Artists Surviving Chaotic Capitalism - Interviewing artist Amalia Ulman

Photo: Amalia Ulman, "Privilege" series, 2016

Photo: Amalia Ulman, "Privilege" series, 2016

Amalia Ulman is an Argentinian-born, Spanish-raised artist based in Los Angeles whose works explore contemporary desire and anxiety, often utilizing social networks as a medium. Her performances, videos, and photography have been shown at the New Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Rockbund Museum, among others. Her series “Excellences and Perfections” has been called “the first Instagram masterpiece” and will be the subject of a new book forthcoming from Prestel in spring 2018. Here, she shares her candid perspectives on the brand-artist relationship, including her 2015 collaboration with Gucci during her performance “Privilege.”

Why did you decide to work with Gucci, and what was that collaboration like?

For my performance “Privilege,” I was already thinking to use the language of brand-sponsorship, ie. including fashion photo shoots and brand endorsements in the posts, and blurring the line between the real and fake ones. So when Gucci approached me, it was really good timing and it made sense because it was going to be included in the “actual” work, and it got really confusing. People thought the other ones were real or Gucci was fake. (Laughs)

Gucci was the easiest to work with because they give you guidelines that were very loose in comparison with other brands—they said, “just use the logo” or something like that. And that leaves you a lot of space to be creative. To be honest, I have more failed than successful relationships with brands.

Photo: Amalia Ulman, Gucci collaboration for "Privilege" series 2016

Photo: Amalia Ulman, Gucci collaboration for "Privilege" series 2016

Can you describe some of the “failed” attempts?

At the end of “Privilege” I was approached by Chanel and I thought that would be great—but right when the work was done, it fell through. It was a combination of things—the elections happened, and I think they felt like, “what do we do now” [with these art works]. They didn’t publish any of the series of works they were asking artists to do, and they didn’t pay me anything for my completed work. So because I had already finished it, I posted it myself.

At the beginning, “Privilege” [a social media performance riffing on consumption and lifestyle, featuring a fictional pregnancy] was actually going to be funded by Ebay, which seemed great—they were going to give me a lot of money, but the minute the pregnancy topic was introduced, it was too taboo, and everything ended. It’s ironic because the previous artist in the series had faked his own death and sold all his possessions on eBay—but that’s OK to do, and being pregnant is not? I stopped trusting brands after that. They promise a lot, and even though they know your work, they pull out at the last minute when they realize you are treating topics that they consider off-limits (in my case, it’s generally class-related issues). They expect you to be super professional on your side, but then they’re unprofessional on their side—they can decline the project with almost no notice, or compensation, or anything. 

What do you think made Gucci such a good working relationship?

For a brand to be able to work with an artist like this, they have to not expect the artist to do something that is not art. That’s your risk when working with an artist. It could be a flop, or it could be amazing. Either way, you still need to pay them, and then you decide whether you want to use it or not.

It’s just like the risk for a curator or anyone commissioning new work—the artists are always developing, changing, getting new ideas. You need to allow the space for the artist to breathe instead of trying enforce endless guidelines. If you’re already telling them what font to use, what color scheme, what content, you’re not allowing anything else for the artist to do. It’s all finished.

In your works, you’re often playing with the notion of “personal branding” or sponsored content as a way to succeed (or even survive) in an attention economy. Are you ever concerned with the unequal power dynamic between brands and artists, who may be in some cases be collaborating less out of choice, than by necessity?

About a month ago, this brand approached me to do a big installation in New York. It had a huge budget. They had seen and liked my installations, but I kind of modified my work for them: with the funds I’d be able to produce a movie I’m working on. Then they still told me they needed something more digestible. At first I was really pissed off, but in the end, I was so glad it didn’t happen because it would have compromised my work.

That’s the risky thing with brands. Some artists have wealthy backgrounds and can decide freely what to do, but there’s a lot of artists who struggle to pay their rent and suffer from poverty stress. Then you get a brand that says, “I’ll give you 50,000 dollars to do this”—or maybe you’re really young, so it’s one thousand dollars—and you think, “Oh my god, yes!” But because these brands have even more exposure than any kind of gallery, the project may have even more visibility than things you’re proud of. It’s because of the inequality already inherent in the art world, especially in a place like the US where everybody’s just trying to save their ass and it’s a state of wild, chaotic capitalism. It’s part of a bigger problem, which is that there are really no grants to make art, to do research, to take time to develop an idea.

Working with brands is always going to be tricky, but it’s because of this inequality that’s already there.