipped, each with its own inscrutable internal logic: astrology and the stock market.
“You kind of have these two esoteric systems for talking about the future, whether that's the literal future of what happens to you, or the future about your investments,” says Wiesner. “A lot of [astrology] is just reading into semi-arbitrary data and sounding like you have insight, which is the perfect matchup for stocks.”
And if corporations can be people, why shouldn’t they also have astrological signs? Bull & Moon assigns companies a birth date based on the time of incorporation and then matches users with their most “compatible” investments based on their personal astrological signs.
MSCHF published a white paper on a test case on its process, using the astrological profile of MSCHF employee Daniel Greenberg, a Leo, to find his best corporate matches (in his case “Libras” like AT&T and Micron Technology), and comparing those investments to an equal amount invested in the S&P 500. The results found an average yield of 7.47 percent for Greenberg’s B&M investments over the course of a quarter, compared to 1.7 percent for the S&P 500.
The app, which is no longer available on the App Store, inspired more hate than perhaps stock market winnings, but, like astrology and Wall Street predictions, there’s nothing concrete to say its system doesn’t work. “Quite honestly it's not using a particularly sophisticated like rising sign, you know, all the different houses. It's a fairly cut and dry, date-based astrological match. Which I think is evergreen, but somebody should confirm that it still works,” Wiesner says.
Severed Spots Drop #20, April 2020 severedspots.com
If one Damien Hirst painting is worth $30,000, how much is that painting worth when sliced up into 88 pieces? “Nothing is sacred on our end, but it’s something you really shouldn't do if you want to hold on to a Damien Hirst painting as a vehicle for investment,” says Bentel.
Severed Spots took Damien Hirst’s 2018 work L-Isoleucine T-Butyl Ester and chopped it into 88 individual dots, selling each for $480. The piece challenged the notion of art as a “storage locker” for money, Wiesner says, but also showed the piece isn’t really more than the sum of its parts. “With Severed Spots, we were able to not only commit this sacrilegious act that really horrified some people in the art world, but also, we got a 2x, 3x, return on our collective artwork in about 48 hours.”
“You went from being able to have a Damien Hirst painting, whose general price points are extremely inaccessible, and drop that price down in a way that let a bunch of people technically own a Damien Hirst painting and a MSCHF original at the same time with each of those spots,” Bentel adds.
MSCHF later put the carcass of the original work with the 88 squares cut out (which also included the Damien Hirst signature) up for auction. Titled 88 Holes, the new work sold for $261,400, bringing the total sales made on Severed Spots to just under $300,000.
Medical Bill Art Drop #30, September 2020 medicalbill.art
“I think humor is generally a very good vehicle to get people to engage with things that are generally very complicated, or, or some things that they don't think about,” says Bentel of Medical Bill Art. “With Medical Bill Art, it was more like, how can we play and use the art world as a system, as a tool, to solve another issue?”
Even while Medical Bill Art tackles the astronomic levels of medical debt across the U.S., a subject matter seemingly removed from hyped sneakers and fudging essays, it uses much of the same tools in the MSCHF playbook. “It's coming out of the idea of finding and exploiting loopholes. And in this case taking a system that creates money through inscrutable and seemingly arbitrary means, blue chip galleries, and also a system that is opaque and inscrutable and piles people with seemingly utterly arbitrary amounts of debt, and plugging them into each other and hey, we can get them to cancel out,” Wiesner says.
To create Medical Bill Art, MSCHF placed ads in its print magazine soliciting readers to submit their medical debt. The project ultimately took three participants’ medical bills and turned them into works of art, with the goal of selling off the art to cancel out the sum of the debt, totaling $73,360.36. “It was pretty impactful being on the receiving end of the responses to that, especially when everybody was so young,” Wiesner adds.
To raise the funds, MSCHF partnered with Otis, a platform which sells cultural assets like rare Air Jordans and trading cards into individual shares at $20 each. “Structurally, this project was very similar to our other drops in that we were fractionalizing a cultural asset and allowing members to purchase shares in that asset. The twist here though was that we were working with the creator directly and then allowing their audience to participate,” explains Otis’ founder Michael Karnjanaprakorn. “We’d done something similar with a few other artists in the past, but obviously the unique nature of MSCHF made this project special.”
“MSCHF just does a great job of weaving clever social commentary in everything they do and telling compelling stories,” Karnjanaprakorn adds, noting that over 400 people purchased shares in the Medical Bill Art works, with their purchases stored in the Otis app. “In terms of the actual paintings, they were in our East Village gallery space for a time and are now in art storage.”
“I do recall we paid someone's debt, they were obviously incredibly thankful for that, and then we had heard that they were right back into it,” Bentel says of one participant, who accrued yet more medical debt following the sale of Medical Bill Art due to a recurring condition.
