It feels ironic summarizing the life and practice of an artist whose work talks so well about the way we reduce identities on the internet. The popular rendition of Amalia Ulman’s biography goes like this: after suffering a tragic bus accident, she moved to LA and launched into an extended social media performance (Excellences & Perfections), fooling her followers into thinking she was having a narcissistic meltdown, making her “The First Great Instagram Artist” (Elle) and an art world superstar well before her 30th birthday. While all this is true, it merely scratches the surface of a highly intentional practice that includes installations, sculptures, video essays and writing—the comprehensive work of a consistently bemused, challenging thinker.
An element of Ulman’s singularity is her way of thinking holistically about her practice. She plans out her work many years in advance, and it can take over a year for a series to come to completion. In her most recent performance, Privilege, which again played out over social media and culminated in a series of exhibitions around the world, Ulman has taken her followers through a journey encompassing pregnancy, office politics, and a pigeon named Bob.
The Argentinian-born, Spanish-raised artist meets me at her home in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Her upstairs office is airy and quiet with a daybed in the corner that her cat, Olga, is sunning herself on. We settle into a pair of office chairs and launch into a conversation about growing up with a confusing relationship to technology, living with a disability, learning from misleading media coverage, visiting North Korea, and her latest show Privilege.
A lot of your work deals with the way we form our identities in the virtual world. Did you grow up on the internet?
I was on the internet pretty early because, growing up as an immigrant, I grew up seeing my parents feeling like exiles. They emigrated to Spain, and then they wanted to go back to Buenos Aires, but they couldn’t afford it. And so we had access to cable TV and internet sooner than anyone else in the neighborhood because my parents needed to stay in touch with what was happening in Buenos Aires. For that reason, technology was very important in my house. The first video conference we had was to talk to my family in Argentina. I didn’t know what grandmother meant was when I was young. I thought it meant “camera,” because when I was a kid I was told ‘say hi to grandma’ but all I saw was a camera. So, it was a very confusing relationship to technology. We’d have to go somewhere to place an international telephone call.
Were you allowed on the internet by yourself, or was it more of a family thing?
My parents were punks, they were very Generation X and didn’t believe in discipline, which I hate them for. So, I’m self-taught in everything. I had a lot of internet friends since very early on. I wasn’t ostracized in high school or anything—but I was an ‘indie kid’ with special interests and I made friends on the internet and I would go visit these people around Spain. They were all artists. In that sense, the internet was super important.
Is that when you realized that you were going to be an artist?
Yeah. From the time I was a kid, I was never considered an artist. I was an A-student and I would do all these projects, but it wasn’t anything classical or good enough to be considered ‘art’. It all started with photography, when my parents bought a digital camera.
So, it was kind of through meeting these other artists online that you sort of fleshed that out, and realized that you were making art?
Yeah, I had some friends who were older and lived in Barcelona and had already been through art school and they kind of told me what to do. My background was in cinema, music, comics, all that stuff, but not fine arts. I had no idea what fine arts was, and what the freedom to be yourself and taking photos was like [makes motion of mind being blown].
Privilege – Social Media Performance (Swipe Left)
You decided to go to art school in London at Central St Martins. That must have been a massive culture shock coming from a small town in Spain.
Yes, especially because I didn’t want to leave. I had Olga, and I had my best friend, and I had a boyfriend, and I loved my city. I had a cultural shock that I think people from many different countries who are the first generation to be able to go to school in either America or London experience. You grow up hearing all these stories about how it’s better, how it’s the first world, etcetera, and then you get there and you realize that what you had been told is propaganda and your culture is not that bad after all.
After college, you were in a major bus crash on a Greyhound bus. How does the injury affect you?
I’m still bad. I was using the cane yesterday. I’m permanently disabled. It’s not a damage to my back, it’s just my legs that are damaged. That’s why I moved to LA, because of the weather and because people don’t walk here. My options were London, which is too humid, even the city where I come from is too humid and cold, and New York which has too much activity, people walk too much. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. So I had some friends who were moving to LA and I thought, that’s the only option I have, to be honest. I don’t feel disabled here as much. When I travel, I notice that I can’t keep up.
