There are many ways to gain notoriety online. Amalia Ulman did just that when she turned Instagram into a platform for performance art with her serialised work, Excellences and Perfections.
We’re all at least a little bit familiar with Instagram celebrities – social media-savvy young women who become self-made celebrities through their selfies, food photographs, lifestyle recommendations and hashtags. With Instagram it-girl Essena O’Neill recently boycotting social media and launching her new blog, Let’s Be Game Changers, public attention has been drawn to the effects of these narrative lifestyles.
In 2013, while recuperating in hospital after a serious bus accident that shattered both her legs, artist Amalia Ulman became fascinated with the fantasies that play out on Instagram. She began studying the techniques of girls with enormous Instagram follower counts – the hashtags they used, the trends they followed and even the time of day they posted. Then she began meticulously scripting out her performance project, Excellences and Perfections, in which she would pretend to be a fresh-faced aspiring actress who moves to LA, lives the high life for a while, gets breast augmentation surgery, becomes disillusioned with her materialistic lifestyle, takes drugs, falls from grace and has an epiphany.
Does it all sound familiar? That’s because it was supposed to sound familiar from the start.
Amalia Ulman is a radical performance and multimedia artist. But one mightn’t have guessed it from the images posted on her Instagram account last year, when she could have been confused with any other fame-seeking, consumerist user of the platform. Her follower count soared as many people were drawn to her character, not knowing that it was a facade. Ulman began the project by posting an image of the words ‘Part One’, with the caption ‘Excellences and Perfections.’ She then followed her scripted story, posting images of herself in hipster-like photos, wearing fashionable outfits, taking pole-dancing lessons, reclining with a book in hotel bedrooms and posing with luxurious meals. The project culminated with her (fake) breast augmentation surgery, where she taped up her breasts with the same kind of surgical tape used on her injured legs months before. Towards the end, her selfies showed her looking increasingly tired and unhappy, until an apparent epiphany and decision to live a healthier life. One confused follower commented, “Is this real?”
In an interview with i-D Ulman explained her motivations behind the project.
“I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of self-branding, so my anti-capitalist approach to this was to destroy my online persona, to the point of creating this fake truth that I couldn’t even fight with. It was all about the power of the image. I was also sick of the stereotype of the young female artist, so I was playing around with self-destruction and becoming the opposite, becoming a persona that would bring up mixed feelings: on one side attraction and on the other deep repulsion, even nausea.
“A great inspiration was the Amanda Bynes story; there were people watching and wanting me to fail badly, with this inner feeling of, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this but actually I’m really enjoying this meltdown!’ I was interested in this idea of people following the story as if it was a book or a movie.”
For Ulman – as for most, it not all, Instagram it-girls – the ostensibly spontaneous selfies took a huge amount of time and effort. Ulman told Dazed Magazine:
“I had a regime. I went to the gym, pole dancing classes, got my hair and nails done – it was hours and hours of work.”
Then there was the planning and research that goes into gaining large amounts of followers. In an interview with Vulture.com, Ulman revealed:
“It is easy to increase the likes by using shortcuts to popularity, like following the trending topics. If you are using the Photoshopped image of a woman and a bunch of popular hashtags, the likes are going to go up.”
And now, thanks to Convolution Neural Networks we can feed selfies into a computer program to predict almost exactly how popular a selfie is going to be. This nifty piece of technology has identified specific trends in popular selfies. Popular selfie takers tend to be female, have visibly long hair that hangs over their shoulders, over-saturate their facial features and use filters to decrease contrast and wash out the face. Other popular selfie trends include white borders and cropped foreheads.
There were aspects of the charade that were fun, though. Ulman purportedly snuck into luxury hotel suites to take selfies and bought H&M clothes only to take selfies and return the clothes later.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the whole project, though, was the way people responded to it. Ulman told Vulture.com:
“The reaction that surprised me the most was how certain people, even though they had been told it was fiction, kept on believing it was true. I found this dichotomy between what they wanted to believe and what was actually happening very interesting.”
Now, over a year after the Excellences and Performances project drew to a close, it seems that people still aren’t sure what to believe about social media. Instagram accounts like @socalitybarbie parody hipster trends, while Instagram star Essena O’Neill has apparently left the platform for good – if, critics argue, her boycotting isn’t a publicity stunt intended to promote her new blog.
When navigating the strange world of the internet, there’s one important thing to remember: a lot of what you see has been crafted to give you a particular impression. People on Facebook and Instagram masochistically indulge in FOMO – fear of missing out – without considering that what they’re missing out on might not be as idyllic as it appears. As Amalia Ulman and now Essena O’Neill have revealed, things are never quite as they seem. And anyone with a basic understanding of media production can see that seemingly candid ‘social experiment’ videos are often heavily edited, more akin to propaganda than experimentation.
As Ulman witnessed with Excellences and Perfections, people desperately want to believe in their first impressions. It seems that in an age where we’re inundated with advertisements, corporate scams and societal narratives, people are becoming paradoxically desperate to believe what they see. But the truth is that individuals on social media can lie just as completely and just as resourcefully as notorious multi-nationals.
So what is Ulman up to now? Well, she recently visited Pyongyang for a multimedia portrait of the North Korean city, titled The Annals of Private History. Her latest project is less concerned with acting out a charade and more of an intimate glimpse into a hidden world.