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Art In the ‘Apotopic’ Space: Defiling_the_Virgin

In this essay I want to discuss the urge for revelation. Several weeks ago, I was writing in my notes app as I was sitting in Alexandria estate. I was smoking a joint after a four week period of sobriety, and I remember I felt as cold and smooth as an alabaster walnut. I was hoping, sitting with my journal perched on my knees, that I would finally hit a moment of rupture. I’d been trying desperately to write for weeks, trying to catch a train that I could hitch myself onto that might propel me towards a meaningful thing. I’d been painting in vain for weeks too, but it all felt like I was trying to dig a hole and hitting a metal base, cling clang. Then it struck me that the only thing driving me through living in a pandemic was the very base, subconscious (I want to say primal), urge for discovery. There is in everyone the want to unsheathe something, to pry open a crack that might lay privy to your eyes something for the first time. There is the pressing want that underlies everything, to disrobe. In writing and in art, there is the carnal desire to defile the virgin.

I have always found viewing new art to be much the same. Meeting a new painting is always a bit like losing a kind of virginity. Seeing a piece for the second time, like visiting an old lover. When we consider viewing art as a first encounter, seeing it on social media can be compared to watching porn. After galleries closed, and all the work besides my own I saw online, I felt the dissatisfaction that accompanied it. Rolling through an artist’s feed, giving out hearts like spare change, there was sometimes even a small undercurrent of shame. A similar unfulfillment accompanied the creation of work. On the other side, as an artist, there is a certain satisfaction in creating work privately, and regarding its public exhibition as a kind of semi-erotic defiling. This desire, which has historically been inextricable from the process of artistic creation, is incompatible with the modern technological impulses to ‘commodify experience’ - what artist and writer Abraham Adams describes as “a liquidation of marginal experience.”[1] This is something that by now is so instilled in the majority of social media users that its ease and hyper prolificness placate the underlying knowledge in all of us that this means of existence is not only unnecessary, but probably destructive. This little web which spreads and ensnares all of our contacts with the real world wraps its smooth vice grip around artwork too.

I’ve been using the metaphor of art as sex because it provides a very good and immediate symbolic mental touchpoint for intimacy, which I see at the root of artistic engagement. It also strikes a counterpose to the cool and reserved facade of the digital. (Facade is perhaps the the wrong word, because it indicates digital systems might be capable of revealing something deeper, which they very well may do if we learn to direct the technology’s uses properly - but that is a matter for another paper.) So, back to sex. If an art gallery is the temple, Instagram is the whorehouse. Speaking of revisiting lovers, we will notice that when viewing a piece of art which we like more than once in the flesh, we will grow and learn more from the experience each time. It will continue to build its own image inside our minds brick by brick, until we will eventually have a very complex understanding of the whole of ‘it’. What this means, and why art has the power to inhabit the liminal plane to which few ordinary objects gain access, (what makes it Art), is that it will grow from a physical thing into an abstract body which we can hold and examine within ourselves. Art has the power, after repeated engagement, to transmutate, or metamorphosise. This is why many writers have described the experience of art as ‘transcendental’. Certain photographs possess this power too, such as the notorious one carried by George Bataille in his wallet of a flayed Chinese man strapped to a crucifix and still alive, gazing upwards in rapture.

I cannot think of a single painting I have seen on social media which has broken out of this physical plane for me. In fact, even worse, none have even reached the physical plane. I do not really understand the paintings I see on Instagram as objects. My awareness that they are ‘real’ is fragmented, and rarely dealt with. Because they float in their own liminal plane, the ether space of the machine, they can never punch through into the physical world, which is the middle ground between my brain and the system’s. Never entering this realm, my experience and understanding of them has nowhere to grow, because my memory has nothing to latch on to. A work seen online becomes less interesting over time, more banal. The only pieces that may manage to escape this are the work of the old masters, or more tentatively of the now classic artists of the modern period. This is because they are shrouded by a cultural blanket of context which cocoons them from the surrounding oblivion. Contemporary art does not have this luxury, and emerging artists haven't got even a sliver of a chance. The few pieces I can recall having made a semi-deep impression on me through discovery on social media have been sculptures, and that is because they possessed agency over tangible space, it being necessary to their viewing. Even in a photograph, a sculpture is situated in a ‘somewhere’. This being the case, the statues - even the brilliant ones - I have seen presented in an edited situation: an intangible, simulated space; I remember far less vivaciously.

The contemporary artist must realise the detriment of this to his possibility for real engagement. In this fashion, the artist creates work in a vacuum, for a vacuum.

I was trying to find critical texts about the way social media affects our emotive response to artwork, and there is not a lot out there. One study looked promising, but the PDF cost fifty quid so I did not pursue it. The open source one I managed to find was actually a data study, with the title “Art in the Age of Social Media: Interaction Behavior Analysis of Instagram Art”[2]. Apologies to the authors, but it was nineteen pages of steaming bullshit. It made claims such as “Digital participation deepens and democratizes artistic exchange with audiences”, allowing for the ‘everyone’s a critic’ viewpoint that dominates modern discourse, a point I should specify I do not disagree with. However, it followed this statement by saying ““The interactions on social media occur very rapidly, which can be understood as a novelty or moment effect.” Not only does this diminish the value of the artist and artwork, but also of how we understand what it means to critique. A split second “I like it”, “it’s cool”, or “I hate that” does not amount to criticism. It remains an opinion without much weight, due to it’s lack of grounding and reflection. In fact, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center also cited in the study, 34 percent of social media users admitted to using social media to “take a mental break”. Paradoxical, no?

