Are viewers of on-line contents entitled to the truth? “Excellences & Perfections” and the saga of Amalia Ulman

Do the viewers of digital contents have a reasonable expectation for verisimilitude, namely something that has the appearance of truth, in what 
they observe on-line? I am not referring to the genre of “reality shows”, where this Kat assumes that viewers recognize that “reality” is a relative term, and the ultimate result is fashioned by those who create and produce the program. Rather, I mean a situation where the viewer is attracted to these contents precisely because he or she believes that they are not being mediated.

“OK Kat”, I can already hear, “this is an interesting thought, but what does it have to do with anything under 39,000 feet?” Consider the story of Amalia Ulman. In connection with the publication of the book, “Excellences & Perfections”, a blog post recently published on cnn.com, written by Alicia Eler and entitled “Amalia Ulman’s Instagram art hoax exposed the flaws in selfie culture”, recalls for us the great stir that Ulman created in 2014 in connection with her presentation of “Excellences & Perfections” on Instagram.

What Ulman, a young artist born in Argentina and having later lived in Spain did, was to present via postings on Instagram, largely through selfies, her life as a young woman ‘on the go’ in Los Angeles. Ulman’s project began innocuously enough, with her first post, which consisted of the phrase “Part I” together with the caption, “Excellences & Perfections”. The post received 28 likes. She went on to recount her day-by-day trials and tribulations, chronicling such things as the trauma of a lost boyfriend, pole-dancing classes, breast-enhancement surgery, posing in skimpy lingerie, escorting, this and more, augmented by emotive textual commentary, all against the background of being an “It girl” in Los Angeles.

In doing so, Ulman was being told that she was destroying her career as a “serious” artist. Au contraire--nearly five months after the first post, Ulman uploaded one last post, consisting of a black and white image of a rose, which was captioned---“The End”. During that time, she had attracted 90,000 avid followers to her Instagram site, enthusiastically waiting for each next installment of her personal saga. Far from destroying her career, she had succeeded in drawing more and more attention to herself.

Except that it was not really her personal story. Soon after her last post, Ulman announced that it had all been one great staged performance. In Ulman’s words—
“Everything was scripted. I spent a month researching the whole thing. There was a beginning, a climax and an end. I dyed my hair. I changed my wardrobe. I was acting: it wasn’t me.”
It was all (or nearly all) either made-up or staged. What Ulman had done was to divide up her Instagram performance into three distinct “episodes,” described by The Telegraph as “inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online.”
Episode I-- Ulman as the artistic girl from the provinces comes to LA, breaks up with her boyfriend and becomes an escort.

Episode II- Described as “ghetto aesthetic” à la Kim Kardashian, Ulman cultivates an anti-heroine persona, “starts acting crazy and posting bad photos online”. She “gets a boob job, takes drugs, has a breakdown, and goes to rehab”.

Episode III- It is all about her “recovery”, uploading pictures signaling that Ulman was on the way to becoming a “kind of girl next door,” replete with yoga and juices.
But when it was all over, and the truth of her project came out, the response to Ulman’s performance took a bifurcated route. On the one hand, the art world saw it as a pioneering form of performance art within the context of social media, so much so that The Telegraph described Ulman, in an article entitled “Is this the first Instagram masterpiece?”, as now being “feted as one of the sensations of contemporary art.” She went to exhibit some of the pictures from Excellences & Perfections at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, and Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera (London being the town in which she had struggled as an art student only a few years before). And now, Excellences & Perfections is being published as a book, replete with photos from the Instagram posts together with interpretative essays by notable commentators.

All well and good, no? Not exactly, because while Ulman had become the darling of the world of art commentary, she also became the object of anger among at least some of her Instagram followers. They, having become so invested in Ulman’s Instagram narrative, now felt deceived, like a consumer who becomes an avid fan of a certain brand, only to find out that the branded product is not what it had appeared to be.

Ulman views things differently. In her words—
“It’s more than a satire. I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’”

So, what was the ‘joke”? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
The question that arises is whether, as a performer via the Instagram platform, Ulman owed something more to her audience. In the related context of copyright, Professor Niva Elkin Koren has argued for the recognition of a user’s rights. She writes (in the Abstract to “Copyright in a Digital Ecosystem: A User-Rights Approach”) --
“A user-rights approach holds that permissible uses under copyright law should be articulated and treated as rights…. [T]his approach shifts the locus of copyright analysis from author’s rights to the creative process, emphasizing the role of users as partners in promoting copyright objectives. Rather than being "parasites" that benefit — unjustly — from limits on the just rewards of authors, users actively participate in promoting the creation, dissemination and use of cultural works. A user-rights approach further suggests that to achieve its goals, copyright law should be drafted, interpreted and applied in ways that consider the rights and duties of both users and authors.”

