interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets

Amalia Ulman, Profit decay, 2012
Courtesy of the artist

Hans Ulrich Obrist/Simon Castets [HUO/SC]: What was your epiphany? How did art come to you or how did you come to art?


Amalia Ulman [AU]: I’ve experienced religious and philosophical epiphanies, never an artistic one. I’ve always done the same things since I was little… although a digital camera and the Internet, during adolescence, prevented a dreary and frustrated life as a terrible scientist.


HUO/SC: Who are your heroes?


AU: I had to think about this for a while, which means that I obviously have none. I don’t believe in heroes because that’s not the way I think or understand life. I’m an atheist and don’t look up to anything. I’m a true believer that all humans have a shitty existence, despite whatever makes them exceptional or a “cult” figure. My hero would have to be a divine creature, but that’s impossible as I’m not a believer. Hero is a word that promotes authority, distinction and fanaticism: I don’t like that. I’ve appreciated and admired every single person that I’ve encountered throughout my life, despite the tears.

HUO/SC: I understand your resistance to the notion of the hero but can you talk more about your influences?


AU: Okay, some things I enjoy: Colette, Chopin, The Economist, Kusturica and Whit Stilman. Insomnia, artificially aided insomnia, yerba mate, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brother’s Memorabilia. Homes & Gardens, french manicures and cashmere sweaters. Poundlands, Euro Stores, Dollar Stores. Maybe Ervin Nyiregyházi; definitely: Carla Bruni.


HUO/SC: What role does the studio play or is your practice post-studio?


AU: Good question. I once got to a point of borderline-homelessness when I sold most of what I owned and threw the rest away. I had no books and used long London bus rides as an office. I researched on the go and produced on the spot. After that, I came to the conclusion that even if I really wanted to focus on my practice above all other things, I had to do it in a calm and unhurried manner because my health was at risk. That’s why I decided to move back to my hometown to make a studio in my flat here, in Cimadevilla (Gijon, Spain). I used to be a great advocate of online documentation being more relevant than physicality…but out of necessity. No means to really produce what I had in mind translated into quickly made, disposable artworks. Now my practice has become more object based. Firstly, I cannot decorate offices with something other than an object. Secondly, I want to address the physical experience of my artworks. Once, at the Pompidou in Paris, I experienced this piece by Beuys: a room covered in felt with a piano. Everything, from the atmosphere to the smell, was absolutely marvellous and a total slap in the face. The possibility of having a house of my own and studio of my own is also the possibility of having a world of my own, a mental space to keep my own routine and to think and meditate when and how I want to. Basically: freedom. Building a home is important.


HUO/SC: What are you working on now? What are your next shows?


AU: I’m working on a brand new body of work, something I expect to be the culmination of a year long transitional period. Now that I’ve settled down, I’m ready for another essay on informal economies and imported goods as well as on artworks inspired by daily visits to euro-stores. Also, I’m trying to study and educate myself enough to be able to liven up dinner parties with interesting facts.


HUO/SC: Do you do projects outside the museum and gallery space?


AU: I guess I do. My personal life is too intertwined with my professional life to be able to make a distinction. I like mixing everything up without placing any boundaries, which gives enough space for the formulation of extra-institutional activities.


HUO/SC: Where does your catalogue raisonné begin? What is the first piece you no longer considered student work?


AU: I can’t pick only one because I usually work in series and relate major changes in my art practice to certain feelings and memories. The first major change was to balance the intimate, autobiographical elements of an artwork with its ability to be part of a discourse. Art school encouraged everyone to eliminate any traces of humanism or subjectivity in favor of clinical theory-based conceptual artworks, which led to lots of perspex and references to Benjamin, Barthes & co. Combining this with a bit of cheesy, pre-artschool naiveté was a move that I consider one of my first adult decisions towards art-making. That, and not procrastinating ever again.


