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Perpetual Provisional Selves: A conversation about authenticity and social media

By Rob Horning and Amalia Ulman

On December 4 at Art Basel Miami Beach, I was part of a panel titled "Instagram as an artistic medium," along with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, Simon de Pury, and Kevin Systrom, the CEO of Instagram.

I gave a presentation about my project Excellences & Perfections [recently presented as part of the First Look online exhibition series], a carbon copy of a talk previously given at the ICA. After my presentation, the talk became pure propaganda and the words "genuinely," "self-expression," "creativity" and "community" were mentioned without further discussion. The panel ended with Systrom saying that the platform he had created was a tool for users to be authentic.

For several weeks before the panel, Rob Horning and I had been having the following conversation on Google Drive, which deals with many of these topics. —Amalia Ulman

Ed.: Perhaps it's a little backwards to make the artist start the interview, but I thought it might work this time. What do you think? 

AU: I think Rob should start; he doesn't know me, so he might have a few questions…?

Ed.:I think that's a good idea.

R: I will do some more background reading today, and return with some questions. Also, I will be this serif font for the purposes of this conversation.

Okay, I will be using this blue one—also printing some of your writings today to read through/ take notes.

Trying to get it together but need more time. I have to finish a few other things today, then I can give this my full attention tomorrow! I think I want to talk about the sort of narcissism that makes it hard for me to conduct interviews, and what that has to do with performing the self on social media—an endless interview with no interviewers and competing interviewees projecting the questions they want to answer onto an audience that may already be largely preoccupied with questions they were wishing to be asked. What keeps interviews from being performances—what can define them outside that sphere, if anything? The tactical presentation of self in social media makes the genre conventions of the Q&A suspect; we don't presume we are getting straight answers, but instead "straight answers"—a calculated pose that evokes the reified sensation of sincerity. Yet the more aggressively one tries to convey sincerity, the more cartoonish one's behavior seems to become. All the old tropes of sincerity can't withstand the foregrounding of self-construction in social-media profiles, and the way these are increasingly used to mediate reputation. Maybe this is why sad earnest types are always pleading for "new sincerity" while seeming to epitomize the ultimate nadir of insincerity. Being boring no longer connotes sincerity (or the absence of irony, which is wrongly equated with sincerity). Danger is the new sincerity. 

Can one write revealingly about narcissism in a narcissistic way, or is that like trying to convey the emotion of boredom by writing sentences so boring that no one can tolerate reading them and instead finds more interesting things to do? Is there an interesting way to be boring? Is that the ultimate goal on Facebook? Is that the end Facebook has been engineered to make users pursue, given that being boring is the safest way to protect oneself from accusations of being craven or narcissistic?

The hermeneutic violence in reading "ordinary" people's Facebook presence as literature. That is, aggressively interpreting the posts of people who are just posting to be "normal," who post defensively in a way that tries to defy being interpreted, who try to insist on their depthless superficiality. People who are using Facebook to assimilate to what Baudrillard called the "silent masses"—those people who become unknowable and "safe" because they are conforming to expectations so seamlessly.

Is there a presumption of Facebook innocence—a benefit of the doubt given to any particular user that they are using Facebook in good faith and aren't trying to somehow trick audiences, or sell them something? Or does the fact that Facebook demands that one perform oneself so explicitly make such presumption of innocence impossible? What could guileless Facebook use look like, given that it's understood that the "normal" way to use it is to promote oneself and make self-aggrandizing announcements for the purposes of driving up one's engagement metrics? No matter how lame the things one posts are, everyone may still assume you're lying to look better than you are. One must appear to leak the truth about oneself inadvertently to get audiences to regard it as unadorned truth, without needing some level of decoding or interpretation.

What kind of person would you have to be to believe that your own Facebook presence was "authentic," truly capturing who you really are? Using Facebook is, in fact, less a matter of expressing oneself than consuming a raft of entertainment that posits the user as a certain type of consumer—you don't express who you already are, but learn who you are supposed to be based on your previous choices as reflected in the kind of data Facebook can factor into its algorithms. 