Surely there was no partnership between Ulman and the on-line viewers of her Instagram performance. Indeed, this was the very point of the project—to gain the
audience’s trust and enthusiastic emotive involvement with her largely make-believe narrative, where the final punch line was— “Just kidding”.

In Ulman’s own words—
“The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet.”
Which brings this Kat back to a version of his original question. Do users of on-line contents have any legitimate expectation of verisimilitude and, if that expectation is not met, do they have a legitimate claim that they were deceived? Or is the vantage wholly artist-centric, which, for Ulman, meant that misleading the viewer was the way that she sought to make her points about feminism, sexuality, identity, class, and even pornography.

By Neil Wilkof

Photo on upper right by Amalia Ulman and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Photo on left by Hans Peter Schaefer and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Photo on lower right by Instagram and is in the public domain.
Are viewers of on-line contents entitled to the truth? “Excellences & Perfections” and the saga of Amalia Ulman Are viewers of on-line contents entitled to the truth?  “Excellences & Perfections” and the saga of Amalia Ulman Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Thursday, April 05, 2018 Rating: 5

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anybody who takes anything online from a single source, particularly social media, at face value without any supporting evidence is a fool. Nobody posts their actual life to social media. At best posts are edited highlights, at worst posts are outright lies or distortions of the truth #ad #spon

THE US anon said...

Would any such "entitled to the truth**" entail a concomitant requirement that the speaker ONLY provide "the truth?"

Given as "truth" may be something not objectively possible in a shades of grey world, this type of push would be more damaging than helpful when it comes not only to merely the aspects of communicating, but here in the States, our reverence of what the First Amendment provides would make such an attempt void from the start.

This could easily lead down the Orwellian path of "Truth Counsels" or full "agencies" that monitor and control for "Truth."

David Vandagriff said...

“Do people walking down the street in Manhattan have any legitimate expectation of verisimilitude from the panhandlers who approach them, asking for money?”

I think “online” and “on the street” are equivalent in many more ways than one.

Amalyah Keshet said...

From the CNN article:
"While the performance would win Ulman acclaim in the art press, it received backlash from followers who had become invested in her character's narrative and felt they'd been deceived. But that was precisely the point of her project: to unpack the performativity of social media itself."

Followers who had become invested in her character's narrative? Isn't that a good description of good fiction -- and always has been? If so, this is no more deception than any novel is. Only the platform is different. And that's the real point: Instagram is (was) perceived to be non-fiction, as is (hopefully, was) all social media. However, given half a second's thought, it's obvious that it can just as easily be a platform for fiction as it is for product promotion. "In Ulman’s own words— 'The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet.' "

The Facebook / Cambridge Analytics scandal has put any ideas of "truth" or trust in the realm of social media to rest. We aren't deceived so much as we are naive.

Therefore, I'm not sure if I agree with your analogy to users' rights, which is something altogether different. What Prof. Elkin Koren and proponents of users' rights are suggesting is a sort of transformation of fair use exceptions into actual rights for using copyright-protected works in ways that do not harm the original creator, but carries his or her work forward in a (new) creative process. Ulman's followers were not users at all: they did not create anything new nor disseminate the original. They simply acted like an audience. Thumbs up, thumbs down. (Or in the case of Instagram, heart or no heart.)

It's like, say, me complaining that it turns out George Smiley isn't real, that John Le Carre made him up. As much as I want Smiley be real and to have a beer and a long chat with him, it would be ridiculous for me to complain that Le Carre "deceived" me, much less that I have some kind of rights in the matter. Okay, I'm going rather far out on a limb here, but to get back to the subject at hand: social media isn't verified journalism, it's socializing. Nor is it literature, usually. That was Ulman's originality: using Instagram and all its inherent fictional characteristics* as a platform for performance, or performance art (a term that usually makes me uncomfortable). It was just a brilliant idea.

(* more than once, when gazing at my smiling, beautiful grandchildren on Instagram, I've thought about the reality of my daughter's life coping with a two-year-old and a four-year-old for the remainder of that day's 23 hours and 59 minutes.)

Amalyah Keshet said...

"Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it".
Bertolt Brecht

Neil Wilkof said...

Amalyah,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I wasn't suggesting that Elkin Koren's notion of user's rights maps one-on-one onto the Ulman situation. I was merely trying to suggest that the consumers of the Instagram presentation were more than mere passive observers. Getting them to buy into the deception was central to the presentation, just like the notion of branding posits an interactive relationship between the brand, product and consumer. Maybe I could have made the point solely by analogy to branding without bringing user's rights into the discussion, but I think adding user's right contributes to the conversation.
In any event, let us both get back to our grandchildren.

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