It’s been 19 whole years since Britney Spears released her autobiographical ear-worm, Lucky. Since those glorious noughties when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie pioneered reality TV, an era which climaxed when Britney shaved her head, it’s now old news how celebrities are manufactured by the media. There was once a time when we could turn down the volume, switch off the TV, and be clueless about the goings-on of The Simple Life. That time has long passed. Mobile devices, the ubiquity of the Internet and 4G, and the shocking accessibility of social media apps have allowed us to scrutinise our favourite famous ones right under our very noses.
But the networks have turned on their user-voyeurs too. Heads slouched as we walk, a 4K resolution camera in hand, we have become our own instant celebrity-paparazzi factories, processing our nth selfie, concocting “stories” for hundreds to thousands of viewers at a time. Let’s skip the trending hashtag, and describe our zeitgeist with something more wry and self-deprecating, like this emoji 😹. Thanks #catsofinstagram for making our dull days a little better.
You would think that with each passing use of another social media app, we would have already become desensitised to seeing processed images, however instant and shot from the hip they appear. Yet despite having the means of production to alter and create perfect images, we remain in awe of insta-picture-perfection. We still feel cheated whenever we learn that our favourite insta-celeb had not just #wokeuplikethis.
In an age of post-truth and fake news, how can we still expect authenticity to emerge from our social media feed? You could say that deep-seated desire for Truth with a capital T is actually kind of endearing, how we long to romanticise, return to Eden... The ancient Greeks used to accumulate their collective consciousness into a public sphere for the purpose of communal catharsis. Now, that’s just called “eyeball metrics”, “attention capital”. What do we get in return from delivering our appetites, attention spans and the data that matches them into the hands of private companies and unknown third parties ? If not any cathartic release, then just... declining mental health? Of course... because this onslaught was triggered by Britney’s meltdown, right? There's that emoji again: 😹
Some believe that it’s not so much about the amount of data that we share, but the veracity of the data we share. Indeed, as a generation, we are past the point of believing in absolute truths — online or not — and we’ve evolved to reflexively sieve through the bullsh*t. Fascinated with our Millennial over-exposure through social media, popular culture, the Internet, memes and viral videos, we thought Singaporean Instagram artist Howie Kim would the best person for us to understand these issues, filters, #nofilters, and all. With fateful serendipity, Britney Spears’ Lucky played on the radio as we chatted.
Adeline Setiawan: Let’s start by playing Never Have I Ever. Never Have I Ever... Stalked somebody online?
Howie Kim: I have! I’m sure everybody has. One time, during the first day of school, I took a photo of the class name list that was on the board and went home to stalk everyone. I just wanted to get to know my classmates a little.
Setiawan: Did you stalk us?
Kim: No, I did not. I looked at your Instagrams, that’s all. I swear I did not stalk.
Setiawan: Never Have I Ever... Googled myself?
Kim: Yeah, I have.
Setiawan: Did you like what you saw?
Kim: I’m glad with what I see — nothing too explicit! [Laughs]
Setiawan: Have you ever tried to report a picture that did not represent you?
Kim: No, but I actually wanted to use the Instagram account @howiekim, but it was taken — it’s an empty account. I tried reporting it, writing into Instagram saying, “I want this account!” But they didn’t give it to me. So that’s why I’m using @howie759.
Setiawan: What is 759?
Kim: I use it as a signature. I try to incorporate it into most of my works. I often get asked what it represents and I’d say, “I don’t know — you tell me.” And then they’d try to figure it out, “Oh because 7 plus 5 plus 9 is 21...” I’d be like, “Okay... so what does that mean!?” Then I tend not to reveal anything — I just let people decide what they want it to mean. I like to keep it a mystery.
Setiawan: Never Have I Ever... fed the trolls?
Kim: I think... never. But I like to think of myself as the troll sometimes — but not in a mean or harmful way. My best friend and I once created an Instagram account just to post weird sh*t on it. We were originally quite serious with where we wanted it to go, but it sort of turned into a prank account. We even tagged pictures of our other friends that we had secretly taken. People were like, “Who the f*ck is this?” And we were like, “I don’t know! Who is it?” It was called @calo_marco. But we finally revealed ourselves after we got bored of it.
Setiawan: What did your friends say?
Kim: They felt betrayed. [Laughs] But it was fun!
Setiawan: Last “Never”: Never Have I Ever posted a #nofilter, #noretouching, #wokeuplikethis photo when you actually have?
Kim: I have never — but if I have, it would have been clearly sarcastic. Well, I posted this and I captioned it, “haters will say it’s Photoshop”!
Setiawan: Tell me about your dinosaur tattoos.
