Storytelling on Instagram

Screenshot of a blonde woman with her eyes closed and head tilted back. Caption reads
Conceptual artist Amalia Ulman

Artist Amalia Ulman used Instagram to tell a story about society.

Ulman’s performance piece is a “born digital” story, as defined by Bryan Alexander in New Digital Storytelling. Not only did she use social media in her art, social media is where the project originated and was the primary platform for the project. Ulman’s inspiration was sparked by social media, as well–she noticed her peers striving to create a perfect image of themselves for Instagram, especially fellow women artists.

She calls it a “glitch” between how people live their lives and how they present them online–a fundamental disconnect between digital life and real life. So she created a second life for herself, and embodied the character of an Instagram-perfect model for five months.

Posting selfies on Instagram, Amalia Ulman used her character to “become” an L.A. it girl. Her hyper-feminine transformation included a breast enlargement, trips to the gym, a new wardrobe, and lingerie photoshoots. The line between art and life blurred: Ulman dyed her hair, changed her wardrobe, and followed a strictly scripted schedule of uploads in order to sustain the illusion. She did not reveal that the project was fictional until after it was over, and she revealed the title: Excellences & Perfections.

The story had a beginning, a climax, and an ending. She begins the project as a naive young woman coming to Los Angeles for the first time, to make it in the art world. She quickly finds a boyfriend who funds her lifestyle and transformation–a sugar daddy who pushes her into a hypersexualized version of herself. The character of Amalia turns to drugs and has a nervous breakdown. After going to rehab, Amalia returns to preach the benefits of the new, healthy lifestyle she has adopted, including her diet and exercise plans. Each stage of the story represented a different character Ulman saw represented on social media: the “cute girl,” the “sugar baby,” and the “life goddess.”

A screenshot of a woman vlogging
lonelygirl15 vlogging from her bedroom

Ulman’s project recalls lonelygirl15, a youtube artist who portrayed a character living an increasingly disturbing life online, climaxing in a disappearance. Alexander referenced lonelygirl15 as one of the first, and most effective, uses of social media to tell a story that felt realistic. Similarly to Ulman, actress Jessica Rose told a scripted story she didn’t reveal to be fake until after it was over.

Amalia Ulman is, in some ways, an updated version of lonelygirl15. Ulman picked up on the ways that women artists, in particular, were using social media. She made use of the platform in a clever way: she posted mostly selfies, filtered them to match the aesthetic popular on the platform in 2014, and used hashtags like #cutegasm that lined up with the characters she wanted to embody. Alexander argued that part of what made the lonelygirl15 story so rich was the community that sprang up in the comment section and video replies. To a certain extent, Ulman’s project is less effective in this way: although her page reached nearly 90,000 followers by the end of the project, Instagram wasn’t built to allow the same kind of multimedia responses, especially in 2014. Also, the nature of her photographs attracted less of a community in the comment sections and more predatory, sexual comments from men.

"I Was Raised on the Internet" title
Promo image from the “I Was Raised on the Internet” show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Ulman’s work made the jump from the digital to the analog world. Although she was shunned by some galleries she had worked with while the project was ongoing, once she revealed the hoax, she showed versions of Excellence & Perfection around the world, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Her story was very effective: almost overnight, she became the architect of the world’s first “Instagram masterpiece.” And Ulman’s project holds up in 2018. Although Instagram has changed as a platform since the project, it still speaks to the gap between real life and the life we portray online, and in particular expectations of femininity for artists in the public eye.

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