Xavier Cha | Instagram and digital representation

Andrew Kachel and Xavier Cha talk about censorship, digital representation, and her controversial contribution to ♥Like: A BOFFO Instagram Project.

New York based artist Xavier Cha’s work engages with the presentation of self in networked culture. Inhabiting modes of translation and manipulation that aid the digital circulation of information, Cha’s work also offers insight into coded desires that are manifest across social media platforms. These desires were central to a work Cha made for the Instagram art initiative ♥Like: A BOFFO Instagram Project. BOFFO is a non-profit arts organization focused on producing projects in public spaces, and this project was its first effort to approach a social media platform as a viable mechanism for presenting new and ambitious art. Cha was one of six artists to participate. The terms of participation were broad: each artist was asked to make a new body of work that in some way critically engaged the platform, bearing in mind its unique opportunities and constraints. Each would have full control over posting their new work on @boffo_ny for a one week period, provided they worked within Instagram’s terms and conditions of use. Cha situated her commission directly against these conditions, presenting content in non-native forms as a means to slide past filter mechanisms, and to circulate prohibited images. In an attempt to unpack this work, Cha and I conducted an email correspondence a few weeks after it was posted on Instagram.

A video posted by BOFFO (@boffo_ny) on

Andrew Kachel: Hi Xavier! You made a new work for the Instagram series I curated. It’s comprised of highly produced narrations of explicit images (mostly pornographic or intensely violent), which would be in violation of Instagram’s terms of use. You were interested in pushing the limits of what Instagram can portray, and what its users desire to see.

I’m interested in your particular engagement with digital media and representation, and how gnarly these processes of representation can be. The selfie is part of a messy and ongoing process of subjective construction, and it’s not always a pretty picture. Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine had this epigram: “A picture is no substitute for anything.” That feels so intensely relevant today, especially in relation to your work for this project, in which so much visual information became almost entirely auditory.

Xavier Cha: I really like that quote… I like that the image opens a portal for a whole new set of significations, codes and meanings–– its own new language that basically exists in another dimension.

As far as the representation of the self in selfies–– it’s been interesting to witness this development as a category of meaning. I remember when it was weird and unattractive to use a shitty crooked poorly lit selfie as a profile pic– but now the codes have evolved and the subtleties of what a selfie signifies have grown more complex… now if you have a super glossy professional head-shot-like portrait people think you’re weird, out of touch, or take yourself too seriously (unless you’re like a model or cultural icon of sorts, and the picture is interestingly editorial in quality). Tinder is a good example of this- I sometimes flip through solely to see these codes crystalize. It’s fascinating to see patterns in how people represent themselves digitally in order for one to connect with them enough to swipe right. It’s a predictable balance between casual selfies to make the person seem human like the rest of us, and “interesting” shots of them “doing things.” But if someone has a bunch of studio lit portraits they seem sterile, boring. There’s no human access point. It’s funny how seeing the phone’s reflection in a mirror or an extended arm now makes someone seem more personable, relatable, even charming…

But anyways, I’m getting pretty far off track I think from my project… I wanted to see how spoken language resonates in comparison to visual imagery on Instagram. Last December I explored this in Fruit Machine 2, at the New Museum. A text was delivered either in spoken English or American Sign Language, then traveled at random through a chain of 7 blind and deaf contestants, and one who could see and hear . It was so odd to experience language transmitted as sounds, then actions, then sounds again and see how different perceptions and subjectivities transformed the meaning and weight of the text.
It’s very strange how something can be so unacceptably offensive in visual form, but can slip by as spoken language- I guess it shows how visual of a culture we are, that images are more powerful than words? That there’s much more slippage in words? I don’t know.

A video posted by BOFFO (@boffo_ny) on

AK: Not only is there more slippage in words, but there is more capacity for words to slip through. That’s a plausible explanation for why your posts didn’t get flagged, or why the gruesomely violent posts received so many likes. If a user is scrolling through Instagram while their phone is silenced, the content of your posts is basically undetectable. The ability of the posts to function in that way is extremely powerful, insidiously alluding to both the depths of deep Internet and the enveloping condition of a violent world.

XC: It’s interesting that Instagram must not pay much attention to audio, which I suspected. That distinction is curious to me. The 2 blind actors I worked with both loved their iphones because the accessibility functions worked best for sending and receiving texts and emails etc., and many apps were available for the blind. I wonder if there is an Instagram app that describes images to the blind, and how aggressive these posts would feel to a blind person in the feed.