HUO/SC: Among the eight artists we invited to participate in our panel at the DLD Conference introducing the 89plus project, your presence on social networks was the most discussed. A lot of people seemed to already know you, even though you had never met. How would you describe your relationship to online socialization?


AU: I’m too sincere when it comes to sharing my life with people. Total transparency. That’s why I never google myself. My biggest nightmare would be,  à la Clockwork Orange, to be forced, eyes wide open, to witness the search results. My extroverted relationship with the web comes from being bored and isolated. I use the Internet in the same way I wrote to penpals and bought specialized magazines when I was younger. Now, all my activity is an exaggerated residue of that. I take selfies candidly and almost unconsciously. That’s why I would never think of these images as something purposely fabricated. I always loved diaries and now I encounter myself without the time to write one. This means that all the images I upload are deeply personal. Global access to these images is an error derived from innocence; as I basically upload more than I see, produce more than I appropriate and stream more than I watch. Because I only look at a few things when I’m online, I have this idea that my material goes to a black hole when I upload them. This intensified with the iPhone: click click, to the vault, click click, to the vault. I never thought of universality, public exposure or exhibitionism. If I did, everything would be different. Now I’m sort of scared, but I guess it’s too late to back off.


HUO/SC: What are your favorite social networks and why?


AU: Twitter and Instagram. I really like how these networks meld groups of people together; it’s very democratic. I love how you can interact directly with celebrities via Twitter and how the explore section in Instagram gives you the chance to experience mainstream trends, as well as to discover non-western celebrities or Korean girls who document their plastic surgeries in between lots of pictures of flowers, cupcakes and teddybears. Facebook is too cliquey to be interesting. Do you know when you print something and it comes out wrong but you keep it in a drawer to scribble and take notes? That drawer is my Facebook. And that’s what it makes it so sincere and raw.


HUO/SC: What is your favorite brand? Is your consumption influenced by the potential ripple effects of its online visibility?


AU: I don’t really have a favorite brand, but I do have a thing for Miyake, which might be a post-Saint Martins thing. When I need to relax I do yoga or look for cheap Issey Miyake garments. I used to make most of my clothes and I believe in outfits more than in garments or labels; but it’s true that when someone likes what I’m wearing, I can’t help but namedrop the designer and wink—which might be a terribly lower class thing to do.


HUO/SC: How do you think that the redundancy through algorithms will affect the Internet’s apparent open-endedness?


AU: It will affect it badly. I’m still trying to figure out how to fix the recommendations in my YouTube. They have suddenly changed and now only Bjork and David Bowie come up because I watched all their videos one very boring afternoon. It’s like being trapped in the past and not being able to be forgiven for one’s mistakes.My YouTube is a purgatory at the moment.


HUO/SC: Where do artists rank on the social scale and what role does their physical appearance play? Can an artist look rich and be taken seriously? How do you choose your own clothes?


AU: Artists are creatures that are generally broke but relate to the wealthiest people. Art is at the very top of the pyramid of needs. The whole of society needs art indirectly (without owning it) because it’s a form of creative thinking. But who “needs” to own art? Only those who already have everything else. Appearance might be important because there’s lots of seduction involved. Most of the artists I know are attractive and many of them look rich. But artists can look however they want, and that’s an amazing privilege. I choose my own clothes depending on my mood. I like to match the work I’m doing and I love role-playing, so it’s a vicious circle.I’m playing around with preppy aesthetics now, so I’m dying my hair lighter and wearing my pink shirt tucked into my white jeans.