I include the following paragraph from the study to consider:

“Users achieve what Abraham Maslow calls self-actualization by intuitively engaging in social media interactions. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes that “intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition”, is the ability to automatically generate solutions without long logical arguments or evidence [59]. Intuitive is the ability to acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning [60]. Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions. Wilson and Schooler’s studies demonstrated that analyzing reasons reduces people's satisfaction with their choices, and it may not always be a good idea to analyze the reasons for our preferences too carefully [61].”

Besides the hodgepodge referencing and the butchery of statements by completely stripping them of their context (sound familiar?), the text advocates for us to do away with our capacity for reasoning. We should not ask ourselves why we like something, as “introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions”. These are dangerous waters, giving way to making art another cog in the contemporary indifference machine. It’s no surprise they quote Maslow to support themselves. (For an excellent critique of Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs see Giles Chatelet’s book, To Live and Think Like Pigs)

Finally, the study proudly touts that “Digital interaction with the audience can promote cognitive decoding and enhance kinesthetic and emotional responses to artistic activities.” This one was especially insane to me, as Instagram repudiates and blocks the sharing of works that contain actual ‘intimacy’ - as seen with photographers of nudes like Jocelyn Lee, who are unable to share their work containing the body without self censorship. We need to realise social media is a highly militarised zone which cannot possibly act as an environment for real art, tender art, to grow or even show its face.

How could I possibly hope to establish intimacy with an artwork online?

Several hours ago, I tried to upload a triptych photoset of my friend I had taken on cross process 35mm. They were experimental test shots, messing with light, shadows, and form. Nothing radical, but I found them quite beautiful, the beauty nested in the fact that my friend was shirtless in the photographs. The different configurations I asked her to move her body into took advantage of the effect of gravity on her body, and her naked chest created the form and balance of the images. Its role was inherently compositional, forming a frame of reference in the language of shape. The photos are beautiful, but not sexual (in as much as a photo of a woman’s body can ever avoid being sexual). After posting the triptych onto Instagram, the second photo in the series was taken down. I censored the nipples with a colour-matched circle and tried again. Once more the photo was taken down by the algorithm robots within 30 seconds. A final try, this time with heavy black circles slapped atop the breasts, but no dice.

I noticed two things about Instagram during this transaction. The first was that through censorship I had actually hyper-sexualised the images. By introducing a black circle, or a figment of the taboo - I was instantly telling a viewer ‘this is something you aren’t supposed to see.’ And yet, because of the domineering nature of those black ellipses, my friend’s hidden chest became the only thing they could see. Through censorship, both conceptually and purely visually, the illicitness of female breasts became the main topic of the image, this not alleviated in the slightest by the culture of rapid gaze promoted by Instagram as a platform. The image was no longer about framing, or colour, or structure - it was about a woman with her tits out. Reductive, yes? (Little addendum that might be funny for the future - this happened on March 8th, 2021, International Women’s Day)

The second thing I noticed was that the image which had been removed, the one most indecent to the little police robot’s tender eyes, was the one which in my opinion, was by far the least suggestive. What this lead me to consider was the idea of the ‘robotic gaze’, the unique visual vantage point of the algorithmic which was slowly being thrust upon the human way of seeing. “In 2016, Instagram shifted from a chronological newsfeed to one based on an algorithm. Since then, Instagram has been famously opaque about its platform.”[3] The article this quote is taken from says one of the reasons for this is to “prevent bad actors from gaming the system.” But isn’t that exactly what art is? A community of people who are poor at performing their social expectations, ‘gaming the system’ through work that forces it to confront itself. So, it seems Instagram is in its very structural makeup incompatible with being a platform for interacting with art or artists. The platform admits their algorithmic patterns are programmed so “people see more of what they already like.” Instagram’s algorithm is the new middleman between the artist and his audience. It is a new institutional force and must be recognised as such.

But, in an app for ‘everyone’, what if my preference niche straddles the grey area that Instagram has deemed ‘inappropriate’ and sent little robots to blot out? If it’s an app for anyone then how can I get my media fix? Simple.

Robot Rules Can Only Be Bypassed if You Make Cash Money.

Large corporations are allowed to transcend these regulations, because they’re raking in money and data for the platform’s creators through their traffic. “Advertising decides what is desirable in our culture, and corporations seem to get a free pass when it comes to censorship.”[4] This poses the question to those who have remained critical of biennale institutions and institutionalised art but touted social media as the ‘everyman’s’ gallery - is it really so? Is the controlling algorithm that is impossible to pin down and dissect not exactly what Giles Chatelet would have referred to as “The Invisible Hand”, which crushes and stifles “without gloves”? Social media is the new institution of art, which masquerades under the sheath of its ingenuity and accessibility, while really creating a far more dangerous and less easily deconstructed space. By purposefully obfuscating their algorithmic choices, Instagram makes it impossible to critically analyse and dismantle them if need be. Their power is built in through opacity and exclusivity, irony piled on irony for a platform designed to do the opposite, to redistribute power.

It is essential that we critique the digital as a system of power as brutally and incisively as we do the old power structures of race politics, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. The digital’s entanglement with them in tandem with its unique penchant for the manipulation of meaning raises its status to something in dire need of severe scrutiny when it comes to its affect. (and also - effect) It’s time to stop watching porn.


Next : Interviews and practical resources for confronting the above realisations, and a deeper investigation of the robotic gaze.

[2 ] Xin Kang, Wenyin Chen and Jian Kang : Art in the Age of Social Media: Interaction Behavior Analysis of Instagram Art Accounts

[4] Jillian Billard :


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