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Beth Frey is the artist behind @bethisms, an account that has made a few thousand followers’ hours of scrolling and swiping screentime quite a bit weirder. Her various practices as a painter, video artist, and amateur AI-wrangler bleed gloriously into one another both IRL and online. This can result in terrifying, drippy watercolor faces swapped with human anatomy through Snapchat selfie filters, Instagram stories asking followers to “Guess the Celebrity” based on lumpy CGI portraits authored by machine-learning algorithms, and videos in which a psychedelic kaleidoscope of all of the above combine to present us with faux-influencer aphorisms. 

Frey’s latest IRL solo show, Awkward acuarelas y mi propia telenovela (“Awkward watercolors and my own soap opera”) is on view now at the gallery Acapulco 62 in Mexico City to correspond with the Zona MACO art fair. We met up a few days after the opening to talk about integrating social media and AI into her painting practice (or vice versa), cyborg body horror, and what the ubiquitous print-on-demand streetscapes of the Mexican capital can tell us about digital art. 

 

Michael Anthony Farley: First things first, I want to get a plug for your exhibition out of the way for everyone visiting Mexico City for the art fairs. Your show at Acapulco 62 has been hands-down one of the highlights of art week so far! It’s an interesting mix of really lovely watercolors and totally bizarre digital content.

But the main thing I wanted to talk to you about is how you use social media as an extension of your studio practice. Instead of just using Instagram as a way to document work in other media, you remix your paintings with digitally native content and filters, making content that sometimes feels like art history memes and sometimes is just truly weird and beyond description. How did you start incorporating face-swap Snapchat filters and Instagram stories into a career as a watercolorist?

Beth Frey: The Instagram thing started off unintentionally, and maybe a lot of it is that I have this addiction to new toys and tools to play with. My studio practice was a lot more… traditional? By that I mean painting, drawing, and sculpture. I don’t see myself as being a “new media artist,” so how would I describe what I do? There are a lot of tools on Instagram. Some of [the appeal] is in the instant gratification of it all. That maybe pulled me in, and then realizing all the possibilities and weirdness of what was available as far as what you could create. 

When I think about your practice, I’m sometimes reminded of a studio visit I did with the painter Taha Heydari in Baltimore a few years ago. You make totally different work, but there’s this common relationship between digital manipulation of images and playing with layers of paint and non-traditional ways of using traditional media. Anyway, I’m paraphrasing something he said that’s always stuck with me: that he uses screens—and particularly informal tools like Instagram stories—as a “sketchbook” to workshop ideas adjacent to his studio practice because paint is so seductive that one can get lost in the medium. Thinking of social media as a space to collage can be weirdly liberating. I thought about that sentiment in relation to your work/play/screen/studio balance, because you also use painting techniques that require a lot of planning and masking and are so labor-intensive, but then there’s this playful sensibility.

That’s also why it took me some time to actually recognize Instagram and the digital work as part of my practice—because it just seemed like play! Like, “oh, this is just a goofy way of expressing myself on social media!”

There is that need to just be constantly playing and creating, whereas when I’m painting and drawing it does feel a lot more labor-intensive. The “play” comes in the sketches, which is, I guess, what a lot of Instagram work is doing. There is a different need, there is a part of my brain that feels like it’s almost therapeutic or meditative… But at the same time, I’m frustrated because I just want some novelty all the time! I didn’t recognize my digital “play” as a part of my “serious studio practice” because it was so much fun, but then the content I make [in social media apps] is part of developing work in the studio, especially when I look back at times when I didn’t have studio space. 

When I didn’t have a studio available, I ended up finding a drawing app on my phone and then realizing I could make animations using the stories on Instagram because you can create stop-motion [sequences] with a bunch of images. That was my introduction to working in the app, but it was such a time-consuming process I abandoned it. But the element of play is really important to me, even when I’m doing something labor-intensive.