"The fake natural" and its symbiotic relation to "blandness"; minimally invasive mood manipulation, as conducted by techniques of algorithmic curation and crypto-crowdsourcing; trying "too hard" as a mode of indifference, as a paradoxical way of signalling one doesn't care what others think, as an alternative to "spontaneity" as a tactic for giving an action the ring of truth. If truth can be validated by the audience's perception of risk (something feels "true" because it was risky to do or say), then authenticity grounded in artless spontaneity (which has always been a weird thing for artists to have to aspire to convey) or compulsion can be replaced by authenticity which is constituted by strategy—by the breadth and intensity of the sell-out.

Consumer culture relies on the ideological fiction that self-expression brings personal fulfillment and "self-actualization," so that the injunction to reveal oneself is not a burden, but bliss. This makes us both consume more—the self is articulated through branded commodities that have ever-shifting signifying potential—and provide more undercompensated labor (often the sort of "immaterial" labor that invests commodities with their signification capacity, giving brands their "meaning"). But there is a contrary, countertendency in consumerism—a desire to go beyond revealing or concealing the self and get rid of the self altogether, purging it from the moment-by-moment experience of subjectivity. This is most evident in obsessive or compulsive behavior—rituals decoupled from useful ends, the desperate pursuit of flow states. I also think it shows up in the desire to make identity "viral," that is, rootless and circulating for the sake of circulation and achieving an annihilating ubiquity. One posts to social media less to express or define oneself than to discharge that responsibility, putting the self's fate in the hands of the network. The more the self circulates there, the less one has to worry about it reflexively inside one's own head. "Virality" buys one a temporary break from the ongoing work of self-construction.

But the way in which virality can annihilate the self in social media makes those seeking that annihilation very dependent on amassing audiences: the potential of their attention is what induces a feeling of flow, triggers the checking rituals, delivers the irregular and behavioralistic bursts of affirmation. The attention doesn't have to be "earned" through truthfulness. It feels the same if your "real" or your "fake" or pseudonymous profile gets attention "Being watched means coming to life and being someone"—yes, though perhaps in a more convoluted way that it at first appears. The measurable attention one receives through social media both consolidates and fractures the awareness of self. One hopes to be looked at because one knows that one will disappear in that gaze—one's objective realness will cease to be a problem, and identity will cease to be a burdensome responsibility.

"Even when you show it all you reveal very little."  The aim is to create a soothing vacuum where the inner anxiety about identity resides. Showing all is the best way to reveal nothing. It renders one solid, opaque, depthless.

Social media run on this fiction that everyone wants to be the center of attention, when in fact that desire operates simultaneously with the desire to thrust everyone else into the spotlight and get to feel surer of one's place within the sovereign audience. Social media tend to confirm the safety and the preferability and the satisfaction of being in the audience (while bringing everyone onto the stage to do it, like one of those immersive theater spectacles where the crowd has to play a role in the unfolding drama). The best moments on social media occur when we become an audience for ourselves, when we can credibly consume our own selves as a product, as a spectacle, while being free of the self-consciousness, the paralyzing reflexivity, that usually attends it. This is the place "Where 'me' is imagined as a pure and precious inner space untouched by external values and demands." I think that space can be carved out with the aid of social media through this dialectic of attention and shame; the belief that the "precious inner space" pre-exists contact with the social world is pure ideology concealing the social mores and power relations we are born into and helping naturalize those things, making them change-resistant.

Maybe this is useful context for the attempt to use social media to make audiences "Feel uncomfortable after desiring something that was inherently wrong: wishing other's failure." The pleasure of being an audience, especially in heavily trolled space, is the sense of being insulated from criticism and being safe in the mob, the masses. Audiences want more, I think, because this activates their own feelings of safety; the attention audiences pay to others online contributes to making those others seem exceptional, different, somehow always already deserving attention and its detrimental effects. That difference renders the audience comparatively "bland" and protected; envy is the bitter aftertaste of comfort.

But the insulation is always an illusion, especially on social media. Social media makes the feeling of being safe in an audience more intense (because of the palpable proximate danger) and makes it accessible at any time. But it lets us be the audience only at the price of making ourselves vulnerable to being singled out—actually, it makes us do the work of singling ourselves out in advance. We recuperate the vulnerability inherent in this by making the self into an alien thing apart from ourselves which we can watch and enjoy. Part of that may be wishing our own failure, if that will bring substantiating attention to our disassociated self. To shame an audience for experiencing safety through consuming/enjoying the failures of another is itself morally ambiguous, of course. It ultimately attempts to impose vulnerability without any of its buffers or recompenses.