Bringing this back to the Louise Lawler quote, I suppose it’s a similar thing: one representation is no substitute for another, they each exist as their own entities with separate rules and sensory registers. I guess Kosuth also illustrated this with the ‘One and three Chairs‘.

AK: I missed Fruit Machine 2, but I’m very interested in that process of translation, or transmutation. When you take language as material, not in a literal way but in terms of its performative capacity and you manipulate its effects beyond standard routes of signification, strange things can open up. It’s also very generative, emphasizing language’s essential capacity for play.

I wonder whether language is coming to be seen as a much more radical terrain than the visual? So much has been made of “visual culture” in the last 20-30 years. I don’t want to minimize the importance of that discourse, but it seems there’s a specific kind of renewed interest in language: more artists maintaining writing and poetry practices as part of their work, and more artists whose work teases out the functions and capacities of words in an Internet-oriented culture. Turning to language is not a new move (you mentioned Kosuth, and 1st generstion conceptualists like Lucy Lippard, Lawrence Weiner, and Yoko Ono could also be situated in that context), so maybe we can understand it as a particular kind of reaction. This is totally unsubstantiated but I wonder whether an increased radicality of the linguistic has emerged this time around as a function of a certain image melancholy… It reminds me a bit of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature, in which actors from a “marginalized culture” assume a special resonance when they engage cultural hegemons, precisely by virtue of their being foreign. I mean this in the broadest sense: if we posit that language might be subjugated to the visual, then an artist turning to language approaches it from the outside. That angle of approach allows for a radical mode of cultural intervention— what Deleuze and Guattari might call de-territorialization. Do you think linguistic systems of description have become subjugated to the visual?

XC: Yes, I do think they’ve become subjugated… and I do agree a new return to language is a natural place to turn for visual artists looking for ways to innovate and be radical. I feel many have become immune to images. I personally don’t feel a need at the moment to add to the excessive inundation— that’s why I’m more inclined to create experiences and open up ways of thinking rather than add to the clutter of objects and images. To me most of that has grown mute.

AK: It’s interesting that you use the word inundation and that you’re not interested in perpetuating that condition. One could argue that image inundation is an inescapable condition, either of “contemporary culture” or specifically of platforms like Instagram. But your project doesn’t totally refuse to participate, and I think that’s key. This kind of motivation is often theorized temporally, in weirdly conflicting metaphors: Triple Canopy talked about “slowing down the internet” and then there’s the recent spike in interest around the term Accelerationism, advocating for a more intense engagement of technology and economy in order to advance a progressive agenda. Both of these approaches to digital culture/ digital capitalism are predicated on intervention. They refuse to refuse. They won’t stay outside of the things they oppose. They participate in order to have an effect, whether it is one of opposition or an encouragement of harmful forces in order to prompt some greater cataclysm. Weirdly, I think your work suggests an interest in both of these approaches?

XC: My current lack of interest in adding images and objects is not a criticism/ judgment or even naming of a condition. I’m not in a place of resistance or opposition– I post stupid unnecessary pics in my personal Instagram account. It’s just my current interest within the context of art production and since this was very specifically curated as an “artist” takeover my voice as an artist is highlighted. My concern or objective as an artist is not “not wanting to perpetuate” or point out a condition of image inundation, it’s more focused on exposing underlying systems and how culturally we negotiate our subjectivities within them (or are given the illusion that we can), and I have an easier time working with this performatively.

But yes, I do agree there is an interest in both “slowing down the Internet” or rather altering the quality of time, and encouraging or pushing complicity to such an absurd extreme that one can only sense its ambiguous position or point of malfunction.

A video posted by BOFFO (@boffo_ny) on

AK: How do you describe this work now that the posts have circulated on Instagram?

XC: Hmmm well, I was mostly surprised that all the posts made it up and remain on the BOFFO site. And also crazy that BOFFO gained nearly 10k new followers during my takeover week. I also must admit, I felt a little weird understanding this artist commission is basically to gain followers for BOFFO– I was ultimately working for BOFFO. It’s still confusing to me, the pornographic posts I don’t find as surprising, but I was slightly disturbed when some of the horrifically violent and gruesome images weren’t flagged and received lots of likes. I guess it succeeded in feeding into people’s perverse attraction to violence and pornography.. the whole not being able to look away from an accident thing, or now even, take a #carwreckselfie or something.