The videos that I’ve been making through social media apps started off quite simple, and I found ways to make them more and more complex. Once I recognized this as part of my practice, I started requiring a bit more planning—but I have to catch myself because I still want it to be playful and I still want that spontaneity! I do catch myself trying to differentiate which is going to be my “capital-A” Art—what is going to go off the screen and what can be put into a gallery.

That’s probably complicated by the fact that you live part of the year in Montreal and part of the year in Mexico City. You have your studio and show in galleries here in Mexico, and then you show a lot in Canada, so the idea of disembodied images that aren’t necessarily dependent on being physical objects makes sense. You can always bring your phone on a plane and have a mobile extension of your studio practice, right?

Yeah, I think so. Even the physical stuff I do is primarily on paper, so that can also be rolled up. And even though right now I have a large studio that I’ve managed to totally fill up, I still have always wanted to be able to fit a studio in a suitcase so I can go between the two countries or go to a residency and unpack and be able to work with what I can fit in a suitcase. The digital stuff has really worked well with that. Although I do catch myself making it bigger and bigger because then I start adding props. But all of the props are very simple… for example, one thing I use a lot of: colored pantyhose. I’ll take pantyhose and stuffing to make these weird colored noodles. And even those are very portable because you just take the stuffing out and you can set them up in another country. 

 

I find the way you use social media so satisfying because you have this gesamtkunstwerk of performance and weird objects you’ve collected, images you’ve made and video, and the AI-generated things that can all exist with the same quality when they become a digital image. You once said you struggled with the idea of how to synthesize all these really distinctive things in a physical exhibition space, but you’re one of the few “painter” artists I know who could pull off an “online viewing room” in a way that is engaging. That’s something I hated during the height of the COVID pandemic, having to experience paintings as JPGs, but you are a very painterly artist whose work almost seems to fight against the physicality of things. You take handmade images and mash them up with AI-generated images and found objects and selfies and video in a way that blurs the hierarchy of objecthood.

I guess it does. Also, I loathe the “online viewing room”! Although I do actually like how in the early days of the pandemic, when we were all at home, I got really into the online virtual tours of art museums around the world, the grand architecture of them. 

But I don’t know about “fighting against physicality”… I have a resistance to what we think of as “digital aesthetics,” I guess because I’ve never considered myself to be “a digital artist,” and then now I am? I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the AI stuff. When I’m producing these images using the text-to-image AI, my goal is to make something that doesn’t look too much like AI art or doesn’t look too digital and futuristic. That’s when I end up being drawn into the history of painting in terms of prompts for [the AI]. So even if I’m doing something digital, I still am drawn to those kinds of traditional aesthetics of painting and drawing and incorporating that into the digital work, even bringing my own watercolors into my videos, but in a way that it becomes odd or uncanny.

Well, none of your work looks like “Web 2.0” digital art. Everything has a very painterly aesthetic. Even when you do installations that incorporate props and wigs and stuff like that—you’re hanging a wig in the gallery the way a painter would hang a wig in a gallery.

Okay! “Which color wig would complement the color of the wall? What is the composition?” And I am coming into all the digital stuff, the Instagram videos and the AI [generated images] with a painting background and not a digital art background. I don’t know how to code! I have very limited knowledge of actual video editing and, in a way, the limitations of that become a part of what I enjoy. It makes it weirder. 

Right! Taking these relatively accessible tools that are more or less quotidian and queering them. I’m again reminded of another quote from another artist I met years ago during a studio visit in Los Angeles. That artist, Esteban Schimpf, used to be a painter and then had “the realization that photography can be a cheater’s way of making paintings.” So he would set up compositions of objects or models and then take these direct point-and-shoot photos with a painterly quality. Now that I’m talking to you and scrolling through your Instagram, I appreciate how the gaze of the camera phone equalizes the way we experience images as viewers. It’s strangely satisfying, like a cut-up digital print of an AI-generated image on top of a lovingly painted watercolor on nice paper, next to a selfie with a creepy mask you got from a street vendor. They all become flattened (or given equal depth) by the gaze of the lens. And of course, that’s how we’ve consumed 90 percent of what we’ve seen the past few years—I’ve seen more camera-phone pictures of food on Instagram than I’ve probably eaten meals.