Your performance Excellences & Perfections started shortly after you moved here. Was that in part motivated by the culture of LA?
No, I plan my artworks about three years in advance, so I had already started planning this piece the summer before I had the accident, when I was in London. It had nothing to do with LA, because the kind of girl [I was describing] is everywhere, really, it’s not just an LA thing. So when I moved here and I had some months to recover I spent a month researching, and I sent a proposal to some institutions I was working with and some curators and then I started. It had more to do with the “sugar baby scene” that I knew from London.
Do you feel that that work’s massive reception has been a net gain or a loss for your career?
I think it’s a gain. I’m very proud of it, especially of the things that it talks about. There is a double layer of attention that comes from different places. Mainstream media or people that don’t know about art are obsessed with that work, and a lot of people who are more into art like other works better. I still get invited to do group shows with the wire sculptures, and things like that, and people like the lectures and video essays and the like, but are not interested in Excellences & Perfections. Those are more the type of people that I get along well with, to be honest, and they like my second performance [Privilege] better.
Do you think that the media reception has benefited you?
The media is propaganda. It talks about things in a certain way to make them more important, or like that is what is actually happening. I got my first taste of it with my first performance [Excellences & Perfections], seeing how I was playing with the media, and seeing how the media is this monster that you can’t control. I think it’s funny that a lot of people think that’s the first thing that I did, but right before I did Excellences & Perfections, I sold out a show that was mostly sculpture. People refuse to see that I’ve done other things, or that my practice goes in circles, it doesn’t go in a straight line — I always go back to things that I’ve done a few years before and continue them.
Reputation, New Galerie, Paris (Swipe Left)
What does your work say about truth? Do you think that this sort of post-truth world we live in is in part due to social media?
Sort of, it depends on where you live though. I feel like America is very vulnerable to it because people are alone a lot of the time, and there’s a lot of space for imagination. In the same way there’s a lot of space for cults and new religions: because there’s this emptiness. In other places, reality is [what you see] walking outside your house and going to meet your friends at a cafe, that’s real, and there isn’t all this space for fabrication. I personally don’t use social media that way. The performances were always fictional, and I didn’t use social media before that. Now, I do have a private account for a limited amount of friends to follow, because I’m still into that kind of internet. I grew up talking to friends online and I still have some friends that I only talk to online and I see them maybe once a year when I travel. So that was the original purpose of that, but it has nothing to do with the economy attached to it, of likes and followers. It’s just a bunch of friends and it’s more about keeping up with them than creating a lifestyle for them.
That lifestyle has encouraged people to kind of be entrepreneurs and to create their own ‘brand.’
I’ve always been against that because I don’t think people know how to deal with it. Fifty years ago, the only people dealing with that were celebrities, actors, people who do that for a living, which is totally fine. Now though, everyone has to go through the same anxiety. Doctors shouldn’t go through that. Doctors shouldn’t need to have their photograph on their profile and have people choosing whether they look good or not. They shouldn’t be under that pressure. Not everyone wants exposure and not everyone can handle it. It’s a culture that celebrates psychopaths.
Shortly after that first performance you went to North Korea. What interested you about that country?
I’m actually publishing a text very soon [since published here]— the diaries I wrote when I was there. It was a personal thing. I was never interested in it as it was portrayed by films like The Interview. But the PR person for North Korea is Spanish and there was a documentary made for Spanish TV which was much more private than other things that I’ve seen. There were a lot of Chinese-made objects treated like historical objects and a lot of glitter and pastel colors and I became obsessed with it because it was very similar to what I was working on at the time. I watched all the movies that were approved by the state. It was fascinating to be there because it’s really a dictatorship, and it made me think a lot about fashion with how they express themselves. For example: there are restrictions on every item of clothing except for your shoes, so women wear the white shirt and the black skirt but then their shoes are insane. So, you can see slips of people communicating with each other. I was also interested in going there because Spain had a dictatorship for forty years, and it was interesting to live in one briefly. I was never interested in making art about it or anything. I just wrote a travel diary, which is not journalistic at all.
