Social media make the relationship between identity labelling, stereotyping, and aesthetics more apparent than ever. That is, as long as relevant metrics allow content to be popular and remain visible. Marguerite Kalhor‘s work uses established social media tropes to explore the performative dimension of online experience, often driven by anxiety and expectations. She has tackled the selfie, the beauty tutorial, the food review and, more recently, video game reviews with a conspiratorial twist. Kalhor’s seemingly reluctant participation in collective stereotyping is part of her poetic: her food reviews are deadpan, while the beauty tutorials she streamed live on Facebook are more abstract than practical. Compared to other artists, Kalhor relies less on a consistent branding strategy and is much more focused on timing, presence, and intimacy. The artist’s shape-shifting practice might be more marginal within her media ecologies and cultural milieus of reference, then, but it is more critical in the sense that it pushes stereotypical narratives into dead-ends, staging failure after failure in subversive opposition to the metrics-driven regime of social media attention. We talked about her relationship with social media and their aesthetics.
Nicola Bozzi: Did you start engaging with social media as an artist first or were you already a user?
Marguerite Kalhor: I first studied how each platform worked and which posts would be popular. I think my usage of Instagram and YouTube were made possible by how easy it is to make videos and photos. When YouTube first came out not everyone had access to a webcam and stuff like that. Also there weren’t really any cheap third-party video editing software.
Nicola Bozzi: You started with the food reviews. Some of the videos look like they’re improvised in a situation, others look more staged. What does that depend from?
Marguerite Kalhor: I only had three rules to those videos. One: I had to try something I had never tried before. Two: the videos had to be under two minutes; and three: I had to say the first things that came to my mind. So I was racing against the clock and kind of grabbing in the dark.
Nicola Bozzi: Why food reviews?
Marguerite Kalhor: There was a food reviewer named Eric Dyer, he’s extremely awkward. I stumbled upon his videos and he was my source of inspiration. But there’s zillions of these things. I was interested in the fact that there is no way to describe what taste is, especially on camera, and everyone’s taste buds are different anyway, so reviewing food is completely pointless to me. It’s only there for entertainment purposes.
Nicola Bozzi: These youtubers always strive to be entertaining, but in your videos it looks like you want to push the attention away. Is that right?
Marguerite Kalhor: Those YouTube personalities are all emulating weird TV personalities, so I kinda wanted to show other ways to put out information. You don’t have to be this manic TV personality.
Nicola Bozzi: Did you make any effort at branding the channels in conventional YouTube ways, tagging or commenting on other people? Or did you wait for people to come to you?
Marguerite Kalhor: I did wait for people to come to me. I tagged the videos “food” and “food review” and whatever product I was testing, so all these food review channels started following me and commenting. And each of them has their own little schtick. It’s the same if you have an art account on Instagram or you comment on a museum page, the bots will flood your profile and add you for a couple days, then unfollow you if you don’t follow them back. The ones posting those one emoji comments… It’s really weird, I don’t get it.
Nicola Bozzi: Did you ever consider targeting brands in a more direct way?
Marguerite Kalhor: I think I would be more inclined to do that from the review page, rather than something attached to my name. They’re probably flooded with that kind of stuff and it might get lost. A friend of mine knows someone who wrote copy for Pringles ads. Those people are looking for ways to market themselves, because their ads are stupid, and my friend sent them my videos. But it didn’t happen.
Nicola Bozzi: You methodically attack these formats – the food review, the selfie, and so on. What are the motivations behind your interventions?
Marguerite Kalhor: The post media role-play one, with the big collages, those were photos of me that were taken over three different days. All the pictures were taken separately, I made a very crude phrase generator in processing and once the phrases were generated i choose some free-to-use images and tweaked them in Illustrator and Photoshop. It was like: “Look at all these fantasy worlds you can build with just a selfie!”. I think the overarching thing was there is nothing real about selfies really, they’re an extremely constructed image. The images in that series are exaggeratedly so.
Nicola Bozzi: I like the beauty tutorial in which you cover your face in a chroma-key mask that reminds me of some anti-facial recognition patterns I’ve seen online. Did you share those on social media? Why did you choose not to talk during those tutorials?