Blur Drop #34, December 2020 whatisblur.com
Blur had the potential to be one of MSCHF’s most disappointing projects, rather than its most commercially successful to date. On screen, it looks like a giant, blurry stack of bills. And that’s exactly what it is.
“We had for a long time had an idea about selling an object that looked one way online that seemed like it was obscured, and when you got it, it turned out, ‘Oh, that was a real photo of it,’” Wiesner says. “And then at some point, it sort of clicked when we said, ‘If this is about the absurdity of the impulse buy based on hype, let's just take it all the way and we'll just do money.’”
“Turns out that that blurry money stick looks great as an object, it looks like a badly imported PS2 asset that didn't render properly,” he adds. “Like everything that we're that we're putting out, it was sort of an experiment, like, okay, we're gonna sort of wink, wink, nudge, nudge and see what happens.”
What happened is many people bought the Blur stack for an initial price of $20, some hoping that the object, which is merely a large eraser, would contain actual money. The group had already pledged to give away money with the MSCHF Box earlier that year after all. “At first people got it, they opened it, and they're like, ‘What is it, is there money in here?’ And people would chop them up, and like, rip them apart and be like, ‘I think there's money in here!’ And people were eating it. A lot of people were like, ‘It's just a giant eraser,’” Bentel says.
But the product simply needed to run its course to prove to be the cash cow consumers hoped for. “In a lot of ways Blur has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people bought it thinking that it was like, I'm getting a lottery ticket or a cash payout or what have you. And then you have this period of turmoil. And then the community all settles down and decides that it's a great sculptural object that they can then flip. And maybe you actually got exactly what you thought it was when you bought it, you got a stack of money, right?” Wiesner says.
Following Blur’s success as a tool for flipping money, MSCHF created Big Blur, an even larger blurry money sculpture, and put it up for auction at Sotheby’s, where it sold for $56,700. “By the time you get to Sotheby's, you can kind of make the point that everybody's just looking at stuff as an investment vehicle anyway,” Wiesner says. “But I do think we just wanted to see if we could.”
For Harrison Tenzer, Head of Sotheby’s Online Sales of Contemporary Art, MSCHF exists in the tradition of pop and Dada artists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. “The founder of MSCHF reached out to a colleague of mine at Sotheby’s, Brahm Wachter, who connected us. I was excited about the introduction because I love partnering with artists to bring their artwork to auction for the first time,” he says. “This is very empowering for an artist to have direct contact with the auction house to actively build a secondary market.”
“MSCHF captures the ethos of contemporary collectible culture,” Tenzer says, noting the group’s particularly strong connection to its audience. “We agreed to sell the work before it was fully completed, which is a rarity for Sotheby’s. MSCHF has a strong dedicated following they have actively cultivated and we were excited at the prospect of their fans coming to Sotheby’s to bid against our international network of clients.”
Birkinstock Drop #39, February 2021 birkinstock.shoes
There is sacrilege in terms of putting a crucifix on a Nike Air Max, and there is the kind of sacrilege that makes Brooklyn leathersmith’s skin crawl: “We approached a number of leather workers in Brooklyn when we were trying to get a production chain settled for this,” Wiesner says of the Birkinstock creation, which required slicing up an Hermès Birkin bag, which retail for anywhere from $9,000 to $500,000, into the pattern of a $100 Birkenstock sandal. “And they were like, ‘Get out of my shop. No way.’”
“We are playing with essentially a lot of cultural artifacts, symbols, and a Birkin bag just exemplifies a certain type of wealth. If you have the money to buy a Birkin bag, it means something to you. It means something to the people you're carrying it in front of,” Bentel says. “And I think smashing that with something that is as ubiquitous and low purchase price as a Birkenstock, where you can buy everything from down to like the soles to resole your Birkenstock shoe and like new buckles, it it just seemed like a match made in heaven in that sense.”
Birkin’s are not only inaccessible in price, however, they also require special customer status at Hermès to obtain. “By the time we got around to doing Birkin bags, we had enough contacts who are able to get Birkin bags that we were able to just ask them to buy some for us,” explains Wiesner. With those buyers and eventually the help of a shoe prototyper who wasn’t squeamish about slicing up the bags, the collective was able to create the shoe, featuring croc skin and ostrich leather emblazoned with a playful twist on the Hermès horse and chariot logo, which sold for $34,000 to $76,000 a pair.
Even while luxury Birks are fairly commonplace now thanks to official collabs with Rick Owens and Valentino, MSCHF has yet to see many Birkinstocks in the wild. “There were definitely some people who were very hesitant to touch it, or like engage with it as an object,” Bentel says.
“In terms of actually wearing it. I don't know if anybody except Future has put it on their feet,” Wiesner adds.
