“Instagram is L.A. L.A is Instagram,” Hans Ulrich Obrist emphasized during For Your Art’s Instagram Mini-Marathon at Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Theater this Saturday, quoting his colleague and fellow marathon organizer Kevin McGarry.
Obrist, co-director of exhibitions and programming at London’s Serpentine Gallery and a celebrity curator, hosted the evening’s event and began its programming with a discussion of his own Instagram account. He joined Instagram at the urging of McGarry and the artist Ryan Trecartin, and embarked on his Instagram handwriting project after a conversation with another pair of thinkers, artists Simone Fattal and Etel Adnan. With the latter, Obrist considered the steady erasure of handwriting in our increasingly digitized world. But instead of simply lamenting the end of handwriting, like he mentions Umberto Eco doing in his essay “The Lost Art of Handwriting,” Obrist decided to do something about it. So now, as Obrist routinely travels the world to converse with many of its most prominent creatives, he hands them a Post-It note and asks that they write something down. He Instagrams his favorites, and his 42k followers are then able to experience these ideas through the very penmanship of those that thought (or at least re-wrote) them. Obrist has made his Instagram an exhibitory space for ideas and a container for his pro-handwriting activism. He takes photos of handwritten texts and puts them on Instagram to remind us of the power of pen and paper as we scroll on our phones.
If Obrist’s Instagram cause is pen and paper, boychild and Niko Karamyan’s is the power of the self and perhaps, the power of one’s self in the service of others. These two participating artists spoke on their self-imaging practice and its relationship to Instagram’s visual culture. While neither should be identified as “Instagram artists” in a reductive sense, both have experienced new developments in the way their work is displayed, consumed, and catalogued as a result of the app. boychild is a performance artist who uses her own body, its modifications, and its movement as an entrance point for existential journeys that go far beyond the corporeal and into shamanistic realms that conjure boundary–dissolving manifestations of the word bliss.
With 33k followers, boychild is popular on Instagram. But what began as a personal account started to feel more like a job, as her career as an artist gained momentum. The acquisition of such a large Instagram audience not only changed who was watching the live performances, but also how they watched them. “It’s very common that I see footage of my performances almost immediately after,” boychild stated during her presentation. “The experience the viewer has with an iPhone and the accessibility to take pictures every second of their life has changed the moment of living today,” she continued. “People see things through a square and a filter and as a hashtag.“ As a performance artist, boychild’s expression is dependent upon the live relationship she has with the performance space, its energy, and her audience. Her experience on Instagram and with other social media seems to have shown her how many of her viewers consider her live shows an opportunity to communicate her image with their own audiences, their own followers.
Niko Karamyan goes by the Instagram handle NikotheIkon. He describes himself as a video director, actor, and creative director, and began his presentation by theoretically grounding the way he uses Instagram in relation to today’s social values and media relationships. “Some of the world’s most dynamic protagonists, particularly from my generation of storytellers, can be best, or at least most easily, experienced through our own social media accounts,” he said. “Image-based social media outlets like Instagram allow individuals like myself the opportunity to construct and curate our own public broadcasts of self in evidentiary, transformational, and confrontational ways.” Essentially, his selfies are stories. These stories form a “reference bank” that functions as his resume, landing him jobs with bands like IO Echo, who commissioned Karamyan to make them a music video after falling in love with one of his Instagram postings. This posting became the source material for “Outsiders,” their eventual collaboration.
Karamyan’s presentation also introduced the potential downsides to sharing so much of one’s creative output on open forums like Instagram. His archive is public and his following is strong. So while Instagram has facilitated many of his professional opportunities, it has also acted as a mood board for many projects with which he’s been unaffiliated. “I am my own muse, and in sharing that with the world, have become the same for many of my followers. Some graciously, and some in secret... By and large, this is cool. But it also raises important questions about things like integrity, credit, and compensation – all of which Instagram culture makes it easy to do away with within creative industries,” he stated. Karamyan’s presentation ended with a video slideshow of his most spectacular grams, cued to the aptly chosen sounds of Beenie Man’s “Who Am I?” and Drake’s “0 to 100.”
The high energy of Karamyan’s musical selections was matched only by a live performance from artist, actor, and poet Rachel Lord, who donned a custom Peggy Noland dress and black cowboy hat onstage as she had audience members (myself included) bid on the Instagram images projected behind her. Mastering the Great American Western Auctioneer voice the morning of the marathon, Lord’s auction packaged her criticism of Instagram-created social currency and its place in contemporary art into an irreverent show that felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the more routine presentations.