Monday Cartoons, Deborah Schamoni, Munich (Swipe Left)
Your most recent work Privilege played out on Instagram and culminated in a series of exhibitions in London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Paris, Munich and Shanghai. Do you consider yourself privileged?
In some ways, yes, in many other ways no. The levels of poverty that I come from haven’t been eradicated and I’m still suffering the poverty of my family. So, in a way, temporarily, I am privileged because I work my ass off to pay the rent, but I haven’t made enough money to solve the problems. My family are poor, so that is always a weight on my shoulders and something that I can’t forget. But I am privileged in many ways. I am happy to live here, I love my house, I’m happy to be with Olga, to be able to afford to fly my best friend from Spain to bring her here. All these are comfortable things, but when you come from a certain kind of place you will never achieve that privilege. It’s like [Diego] Maradona: in Argentina he’s a god, but he’s from the slums, and his parents still live in the slums, so as much money as he makes, he still has to go back to the slums to say hi to his parents and that’s something that he’ll never get away from because that’s who he is. I was asked about that many times when I was in university, they would say “You’re a successful artist now, so you’re not working class anymore.” But I am because I’m surrounded by it, I haven’t been able to leave that behind. I still have to support my family, so I think where you come from makes a huge difference.
You exhibited recently in Buenos Aires, for your show Intolerance, how was that for you?
It was awesome! Argentina is one of my favorite places to work in. Argentinians are very resourceful and very good at production and they were super welcoming. Argentians are very proud of other Argentinians, which is not the case with Spain, so it was very warm and welcoming and it was very good. Also, they get it. Argentinians are very well educated, which was refreshing.
Intolerance, BARRO, Buenos Aires (Swipe Left)
In Monday Cartoons, you round out this performance by taking on the theme of the single panel New Yorker-style cartoons. What interested you about those?
It all had to do with all these topics from the performance, which were class in America, and good taste and bad taste, and who says what’s culture and what’s not. I have, not a love/hate relationship to [New Yorker cartoons]. I genuinely like them, even though I know they are from a certain class that would never invite my class to participate. So I have this relationship to it where I really like the cartoons, but also I recognize the signifiers of class and what they mean. I’ve always liked making work about that sort of invisibility, because it says a lot about what it means to be neutral and what it means to be “ethnic” or different. I’ve always been interested in those spaces or those aesthetics of neutrality because neutral is not really neutral.
In one of the reviews of Privilege the writer said that the work was based on your own aspirations and assumptions. Is that something that you agree with?
Sort of. Growing up with parents that refused the idea of fine arts, because they were really into punk culture, or comics, or low-brow art, I was into literature and classical music. I was trying to get out of the hole I grew up in, but then I was also learning about notions of class, and how much of that was an idealization of Europeness. It has a lot to do with being Argentinian; even though a part of my family is Native American, my family would talk about how their ancestry was French, and talk about French cuisine, and all these things. Then I realized that they never talk about the Indian tribe of their ancestors. So, for me, growing up like that, having these aspirations, and listening to indie music (which was all made by British people) there was no room in that culture for South Americans. It was only after going to London that I realized how the whole system and how the export of culture from these places is a kind of colonization. Even in Spain, everyone on TV was blonde, regardless of whether you were good looking or bad looking. And then you grow up looking at the TV and wondering why these people look different. In Spain it’s not a huge deal, but it Argentina it is, because the reality of the country and the reality that they are portraying on TV is totally different. And it’s hard. You grow up feeling like you’re the weird one.
To see more of Amalia Ulman’s work, go to her website http://amaliaulman.eu.