Yesterday Art Basel Miami Beach hosted a panel on “Instagram as an Artistic Medium” featuring MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach, the auctioneer and dealer Simon de Pury, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artist Amalia Ulman, and Kevin Systrom, CEO and co-founder of Instagram. Each panel member gave a prepared speech, so it really amounted to a symposium and there was little time for questions from the audience, beyond two that essentially asked what sort of new features Instagram was preparing. “It would have been great to talk about the dangers of quantified content,” moderator Bettina Korek said at the end. “But we don’t have time for that.”
Ulman discussed her Instagram project, which involved the creation of a persona who went from wannabe model, to sugar baby, to rehabbed woman with a kind boyfriend and breast implants from her past life, all crucial arcs of the Instagram lifestyle. “What kind of person would you have to be to believe that your Facebook profile is authentic?” she asked. Who would ever actually portray themselves online with “no filters?”
Systrom’s speech seemed the most prepared of all the attendees. He stated his company’s values, dropping koans like “Instagram is not an individualistic social network” and “We’re not a technology company, we’re a community company.” After him Simon De Pury compared Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Instagram efforts, which involve hand written messages from Post-It notes from artists and other cultural luminaries, to those of artists like On Kawara, and suggested that Systrom add a button to sort photos by most liked. “The great thing is the likes,” De Pury said. “We’re all obsessed with the likes.” At this comment Systrom looked forward and nodded without smiling.
Obrist said he saw the origins of Instagram in K8 Hardy’s zines. “Bravo H.U.O.!” someone shouted from the crowd, after he finished. (The crowd seemed largely comprised of ‘Gram fans rather than art people, because many stayed to ask him to sign books afterward — art people not needing the opportunity of a panel to have Obrist sign their books, because he’s so ubiquitous.)
Biesenbach seemed to imply that Instagram had changed his life, describing parties he would throw in his austere apartment where the only refreshments were Doritos (this sounded like a bit, not like he only ever kept Doritos there) and his new, Instagram-augmented love of the Rockaways which are “literally nature, on the Atlantic.” Instagram is significant politically too, he said, touching on some of the themes from his latest show at the museum, “Zero Tolerance.”
“I heard that when you go to Russia, if you have more than 3,000 followers, you are considered a press outlet,” Biesenbach said. (If Systrom, seated right next to Biesenbach, knew this, he chose not to confirm it.)
(The thing that no one said was that a visual social network naturally appeals to the visual art world, or that just because that’s the case, it doesn’t mean that anything that happens on Instagram is art. Twitter is popular with writers, but nobody thinks a Tweet from a New Yorker writer has much in common with her 20,000 word stories.)
“We’re going to keep it simple while evolving it,” Systrom finished, in response to a question from the audience.
After the panel select attendees were invited to a party at Soho House sponsored by Instagram. En route, Biesenbach re-posted a photo that New York critic Jerry Saltz had posted of James Franco in Spring Breakers.
“Will you help Hans Ulrich Obrist save handwriting?” a put-together tattooed woman employed by Instagram asked on the 15th floor. Attendees were invited to write their own Post-It notes to Obrist, and Instagram them. The artist Todd Eberle stood nearby and said that though he’d recently received 48,000 new followers in two weeks, following his being a suggested follow for new users, he wasn’t intimidated by them. “I don’t even think about them,” he said. “It’s like Charlie Brown’s teacher, wah wah wah.”
Soon after Systrom gathered everyone on the patio for a brief speech. He thanked everyone for coming, taking time out of their busy schedule at Art Basel Miami Beach, which he called the “center of creativity in the United States today.” He then took the opportunity to once again state his company values, the first being simplicity. “Our second value is ‘community first,'” he continued. Then: “Our third value is ‘simplicity first.'”