Amalia Ulman Talks to Zoe Koke



“Where do we get the energy to fight, where are the flowers?” is a part of the spoken voiceover for Amalia Ulman’s Powerpoint presentation, for her most recent performance, Privilege. I am feeling spacey from a 60 hour work week and somewhat hormonal when I meet Amalia Ulman. It all seems fitting given that our conversation quickly becomes a discussion of class, labour, feminism, female hormones and art making as spiritual. She is staying at Hotel Le Crystal in downtown Montreal. There is a cute stout metallic stairwell in the lobby and a big silly chandelier. The interior is reminiscent of the chilly corporate-chic aesthetic that permeates Ulman’s work, which takes many forms online and off, but which is perhaps best known in the form of her Instagram performance Excellences and Perfections.

In a daze in the lobby, I think about how I wanted to talk to Ulman, not because I wanted to talk art, but mostly because I wondered how she exists outside of her perplexing Instagram presence. Her work is constantly turning into itself to reflect poignantly on the construction of identity and the way aesthetics, class, gender and politics intersect. Destabilizing the viewer’s expectations may be at the centre of what I know of Ulman’s practice, where lines are blurred and extremes are inhabited so as to comment on the power of aesthetics and power in general. Her work is a mix of things that make me feel nervous, but changed. Morbid romantic aesthetic—succinct, accessible, yet poetic. She even makes clunky symbols, tacky fonts and Powerpoint both eerie and elegant. I am seduced. But I am more so disarmed and in awe of how her work speaks so directly to many of my own anxieties around being a woman and an artist in 2016. Our conversation is no different.

Her latest performance, Privilege, revolves around a staged progressing pregnancy and an at times sick and exhausted protagonist who occupies a greyish office space with her pet pigeon. The scenes, videos, cartoons, images and installation work blend meticulous elements of silent cinema, with creepy beautiful performances. Closing elevator doors feature heavily, as does melancholic singing. Essentially, the feed plays out like the storyboard for a one-woman Italian futurist film staged in an office tower. She discusses the project as a departure from her first Instagram performance wherein she became characters (inside herself) that were more distanced from the art world. Now she is creating a more direct caricature of herself. In saying so, she reminds me that she was saddened when her previous performance was taken as critique of different lifestyles, her work is always about her own insecurities and desires, she explores what she is attracted to, so to better understand why.

“The elections really influenced this performance because ideas became very polarized…the culture industry, The New Yorker, Hillary Clinton on one side and then you have white trash and Trump on the other, but extremes are always close to each other. So my character started becoming this lady that tries to understand memes but because of the office look and all these references to labour in office buildings it looks conservative as well, so it’s this thin line, am I the left wing politician who is trying to be closer to the youth in America, or am I actually a conservative? Because it looks the same in the end. So it was interesting to play around with all of this. And something I still have in mind a lot when I work is class, and that’s one of the biggest problems in America right now.”

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Reputation @ New Galerie Paris photos: Courtesy of the artist and New Galerie Paris

“There’s this very thin line between left and right and good and wrong, which doesn’t exist. For example, I was tapping into a lot of my own insecurities when it comes to class, or things that I was into when I was a teenager, just to distance myself from my background, all these stories about passing… ‘No, I’m not like all this shit that’s around me, because I am into reading books, and I want to go to college…’, I am thinking about why we do that, why do you need to identify yourself with aesthetics to legitimize what you’re doing? And that’s why I was doing all these copies of The New Yorker cartoons, which are very specific waspy New York, and references to Whit Stillman, and it’s not a critique of what I don’t like, it’s more like, why do I like these things when they have nothing to do with my background, why am I attached to these types of aesthetics, why do they matter to me?”

Ulman has been experimenting with female hormones for a year as part of this work. “I’m trying to understand what the role of testosterone is in labour-based art practices (the research, the production) and how this behaviour compares to how a woman would want to make art.” She mentions that her perspective on time and deadlines changed when she started taking hormones. I laughed, adding that I must be very estrogen-dominant. “When you’re estrogen-dominant, you’re like, I don’t care. At the beginning, it was very different, it was crazy, everything was so abstract and there was this calmness.” She explains that she thinks that it’s likely that many women feel pressured and constrained by existing in a system which is at odds with how our bodies function. We agree that the functioning of women’s bodies is very different and that this truly isn’t acknowledged in a meaningful way in our society, or under the current capitalist guise of feminism, where women are expected to function like men.


Corporate style photos: Courtesy of the artist

Ulman rejects the encouraged modes of labour in the art world. She dislikes artworks loosely made about the economy that require a lot of explanation (“that’s not art, that’s some weird experiment”). I exhale. She described moving away from the clinical linear step-by-step research-to-production formula touted by the art world and MFA programs everywhere. “I make art when I feel like making art, it just comes out of me when it has to, and otherwise it just shouldn’t.” She explains to me that her practice is becoming more connected with the spiritual/metaphysical, she trusts her visions to guide her work. She researches all the time, but not in the way she was taught in art school. She describes art as “good looking shit that is magical.” “Art is this thing that works and it doesn’t need to explain itself, it’s the thing that you experience when you see and feel it, it’s not the whole discourse next to it.” My heart swells when she adds, “I feel that conceptual art was kind of damaging to all of this. Having all of these texts, having to explain everything, and then it became very much about class, which sucks.” She tells me she got a studio for the first time and realized it didn’t match her mode of working. Our conversation seems to lift bricks from my subconscious.

