We are unveiling In Conversation series on Concept with artist Rachel Maclean to discuss the grotesque—both on TikTok and in the everyday—the invitation of the beautiful and the ugly online, and the joy in shifting characters. The Glasgow-based digital artist, who represented Scotland at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, delivers unabashedly hyperbolic yet brutally spot-on illustrations of our contemporary obsessions, both online and off.
Flirting between the analog and the cyber, Maclean dons personas culled from her observations of the internet culture, exaggerating them to levels of uncanny familiarity. In return, she reveals us our most apparent but sometimes oppressed versions between the computer screens and out in real world.
Internet is a vast land of identities. Exaggerated alternates of real life prototypes are everywhere. Lately, with platforms like TikTok, the outlandish nature of the digital realm seems to spill into the real world, as well. How do you synthesize the analog and the cyber elements in your characters?
I always want my characters to be mixtures of analog and digital, although they mostly wear physical prosthetic make-up. The final result is illusionary, cartoonish and exaggerated. There is the unsettling knowledge that there is always something real beneath the surface. The make-up is not perfect or it is peeling off to reveal something real pushing to the surface.
Do you spend time in the rabbit hole of social media and YouTube?
Yes, the bloggers and the whole confrontational style of talking to the camera is very inspiring. There is a very specific recognizable format and a way of self-presentation. Tiktok is interesting for the limitlessness of what people do with their voices and bodies. In fact, I’ve been doing some of those bizarre elements in my work for ages—now they seem to enter the mainstream.
The borders of the bizarre seem to be pushed there!
Yes, similarly, my work has a heightened performativity to the point of being grotesque and satirical. I jump between genres, like going through TV channels from a cartoon to a talent show. But, then, I jump back into internet’s confessional straight-into-the-camera mood.
Costume is an important narrative element for each juxtaposition. How do you orchestrate the sartorial features of each character?
When I make myself up, I tend to transform into something unrecognizable with references to very specific elements, like a period costume. However, I complicate everything a little bit to a degree of artificiality and plasticity—this is part of the fun. I personally love dressing up and playfulness through changing clothes and identities. Lately, I have been making animations, such as the fully animated character Mimi, so I don’t use physical costumes which is a different way of working.
How is your your own relationship with fashion and self-construction in your everyday life?
I love clothes but I don’t have as much fun in everyday life as I do in videos. Me in the videos are hyper versions while I don’t consider my daily self a living artwork.
Humor and irony are critical elements on social media today—think of memes, GIFs, comedy accounts on Instagram. There is a certain type of humor that has emerged from the digital realm. How influential is the wit we witness online in your work?
I think about humor a lot as well as looking for it. I made a video ages ago back in 2011 titled LOL Cats in which I used slogans in specific fonts under cat pictures. I thought the work’s commentary would only last a year, but the subject has been quite enduring.
We still love cats online and type LOL quite often.
Definitely. I watch a lot of comedy. I studied in Edinburgh where the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a great source for alternative comedy. There is a complicity to humor which you cannot achieve with pure sincerity, a way to approach uncomfortable subjects in accessible ways.
Humor makes hard pills to swallow go down faster. How about charm and disgust on the internet today? We try to look away but we cannot not look either. Could you talk about the ways you utilize this dilemma of ours in your work?
My videos start quite soft and welcoming but then they begin to push you back for being disgusting. I want that play because otherwise you push people immediately. There is also a criticism about the way the feminine is perceived. I espouse feminine and girlish references to challenge the assumption that something girlish is light, silly, and frivolous. Then I shatter the expectation about the feminine with the grotesque.
Do you remember your first or early interactions with the internet? Coming of age during the emergence of computers and online culture, do you remember your personal shift to online?
I remember not knowing what internet was! I had seen a magazine with websites written on it once, and I had typed them onto computer like a Word file. I didn’t have proper internet until 2007. In college, we spent a lot of time getting drunk and watching videos on Youtube. Looking back, this was pretty inspirational and useful. The ways internet made information and content accessible is definitely inspirational in my work today.
As an artist whose work is inherently connected to technology, how do you see the potential of NFTs for artists today?
As video artists exhibiting primarily in a gallery setting, we may oftentimes be considered snobbish or difficult to engage with. NFTs are interesting for me because they break down that barrier between audiences and video art. Selling has always been an issue for video artists and I think NFTs are helpful in that vein, as well.
Could you talk about your understanding of the word concept? What does concept mean to you in your creation process?
To me, concept is something you can explain to someone and it can be meaningful before they even see the work.