In a photo, a wig can be a brushstroke as much as a real brushstroke made by an artist’s hand, or generated by an AI imagining what a painting of hair made by a human would look like. Your content that plays with artifice and representation of the body is so complimentary to the media you work in. 

I’m fascinated by facial recognition on our phones. I made a painting a few months ago—and I’m not sure how successful it was as a painting—but one of the things that felt successful to me was that my phone’s camera picked up the face as an active face! I could apply filters to it, and so it could be recognized as real by digital technology.

I know I couldn’t just be producing these parts on their own, and they need to exist together. To have the hand-drawn elements of my practice and the physical, sculptural or found objects interact with the digital. I want them to be speaking the same language. But I also like that when they meet they contrast. Maybe it flattens the real, but also rationalizes the unrealness of things.

 

There’s this great sense of cyborg body horror to your work, like we’re seeing human bodies the way an algorithm would. Even the found objects and props you collect all have a connotation of being surrogate bodies or prostheses to the body. Like, the whole idea behind pantyhose is “how can I make my individual leg look more like the generic idea of what a leg is? How can a mask make my face look more like a face?” It’s this feedback loop of converting the body to a product in order to make our own bodies resemble products, and then the algorithms learn that this is what humans look like and what we want to buy more of. 

Even before I was doing digital stuff, I had this fascination with distorting my own image or distorting the body into these grotesque moments. I want to create a tension between beautiful and grotesque or the cute and the grotesque, or something that’s attractive and repulsive at the same time. That’s even something I was attracted to with just straight-up pencil drawings. 

I was never totally drawn to the idea of performance art because of my own social anxiety and knowing I could totally just freeze up at any moment. But I like pulling myself into the work and putting my body into it. I remember creating two-dimensional work and then feeling frustrated because I was just creating images but not creating things that were real. So then I moved to sculpture because it felt like, now I’m creating something that’s in the space that my body is in. But there’s still frustration because there’s this unrequited desire or something that I feel is a part of art-makingneeding to make something that can never actually be “the thing.” I can never become the art! But wanting to inhabit different realities. I’m sure a lot of people feel like, “oh, God, I’m stuck with one body for my whole life.” What would it be like to just inhabit a different consciousness or body for a day?

Bringing myself into the work and making these videos was one way I could inhabit something I was creating, even though I was still obviously in the same body. But there’s this feeling of “now I am becoming the art,” which is something that I’ve always had a desire for. 

“Flesh is the reason paint was invented,” right? There’s something weirdly voyeuristic or pornographic about representation. Or perhaps not voyeuristic, but vicarious? Maybe artists making surrogate bodies for themselves, it feels like an anachronistically cyberpunk impulse we’ve seen in so much of art history. 

A lot of your prompts to AIs generate such bizarre images probably because AIs are trying to understand the world and basically learning from the content of the Internet, which is like 75 percent porn. One could argue so much of art history that way as well. So, of course, if you say to an AI, “show me a picture of a human,” it’s going to be, like, a million boobs and orifices and nipples. 

But it’s also interesting learning the language [nuances] of the AI prompts. There’s a difference between “naked” and “nude” or “breasts” and “tits,” and they will produce different types of images because they get whole different references online, which I find really interesting. Like, it might pull from porn or it might pull from “Nude Descending a Staircase”! 

I think your next exhibition needs to be called “Nude Downloading a Staircase.”

I should enter that into a prompt. But beyond the pornographic side to the images I’ve been trying to do things with the prompts lately with organs and entrails and other internal parts, or fingers and toes and very specific body parts I guess would be funny… parts that would kind of be seen as neutral… although of course fingers can have a sexual connotation. But as far as terms you’re going to put into a Google search or whatever, these can create so much more body horror because it’s more… relatable? 

Or quotidian? 

Yeah!

 

Can I ask what AI software you use? 

I use NightCafe Studio to generate images, and also the apps FaceswapLite, Snapchat, Instagram, and a kids’ greenscreen app that’s just called Green Screen. 

