Foo Conner, social media entrepreneur and co-director of Randyland, on activism, beauty and Eastern philosophy.
By Ashlee Green
Photos by Clifton Loosier
He doesn’t talk much about the time he spent camping in Zuccotti Park in 2011, in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, because it’s, according to him, an “entire can of worms,” but for Pittsburgh Social Media Entrepreneur and Randyland Co-Director, Foo Conner, activism is a way of life.
“The status quo isn’t really good for most of us,” he said. “I seek weird opportunities to change [it.]”
Conner was helping to run the social media and press outreach for Occupy, where he met journalist Chris Hedges, who told him that a real activist would get into the news.
“I really took that to heart,” said Conner. He came back to Pittsburgh, where he was living prior to Occupy, to continue his activism locally, in the Northside.
Conner started cleaning up trash from abandoned properties, boarding them up and eventually living in one, all the while bicycling around the community and taking photos. That’s how he met Randy Gilson, creator of Randyland.
“[Gilson] was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing punk?’” Conner recalled with a laugh. “I think he recognized that he used to do stuff like [that] and he noticed that I was doing it.”
Soon after their meeting, Gilson and Conner became friends, and in late 2016, when Gilson’s late partner, Mac McDermott, was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, Conner became co-director of the outsider art museum.
“I have paint on almost every pair of jeans,” Conner said. “No matter where it is, the paint will get on you at Randyland.”
Every year, Conner explained, Gilson tears up the Randyland courtyard and completely redesigns it. Right now, Gilson is frantically preparing for his big spring reveal show by painting scraps of wood to make psychedelic, larger-than-life flowers.
“This is Randy’s interpretation of a flower, which no god would ever come up with,” said Conner with a smile. “It’s so unnatural, but so beautiful.”
That, Conner said, is just one example of the passion for activism he and Gilson share.
“No one tells you to make these things, but you know in your heart that you want to make something beautiful,” he said.
Conner tries to showcase this beauty in his street photography as well. People often think life is too hard, he said, but he tries to show people that there’s another, more rose-tinted way of seeing the world. He recalled the time he lived in a group house in Mount Oliver that functioned as a punk rock venue, hosting upwards of three band performances per night.
“Cleaning up after punks can be harrowing, but you buy a Roomba, you attach a knife to it, you press go. No one messes with the Roomba and the room gets clean,” he said with a laugh. “It’s about community.”
Conner grew up on a subsistence farm in Charleston, West Virginia, where he remembers picking blueberries as a kid and shooting squirrels. His father was a blacksmith, and his first venture into tech was building an online forum about blacksmithing called I Forge Iron that still exists today.
“It’s about building ‘third spaces,’ or places for people to congregate and share,” he said.
In addition to working at Randyland, Conner runs the tech news and reviews website Jekko. At the time of this interview, Conner’s office space at AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty is overrun with air purifiers. He’s gearing up for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and his team is testing them out and putting them up against each other. He likens his work to that of The Wirecutter, a website owned by The New York Times Company which calls itself your “geeky friend with next-level research skills who tests everything they buy so you don’t have to.” In other words, he tries to make helpful online content.
YouTube has a strategy for the type of content Conner strives to produce through social media: Hero, Hub and Help.
“You make ‘hero content,’ which is that [you] knock it out of the park, you’re doing something crazy,” said Conner. “You do ‘hub content,’ which is bringing the community together and then you do ‘help content,’ which is solving problems that people may have.” He wants his content to have a greater purpose.
“To fight clickbait, you have to deliver,” he said.
Some people label him as a “punk,” but Conner doesn’t see his lifestyle as a choice. He recalled “The Vinegar Tasters,” a famous Chinese religious painting featuring Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu. In the image, Confucius dips his finger into a vat of vinegar and reacts with a sour look on his face, as if to say, ‘Once we perfect the recipe, the vinegar will taste better,’ a reference to the Confucian belief that only by following strict, ritualized
behavior will one find happiness in life. Buddha tastes it and reacts with a bitter expression on his face, showing the Buddhist belief that life is suffering, and only by transcending the suffering will people find peace. Lao Tzu, whose writings were the basis for Taoism, is the one Conner connects with in the image. He is the only one to taste the vinegar and smile: The Taoist viewpoint is to appreciate, learn from and work with whatever life gives you.
Conner doesn’t think in terms of “punk,” “good” or other labels. He’s his true self, and because of that, he said, he’s happy with his life and work.
“A lot of people see, in life, these rules that they’re told: a style of job, a type of job, that surface level of things,” Conner said. “I don’t subscribe to the traditional. I try to hold myself to a higher moral standard. It comes at great cost personally sometimes, but never once do I have a regret about it.”
For more information about Conner, visit his Instagram.