Marguerite Kalhor: I shared them live on Facebook. Beauty tutorials teach you how to use make-up, but there is no true way of using it in my opinion. Those videos are just kind of abstractions of those tutorials. There is a lot of critique of selfie as gender feminine and about the male gaze, but at the same time a woman taking a selfie is still front and center. And silent, because the image is silent. I think that’s why I didn’t include sound in it – but also it’s possible I just didn’t want to pick up the droning sound of my computer.
Nicola Bozzi: What about the #konzeptkunst selfie project? Why that tag specifically and the 90-degree angle?
Marguerite Kalhor: The first post, the one on my website, says “one picture of this every work day”. It was as soon as I started school. I thought I might do some research on the selfie, and I chose #konzeptkunst because the tag didn’t have that many posts when I first started, so I was trying to experiment with using the hashtag in other languages.
The 90-degree angle thing was because those photos were not taken on my phone, but on a camera that you can connect to the phone with bluetooth. And every time I was taking pics in portrait mode they would come out like this.
Nicola Bozzi: A bit like a glitch then? Does it have to do with the concept of discarding selfies versus using them as they come?
Marguerite Kalhor: I think when I started I took like ten and chose the best one, then got down to three.
Nicola Bozzi: How much were you willing to show about your real life? Or how constructed did you want your works to look?
Marguerite Kalhor: I wanted the Instagram account not to appear very constructed, the posts seem quite haphazard. Everything that doesn’t involve my face is just stuff that I think is interesting – like clip-art, pictures of garbage… But then I stopped going on there because of how curated people’s lives are on the platform, it kind of depressed me. That’s why I fled. I stopped posted selfies when i graduated, it was a chore and I wanted to move on to something else, start painting again. It’s important.
Nicola Bozzi: Do you share your paintings on social media as well?
Marguerite Kalhor: Not really, there’s lots of horror stories of artists getting their work ripped off by big brands and not winning any lawsuits. But on the other hand you need to post on social media to get visibility, so that’s kinda yucky.
Nicola Bozzi: What about the #blazeit account?
Marguerite Kalhor: That’s a Snapchat thing. Those blazeits were only sent to a select group of people and we sent them the each other. The thing about Snapchat is that you can only time-stamp it at that specific time, so we had to drop whatever we were doing and send it.
Nicola Bozzi: This is interesting, in terms of presence and performance. Also the fact that you keep it to a smaller audience. And what about the content of these collages?
Marguerite Kalhor: A couple people in my friend circle are straight-edge, so they are kind of mocking this California weed culture, they’re super goofy. But it’s also like the review thing, to try and keep one theme going within these small constraints. Snapchat has gone through a lot of updates, in order for these things to exist they have to introduce more and more features. You can search stuff and attach it to your photos as well. It’s kind of overwhelming and I haven’t done it a lot lately.
Nicola Bozzi: This is telling about the relationship with stereotypes, which seems to be a recurring theme in your work. Like the fact that you participate in these things, but it looks like you don’t wanna do it. How would you explain that?
Marguerite Kalhor: I think I’m just projecting that attitude onto the performance. I’m obviously doing it because I want to, but i guess I do it reluctantly. And it’s a totally good reason, I’m sure a lot of people’s reasoning about using social media is like “I might as well…” I don’t know, but I don’t like using it anymore, it’s funny.
Nicola Bozzi: So you’re basically manifesting the reluctance that people hide. Also because stereotypes are reductive, yet people indulge them. Do you feel social media push people to express themselves in a homogeneous way?
Marguerite Kalhor: For sure. When these media events happen there is like a cue card, an invisible cue card that they’re reading when they’re posting stuff or putting their two-cents in. It’s a weird time.
I think I stopped using social media – this is my argument – because when we were young we were watching garbage television, but now all people are talking about are shows they see on the internet. Everybody is having the same emotional investment in media events like murders – if there’s a media event like that that’s all people talk about even in real life. Even before these serial killer shows on Netflix happened we had this fascination. Social media kind of operates like a tabloid publication and I think it’s really lame.
Nicola Bozzi: So there is this instant reaction on social media. I’m interested in your focus on giving only the minimum amount of interaction – the short video, the live performance, the snapchat timestamp… Is there a message you want to give?
