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Social Cyborgs

If everyone on Instagram’s an artist, what's left for an artist to do?

Instagram, for most of its existence a self-contained catalogue of idealized vistas, experiences, and self-presentations, is beginning to transform the physical world in its own image. From minimalist restaurants to apartments dripping with pastels to consciously photogenic interventions in urban space, it has become clear that Instagram’s visual universe is no longer restricted to cyberspace.

Nowhere has this phenomenon been as pronounced as in the art world, which sees in Instagram both an existential threat and a huge opportunity. The Broad museum in Los Angeles found that nearly a quarter of its visitors come after seeing its collection on Instagram. And the recent popularity of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, immersive spaces full of colorful lights and props, epitomizes the potential virality of a photogenic installation. But the Instagram fueled rush has other museums struggling to keep up: the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently rebranded as Newfields, shed curatorial staff, and de-emphasized the fine arts in favor of its gardens and selfie-friendly interactive works more in the mold of the Museum of Ice Cream.

The same force that moves museum directors, restauranteurs, and urban planners to maximize Instagrammability also moves Instagram’s users in the curation of their feeds. Questions of context, connotation, and “aesthetics” that used to be asked mainly of artists and critics are, on Instagram, the concerns of us all. As Instagram expands its power in our emotional, social, and physical lives, it has also come to serve as a global populist gallery. In a space where we are all invited to take up the pettiest concerns of the artist—being loved by one’s audience, playing to expectations, and market conditions—it is fitting that artists are striving to put our behavior in context.

It has become clear that Instagram’s visual universe is no longer restricted to cyberspace.

The artists of Post Vision, “a global net artist collective” and Instagram art aggregator appear to be on just such a mission. Rather than studying Instagram’s impact on the world outside it, these artists focus their attention within the garden walls. Their medium, computer animation, and their subjects, humanoid digital avatars, allow them to participate in the life of the network from across the uncanny valley. In order to demarcate their work as art, and not the “content” that populates the vast majority of Instagram, they deploy a familiar canon of images—the mirror poses, the luminous natural landscapes, the untouched meals, the mid-workout flexes—in subversive ways.

Ironically, the humanoids who populate these posts fulfill social media’s directive to be real more successfully than many of us IRL humans. Instead of airbrushed efforts at perfection or the performative irony that is its equally common inverse on Instagram, their vacant faces reflect back how the platform makes us feel, what happens to our bodies while we while we access it, and the technological and economic forces operating behind the screen.

Developing a vocabulary for art on Instagram will surely be a long-term project—“Post-Instagram Art” may well become a sub-genre within the category of Post-Internet Art. But the posts of Post Vision also exist outside of that conversation, speaking more to the content that surrounds them than to art history.

The nude is, of course, an age-old artistic trope, but the sexualized body on Instagram comes with its own critical baggage that is seldom examined as such. Post Vision co-curator Emma Stern’s feed is peopled by female figures, often nude, who sometimes appear to be made entirely of chrome, literalizing the idea of objectification. Artist Blake Kathryn’s post captioned “Palm Springs bound for a modest weekend” depicts a female figure with unrealistic proportions lounging in a pool with a martini and layers of heavy jewelry. It’s classic wealth and sex fetishizing fare, the kind of thing plenty of Instagram users post and plenty more enjoy viewing. But there’s something off about the subject of this particular image: most of her head and hyper-extended neck are covered in pinkish metal, calling to mind a Gibsonian cyborg.

Even as the figure invites us to gaze with envy or desire, her inhumanity repels us. Yet the image remains legible to Instagram users, engaging with the visual language of the network, and employing a recognizable, ironically understated tone in the caption. Her metallic headgear recalls the extent we are willing to modify our images on social media, adding filters and digital enhancements, that, after a certain point, become more disturbing than appealing.

Albert Omoss takes the objectification metaphor even further, using bodies as props for what could be described as CGI physics experiments. Clips, or, rather, gifs, from his film Undercurrents posted on his feed depict male bodies crumpling, bouncing, and tangling, as if they were made of rubber. While the laws of physics in the clip are alien to us, they are perfectly consistent within the world of the image. Another artist, who goes by the moniker nicemask, explores the potential of human bodies as sculptural objects, whether they’re dripping off a tree branch like a Dali watch, forming a geometrical abstraction, or serving as the centerpiece of a still life with pumpkins. Such works highlight the constructed nature of all realities, especially the deceptive and manipulated ones we take for granted on social media.

Still others in the Post Vision community explore the intersections of our digital, physical and emotional realities. These are among the themes Post Vision co-founder, Nicole Ruggiero, dramatizes in her recently inaugurated series, “How the Internet Changed My Life.” The series includes imaginative, animated scenes that allegorize the physical spaces and manner in which people access the internet. One post from this series depicted an orange figure lying on its back, holding a smartphone above its face. The pink backdrop and the figure’s indistinct features called to mind a fetus in a womb; such is the degree to which our phones and the media they contain have become appendages of our being.

