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The way to 100k instagram followers

The Amalia Ulman story

Text by Hannah Nussbaum

In April of 2014, Argentinian born contemporary artist Amalia Ulman began what would turn into a five month long Instagram performance piece, during which she took up the identity of a wealthy, chic, and “woke” lifestyle instagrammer chronicling her experience with fitness, selfcare,positivity, breast augmentation, and latte art. Embarking on digital as well as physical self modification, Ulman performed — indeed functioned as a fun house mirror of — so many consumerist, pseudo-spiritual Instagram accounts full of carefully crafted food shots, “fitspo,” and product placement. Throughout the piece, many of her follower were unaware of her status as performance artist. She was criticised by peers in the contemporary art world as being too petty on her social media accounts, even of jeopardising her career as a serious female artist.

Her performance ended in September of 2014, when she revealed that the entire thing had been part of a piece titled Excellences and Perfections, through which she claimed to have been exploring and critiquing the narrative and visual conventions of the privileged female lifestyle instagrammer.

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As an exploration of social media as a nexus between the image and the authentic self, Ulman’s piece wrestles with the relevant, and certainly trendy topic of our collective digital persons, and the vision of “the good” they propose. Excellences and Perfections aptly gets at the tension present in the thousands of Instragrams that preach a mantra of authenticity – “be yourself!” they shout loudly – while simultaneously imposing a fairly policed, narrow, and homogenous version of what your lifestyle ought to look like. Her piece is being received by players in the contemporary art world as an innovative use of the internet as a space of performance. It was included in two group shows this past spring at key contemporary galleries in London: Electronic Superhighway at White Chapel Gallery, and Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern.

But the glowing reception of her work and nearly unanimous proclamation of its relevance and innovation leaves something to be desired in the way of critical digestion of a piece that certainly begs questions about intent, utility and political potential. Woven through her exploration of the authenticity of the digital persona, Ulman inevitably presents a version of “basic” middle-brow femininity that is culturally far less privileged than her own, an irony given that her performance aims to critique the privilege embodied by the Instagram “it” girl she is playing. The slippage is obvious. The capital (ostensibly the liquid assets) that her “it” girl has to her advantage is not so different from Ulman’s own cultural capital, which she ultimately uses to parody the less culturally endowed “basic bitch” who might follow, in all earnestness, the sort of account she is performing.

While her piece was live, there was a deep divide in her followers: between those who knew the entire piece to be a performance, and those with legitimate interest in her breast augmentation and brunch spreads. If the latter is somehow misguided, as Ulman might suggest, it is certainly due to insidious policing of the female/femme identity. The problem is, Ulman doesn’t really get to the point of unpacking how and why this policing takes place, short of suggesting that it is entrenched and self-reinforced through accounts like her own. In this sense her work is somewhat tautological: circular rather than forward looking. Ullman seems to be suggesting that these Instagram accounts exist because women are policed by them in ways that produce reenactments.

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But where is the bottom?

In this sense, Ulman’s piece caters to a small elite of actors in the art world, starry eyed with all things internet-art, at the expense of the sort of woman who perhaps liked her account in all earnestness. What’s more, its worth thinking about how non-threatening the piece is to the male dominated art economy, and considering that perhaps this accounts for its ready acceptance into prestigious shows at top contemporary galleries. Not only does it divide femme identity into combatting tropes – her own ostensibly serious, intellectual, or non-shallow artist persona versus the trite, inauthentic, and superficial “it-girl” she performed. It also draws and entrenches dangerous parallels between culturally accepted notions of femme-ness (blond hair, large breasts) and a lack of intelligence or seriousness. It reeks of a fundamentally elitist and exclusive brand of feminism.

As such, what could have perhaps been a legitimate exploration of digital identity politics and the policing they enact fell a bit short, amounting to “basic-bitch” photo-tourism. Curation of online persona is a new reality of identity formation, and to continually question its conventions and trends is essential. So let us support alternative online subjectives, rather than indicting ones we deem inauthentic or superficial.

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Amalia, as herself