But Rachel’s wasn’t the only entertaining presentation. The aforementioned Kevin McGarry and the conceptual artist and creative director Ryder Ripps both offered the audience some of their personal insights about Instagram in a light-hearted and captivating way. Kevin made it clear he’s never identified as a visual artist, but that as a writer and curator, he’s found worth in the app for its granting of “access to personal perspectives.” Kevin spoke on Instagram as something that facilitates new ways to communicate new, or at least previously incommunicable, things. “Before image based social media there wasn’t a good way to explain the experience of a sign,” McGarry explained. Using Instagram, he’s been able to trace “how mechanically designed text occurring in the world becomes more relatable as a visual substance when it’s recorded and shared with people online.” In this way, Instagram has enhanced the average user’s language capabilities without most even realizing it.
Another one of McGarry’s key ideas was something he calls “impulsive intimacy,” his take on the now antiquated concept of the “over share.” Many types of Instagram posts can fall under this “impulsive intimacy” category, but for McGarry it mostly means email and “app-specific” screenshots he finds silly, telling, or humorous. Think a still from the Kim Kardashian fashion app featuring his game avatar with a hand on her hip and her eyelids closed. The game text reads, “You currently have no goals.” Way harsh.
Ryder Ripps also came prepared with a new term to share – corny core. Ripps talked about how Instagram can create a mockingly sentimental tone for the everyday. Ripps showed us a woman’s series of #TittyTuesday photos to show how Instagram can turn regular days into self-interested holidays, and shared how one woman, using two different filters, felt confident in posting the same photo of herself, on the same day, by making reference to her “alter-ego” (the darkly filtered one). His presentation examined how Instagram can create difference where difference doesn’t actually exist. Just like how Instagram’s sponsored content doesn’t always read as sponsored content. He explained this by projecting images from IG personality Adrianne Ho’s account. Ho receives sporty clothing from companies like Nike and continues to be compensated as long as she features them in her posts. But the Instagrams aren’t ads, because they’re Instagrams. Ripps warps images of Adrianne’s non-ad ads, has them painted, and then posts photos of the paintings back on his Instagram. As founder of the creative agency OKFocus, this is just one of many things he does. Based on his presentation, it feels like his Instagram-able hobby.
Instagram is also one of participant Michel Gaubert’s hobbies. Gaubert, a Paris-based DJ known for his renowned fashion house soundtracks, extends his visual communication through Instagram. “To me, music is like an image,” he said, describing his inclination toward the “searching, digging, archiving, creating” culture of blogging and Instagram. Gaubert uses Instagram as an editorial space, where much of what he loves or finds interesting can coalesce in visual and text-anchored ways. “I treat it like a magazine with my little comments,“ he remarked. Like his music, Gaubert’s Instagram tells stories in a smart, sexy, and sometimes silly manner.
The evening’s other speakers included artist Alex Israel, who shared the first Instagram-ed photo ever (a kind of gross photo of the founder’s foot next to his dog), Simon Castets, who talked about curating at the Swiss Institute in New York and the institution’s use of Instagram as part of an “art works dissemination strategy,” and artist Frances Stark, who talked about her “not very popular” Instagrams as a new way of constructing interiority.
The sweetest and most random presentation came from artist and curator Meg Cranston. Cranston admitted to joining Instagram in preparation for the event and focused on the user @CanaryKuwait during her two weeks on the app. @CanaryKuwait features videos of birds learning to sing. Cranston’s early review of the app is positive – “I can meet people who do interesting things and learn about it.”
@CanaryKuwait is an artist, even if his Instagram doesn’t suggest he considers himself as such. While many of the Mini-Marathoners were understandably interconnected within the same art world context, Cranston’s inclusion of @CanaryKuwait addressed an important reality: Instagram is for everyone. Thus, everybody’s an artist on Instagram. Just like ho everybody’s a creative director on Instagram, and how everybody’s a critic on Instagram. While we may find some accounts more entertaining or purposeful than others, they were all made the same way.
Artist participant Jordan Wolfson, who discussed using the app as separate from his art practice and in a way intuitively unrelated to the shaping of his self-image, made a personal statement that describes the role of Instagram in art and culture today in the simplest (and most beautiful) way: “What I like in art, and what I try to do in my art work, is about a state of non judgment—looking at the world as a kind of witness. Instagram allows me to witness things from other people eyes.“