Because a position of criticality is itself a space of privilege...

The truth-signifying value of words displaced by images, which seem for the moment harder to shape to a strategic end. I wonder if a more rote distrust of images will emerge as they are used more like language, manipulated with the same artfulness in the course of the everyday. The "queering" of "mainstream narratives" is chiefly a matter of sowing a distrust of images, of emphasizing their rhetoricity. It is not about bringing more "truth" or "authenticity" or "real selves" into the public sphere, but more awareness of tactics, more overt sophistry. Perhaps this will orient people toward seeing the "real" or the "true" in the effort one puts toward faking something, and that "something" will not even need to be assessed in terms of its genuine-ness. But instead we seem to be moving toward more elaborate efforts to hide effort (the "#nofilter," "I woke up like this" wave), to represent the fake as true instead of as a true fake. Faking the natural takes a lot of money; naturalizing the fake is egalitarian.

I feel, in opposition to the 20th century, this craving for the faux natural. A need to be in constant flux, it is applied to the bodies as much as it is applied in a neoliberal work environment. In a "feminine" economy, as it has (condescendingly) been called, there is an imposed adaptability, talent for improvisation etc.

You say "Real Selves must also be infinitely malleable"; I know you are referring to the self which is fabricated to then digitally be shared online, but I'm making an analogy to the physical self here, to body modification, to the idea of the "real self," which is the basis of today's plastic surgery. Nowadays, aesthetic procedures should instead be called: Elastic Surgeries. It is not about one big noticeable and irreversible change (a facelift, silicon implants, an aggressive nose-job); it is about the never-ending possibilities of subtle modifications, of temporary procedures. Liquidity.

Now, we humans are not just "entitled" to one faux-natural self, but to many of them—and forced to perform them in a very "natural way."

The subtle refreshed face, "the new me." Everyone will think that you've gotten, I don't know, a haircut? They won't even imagine that you've actually gone under the knife!

And not even the knife... the new regime for the adaptabilities of the flesh is a system of pills, injections, fillers, gels, liquids, transfers. A system of semi-transparent manipulations to resemble our photoshopped selves better, more naturally, to be "genuinely" better looking, for the sake of #nofilter.

"Fantasies that feed neoliberal ideology: liquidity and authenticity." I've been dealing with this recently—people react to fiction in social media just like those who jumped from their seats at the Lumières' first public film screening. That's how it feels like because, in a way, everyone knows, at their core, that all reality online is fabricated. Maybe that's where the bitterness came from (in relation to the performance) because that exposure not only involved me, but everyone who followed and saw themselves reflected in it.

Yes, everyone is implicated! The escapism traditionally involved in consuming stories is compromised; one's chosen escape route— and where one wants to escape to— has material consequences for others when these escapes take place in networked space/time. Social media as a place where one's fantasies—the atavistic ideas you want to purge from your mind and separate from the real—have concrete effects not on service workers or culture-industry workers, but on peers. The fantasies, as expressed through what one pays attention to or "likes," are tracked and amplified and have ripple effects. This is the problem with consuming friends as entertainment; we warp one another with these narrative hungers a-synchronically, while the illusion of collaboration is sustained by the platform which archives everything.

I think the main desire in consuming a narrative is often to transcend the arena of the story, to disappear; consuming stories on social media refuses this. The suspension of disbelief is the act of a god. But interactivity with a narrative drops that to the work of a fact checker.

The only impertinent question that was asked during the talk Michael put together at the ICA was from a man who was inquisitive about the legitimacy of the performance in terms of authenticity: how could it be of value if it hadn't come from a place of "real" lived experiences? The problem is that I made the mistake of answering that most episodes were actually based on things I've been through in the past. WRONG ANSWER. I failed, I admit. Shouldn't have said that— shouldn't have tried to legitimize my actions with the card of lived experience. If everything was fabricated, I could have researched the episodes in books, films, music, radio shows... and it should have been as valuable: it was fiction—not a documentary.