Axe Number Censored Drop #41, March 2021 axenumbercensored.com
When Chanel launched its No. 5 perfume in 1921, the scent was an instant hit for its groundbreaking use of synthetic aldehydes and sleek bottle design. By now, the century-old fragrance lives on in the popular imagination thanks to its movie star-studded ads whose connection to the perfume itself has only grown thinner over the years.
“Perfume is all brand, at least in my mind,” Bentel says. “You can order it online, but you can't smell through your computer. You get ads of it on the subway, but you can't smell those ads. It's like the branding is so important to the product, the bottle design and everything that surrounds it, almost more so than the actual fragrance. Even though there's a lot that goes into making a fragrance obviously.”
This makes Chanel No. 5 the perfect high-low counterpart to AXE and the visceral reactions it usually inspires. “Everyone knows what it is. But you don't get any visuals. You just get that stench, like it’s still in my sinuses since about seventh grade,” says Wiesner. “It's just two totally different types of cultural association.”
The resulting mishmash was Axe Number Censored, which filled Chanel No. 5 bottles with Axe Phoenix and sold them for $400 apiece. While the team did not alter the original scent to create the “Eau de MSCHF,” it did dye the liquid a fluorescent neon green. “We wanted to make it seem as neon and radioactive as possible,” says Bentel. “Everybody's terrified of those things sitting around,” Wiesner adds.
The customized label MSCHF added to the bottles, with “AXE” rendered with Chanel’s interlocking Cs but without the No. 5 present, was a more practical concern, Wiesner explains. “ It was too much of Chanel's brand for their lawyers though,” he notes. “Apparently, the words ‘number five’ in conjunction are enough.”
For its part, AXE was pleased by the use of its name. “It’s about time Axe ascended to its rightful spot alongside some of the most iconic fragrance brands in the world. Like everyone, we love a fun and unexpected collab,” says AXE brand director Mark Lodwick.
Satan Shoes Drop #43, March 2021 satan.shoes
In a 2020 New York Times profile of MSCHF, Wiesner said that a public disavowal from either Nike or the Vatican of the Jesus Shoes “would have been rad.” Just over a year later, the group received such a repudiation.
For as much as MSCHF seeks to reinvent itself with each release, the success of the Jesus Shoe begged for a natural follow up: a Satan Shoe, and the team found the perfect partner to launch it. “It just so happened that we were in a kind of a casual conversation over time with Lil Nas X's team,” Wiesner says. “And at some point they said, ‘Oh hey, he's working on a music video right now. Check out the mood board, it's all this Hieronymus Bosch-Garden of Earthly Delights imagery.”
Like with the Jesus Shoe, MSCHF took the Air Max 97 and integrated Biblical references both onto the shoe itself and its price tag ($1,018, in reference to Luke 10:18, in which Satan falls from Heaven) and injected the sneaker with Catholic iconography: blood, albeit from a mere mortal, not of Christ.
But for as much of a stir as the Jesus Shoe caused, the popularity of Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” propelled the Satan Shoe, worn in the video by the Satan figure who Lil Nas seduces and then kills, to new heights. As of writing, the video currently has more than 240 million views on YouTube.
While Nike made no public response to the Jesus iteration, it didn’t take so well to the alliance of its shoe with the devil and sued MSCHF for trademark infringement, leading Lil Nas X to shut down his Twitter giveaway of the shoe and forcing MSCHF to remove both the Jesus and Satan kicks (all 666 of them) from circulation. “We were very surprised to be sued,” Wiesner says.
The shoe and the video earned their own degree of outrage from conservative media, even while the blood-filled shoes and homoerotic video are rather tame compared to the Catholic Church’s own depictions of bodily fluids and sadomasochistic sexual displays. “There are literally vials of dried blood in some reliquaries,” Bentel notes.
“Actual Catholicism is way gnarlier from a body horror perspective,” Wiesner adds. The Vatican has yet to comment.
Euro Stack June 2021
Just in time for Not In Paris, MSCHF returns to an old favorite: Blur, rendered with blurry euro bills in place of greenbacks.
“Blur was always visually compelling, and there's room to keep exploring that,” Bentel says. “It's become an icon for MSCHF in that it represents a core paradigm for our relation to our fans: we're going to try to trick you and have a bit of fun, but the end result is something you love, even if it wasn't what you originally thought.”
This may not be the last you see of the Blur series. “A lot of how we think at MSCHF is making fun of money, or how people spend money. The Blur object is a super literal take on that, and I think there's definitely room to expand it further,” Wiesner adds.
Like the original Blur, the euro-fied version has the ability to be both a cultural object and a quick flip for your money — if you can snag one before they sell out. Return on investment not guaranteed.