on October 4, Instagram, along with its owner, Facebook, broke down. For most of the day, no one had access to it, and my Twitter feed was full of artists recording life’s sweet liberties without the app, which has become the art world’s platform of choice since its launch in 2012.
I immediately thought of the revolution of Instagram as sort of hitch— to use curator and writer Legacy Russell’s word — and hopefully a productive word. “We are changing course,” Russell writes in her book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, “when faced with systems that refuse to perform.”
For Russell, a failure can refer to a technological failure, such as a computer virus or a blackout, as well as: “glitched bodies,” which do not fit into white supremacist, patriarchal, and heterosexist ideals of how a person should look, think, and behave. Her book highlights the work of gender-binary-challenging artists of color, many of them trans and queer, who explore the interconnectedness of the digital and the “real”, and also challenge their hegemony. Russell adds, “Glitched bodies are a threat to the social order. Range full and huge, they cannot be programmed.”
I am a queer feminist artist active on Instagram, and tired of struggling with being censored there. Many of my peers depend on Instagram for their livelihood. Many use it for community building, which can also be life-sustaining. Like many queer, feminist, trans, POC, fat, disabled, and sex worker artists, I use Instagram constructively, but struggle with the constant censorship of my work by the platform. From the perspective of algorithms and content moderators, the bodies I depict in my paintings are only readable as ‘inappropriate’ – read: pornographic. These bodies do not feed the capitalist machine of essential ‘female’ bodies as consumer goods – as sales agents. They are queer, trans, old, fat, disabled, multiracial and often female identified. They have saggy breasts, nipples that tell stories, asymmetrical parts, wrinkled arms, scars from surgery and body modifications, synthetic hormones that make it all unreadable for the binary-anchored gender system.
If that all sounds vague, let me give you a concrete example: I recently posted to Instagram a photo of artist Laura Aguilar, who died in 2018, to mark the appearance of her highly anticipated traveling retrospective at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York. The image shows Aguilar and another woman naked, from a distance, in a desert landscape as Aguilar lifts the other person into the air. The post was deleted, so I’ve reposted it. This went on eleven times.
The image only marginally violates Instagram’s “Community Guidelines”, which states “[F]or various reasons, we do not allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally created content that shows intercourse, genitalia, and close-ups of completely naked buttocks. It also contains some photos of female nipples, but photos in the context of breastfeeding, childbirth and afterbirth, health-related situations (e.g. post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or a protest action are allowed.” The genitals of the women are not clearly visible. in the photo of Aguilar and their nipples merging with the landscape There was nothing graphic or even overtly sexual here, there was just Aguilar’s beautiful fat Latina lesbian body in a desert landscape.
However, Instagram’s policy makes an exception for nudity in painting and sculpture, essentially declaring that photography is not a true art form. After the 11th time I posted the work, my own account was threatened with deletion.
This kind of censorship does not exist in a digital vacuum. It took Aguilar decades to gain recognition for her work, which continues to be undervalued, probably because of subtle and entrenched racism, homophobia, fat phobia and misogyny — prejudices that existed long before social media.
the digital world, Russell notes, is not separate from “real life.” It’s one and the same, with the same white supremacist violence, the same heteronormative, patriarchal aesthetic norms, the same erasure of marginalized bodies and voices.
In uncanny timing, on the same day of the Facebook outage this week, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee and now whistleblower, revealed her breakdown of the ways Facebook encourages hate and misinformation on their platforms. Since then, social justice groups have taken steps to hold Facebook accountable. Kairos, a tech-focused racial justice group, is organizing a nationwide boycott of Facebook on Nov. 10. Boycott demands include the impeachment of Mark Zuckerberg as CEO and a review of the content moderation policy. Free Press, a media and technology activism and advocacy group, is calling on Congress to pass legislation that would regulate Facebook with the aim of minimizing hate speech, misinformation and discriminatory algorithmic practices.
I believe that as artists, we should participate in activist action against Facebook so that as new possibilities are conceived, our concerns about art censorship are not swept under the rug. The erasure of certain types of work by the platform—not just Aguilar, but Robert Andy Coombs’ photographs, Lena Chen’s performances, and Alannah Farrell’s paintings, to name a few—has the net effect of creating and displaying that work. It erases art that is confrontational, expresses points of view outside the mainstream, while promoting art that is decorative and/or unprovoking, that looks good when scrolled past, but doesn’t take you long.
We need to realize that, with the art world so dependent on it, Instagram has far more power than it needs to dictate the present and future of art and culture. Many of us have said that if there was an alternative to Instagram for the art world, we would use it. But no other app like it exists, and with the way larger tech companies are acquiring potential competitors, it seems almost unlikely that there will be one.
Russell sees a failure as a kind of ‘joyful failure’, and if this failure makes us more aware of these problems and prompts us to act, then it has been productive. As we topple monuments and museums acquire more works by women and people of color, we also need to think about how we can reshape the digital realm and the ways in which certain artists, especially LGBTQIA+ artists, are being marginalized there. Culture is inextricably linked to the virtual, just like our cultural future. If we don’t care about digital freedom and equality on Instagram, we won’t get it anywhere else.
Social media can be a refuge, creative community and self-determination. It can support the livelihood of artists. It’s worth fighting for. We must hold these huge corporations accountable for their abuse of power and continue to find ways to make room for ourselves, for our honest and courageous work. Spaces to celebrate and to survive.