Kim: These are the characters from The Land Before Time. I decided to get them tattooed because I just love the movie. I used to watch it a lot as a kid. I still have the Laser Disc (LD). I also still keep the LD of Jurassic Park. I love dinosaurs.
Setiawan: Why dinos?
Kim: Well, in Mandarin, dinosaur is kong long which translates to “fear dragon”. Dragons are known as mythical, majestic beings. And I think we can say the same for dinosaurs. There is this sense of mystery with dinosaurs that I’m obsessed with. We only have an idea of what they are like based on the research and movies we’ve seen, but we don’t exactly know what they might have looked like.
Setiawan: Do you feel that this sense of mystery also lends itself to why you’re fascinated with celebrities?
Kim: Yes. It’s the same sort of attraction. It’s like, sure, you know who they are, but do you really know who they are?
Setiawan: Who are your favourite celebrities and how did you discover them?
Kim: The first celebrity I really liked was Avril Lavigne. I was maybe 13 or 14, and like every other teenager, I was going through a so-called “emo” phase. At that point in time, a lot of other singers were trying to be like Avril. Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff... People were saying that Avril was not an original; she was manufactured to portray that whole punk rock-chick thing.
But I didn't care if she was authentic, I just thought she was cool. Then I caught onto Paris Hilton. She was the biggest thing in the early 2000s. She was not much of a singer, she didn’t really act. She was known as the granddaughter of the Hilton’s whose sex tape got leaked. She was famous for being famous. She was the original Kim Kardashian. Her character on the reality show The Simple Life was this spoilt, dumb blonde. But I honestly don’t think she’s dumb. I believe it was a persona she adopted to sell herself. How smart is that!
Setiawan: And the Kardashians just snatched that strategy!
Kim: Yeah! Back in the day, Paris was paid just to show up at a club for two seconds, and suddenly it became the “it” club. Good life! Paris was the original social media influencer before there was social media — the true OG .
Then I got obsessed with Britney. I didn’t listen to Britney until I was a little bit older — maybe 15. I was at one of those electronic stores where the TV’s would play music videos. They were playing the performance of Britney at the VMA’s when she had the snake. And I was like, “Who’s this person?” The Britney Spears I had known was from Baby Hit Me One More Time — the innocent school girl — before she had this huge switch. She was probably the most manufactured pop star in the world. People literally squeezed her dry — they did whatever they could to make sure she would make every single cent of what she could produce. I use to watch TMZ.com and follow Perez Hilton a lot back then, and there was not a day where there was no news of Britney. People were scrutinising everything she did. And then she just broke down.
Setiawan: Even her crashing and burning in 2007 was very real.
Kim: Yeah, it was huge. It’s funny how through all that “artificiality”, her realness — her truth — came through.
So I like celebrities like that — they sell you a certain persona. To me, celebrities are entertainment. I need them to sell me more. I like to think of them as characters.
Setiawan: What about Taylor Swift’s transformation?
Kim: Oh, you know how she’s doing that whole snake thing now, “Look what you made me do”? I actually enjoy her as a character a little more now. But if I was her publicist, I would make her a full-on villain. Instead of, “Look at what you made me do,” she should be like, “I’m the villain and I’m going to destroy you guys!”
Anyway, I kind of like villains. Villains have this very strong character.
Setiawan: Which villain do you like best?
Kim: Have you seen Snow White and the Huntsmen? Charlize Theron is Ravena. You have to watch it. There was a scene where ravens flew in the room and smashed into the ground, forming a black puddle which she walks out of. For me, Ravena is definitely the best villain because she’s very campy. I like camp.
Setiawan: What does camp mean?
Kim: I actually wrote an essay about the Internet slang word “extra”, and I used the word “campy” for comparison based on Susan Sontag’s Notes on "Camp". I pointed out that “extra” is simply the new “campy”. Campy is like being over the top or being too much. And extra is exactly what that is. Sontag writes, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of 3 million feathers.”  That’s super extra, right? She goes on how being camp is not only applicable to things. There are movies that are campy, decorations that are campy, and you can also find campiness in people. The essence of campiness lies in exaggeration, and exaggeration suggests artificiality.
But I think campiness can also be a way of being authentic. For example, a drag queen is very campy. With their over-the-top make-up, wigs and body pads, it’s a performance that draws from the stereotypical characteristics of women. They are not exactly trying to tell you that they’re women, and if they do, it’s out of sarcasm. This exaggeration lets you see through them — you know it’s not real, and the fact that you know it actually gives you a sense of their authenticity.
Setiawan: Do you think we live in an age of authenticity?
Kim: Well, what is authenticity in the first place? How do you even tell if someone is authentic? We can only judge and tell if someone’s authentic or not when he or she performs it. They have to say or do something. Therefore, there is a certain performativity to authenticity. But to perform already suggests that the behaviour is not real. So to put it bluntly, there’s actually no such thing as authenticity, right?