Amalia Ulman, app, 2011
Courtesy of the artist

HUO/SC: Can you tell us more about projects you have not yet been able to realize? Utopias? Dreams? Censored projects? Or as Doris Lessing says,  self-censored projects that you did not dare to do? Projects that were too expensive to realize? Too big or too small to be realized? Forgotten projects? The unbuilt roads of Amalia Ulman…


AU: I have a few. Some of them are more abstract and improbable, involving aqua-parks, macro-parties, body modification, orgies or large-scale public sculptures. I have two PDFs on my desktop for two, plausible and viable, projects that are giving me a hard time in terms of production: a Smartphone App and a group exhibition of flower paintings that I’m curating. I wish I were more of the dreamy type. I guess it’s part of my Capricorn nature to only sign on to a project that I know I will be capable of executing. I tend to dream big, but I never dream impossible. I think Pisces and Virgos are more into that. I love listening to them and stealing their ideas. Ludwig II of Bavaria was a Virgo. My utopia is to involve myself in politics more deeply and to create a system where shelter and basic needs are covered for everyone. Finally, a project to expensive to realize is to get plastic surgery, in the line of Orlan, but just to be more beautiful, without going back to normal. A proposal I thankfully never dared to approach an institution with.


HUO/SC: Your favourite color?


AU: I go through phases. Sometimes I go through the grey and yellow phase, when I make artwork and dress in those colors. Now I’m in the beige and blue phase. I hate green. I don’t like nature much because of its  greenness (and that’s why I like the snow). I think I had a  miserable  time in high school because I’d wear this big green coat, without yet knowing that I despised that  shade of chartreuse. Also, I “suffer” from  synaesthesia, which makes me quite passionate about all this, I think.


HUO/SC: Do you go to the movies?


AU: I do, I go by myself as an escape. I love crying at endings.


HUO/SC: What kind of music do you mostly listen to?


AU: I like piano music. Romantics like Chopin, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. I tend to have migraines and this is a fact that forces me to filter down many things. No  Baroque  clavichord for me. Nirvana, Sublime and Elliot Smith remind me of home, mom and dad. I also like very silly sounding music and enjoy really fast techno since I’m little. For years, I danced insomnia away.


HUO/SC: What are your favourite museums?


AU: The Tate makes me anxious while the Centre Pompidou makes me feel good and excited about contemporary art. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is awesome. The ones in New York… I don’t know because I could never afford them. I like the Impressionists, so I guess I like the d’Orsay. Oh, I feel  embarrassed that I haven’t been to that many museums. I like the Casa Natal de Jovellanos and the Evaristo Valle Museum (both here, in Asturias).


HUO/SC: What was your first museum visit as a child?


AU: I can’t remember the museum, but my mother says it was a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. So I was confronted with lots of male nudes as beautiful subjects from a very young age—although it took me a long while to  recognize  them as such.


HUO/SC: Can you tell us about your first gallery show at age sixteen?


AU: No, it’s embarrassing. I can tell about my third show, when I was eighteen but that’s boring, so nevermind.


HUO/SC: What was your experience of the DLD conference?


AU: Confusing at a personal level, painful at a physical one. Encouraging work-wise. Psychologically reinforcing. I liked the smoothies and the female sax-players.


HUO/SC: You talked about being mostly influenced by your contemporaries. Do you see generational creative patterns?


AU: Yes, and it is very exciting.


HUO/SC: What is dirty gentrification?


AU: Gentrification is the swirl on the foam of a latte. It is kicking people out of their houses by raising the price of real estate and opening cupcake shops. It is the act of fetishizing poverty.


HUO/SC: If your work could be described by keywords what would they be?


AU: #tagsforlikes #instacool #picoftheday #cute #violent #pretty #tagstagram


HUO/SC: What is your biggest work?


AU: Not being in a mental home. Collaborating with talented contemporaries.


HUO/SC: What is your smallest work?


AU: Solo shows.


HUO/SC: Do you have pseudonyms?


AU: My real name has become one.


HUO/SC: What prompted your family’s move from Argentina? Do you still feel connected to the country?


AU: Economic crisis. I weirdly do.


HUO/SC: What will change everything?


AU: War. Maternity.


HUO/SC: What is your plan for the next years?


AU: Continue. (and maybe getting Korean plastic surgery)


HUO/SC: What role do books play for you in the digital age?


AU: I lied to myself when I defended eBooks: a book you can hug is a book you can love.


HUO/SC: What role does chance play?


