Instagram Art Is a Joke, and It's on You

A growing number of artists have turned to Instagram to make work aiming to unsettle our comfortable relationship with technology.

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Jan 27 2015, 4:05pm

Image via amaliaulman on Instagram

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The Instagram account for "amaliaulman" catalogues the life of a beautiful but unremarkable young twentysomething. Her main interests appear to be yoga and shopping. She's on an Instaquest for self-improvement and her account is full of fitspo-­type gym wear selfies and hashtags like "#training," "#thankful," "#healthy." She describes the decoration of a cafe, the backdrop for one selfie, as "#ethnic #eclectic." Her Instagram is banal as fuck and cruising it is reassuringly dull—comfortably sterile.

Only her four most recent posts break the mould of the artfully-composed mirror pic or the vacuous aspirational mantra ("Start each day with a grateful heart!"). One of them is a black-and-white picture of a rose; the caption reads, "THE END- Excellences and Perfections."

With that, the illusion is shattered. Amalia Ulman has revealed her performance. Excellences and Perfections is an artwork that explores the strained relationship between authenticity, identity, and social media—similar, in a way, to Ryder Ripps' recent exhibition, Ho. Ulman has reproduced our obsession with self­-branding to show that we don't present ourselves through Instagram, we create selves through Instagram, using a series of cultural and material markers of identity.

Image via amaliaulman on Instagram

I asked what drew her to Instagram to create her work, as opposed to other forms of social media. She told me that she was intrigued by the medium's "lack of textual information."

"Although there is a possibility for writing, Instagram is an image-­based platform, much more than Facebook is," says Ulman. "Very little information is given, and people follow a story only through the images they've seen so far. There are a few personalities on Instagram that I follow and I don't know anything about them except what I've imagined through their images. Instagram is a stage, where there's a public that gazes at you; on Facebook everyone becomes an agent in the story being told."

The irony, of course, is that Ulman now has over 70,000 followers; people were taken in by the performance—whether they understood it or not—and obsessively followed her character through the performance of selfies in luxury hotels (which she claims to have snuck into on occasion).

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One user, "Helengo," was keen to inform other unwitting followers of the "truth," commenting on one of Ulman's photos that, "her Instagram account its all about art, everything's a performance, a character she've [ sic] created." Amalia shows that there is no "truth" underpinning our digital existence. Even Helengo's own account is a performance—what Ulman proves is that Instagram accounts can only show us constructed characters.

When I ask about the anger directed at her for duping her followers, she says that, actually, "There were many adverse reactions, but most of them took place before the revelation. I was highly accused for playing roles that, from a feminist perspective, should be challenged. But those characters were precisely chosen for that reason, those clichés from current mainstream narratives were used in an attempt to make it more plausible. The idea was to use the most popular trends adopted by young women in their twenties on Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook for self-representation." Perhaps, for some of her followers, what was ostensibly a high-concept parody account hit too close to the bone.

Image via mcginnessworks instagram

Amalia's one of a growing number of artists turning to Instagram to make work aiming to unsettle our comfortable relationship with technology. The bio for the Instagram account of artist Ryan McGinness reads, "Grams, instantly! Delivered to you for free via Instagram." The Instagram images themselves feature stark white text over a black circle; "Digital Socialism," "Eat Your Feed," "Here's an update of my terms." All of McGinness' Instagram works are delivered in this meme-like format. With almost 1,000 of these slogans, they each read as ironic and self-reflexive comments on social media culture itself.

While there's no unified aesthetic, artists who exploit the internet in the way Ulman and McGinness do are often called "post-internet"—a term that some think is already passé. Karen Archey is a critic who's worked extensively on the evolving art movement. What does she think it means? "'Post-internet' refers not to a time after the internet, but to an internet state of mind."

The idea is that the digital is so ubiquitous it's become unremarkable: our lives are so governed by digital technology that our online existences can't be separated from our IRL ones. However, while the digital realm that most of us frequent—the one driven by Google's big­-data capitalism—is all about homogeneous progress, post-internet art searches for glitches and irregularities, and explores the strange, performative potential of cyberspace.

What can Instagram tell us about our "internet state of mind"? "Instagram has become the home for visual storytelling for everyone from celebrities, newsrooms and brands," says Instagram's "About Us" page. It shows how Instagram transforms us all into a brand, into a painstakingly presented image or "visual story" whose construction has to look effortless. Instagram art, in various ways, makes the process of self-­branding visible. You're supposed to laugh at Instagram art. And by laughing at Instagram art, you're laughing at yourself.

Image via bessnyc4 Instagram account

Another artist creatively exploiting Instagram is Doug Abraham. His account, "bessnyc4," aims to mock the clinical, sterile nature of digital technologies; his work splices together porn with high­ fashion ad campaigns, gore and BDSM with the familiar tropes of advertising. A series of Apple logos are reworked with a bloodied mouth, or the image of a man gagged and tied. A porn star's body with Cara Delevingne's face superimposed on it spreads her legs to reveal an owl between them.

If Ulman shows us how Instagram reduces the user to a brand defined by a set of commodities and platitudes, Abraham makes a grotesque joke by collating a brand with images from the darkest corners of the internet. Abraham provides us with the inverse of Ulman's work. If she makes us aware of our fixation with constructing our excellences and perfections on social media, Abraham uses Instagram to reveal what our social media persona has repressed. Abraham takes the piss out of the earnest practice of self branding.

Image via amaliaulman on Instagram

Amalia went one step further in her performance of self-branding, though. She had cosmetic surgery to physically become her character, sacrificing herself (specifically, her breasts) in the name of art. For her, surgery physically embodies the ability to recreate ourselves on social media. Social media and surgery are both forms of body modification. "The body gets flattened and transformed into an image in an environment that resembles, mostly, the linearity of a book. More than ever, our bodies and our lives are fictionalized and curated to be shared with others. I'm interested in the constant malleability of bodies."

Amalia's interest in the way social media turns us all into a kind of brand is part of a wider interest in the way massive corporations like Amazon and Google have colonized the internet. "What was supposed to be a platform freed from capitalism became a space that capitalism readily adapted itself to," she says. "The market's domination of social life subjugated 'being' into 'having.' Now, the image economy has transformed 'having' into 'appearing': having must be instantly documented for it to be of any value."

Instagram for Amalia embodies a kind of commodity fetishism for the Catfish generation. She tells me that, "Everyone becomes the celebrity of one's own life and the documentation of one's day to day becomes an asset." The hyper-aware world of post-internet art uses social media to make ironic and self-reflexive comments on social media culture itself. But while these kinds of works might be introspective and witty, the question remains: Are they actually art?

Yes. It's art as a meme that can be endlessly reproduced in the non-physical space of the internet, art that sniggers at the earnestness of our social media usage. The question is, as these artists continue to blur the line between performance and reality, how can we distinguish the two? Look out for the next big release from the post-digital canon of art in 2015: "The Existential Crisis of Neoliberalism," an original work performed on Tinder, where we're all in on the joke, without even knowing it.

Follow Niamh McIntyre on Twitter.

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