The sexualized body on Instagram comes with its own critical baggage that is seldom examined as such.

Another example is “Checking” by Paulin Rogues, a.k.a. El Popo Sangre: a spot-on meme for the feeling of being caught instinctively, anxiously checking your phone, perhaps to look at how many likes a recent post has racked up. The figure’s neck is uncomfortably bent, its mouth curved in a dopamine-fueled grin, and its iPhone is cradled in both hands as if it were a priceless object. In a similar vein, BodySnatchers’s “📱Social Training🏃” depicts a naked, babyish figure running on an endlessly scrolling Facebook feed as if it were a treadmill.

Many of these critiques are not in themselves novel. Rather, they gain their power by existing on the same platform and in the same language as the content they are critiquing. How these works are subjected to both the platform’s rules and incentives is also key to their impact. Some of Ruggiero’s works have been removed for nudity; the female nudes that remain on her feed have their nipples conspicuously censored. Over the course of this writing, Ruggiero also deleted the picture of that wonderful orange figure, possibly to maintain control of property rights over it. While Instagram does “not claim ownership of your content,” it does reserve the right to “a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content.” In other words, to use it however they would like.

These limitations on Post Vision’s works make them truer reflections of life on the social network: its aesthetics, its tone, and—who could forget—its “Terms of Use.” It makes sense, then, that some CGI artists would aim to recreate Instagram’s native forms, including memes and gifs. Their works are machines of complicity; audiences become implicit in what these images critique by the very act of consuming them.

In a 2017 video essay called “Goodbye Uncanny Valley,” multidisciplinary artist Allan Warburton presents a compelling direction for the future of digital art: “Seductive digital surfaces speak more about this age of technology when they fall apart, revealing their construction at the hands of imperfect people and imperfect machines.” But many would like to keep seducing us with visions of impossible perfection. That seems to be the spirit behind Lil Miquela, Instagram’s most recognizable computer-animated humanoid. Unlike the deliberately grotesque figures created by the Post Vision collective, Miquela is a successful influencer with 1.5 million Instagram followers; she has monetized her brand by posing in clothing from the likes of Prada and Alexander Wang. Her captions (like her tweets and, mysteriously, her “interviews”) evince a passion for social justice—trans rights, Black Lives Matter, and the treatment of immigrants.

Initially, Miquela’s non-humanity went unacknowledged, which was made weirder by the fact that it was almost imperceptible. But then in April 2018, Miquela revealed that she is “not a human being” in an Instagram post that described an elaborate narrative involving a stable of computer animated characters—including a Trump supporter with whom Miquela butted heads—all created by a venture capital-backed startup called Brud. The saga reads something like Amalia Ulman’s pathbreaking Instagram performance, Excellences and Perfections, except Miquela, unlike Amalia, is still at it after the big reveal.

Many would like to keep seducing us with visions of impossible perfection.

Rather than challenging or exposing the constructedness of Instagram, Miquela appears completely natural within it. It’s as if her creators drew too perfectly from Instagram’s well of recognizable images and the word bank of woke Gen Z users’ captions. Even Miquela’s ambiguous origin story adds to her appeal, and perhaps also her legibility, as an influencer. The contrived drama of her “robot” status offered followers the opportunity to engage with her content in the mode of investigators, an instance of what anthropologist Crystal Abidin has called “porous authenticity.” Abidin describes how

followers have become more savvy in their consumption of influencer content—and maybe more bored with it. Where it used to be premised on aspiration and vicarious living, it now pursues verification of the staged layers of truths and corroborating details among influencers’ identity trails.

To be an Instagram Influencer, or at least a unique one, is to obfuscate and confuse, to carefully construct a layer of ambiguity between on- and off-screen life in order to keep followers guessing. The boundaries between art and non-art, sincere and ironic content, undoctored and digitally enhanced, are scrambled in the figure of Lil Miquela, and the rest of Instagram follows in her wake. As a gallery, then, Instagram is engaging less for the variety of images it contains—few—and more for the uncertainty they provoke. By this standard, Miquela’s posts are masterpieces, providing an ambiguous backstory that speaks to our collective confusion about where social media ends and real life begins. After all, the clothes she wears, the cafes she visits, and the causes she stumps for do not exist solely on a screen, as she does.

The artists of Post Vision, by contrast, make little reference to the world outside, the world that Instagram is so tangibly changing. But as our built environment becomes increasingly photogenic, and structured around bite-sized, social media-optimized “experiences,” it may be necessary to look to Instagram itself as a sort of source code of reality. If Post Vision is precedent, the glitches will surely remain the most interesting part.