I wonder if we are moving away from authenticity being a matter of spontaneous, nonstrategic truth to one where authenticity is "legitimized" or guaranteed by overt effort. The norm will be to have a unique self served to you by algorithms, etc., and a lot of status will be pursued by "working" at the self and defying this sort of automation. Fabricating a self will be more authentic than "just being."

On a similar note, I was asked by an art magazine to do an interview. Ok, fine. Was told that they were interested in the performance. Ok, fine. They said they wanted me to pose as a sugar baby. Not fine.

As much as I repeated that the work was over and that it didn't make any sense to repeat one of the characters, it seemed difficult for them to understand the long process of fabrication behind each image, as if it was taken for granted that, because of the platform (Instagram) and the tools (iPhone) the process had been much more spontaneous. 

The stakes in the fantasy of spontaneity—that fantasy is definitely one that warps others across the networks. It ends up being a means to impose discipline, behavioral norms. We want to suspend disbelief and indulge vicariously in the idea of effortlessness; that means imposing a bunch of necessarily invisible work—to hide the traces of self-improvement, self-presentation.

It feels as if this "feminization" of labor, especially in terms of cognitive work, has appropriated the successful system previously imposed on housewives by capitalism. All digital content is produced out of love therefore social recognition should be enough payback for cognitive workers. Such a system promotes effortlessness because this sort of creativity has been transformed into a naturalized activity: everyone likes expressing themselves, producing content, making videos of their cats, reviewing cosmetics, writing tutorials…

In this sense, it is funny that the ones who very easily saw the constructed-ness of the characters, and the effort behind them (from outfits, to make up, hair…) were women, maybe because women have previously seen themselves in a similar system where all these efforts were concealed under the illusion of the naturalization of their bio-femininity.

The platforms prompt these demands to rigorously construct naturalness, but within them is a countertendency to naturalize the ongoing self-construction process and foreground it, the serial self.

Your project seems to me to be so bound up with the ethics of suspending disbelief on social media.

Well, I think that it is important to offer skepticism about media in general. Even though it is well known, for example, that news networks are manipulated depending on their ideology and that women's magazines are constantly censored by their advertisers (mainly the cosmetic industry), reminders are always worth generating. This is because, even if they are painful because they point out hierarchies of power and manipulation, they help the audience to become more analytical about their sources of information. If I generated a fiction, everything else could be a fiction too.


Let me take the liberty of jumping back to the very top of the text.

In answer to your question, I do love interviews, but especially for the opposite reason: to be asked things I've never thought of before. To be put in uncomfortable situations; to have to solve new issues. I find it very difficult to talk about my practice out loud, in a stream of consciousness of sorts, so I actually do need other people's inquisitions to build up my ideas.

"Individuals are encouraged to become entrepreneurial about the self, about identity" as you said; the more one tries to convey sincerity the more cartoonish this behavior becomes, and I think this is the reason I see interviews as hyper-revised pieces of writing and why the lectures and talks I give are coldly scripted. If it has been rehearsed, I might as well not try to conceal it—what is being genuine, if not a highly rehearsed pose?

It is late now—not thinking with clarity. Will revise these words tomorrow.


I was watching this video with Noam Chomsky where he talks about being and endlessly questioning everything, including the most "obvious" things. He talked about how the process of learning is based upon this deconstruction, and that reminded me of a part of Beatriz Preciado's book Testo Junkie where she is explaining the structure of drag-king workshops. During these sessions, the theatricalization of gender roles takes place through imitation and exacerbation, to the point of seeing how much of a social construction gender is. A bio-fiction instead of a natural pattern of behaviour.

The imitation of the real and the mundane in social media to the point of it becoming irrisory  and an obvious collection of learned traditions; I wonder if what I was trying to do, and what I'm doing now, could function as a subversive workshop with similar ends to that of a group of drag-queen or drag-king transvestites over-analyzing every gesture that tends to be taken for granted by the mainstream. 

Preciado's book was pretty overwhelming to me.

