What does an art writer write about in self-isolation? How can an art writer work when museums close their doors, gallery calendars grind to a halt, and artists are stuck at home with limited access to materials? Although there is enjoyment in the openings, panels, talks, walkabouts, and fairs, to say nothing of the tactility of an exhibition, many art lovers of my generation are already used to experiencing and engaging with art online. As Loney Abrams1Flatland in the New Inquiry wrote in 2013, “The gallery is no longer the primary exhibition space; the Internet is.” It would be apt, therefore, for an art writer to write about an artist’s Instagram page as if it were an exhibition, because it is.
Scum Boy, an artist working in CGI animation uses Instagram, not just because it is his platform, but because its culture inspires his visual cues. His is a pop art for clout-seekers: a series on sneakers – which sees them placed on a pedestal2 and hidden like deep-sea treasure3 – speaks to the way in which something as ordinary as tekkies have evolved into status-symbols, totems of wealth and influence. Influencer-culture is critiqued in works like Adidas, Nike or NorthFace? where the line between identity and advertisement slims. Recent messages telling viewers to BREATHE,4 and another advising STAY CALM,5 are written in the classic-meme font Impact,6 perhaps poking fun at how pandemic wellness discourse has itself gone viral. Absurd, brand-obsessed, and horny, Scum Boy’s videos and prints read as both celebration and satire of online cool kid culture. The uncanny-valley effect of CGI –bodies stylised, sterilised, and airbrushed– pulls it all together, revealing how unreal and overdone our online worlds have become.
But just because Scum Boy’s work is immediate and, more often than not, ironic, doesn’t mean it’s not serious, as work unauthorized by the white cube tends to be viewed. I see Scum Boy’s work in the same camp as post-cyber-feminists like Juliana Huxtable7Juliana Huxtable’s Instagram or Tabita Rezaire.8Tabita Rezaire’s Website Not because they share an aesthetic, but because they recognize the digital as paradoxically liberatory and corrupt. Liberatory, because it allows for even the amateur to, in Scum Boy’s words, ‘imagine anything and then bring it to fruition,’ allowing creators to enact fantasies and envision futures alternative to oppressive realities. Corrupt, because those fantasies are more likely to be fetishised, commodified, and exploited before they are realised.
This tension is most felt in the way Scum Boy navigates gender in his work. For example, a piece called Category is body-ody-ody-ody. It was piece commissioned by Death of Glitter, a party for Cape Town’s queer underground. Another artist—with a certain kind of identity politic—would have taken the opportunity to create a piece that celebrates queer bodies and the wide spectrum of their expression. Scum Boy gives us forms that lifelike but lifeless—featureless, eunuch, mannequin-stiff. The work is genderless, impersonal, and the opposite of body-positivist rhetoric. Instead of the increasingly twee take all bodies are beautiful, this piece reminds us that all bodies are awkward, unpleasant, vulgar, embarrassing. Gender is, let’s face it, an oddity, and therefore a constant source of confusion, no matter how you identify.
There’s another video called I was thinking about gay porn when I got my first T-shot. It incorporates snippets of a heartfelt, vulnerable conversation between someone about to go on T and his partner. Or, someone about to go on T and himself. ‘The testosterone won’t change you, you’re still you… Yeah, I’m trying, but you don’t understand.’ To visualise this self-in-flux, a body metamorphosing in ways both dangerous and necessary, Scum Boy’s pseudo-sexual chromatic cowboys might seem a ridiculous choice. In them, however, are metaphors that capture the complexities of transition. A reclamation of masculinity which is both empowering and grotesque. Bodies that mutate, dissipate, and regenerate, a process which is both emancipatory and unstable.
What interests me most about this work in particular is how imperative the medium is to the message. Documentary photography would have felt too exhibitionist; sculpture a fetish; painting, for lack of a better word, two-dimensional. Through digital animation, Scum Boy has achieved a poetics of both irony and sincerity, imagined-possibility and its adjacent anxieties.
And yet, most galleries in Cape Town have yet to show interest in digital art. ‘I do wish we had more finances in Cape Town galleries so we could experiment with more tech based exhibits,’ Scum Boy says. ‘I have so many ideas but no galleries with the resources to be able to pull it off.’ Mostly because, for now, digital art doesn’t sell.
I wonder how attitudes might change during and after quarantine, where the only art we can access is digitised. Galleries may very well become more and more anachronistic. In that case, viewers may turn to artists like Scum Boy for quicker, more direct distribution of content. Artists stand to benefit in terms of self-sufficiency; forgoing participation in the gallery system leaves them in more control of distribution, curation, sales, and archive. Then again, democratic as it may be in theory, Instagram is a warped system. If the art world moves increasingly towards it, famous artists of the future will be determined not by import, quality, or institutional support, but the artists’ adeptness at self-marketing and algorithm-swaying. Contrary to popular belief, ‘online’ does not necessarily mean ‘accessible.’ The internet certainly does more to reproduce power dynamics than upend them. And an art world mediated entirely through Instagram – funneling even more power into the hands of Zuckerberg and his cronies – is not a future I would advocate for.
All I know is, as long as the internet continues to be a space for both experimentation and subjugation, it will become an ever-more important battleground, for artists and for all of us.