AU: I mostly leave everything to chance. I’m a shit planner. Don’t ever let me organize a dinner party! That’s one of the reasons I work non-stop, because I don’t trust my planning: whatever happens, happens and I’d better be prepared. My life is a sequence of the most random, unplanned, extravagant and unexpected events.


HUO/SC: Do you believe in the horoscope?


AU: I don’t but it totally works. What are your star sign Simon and  Hans Ulrich? Are you two compatible workmates?



Hans  Ulrich Obrist wrote:

I am gemini birthday may 21st. Simon what’s your sign

Simon Castets wrote:

Pisces march 19

OMG HK bday


HUO/SC: What is your new work that you created in March 2013-03-07?


AU: In March 2013-03-07 I created the first item from a series of limited editions. A lingerie set consisting on a white brief, a white tank top and white headband, which from top to bottom states, in Swarovski crystals: upper, middle, lower. Social Stratification Lingerie Set (provisional working title).


HUO/SC: Your work is concerned with the effects of the Spanish welfare system on youth. How do you think it affects its creativity, and what is your personal take on it?


AU: The Spanish welfare system was closely related to a socialist notion of equality, which in theory had the best prospects but in practice turned out very unsatisfactory. This made everything extreme in its blandness by censoring eccentricities and punishing overachievements in a fear of disruption. A generalized passiveness drowned out talent and creativity. I believe in equality but also believe that differences should be celebrated.


HUO/SC: Could you describe the work you presented at HQ, Zürich?


AU: I was interested in repetition and accumulation [as a stance??] against purity and minimalism; as a metaphor for the binary good/bad taste or rich/poor aesthetics. When I was an otaku in high school, I’d draw all these eyes, just because they were the easiest and most gratifying part to draw. There was this sense of instant pleasure over effort, this notion of accumulation against a solid final satisfaction. That’s why I decided to make references to all these teenage class differentiators, as well as to stickers, as referential marks of status.


HUO/SC: How did the “Weeping Image” work come about?


AU: Weeping Mountain was the first idea I materialized after a two year pause. That was definitely a big step for me. It started an all-or-nothing way of working where everything was thrown away after being documented. The work had a physical life-span of thirty minutes and a digital life-span of, by now, three years. Aside from that, the piece was pure juvenilia, post-internet and a very big etcetera.

I’m really fond of it but never liked it completely, now I realize it has some green in it … that might be it!  

Amalia Ulman, Sketches 1, 2012
Courtesy of the artist

HUO/SC: Your show at Galeria Adriana Suarez ironically commented on the gallery’s target customers. How do you think the gallery benefited from that and how do you think it speaks to the potential of institutional critique?


AU: I don’t think they ever knew it. The show was proper; I looked neat during the private view and posed with some children in front of my paintings. Everything was pretty legit. I don’t like irony or exaggerated mockery. I really did paint while doing Gwyneth Paltrow’s fast and I took inspiration from interior design books I already had. I think I’m too empathic to be cynical. I can’t make a strong critique without thinking about the reasons that led to the thing I’m criticizing.


HUO/SC: Are you a Situationist?


AU: That’s like kind of related to Sartre, no? I’m more on Simone’s side, she’s way cuter. There is analysis and critique in my work, but I wouldn’t say I’m a Situationist. If I go to the Wikipedia page, I can’t do more than pick and choose. Maybe it is a generational thing. At this point, I only want to use images and visuals that I genuinely love. I hate working from irony and mockery. For example, if I’ve used the logos of Avene and Lancôme in a recent painting, it’s because I love to line up my Avene products to stare at them and because I’m personally attached to Lancôme. I want to answer the question: “why do I feel so attached to these products?” from sincerity. I aim to shed light on consumerism and gender problematics while being true to myself—instead of giving a lecture and being cynical. I’m not influenced so deeply by those around me, by situations and places. They can nurture me, but they don’t alter me. The only thing that still influences me is love and attraction. I have to admit that I don’t really pay that much attention to someone unless I’d feel sexually attracted to him/her. Thank god I’m sort of sapiosexual.