Setiawan: Let’s switch gears. What are your online channels of entertainment?
Kim: I like to see everything as entertainment, to be honest. [Laughs] But to answer your question, I get entertainment from any form of online media — Netflix, YouTube, things people do and say on social media. I think we are at a point in time where our attention span is really short, but we are easily entertained. Something as minor as a meme, for example, is really entertaining.
I’m on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, I have a YouTube account... I think a lot of people use the different platforms for different things. Tumblr has a bit of a darker vibe to it — we blog to share our feelings, whereas Instagram is more for friends. It’s more social. Twitter — it’s just to complain — to vent your frustration! And Facebook is a mix of all those.
Setiawan: When you present yourself online, you never post an ordinary photo. Why is that?
Kim: I used to post simpler images. But I came to a point and realised that it’s not fun. There are people who take a picture of their dinner and they post it. But who even cares? So I wanted to make it more entertaining, and to create balance between selfies and my creativity. I guess I sort of blend them together — they’re creative selfies! [Laughs] Besides, I think people look for entertainment on Instagram. People pick up their phones to scroll through social media when they’re bored because they want to be entertained.
Setiawan: How do you craft each post on your Instagram?
Kim: Well I guess Instagram is not that instant for me! I like to curate it in a certain way. I don’t like to post two similar things at one go. Let’s say, if I take a selfie now, the next photo will not be the same style of selfie — maybe not the mirror selfie, it could be a selfie-selfie, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
And if there’s something I really like, I’ll amp it up. I put it in my computer, I photoshop and manipulate it, then I send it back to my phone, and I post it.
Setiawan: In your “creative selfies”, you have a long neck, a high forehead, streaky brows — is there anything else I’m missing?
Kim: Blush! There are some with fictional animals or creatures. There’s a fancy praying mantis, there’s one with a dragon... I like to make an image as unreal as possible. It has to be juxtaposed with something more out of this world. It comes back to my obsession with mystery and things that aren’t real. The more surreal, the better.
Setiawan: And there’s always this pastel, dreamy glow that your characters have. Why is that?
Kim: I like to make the works very childlike... In fact, I like to tell people that I’m a child — that I’m 12. Some of my friends say, “Yeah, you are 12.” [Laughs] I like the idea of being a kid and not having to deal with the “real world”. So I guess this surreal, childlike quality could be a form of escapism. When I was a kid, I used to have this sticker that said, “Cute but evil”. That phrase stuck with me. I like to create works that look innocent, kind of cutesy, but there’s something sinister about them.
Also, I think this child-like quality could have come from a doll a friend of mine gave me when I was about 13. It was a collectible “Living Dead Doll” named Siren that came in a coffin with a story-certificate of “how the doll died”. My friend’s parents thought it was terrible and told him to give it away, so I took it. Every doll came with a themed series, and Siren was a Hollywood girl. She had this fur coat, white hair... apparently she was a singer, but someone killed her and sewed up her mouth. I think that’s what inspired my characters to have this big forehead. I still have Siren sitting in my cabinet today... she’s cute!
Setiawan: Oh my God... Siren sounds a lot like Britney in 2007 — cute but dying!
1 Since Twitter’s beginning in 2006, all public tweets have been archived in the US Library of Congress. The reason was ”to acquire and preserve a record of knowledge and creativity for Congress and the American people." This was the case until 1 January 2018, when the library announced that it will only acquire tweets "on a very selective basis.” Laurel Wamsley, “Library Of Congress Will No Longer Archive Ever Tweet”, NPR, December 26, 2017, accessed January 11, 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/12/26/573609499/library-of-congress-will-no-longer-archive-every-tweet.
2 For those readers who are less familiar with the slang, “OG” means Original Gangster, in other words, “founder”, “pioneer”, the first to do something. Josh Ostrovsky, the Instagram influencer more commonly known as @thefatjewish, concurs in the documentary American Meme (2018): “Paris is a straight-up f*cking icon. She set the precedent for everyone who exists in this Internet, likes-driven world. The modern ideas of celebrity, of brands, of marketing, the way we think about influence — this was all invented by Paris Hilton.” Bert Marcus, dir. American Meme (Bert Marcus Productions, 2018, https://www.netflix.com/watch/81003741)
3 Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” Partisan Review, 31, no. 4 (Fall 1964): 515-530.
4 Months after Britney’s mental breakdown, art critic Mark Stevens interestingly described her not as a celebrity, but as an “outsider artist”, a term usually given to self-taught, naive artists outside the mainstream or institutional art world. Mark Stevens, “Britney Spears, Outsider Artist,” New York Magazine, October 24, 2007, http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/features/28528/.