Excellences and Perfections

The now-iconic Instagram performance by Amalia Ulman has been published as a book by Prestel, but how much of its original interactivity can a print publication truly capture?

My spam box is a swamp of sex and desperation. Scrolling through it, I wonder what mailing list I signed up to that warranted this abuse of messages offering me “Free V1agra”, “Love/Sex” and invitations to “Find Me and F#ck Me” (a tempting offer from a lady who goes by the name of Bad Medina). I know it was one list that unlocked the door to these emails because they all began at once, and there has been such an onslaught since that their initial novelty has truly worn off. What does still catch my eye, though, are those scam emails that stand on their tip toes and politely call out “Dearest, please, I need some help” amongst the screams of sex and erections. In this context I can begin to understand why someone might, just might, fall for them.

These type of emails are the subject of Hito Steyerl’s essay Epistolary Affect and Romance Scams: Letter From an Unknown Woman, one of five texts published in the Prestel book of Amalia Ulman’s somewhat iconic Instagram performance Excellences & Perfections. In the work, which ran from 19 April 2014 for five months, the LA-based artist kept an Instagram account where she posted selfies with shopping bags, inspirational quotes and still lifes of coffee and pancakes, all wrapped in hazy filters. Through her banal lifestyle shots Ulman’s persona lived a dramatic story arc of female stereotypes, morphing from sweet small-town girl to badass LA bitch to reformed clean-living health guru until her last post in the series on 14 September 2014. The captions and comments that made up the (vague) details of the aesthetic tale are, in the book, cut from their respective images and logged in the back pages. Thus this printed version affects the work in a slightly unexpected and maybe unfortunate way—fragmenting it as one might expect the internet to do.

Whilst Steyerl’s essay in the book focusses on the catfish element of Ulman’s performance, notes from the Google Doc correspondence between Ulman and Real Life editor Rob Horning riff off the idea that social media turns existence into a new kind of constant performance. “Performing the self on the internet sometimes seems like an endless interview with no interviewers and competing interviewees projecting the questions they want to answer onto an audience that may already be entirely preoccupied with questions they were wishing to be asked,” writes Horning, who argues that the kind of narcissism that makes social media so successful is an anxious narcissism, of wanting to blend into “what Baudrillard called the ‘silent masses’.”

“Horning argues that social media is actually less a route to self-expression or self-definition and more a way of giving up some of this power to our networks of friends and followers”

Everyone knows that everyone else is performing normality, and so self-performance on social media is maybe the easiest way to be no one. Horning argues that social media is actually less a route to self-expression or self-definition and more a way of giving up some of this power to our networks of friends and followers, to whom you can appear in images without ever actually being there in the moment. “Virality buys a temporary break from the ongoing work of self-construction.”

Performances of friendship and celebrity are also explored in a funny short story by writer and V Magazine editor Natasha Stagg, titled Is Anyone Listening To Me? I Love It. It recounts the time she met Catherine Keener and Sarah Jessica Parker at a party, as the two actors were on their way to meet hockey player Sean Avery, and poses questions around those feelings of half-knowing the people that haunt others’ social media-filled lives, as lingering eye contact and almost-smiles often become the limit of these follower/followed relationships in real life.

Nestled between the middle pages, however, is perhaps the most interesting part of this oddly fractured documentation: Ulman’s own Ananda Letters, previously unreleased texts written to an anonymous correspondent about her stay at the Ananda Meditation Retreat in California, which she found online after a Greyhound bus crash damaged her legs and sent her to hospital for two months. I feel uneasy reading these letters as “truth” in the context of Ulman’s work, but I think that’s not the point. There is a real tenderness in them, the kind that would make the subjects of Steyerl’s essay fall in love with them, regardless of whether their sender was Ulman or an organized scamming unit. “Funny how people want to believe. And they’d believe anything, believe me!” she writes.

Ultimately, this book seems least useful as an immortalization of Excellences & Perfections; as Arcadia Missa’s founding director Rózsa Farkas notes in her foreword, the original posts and their various copies on the internet “continue to speak—the work is up there live, not catalogued post-partum”. They are archived at rhizome.org and can still be found on Ulman’s Instagram (after a lot of scrolling). Obviously the book can also not reproduce the few short videos in Ulman’s work. However, the texts included extend the conversation around truth started by Excellences & Perfections, into one about the nature of performance and existence on the internet itself.

All images © Amalia Ulman & Arcadia Missa, London

Excellences & Perfections by Amalia Ulman

Published by Prestel