As part of our thematic focus on Opulence, Caroline Whiteley talked to LA-based artist Maya Man, whose latest generative work, “I’m Feeling Lucky,” was just on view at Cromwell Place and will be auctioned as an NFT on 14 September. Whiteley and Man discuss self-documentation, the latter’s TikTok, her NFT series “Ugly Bitches,” and the elusive thresholds of authenticity.
A few months ago Maya Man, the Los Angeles-based artist and programmer, unearthed one of her childhood journals. “I feel a lot better when I’m not thinking about trying to get a boy to like me,” one entry from 2004 reads. Man was eight years old.
The excerpt features in “Read It and Weep,” a text-based website she built last year as part of her first solo exhibition “Secrets from A Girl.” Consisting of snippets from her diaries, gender-related sociological theory, and web fragments she calls “internet trash,” the work is a commentary on how women form their identities online.
Man is part of a new wave of creators emerging from the male-dominated software-based art scene. Using browser-based generative art, a form of digital artwork often sold as NFTs, her work critiques perceptions of femininity in the age of social media, centered on her experience as a young woman in America.
“I’m pretty obsessed with self-documentation,” she says, speaking from her home in Echo Park. Sporting a hot-pink Gap hoodie, her dark hair framed by a pair of teal-colored Airpods Max, she’s both artist and her own muse. Equally inspired by Marxist media theory and TikTok influencers like Charli d’Amelio and Addison Rae, she peppers her sentences with the words “like” and “toootally,” drawn out for dramatic effect.
In his seminal 1972 book Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that women are always conscious of how they see themselves. “I’ve felt that my whole life,” she says. “I’m constantly trying to see myself from this third-person point of view, judging myself.”
A competitive dancer throughout her childhood, Maya Man would film her routines, watching them obsessively until she perfected her movements. “I understood how to render myself in front of the camera in a way that was appealing to audiences,” she explains.
Voyeurism is nothing new but in the age of social media, we value the ability to perform for a mass audience of strangers above anything else. At the same time Man believes “we’re always measuring people against some elusive threshold of authenticity online.”
On her own TikTok, Man boldly expresses her high-femme style: her feed showcases pouty selfie videos with cutesy visual effects and viral dances she often films in double speed, interspersed with ironic captions like, “suddenly remembered I have a body and do not simply exist in digital space.” She’ll have you know she’s in on the joke, constantly aware of how she is perceived and willing to lean into it. “There’s this sort of dance of perception that you have [to adhere to] as an artist,” she says. “So much of my work is about performance anyway, so using this medium is a natural exercise,” she adds.
One of Maya Man’s most compelling works, “Glance Back,” is a Chrome extension that snaps a picture of the user when they open a new tab once per day, at random, accompanied by a text prompt offering the user to write down what they are thinking about. A mini daily diary entry added to a collection of moments shared with your computer.
“‘Glance Back’ was born out of this desire to capture myself more candidly than I ever could when I’m really posing for photos or posting something on Instagram,” Man says. Indeed, photos taken with “Glance Back” can be quite unflattering, but they’re honest. The app, which has accumulated over 10,000 users since its launch in 2018, could be considered part of the “no filter” trend that has become prevalent on social media in the last few years.
It’s tempting to view the rise of BeReal, one of last year’s most talked-about social media platforms, as further evidence that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. But Maya Man isn’t convinced: “I always plead with people to stop chasing this idea of authenticity because I don’t think it exists.” Unlike BeReal, she says, the images on “Glance Back” aren’t meant to be shared on a feed. “Once you add in the element of a social feed, no matter how small your follower count is, it becomes a performance: there’s an audience of X number of people.”
In January Man followed her interest in performing identity online into a deeper rabbit hole, releasing “Ugly Bitches” in collaboration with pioneering online performance artist Ann Hirsch. The project consists of an NFT series of 500 AI-generated images trained with existing doll imagery, resulting in a motley crew of droopy-eyed, Frankenstein-esque figurines.
Though she didn’t anticipate it when she created the project, “Ugly Bitches” also coincided with a recent resurgence of dolls in pop culture – from Bratz to films like M3GAN and the highly anticipated, Greta Gerwig-directed Barbie.
In “Ugly Bitches” the dolls appear in front of AI-generated visuals based on an influencer’s usual stomping grounds: luxury villas, sun-kissed beaches, crystalline pools. Algorithmically generated captions like, “Ugly as ever babe” or “Bro this girl is a bitch,” parody the kinds of phrases Man and Hirsch took from a less well-trodden corner of the internet: the comment section of social media celebrities.
“It was pretty wild seeing the parasocial relationships emerge, especially from comments from men,” she says before switching her voice to mimic one of the commenters. “They’d be like, ‘Hello, I’m Paul. I think you look so beautiful.’ It’s a really funny dynamic, seeing these hundreds of thousands of comments on the single post of this person on the beach, knowing that the person will never read it.”
By swapping any use of the word “beauty” with “ugly” and any woman-related nouns with “bitch,” Maya Man and Ann Hirsch wanted to challenge the “everyone is beautiful” rhetoric they saw online, which they felt was disingenuous. After all, leaving seemingly positive comments on someone’s social media doesn’t mean the commenter sees the other person as human.
Earlier this year Randy McNally, a 79-year-old Republican lieutenant governor of Tennessee, was revealed to have been liking and commenting the nudes of a 20-year-old gay man from his official account, despite supporting Tennessee GOP’s anti-trans efforts and sponsoring legislation banning same-sex marriage. It appears McNally did not understand that Instagram comments are public.
Sometimes Man worries that people might only focus on her more overtly femme style without absorbing some of the darker themes she’s trying to convey. “I like using humor in my work, and I like referencing these sorts of hyper-feminine aesthetics of the world of the media and pop culture that I live in. But what I’m always trying to get at are these much uglier, grotesque experiences and ideas on the internet.”
Man’s work is funny but serious, interrogating platform capitalism and self optimization. Her most recent work, I’m Feeling Lucky, a series of algorithmically generated horoscopes, pulls from the language of apps like Co-Star and The Pattern.
Though unlike the vague, self-confirming phrases often offered up by Astrology apps (“You’ll feel inspired to nurture and help others this morning” or “open your heart while looking to soothe old wounds”), the sage words on display in I’m Feeling Lucky are intentionally uncanny and strange: “Others admire your anger, dedication, and jealousy,” one text fragment reads. Another states: “A lack of ambition makes you more spiritual to be around.”
Adorno suggested that people who believed in astrology no longer saw themselves as having control over their destinies. In our era of “permacrisis”, where the future seems increasingly difficult to imagine, seeking answers in the stars is tempting.
I’m Feeling Lucky takes its name from the now-defunct Google button that would circumvent the search results page, taking users directly to the first web page that matched their search terms. A product of a simpler, more optimistic time of the internet, Google ultimately killed the I’m Feeling Lucky button in 2010 (according to some estimates, the button cost the company $110 million in lost ad revenue). “To me, this really represents the rapid commercialization of the internet,” Man says.
I’m Feeling Lucky allowed Maya Man to pair this feeling of luck and joy online with astrology, which – true to her ascendant sign, Virgo – she approached with a sense of skepticism. Man adds: “What has actually been really nice, though, is that even when I’m looking through the different quotes the algorithm generates, I’m able to find some sort of meaning in a lot of what the computer turns out.”