Recently, I attended a film screening at STPI on John Berger’s The Art Of Looking. It is part of their current installation featuring Kim Beom and how artists interrogate perspectives. Watching the screening rekindled my interest in Berger’s works and I spent the weekend watching all four episodes of Ways of Seeing (stills from this post are taken from the videos). Berger was a curious observer with a keen sense for insightful perspectives. His inquiry into how visuality functions as a language reveals certain surprising conclusions.
In Episode 1, Berger brings in the significance of photography and the camera with respect to traditional art. It allows for reproduction of art, making it available in different places and for different purposes. A single artwork can be framed differently by different agents, with emphases placed on different aspects. A picture of Mona Lisa on a postcard would have a different meaning from when it is placed in an art history textbook, accompanied by descriptions and commentary. When incorporated into a video, different movements and music can be used to invoke different feelings and hence, skew interpretation and meaning of the artwork. This allows for fragmented meanings different from the original.
Unlike the original nature of oil painting which can only be viewed when an eye’s visual field comes into contact with it, photography expands the possibilities for ‘seeing’. I pondered further on this, and thought about social media feeds. What might Berger have to say about Instagram? It seems to me that his points can also be applied to the use of Instagram. Instagram pictures are a subjective expression of the individual. Two people at the same scene might take very different pictures –they might frame it in certain ways (by cropping certain things out or focusing on different aspects), apply different filters to evoke different feelings, and post different captions that would alter the meaning of each image.
Berger also argues that the tradition of European oil painting was a medium which celebrated private possessions. It depicted the tangibility of objects representing affluence and power (e.g. land, gold, feasts, portraits etc.). He then looks at the modern context of publicity and advertisement. According to Berger, the oil painting symbolises the wealth of the owner. The person commissions an artist to immortalise his/her possessions within that frame. The publicity image on the other hand, shows not what we have, but what we might buy. In Berger words, the city of advertisements is “papered with dreams which invite us to enter them.” It represents not who we already are and what we already have, but who we can be with ownership of said objects. His conclusion is that the tradition of European oil painting and modern publicity images are both about ownership and status, but function in slightly different ways.
Like oil paintings, many Instagram images document what we have done and the objects we are proud of – e.g. Flatlays of shopping hauls, shots of fancy cars and houses etc. Instagram images can also function as a publicity image when people use Instagram to advertise certain products. Suppose we thought of publicity images and traditional oil painting to be two different ends of the ownership and power imagery spectrum (image representing and surrounding what you [the owner] have –> representing what the people surrounding the image don’t have, but could). Instagram embodies both poles of the spectrum, but cannot be reduced to either.
Hidden beneath the curated collection of images on an Instagram feed is a subtle art of visual communication. This is not just in terms of material possessions but also experiences (e.g. parties, exotic holidays, exclusive events) and social networks. Like the ubiquity of advertisements (and unlike the nature of traditional oil paintings before photography), the nature of Instagram is such that images are widely and heavily diffused. It is a marketplace not only in commercial dealings as an advertisement platform, but also a marketplace for social dealings. Likes are traded, followers represent network reach, and images communicate social status.
Like the publicity image, Instagram images portray objects of envy that exclude the viewer. Ownership and status of the owner as communicated through an Instagram image is always in relation to other Instagram users –the multiplicity of eyes that take in this image. It involves a discourse on human desire – It suggests what you are not, but can and want to be.
Every image on the feed is disembodied. It has no relation to the previous or the next. In the endless visual stream, it is a single fragment, juxtaposed against all other fragments. It also has a voice that competes to not get drowned out by other sounds. Yet, each image does not hold equal power. Some have louder voices that yell: “Look at me, I am what you are not.” They tempt and seduce us into buying things we do not need, pursuing experience after experience in the chase for a distant dream that is never truly within our grasp.
I acknowledge that with everything, it is nearly impossible to have an absolute position. Certainly not all Instagram images work at the same level of seduction.There will always be exceptions, anomalies and empirical cases that do not quite fit. I am not suggesting that all Instagram does is to trap us in our desires and deceitfully play on our inadequacies. I am also not arguing that there is anything inherently insidious about how Instagram might be used. What this post does is to point out the dangers of the constant stream of images, and the subconscious work it does to manipulate our desires and actions. It (hopefully!) provokes one to think about how we use Instagram and how it influences us.