HUO/SC: The 20th century is the century of the collage. Is the 21st century the century of the collage?


AU: I have many friends who work brilliantly in this field. Personally, I don’t do many collages. I don’t think I’m very talented when it comes to assembling stolen images. I have a weird necessity to touch everything/create everything from scratch.


HUO/SC: Are you a doodler?


AU: I’ve never sketched anything. I do all tests in my head: from gluing to varnishing.  I always materialize my thoughts with minor changes, and never start with something unless I have a perfectly detailed 3D mental image of it. This is a technique that arouse from a need to be  resourceful.


HUO/SC: How is your iPhone app project coming together?


AU: Badly. It’s hard to find an investor when there would be no revenue. The app is in itself non-commercial and anti-capitalist in it’s structure. When you write with water on hot ceramic, it evaporates. Well, this application functions on the same premises. It’s a confessional Twitter-like app. As an anonymous user you could type something, publish it and see it disappear before your eyes. The front page would be this constant flow of thoughts, just for the sake of it: no feedback, no accounts, no usernames and no archive. I think it’d be a great way to analyze human nature and how cultural capital and feedback as currency keep social platforms  afloat. This app is therefore an experiment, something that intentionally sees its own failure as a positive aspect, as a response to the questions and doubts about the economics and sociology in cyberspace.


HUO/SC: You learned how to use Photoshop in order to look “cute” in the pictures you posted of yourself on the Internet at age fourteen. How do you think that your generation’s relationship to sexuality has been influenced by the Internet?


AU: It’s funny, I actually had a conversation about this at the DLD dinner, with an investor who was funding a project to protect children online. We were discussing how these things can be controlled (or not) and I ended up telling him about my first experience with porn, to which I was interrupted by an intermezzo of Chinese contortionists, to which he continued “So, you were saying you were shocked the first time you saw a cock.” Sexuality is part of a human’s raison d’être and sooner or later it comes up in some way. What I was trying to explain is that this encounter with sex at twelve, through codified cable television, wasn’t strange to my generation, and that many of my peers were confronted with porn in a similar manner; something that has shaped my generation’s sexuality differently from the previous’ one…and from the forthcoming one. I think that the next generation will be much more familiar with fetishes and rare practices, something that is sort of inherent to the Internet. For example, I think they wouldn’t find crashing, nail tapping and long hair fetishes as funny or abnormal because they will be raised with it and see it in YouTube all the time.


HUO/SC: Your work often takes sculptural forms. How do you value its physical presence, and how do you see it translating in documentation, which you said you value above the work itself?


AU: I believed in documentation over real life experience for a long period of time, but this belief mainly emerged out of need. However, photography still plays a special role by being the culmination and last step of my production process. My intention now is to make my work and its documentation complement one another, instead of neglecting one for the sake of the other. This is something I was satisfied about my show at HQ in Zürich. My intention was to make it look photoshopped in real life and somehow I feel I accomplished that. The documentation, aside from the color, wasn’t modified at all. Nowadays I’m really interested in the sculptural and corporeal aspect of my works. There’s more to life than the Internet.


HUO/SC: You said that you produced most of your work in a “trance-like” state. Can you elaborate?


AU: 3,2,1… I haven’t slept in two days. I do work everyday but when it comes to finishing things I leave it all for a consecutive row of days and nights. I start with something and don’t finish until I think I’m completely done with it. After a while, I start losing consciousness of what I’m doing and start becoming more and more unaware of my actions even though I become gradually more lucid over time. At the very end I pass out and when I wake up I’m surprised by all that I’ve done because I can barely remember anything about it, or how I got there. I don’t know if it has to do with the migraines or not, but I’m pretty much used to not being very focused and live my life feeling as if I’m in a very steamed-up shower. I sort of know how I get to do things, but I don’t really know how to, to be honest.