I don’t want to seem negative about “working for BOFFO”- that’s essentially the basis of any commission. I was really excited to have the opportunity to create this project, work with the talent I did (Michael Beharie helped with recording and editing the voice actor and Tabor Robak developed the audio progress bar visual) and experiment with subverting both the format and the invitation. There was a high risk of BOFFO’s account, with 40k followers at the start of my takeover, being terminated.

AK: This brings up two things that interest me: the conditions of artistic labor in relation to institutions, and the question of audience, specifically in relation to digital media and social network platforms. Regarding the first, I think it’s almost always the case that the work artists do (and sometimes curators and certain other cultural producers) bolsters the institutions that support that work. Of course this is related to compensation, but it’s not directly correlated. I think this project with BOFFO was reasonably successful in negotiating questions of visibility and promotion, because we emphasized experimentation, and encouraged all the participating artists to produce something that would not have otherwise happened. If we had just said, “sure, we’ll give you free reign over this platform for a week and give you an honorarium, and you can do whatever” it would have been a different transaction of cultural capital.
Of course your work lends credibility to an institutional supporter, but I think it’s a question of getting something beyond remuneration in return. I think we have to think about these things reciprocally. Ok, perhaps that’s leading to a tangent…

XC: I agree with all of that.

AK: The other thing I wanted to mention is the strange audience for the project. It went from a fairly small follower base composed of a broadly art/ fashion/ culture crowd, but when the account was a “featured user” during one of the first weeks of the commission series it ballooned by almost 3k every day. And so many of those were quasi-spam or.. seemingly 8 yr old kids? Even if you only marginally care about your audience, what are you supposed to do with that as an artist? The meaning of an online image is partially a function of who interacts with it and how. So I wonder about a work like this, in relation to what is a pretty heterogeneous audience. When your work traverses that audience and fails to shock in a significant way, I don’t know… it still feels unresolved.

XC: I am actually pleased with that unexpected element. It makes the seemingly benign aesthetic of the posts more successful. Of course kids are going to find porn and violent images online. There’s really no way around that. But is it less “harmful” or disturbing for a young kid to listen to pornographic and violent descriptions vs. seeing the image? I believe there’s more possibility for abstraction when the images translate into carefully selected and recorded words.

A video posted by BOFFO (@boffo_ny) on

AK: But is it even about making online experience “less harmful” or disturbing? Abstracting reality? I actually hadn’t thought about your work in terms of abstraction. Maybe I was thinking of it more as occlusion, or a rearrangement of information. That seems like a process with ample possibilities…

XC: No it’s not about making online experience less harmful at all. I just wonder about the difference between hearing a graphic description vs. seeing the image. Abstraction and formalization is almost always an element in my work- taking an aspect of contemporary culture and stripping it down until it becomes new and strange.

AK: What happens to the source images you worked from, after they’ve been incorporated in your work?

XC: I didn’t even save the images I based the descriptions on- I could easily search for them again, but most of them I didn’t even want to look at much longer than the time it took to write the script for the voice actor. Many were difficult to look at or stomach- especially the violent war persecution imagery. That’s why it took me so long to write the script- it was such a dark place to search for images that were shamefully seductive because of how horrific and disturbing they were. That was the tension I wanted to play with in the cool, slightly sterile, omnipotent narrator, drug commercial possible side effects delivery of the voice actress. I think the project would fall apart if the visual images were presented…my commissioned audio Instagram posts “are no substitute” for a picture.

AK: Jumping back to this thought— this is such a fine line, and such a powerful negotiation of representation. I’m recalling how you initially described the characteristics you were looking for in a voice actor. You described it in active terms, mentioning a climbing wall, and the process of reaching out and grasping a support. That is a moment of sensory connection and exchange of information, requiring patience and complete articulation. This leads back to our discussion of language, but interestingly you also said you wanted each word to feel like an object. So perhaps it’s about exploiting the material aspects of language, and harnessing an inherent force.

XC: Oh yeah, I think I said like climbing one of those simulated rock-climbing walls- where you must carefully consider and calculate the distance, position, and shape of each fake rock in relation to your own. Yes, I wanted the voice actor to carefully articulate each word in the post, with a very specific tone, quality and speed. I did want the words to unravel from the grey square and grow in space and time- the way only language can.

Cha’s project can be viewed on Instagram and Tumblr.

The other artists who participated in ♥Like: A BOFFO Instagram Project were Yoko Ono, K8 Hardy, Brad Troemel, and Alex Da Corte & Jayson Musson.

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