What can social media contribute to the artistic process?

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Through a sensitive understanding of what it might offer artists, a new exhibition showcasing eight contemporary photographers at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille makes a case for Instagram’s significance

We are standing on shifting ground. For the last decade, we have seen photographers harness social media platforms as a way to rebalance how institutional power is wielded – holding space for the multiplicity of voices that have been overlooked, excluded, and erased from Western art’s narrative. The internet and social media have brought about a flatness in cultural production. Photographers can publish their own work, build their own audiences, crowdfund their own books and curate their own shows. They can stand up to injustice, hold institutions accountable, and accelerate a conversation around transparency, ethics and equity.

For artists who grew up on Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram, sharing work is inherently part of their creative process. These platforms are places in which they create, and the relationships they have with their communities is a reflection of this. In the intimate and unpolished sharing, we see them describe a process, the ideas behind that process, and the application of that process as a shared experience. They see no division between what constitutes their work in the art world and its role in the world. A vibrant bi-product of this is a potent act of demystifying art and practice, imagining a new sort of art for our times rooted in community and accessible to all.

Photography has a long history of responding to cultural shifts, but there is still a distance between what’s happening online and what’s happening in institutions. A new exhibition at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille, Museum of Photography, Infinite Identities – Photography in the Age of Sharing seeks to close this gap, making a case for Instagram’s significance through a more sensitive understanding of what it might offer artists and the wider art world.

The show displays the work of eight photographers — Farah Al Qasimi, Coco Capitán, Myriam Boulos, Martine Gutierrez, Frida Orupabo, Santi Palacios, Thomas Lohr and Nick Sethi — who use Instagram to develop aspects of their photography. “The word ‘Instagram’ is off-putting,” says the curator and museum director Nanda van den Berg, “but this new medium invites artists to look at the world around them and develop a new iconography. I compare it to the impact of the polaroid or the handheld camera, and how these formats enabled new ways of looking.”

Beige Bathroom, 2020 © Farah Al Qasimi. Courtesy of the Artist and Helena Anrather, New York; The Third Line, Dubai.

Van den Berg curated the show for presentation at the end of 2020, despite the obstacles raised by the pandemic. “It took me a while to unravel the concept,” she says. “During a zoom session with the artists, it suddenly hit me that the subject and working method had converged at a meta-level. I realised that a situation which I regarded as being a temporary, emergency one might actually be part of a paradigm shift towards an entirely new future in the functioning of a photography museum – in fact, of art photography as a whole.”

The exhibition manifests somewhere in between a traditional show and digital space, mixing online and offline experiences. Each artist occupies their own space within the 17th-century building, while the entrance, hallways and landings are lined with sequences of Instagram Story screen grabs, by both the featured artists and van den Berg’s wider professional circle. The screen grabs provide an intimate and immersive collage of creative practice, and reveal all the small details that build towards creating a work, distilling an essence of what it means to be a photographic artist working today.

Artistic production has been long shrouded in mystery, but how artists are engaging with Instagram enables a new context for art practice. “[It adds] a virtual layer to the art world, alongside the atelier, museum or gallery” says van den Berg; one that is accessible, and which presents artists’ concerns, experiments and processes in ways that we would never ordinarily encounter.

From the series The Ongoing Revolution, Lebanon, Beirut, 2019-ongoing. © Myriam Boulos.
From the series The Ongoing Revolution, Lebanon, Beirut, 2019-ongoing. © Myriam Boulos.

“Photography has always been my way of participating in life,” says Myriam Boulos, one of the eight exhibiting photographers. “My flash became a tool to put the light on things that are oppressed by the system. It’s my way of taking part in the revolution.” The Lebanese photographer’s work [above] is characterised by a physical proximity to her subjects, which reflects a complex take on her country’s fragmented and contradictory political situation.

“When the revolution started in Lebanon in October 2019, the slow documentary that normally constitutes my approach was replaced by something much faster with less control. I started posting my images every day. This new rhythm made me question my whole approach.” In sharing her work, Boulos extends a dialogue free from the control of western media and boundaries of the nation-state. Her images provide first-hand, local information about the ongoing crisis in Lebanon and act as a rallying cry to citizens to support the revolution. For Boulos, the social context, in addition to bearing witness and recording testimonies, makes the work a catalyst for community and collective healing in real-time.

© Nick Sethi.

For New-York-based Indian-American photographer Nick Sethi, sharing acts as a catalyst for a two-sided communication with his audience, and often directly impacts the work he makes [above]. “Incorporating the community was never radical; it was just natural for me. It’s a bi-product of working in India.”

Sethi’s seminal work Khichdi is an open-ended study of India’s changing character, woven in with his own identity. It speaks to gender, technology, tradition, and the influence of western culture. Actively inviting his followers into his process, the artist is interested in dismantling the hierarchy between work and life; photographer and subject; artist and audience.

“Using social media just amplifies that. It’s so communicative. I can do a thing and be somewhere and not know where I’m going next. But this other person online, who I may or may not know could tell me to do something that I otherwise would have never encountered,” says Sethi. “It tightens the feedback loop in real-time.”

Something Deeper Baths Ltd (in search for), 2019. © Coco Capitán.

Coco Capitán’s ongoing body of work, Naivy ,unravels her fascination with the sea and sailors. Through her fictitious imagining of her own Navy Community ‘The Lost Navy’, she envisions an emblem for individualistic freedom and collective belonging. “Capitan uses a lot of biographical material in her Instagram Stories that are very informative about her use of colour, her subjects, her process, her progress as an artist.” says van der Berg. “In the creation of one of the paintings we have on display in the show [Something Deeper Baths Ltd., above], Capitán posted seven different stages of the work, and asked her audience which they preferred. All kinds of genres are being reinvented in the way they are brought to you through the medium – you get all these extra layers.”

While the institution is still grappling with what digital modes of distribution mean in the long term, there is no denying that in certain artists’ hands, it is a powerful amplifier, providing agency and ownership over one’s work and identity. Decentralising who we see as the primary power is critical for understanding and expanding the cultural dialogue around art. What Infinite Identities illustrates is how seemingly opposing forces can deepen our understanding of artist production. Temporary versus permanent, digital versus physical and personal versus private all contribute to a more expansive, inclusive and engaging experience of art.

Infinite Identities: Photography in the Age of Sharing is on show at Huis Marseille, Museum of Photography, Amsterdam, until 28 February.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.