Marguerite Kalhor: I think it’s more of a “be careful” kinda thing, like “watch out!”. Everyone has different tolerance for different things, but being on it all the time pushed my anxiety way too much. The fear of missing out doesn’t really go away, it’s still there. At the same time I don’t need to look at it because someone else will talk to me about it. I don’t want to, but they’ll still do it. It’ll find a way.
Nicola Bozzi: I read that social media can have negative effects on mental health, but mostly on people who use them passively rather than posting. Do you have any comment on that?
Marguerite Kalhor: Well, that depends on the mental health and age group of the people who are being surveyed. I think people who used MySpace back in the day are probably jaded about that by now, they have families and stuff. It would be interesting to know who the research is about.
It’s nice to receive notifications, but there’s also a lot of stuff in the code that makes you show up on other people’s feeds more often, so the people who are passively posting and no one likes their stuff should keep that in mind and maybe they’ll feel better.
Nicola Bozzi: What was your relationship with branding in those art projects?
Marguerite Kalhor: I see it more as a performance, but the work was mostly for me to use the digital body as a medium. Stretching it in lots of different ways and incorporate it in different platforms, in print and video. It was pretty fun because you can do a lot with your face and stuff.
Nicola Bozzi: So the idea of embodiment is important in your work?
Marguerite Kalhor: Yeah.
Nicola Bozzi: What about the Trollies project?
Marguerite Kalhor: I took all those selfies I didn’t post and I wanted to find a use for them. I used my fake theory speak basically and attached a celebrity name to it, and I was just thinking of goofy things that a philosopher would say – they don’t actually mean anything, I was just using the language, and writing to the goofiest person I could think of to attach to these quotes. I did that within 24 hours, in a period while I was not sleeping, too. It was a way of combating my academic imposter syndrome.
Nicola Bozzi: There is a darkness to them too. Where did you share those?
Marguerite Kalhor: I posted them on Facebook and nobody really understood them.
Nicola Bozzi: I feel like Facebook is the most crisis-friendly platform.
Marguerite Kalhor: Twitter seems like that as well.
Nicola Bozzi: It’s true. But with Facebook it’s people you know, on Twitter it’s more like Kanye West.
Marguerite Kalhor: He’s obviously having a crisis! This week I was looking at Twitter and a lot of the people who were pretty cynical were trying to be a little more sincere. Which is cool. Twitter is cool because as long as you don’t threaten people they don’t block you, so you’re able to follow these really bizarre conversations between an anarchist, a socialist and an alt-right person, and they’re all sub-tweeting each other and it’s really funny. And you can just lurk.
Nicola Bozzi: Also the internet completely destroys all non verbal communication…
Marguerite Kalhor: It gives you a false sense of security, but also all that shit is documented. So I don’t wanna revisit that ever.
Nicola Bozzi: So you don’t want to do any more of these projects?
Marguerite Kalhor: Actually I have this account called GamerBabe. I only did one video, but I wanna make more because there’s lot of games I wanna make conspiracy theories about. I posted it on reddit/gaming and everybody was convinced it wasn’t satire and it was real.
Nicola Bozzi: What kind of feedback did you get?
Marguerite Kalhor: That I was a dumbass and I don’t know anything. But the whole thing was like critiquing game bros. I wanna do more of that. I think I just got burnt out from grad school, so I wanted to do more stuff besides this internet stuff. I think everyone needs a bit of a break, especially when you’re not making money off that.
Nicola Bozzi: So what would you do going forward, do you feel there is any element that perhaps can be used to criticise this culture you’ve been describing? How would you go further?
Marguerite Kalhor: I think I would have to start from scratch, not necessarily to deactivate everything, but to start anew. Maybe plan posts better. I would have to jump back in, find out what people are doing and find ways to comment on what they’re doing at this point in time. Maybe improve the production quality of the resulting images and videos might be interesting. Be more on top of stuff.
Nicola Bozzi: Also more of an effort to make them public and distribute them or still keep them intimate?
Marguerite Kalhor: I have a couple secret accounts. Maybe just becoming more anonymous, but more willing to share the information I’m putting out, and make that information super constructed too.
Nicola Bozzi: So more tactical?
Marguerite Kalhor: Yeah.