A paper about "algorithmic gender" reminded me recently of Preciado and gender as biofiction and the way social media affects that. I made a Buzzfeed listicle about it, but I am not sure it makes much sense:

Here's how it begins:

Within data sets, people's gender can be deduced from other information collected about them, say, the online sites they visit, what sorts of goods they purchase, the shape of their social network, the frequency of their interactions with various platforms, and so on. The gender a predictive algorithm deduced for a particular individual may not match what that individual believes her or his gender to be. In a world increasingly governed by algorithms, the individual will be wrong and the algorithm right.

This reminds me of a book by Paul Virilio that I was recently reading, The Administration of Fear, in which he declares "I cannot accept being enclosed in numbers, in a numerological cult." He explains how our demographic question has been essentially been treated as a numerical problem; how our lives are considered in quantitative terms and how this clashes with our human nature, leading towards exobiology, meaning that, because we live in the presence of an extra-world (cyber-world) our own humanity becomes an extra-humanity. Basically, quantity over quality issues.

But anyway, I find it really difficult to open up and "rant" endlessly. As we say in Spain, "You got to take the words outta me with a corkscrew." Maybe ask me something, or tell me how much nonsense I'm making up to now so that I can refocus and explain myself better.

It makes sense to me. But I will bring in some questions for you, next.

How can "credibility" be an artistic medium?

"Credibility is in the ears of the beholder." I was talking about this with my mother the other day. Because I don't lie (or didn't use to!), I tend to believe everything everyone says, all the time, even the most absurd things. I enjoy it.

When I was younger, I was as interested in writers' pieces of work as much as their biographies, or even worse, the way they looked. I'd fact check everything; for example, it would make me very happy to learn that Colette's early life had actually been so similar to Claudine's, or I would try to read all of Marguerite Duras' books because she looked pretty in one picture, and that physicality made her more "real."

"People tend to believe what they want to believe." I remember watching this (awful) movie about the young Salvador Dalí and his gay affair with Federico García Lorca. The film is terrible. I don't think I've ever watched anything  worse, but I told myself to believe every scene of it because I like Lorca more than Dalí, because it matches "my ideology" better, and because as a young anarchist I'd cringe at the idea of Dalí making art for the dictatorship, or the possibility of Buñuel beating up gay men on the streets of Barcelona.

With the years, on the other hand, I've started to love lies. You said: "Fabricating a self will be more authentic than 'just being'," and I agree.  Nowadays I'd notice that someone is lying to me and would think "Keep on going, I want to drown in your fabrications to the point of not knowing anymore what's real and what's not, and I don't care."

Credibility is a currency, for sure, because many people need to not know they've been lied to, to enjoy it. 

Maybe this is why con artists are artists :) 

How can artists discuss their work without prescribing interpretations?

I feel, depending on the artwork, that providing an explanation of sorts is necessary. In the case of Excellences & Perfections I think it was highly necessary to put into words the intentions that led me to work on this performance; but then again, I think it is because I always saw it more as some sort of experiment/project, which addressed a long list of "problematic subjects." In this case, getting lost in a sea of misinterpretation could have been dangerous, and giving a framework was useful.

In other works, I do indulge more in aesthetics, sensory matters, sensations etc. and I feel it is highly important to give breathing space to the spectator for a more personal analysis of the artworks. Maybe the key is to keep art and self-explanatory remarks separate, but available? Maybe the only solution is to say absolutely nothing about one's own work? I personally find that difficult, which might be a weakness, I don't know.

Do you think much of online social media work on the self is really more about sustaining the social stereotypes cherished by others in the network for their ability to organize experience? We cater to their fantasies of how certain people should be to attract the attention that affirms for ourselves that we have being?

Using stereotypes already cherished by others is a shortcut to likes; in the same way, being part of a subculture when a teenager might provide you with a boyfriend/girlfriend more easily. This is the strategy I used in the performance because I strived for manipulation and believability.

On the other hand, I believe that it is possible to fabricate brand new stereotypes, maybe through the mash-up and amalgamation of previously known ones. It just takes longer for these new characters to get through. In this case, a real evolution would be necessary, a "rags to riches" of popularity, it just requires consistency and a strong strategy, or even a "marketing campaign" of sorts. It could even become a life's work: to be a caricature of oneself to the point of being imitable by others / used as a reference.

Catering to others' already-existing fantasies liberates us from this hard work.