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Labour Dance @ Arcadia Missa London photos: Courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa

Next, she tells me about how tired she is of the culture industry playing blind to class. “Class is still a tricky thing. I was in Paris having a meeting at this huge institution and we were talking about a lot of things, and everything was fine, and he was talking about race, all these topics, race and gender, and as soon as I mentioned class, and said, that I wished it was more mixed because 99% of the art world comes from a very wealthy background, which gives you a very limited perspective on the world, he was like, ‘No, not everyone…’ and at some point, he was like, ‘Artists are usually very poor, their parents are rich’, and I was like, ‘Duh, that’s what I am talking about!’ I just couldn’t believe it. It’s like, yeah, that’s the point, if something bad happens they can go back to their house. If you’re poor, you can’t. When you’re really poor, something bad happens to you, you just die. And that’s it.” Ulman has no problem discussing the very things that many entwined in the art economy are either too afraid or too privileged to care how to address.

We share frustration about how rich people float luxuriously throughout the art world, (“smoking pot and wearing rags”): “Rich people are eccentric and do fun stuff, yes, we know this! But that doesn’t mean they’re good artists.” (More bricks lift) “And if you have no idea and you open up these magazines, you’re just like, wow, these people are amazing, how could they do this, I wish I could do this, yeah, well, duh. That’s the thing. You either have talent, or you have time. It’s the same thing. If you don’t have talent but you have time, it’s like having a digital camera, before you had to be a really good photographer to take the one picture, now it’s like, you can take 5000 and choose one and you know, you might get there.”

Her recent project in Paris, Reputation, centres around the concept of “passing” in the art world, and her pet pigeon Bob is the focus. “The title of this show is ‘Reputation’ because it’s about Bob and he’s supposed to be this disgusting pigeon who becomes an art object and starts to become valued and accepted and liked and everything’s suddenly cool for the pigeon. That’s why the title is ‘Reputation,’ because for someone like that, for someone who has no ground, solid ground to stand on, they can’t fuck up, there’s always one thing they can say and they are out of the group… I think that’s part of not being privileged, you don’t have the benefit of the doubt, you don’t have chances to fuck up.”

I ask Amalia about how she feels it differs to be a woman in the art industry. She recounts a dark tale of being offered nearly ten times less money than her male contemporaries for a project at MOCA. “I remember receiving the email, and I didn’t take the money. I just remember weeping, because I knew that my project wasn’t valued the same. There are many frustrating things like that, such as going to a meeting for a famous art magazine and being sexually harassed when you were there for a work meeting, I doubt that happens as much to men. I wouldn’t want to say that it’s different, but there are so many things that have happened that I can’t say it’s the same.” She describes collectors she has worked with as mostly douchebag sugar daddy types, the good ones with real interest in the work being great but few and far between. “The system is so fucked up, that when a woman is in a position of power, more often than not, they’re pretty shitty to women, because they’re so terrified of losing their position, because it’s so hard.” Lastly, we discuss the need for mentorship and collaboration amongst women. She expresses gratitude for her gallery Arcadia Missa (London) which she describes as a safe and supportive place for women, and her gallerist as a true friend whom she can also expect to pay her on time. “They make connections where women are too shy to connect, basically. It’s great because that’s needed. There are a lot of women who tend to stay in their worlds and it takes a lot to push them to collaborate.”



Privilege, Courtesy of the artist

She paints an image of the athletic club that her and her boyfriend go to. “We always talk about the difference between his locker room and my locker room. His locker room sounds so fun. All these men, laughing and watching the game. And my locker room is all these women just sitting there staring in the mirror, thinking, or reading a book. I’m like, well that’s how it is, that explains how society works. Women are a thing to themselves and men are interacting with each other.” She then describes that her boyfriend often plays basketball with strangers at the park and we agree that casual communal connections with women are more of an undertaking, without suspicion or competitive energy. “A lot of women feel comfortable hanging out with men because there are not all these complications. To take the effort to go through that, it’s really important, because for me at the beginning, I was naive enough to be like, I like men better, I like guys, I am bro, but like, really? Are you really, or are you just insecure and men validate you more because they probably want to fuck you and that feels nice to be looked at like that. That’s the case with a lot of girls. To learn from and listen to women, it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s encouraged.”

The personal significance of our conversation is difficult for me to distill especially in the wake of Trump’s ascent to presidency, which condones silencing and the rejection of personal experience. It’s rare to meet someone embedded in the art market (let alone one with the positioning of Ulman) who is interested in laying bare the underbelly of sexism, classism and racism that structures the industry that also supports her. 

The privileged people at the core of the art world can remain lackadaisical about their social positioning because they will never have much to fight for or against. But that’s the thing about Amalia Ulman, she doesn’t seem to make art works that speak about the world to then be void of care for the world. In the culture industry, where apathy is generally synonymous with coolness, and where exploitation and exclusion are the norm, she is interested in caring; which leaves me to question—am I, and are you?