One problem that I find is that sometimes, traditional media gets lost in this dichotomy of what the audience supposedly likes vs. what the audience actually enjoys.

In this regard, I've always thought that pornographic material is one step ahead; because it is an underground economy, it is easier for people to accept what they actually like looking at, because erections are harder to fake. On the other hand, on the superficial level of distributed media, in an environment where we are being watched and judged, the simulacra of one's taste takes place. The trophy wife vs. the unaccepted sexual "deviance." The same thing could be applied to ideologies, religion, fantasies... And this safety of being part of a certain group (like being a Goth as a teen), is, as you've said in previous writings*, about surveillance—not about invigilation. We might be deviants, but we help to sum up the norm (again, algorithms). This categorization is needed in order to understand one's position in a global community of emotions.

*(I can't remember which essay, will look into it when I have internet)

The stereotypes take on momentum, and populate larger organizational narratives that serve us ideologies about how life must be lived in order to be real.

Is the finished work of this project less the deck of slides or collection of images than the audience it organized and constituted through the deployment of an overfamiliar narrative?

The intention behind the fabrication of this narrative is, effectively, the analysis of people's reactions. It is nothing new, but it was a re-affirmation to confirm that, yes, the art world is a tiny bubble with a very tight behavioral code and a very judgemental atmosphere.

What the three characters did was to bring up all these "hidden" desires that some people, because of being part of an art crowd "ideology" usually keep repressed. I personally thought I'd get slammed by feminists for my behavior, but generally what I got was people saying things like: "You are very brave" or "Praying for you to recover ASAP." Especially interesting is how many women privately asked me about the surgery because they had thought many times of altering their bodies and adapting themselves to the male gaze, even though their "ideology" didn't allow them too. This inconsistency with regard to how the art crowd behaves superficially and how it reacts privately was very illuminating. I got all these women's insecurities afloat—not because they are weak, but because there is obviously, in the supposed liberal and supportive art crowd, a very misogynistic undertone.

Is all social media self-performance a sort of surgery diary?

It is, in a way, in the shape it takes when trying to emulate genuine-ness. The whole #nofilter "I woke up like this" runs parallel to that Kim Kardashian picture of herself with blood in her face, after the "vampire facelift." It's funny, this way of choosing one's personal fabricated candid snap shots. For example, Kim K would admit some cosmetic treatments, the ones who are considered soft-core, but would refuse to accept the ones considered hard-core.

She hasn't got butt implants, but she does get her fat redistributed. This is achieved through liposuction of the fat accumulated in "bad areas" like the tummy and put where fat is supposed to belong, in her case, her ass. This is a totally artificial process but even then, because it is her own fat and not implants, she allows herself to say that her body is natural. Once, on her TV show, she even did a Truth or Dare with an X-ray machine to, show the world the lack of implants… Without even mentioning the fat transfers, of course.

In this sense, I think that the new acne-selfie trend functions on the same level. You can upload a picture of yourself, from a good angle but covered in spots, and this would instantly convey effortlessness, when actually it is more about the consequences of accelerationism in a pill form (adderall-ritalin) becoming a trend/ status sign.

The frisson of plastic-surgery tales seems to be a matter of the body being sacrificed to establish the credibility of the change narrative. Society demands these diaries because the threat of truly fluid identity is too destabilizing? Much of the work of sociality is to fix others in an identity, rather than to create the conditions of fluidity. But image-manipulation and media technologies are working against this, with a different agenda of innovation and rapid para-artistic production.

Ed.: Hey, it's me again. I really don't know how you two are ever going to finish this. Do you?

Yes, I am not sure how to finish it either; I wasn't sure how to begin, so it makes perfect sense. Do you want me to edit it down to a conventional Q&A? Or maybe you can just take the chunks you want at some point (don't want to impose additional work on you, however)?

I actually like how this is going; the rhythm is very nice :) Been reading it from the beginning and wouldn't really try to "normalize" it by adapting to a conventional Q & A, lol.

This text doesn't need a "makeover" :P

Yes, I like it too; think something different comes out through working on it intermittently over a longer period—just sharing notes rather than composing questions.

We like it too. Really excited to publish this!

All images: Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (2014). Performance: Instagram. Courtesy the artist.

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