It also goes back to, how do I bring my body into this again? In this recent exhibition, it’s through collage and hand cutting and actually putting pieces together using my body a lot, whether in video or making hand-drawings of machine-generated images, it’s just feeling constantly in conversation between the body and the machine. And then I also sometimes feel like I should have something intelligent to say about being cyborgs or how connected we are, but I still haven’t totally wrapped my head around it. Maybe I’m still figuring it out. There’s a lot of this conversation, these kinds of questions, to blur the boundaries between our physical selves and digital selves. Is this something that is an empowering new way to be? Or is it just a given? Is this just how we are? Are we more than our bodies?

It’s funny, I was thinking about how the AIs not only generate uncanny human anatomies but also really strange anatomies of landscapes or architecture! Maybe that’s something I notice more because you use watercolors so much in your work, and it’s a medium (for better or for worse) that we’ve always associated with landscapes. As a viewer, I feel like my subconscious is always trying to understand the physical space in your work, which leads to an interesting tension. The anatomy of these non-specified references to the figure float and bleed into, or sometimes stand out, from these vague illusions of physical space. Both painters and AIs are programmed to make believable illusions of space, and it’s so disorienting and fun when they “fail.” 

This has been one of the more interesting discoveries in my foray into working with an AI. Looking at my process in the watercolor work, there are some similarities in how the computer develops an image and how I develop an image. In the watercolors, I often have a sketch of a loose idea—this is going to be, like, a fire or something. I sketch it out loosely, then I use a lot of masking fluid (kind of like a liquid Iatex) on the paper. Then I do a big wash of color and it leaves a lot of white areas [where the masking fluid was]. And then most of the work in the watercolor is filling in the white areas, and there’s a lot of randomness that happens in that first stage, which I do fairly loosely. The challenge is to fill the rest, and it ends up not being anything like the original sketch because the composition has changed. It’s filling in these areas and making those become parts, so a stroke of the white becomes almost a character itself. 

While watching these AI images emerge, it starts with a few dots, and then they build. Each of those dot points in the image starts building up to whatever the text prompt was. And the composition doesn’t totally make sense. It’s hard to articulate this, but I kind of am filling in and adjusting to the composition. Even though it’s not totally random when I’m putting it on the paper, there is a sense of randomness—maybe just in the way that the watercolors have spread onto the paper, or an initial stroke because I wasn’t totally paying attention to it. I can’t say I’m working with the same logic as a computer, but there is something interesting, watching [an AI-generated] image develop at 25 percent, 50 percent, 65 percent.

One of the things that I’m also fascinated by is not only how the computer interprets the prompts and the text, but also how we interpret the images that the computer creates, because they’re never the things themselves! You’ll look at it and it looks like there’s some figure in a garden, for example, but there’s not a clear definition of what the figure is or what the flowers in the garden are. But it’s how our eyes have learned to interpret the symbols or even textures they evoke. And I think that makes these images successful. 

This is what painters have been trying to do forever. We’re constantly trying to find new ways of presenting these symbols for the eye to interpret, but also let them become their own thing. But then this AI comes along, and look! It can just do it in a few seconds! In a way I’m jealous of the machine, even though I’m working with it. 

Part of what’s so uncanny and weird about computer-generated images is their impulse to fill every surface with vague detail, because that’s what “reality” looks like, but that’s not how human eyes perceive the world. We generally don’t notice much of the texture of negative space, but CGI has an horror vacui because so much was developed for rendering or editing techniques like the “content-aware fill” tool. And your paintings are kind of like that. That may be why they exist so comfortably online as photos next to “photos” of digital images. The frame of the Instagram grid or story format becomes the negative space, and our brains are more accepting of their weirdness because we’re used to looking at digital photos and accepting them as “real.” We are more open to accepting the “veracity” of photographs or point-and-shoot video, and when you hack those processes with these hyper-saturated, fabricated images, they become so truly trippy.

I like to think of my work as a nice “break” from Instagram content. The other day, a painter friend was asking me if she should post “thirst trap” selfies on Instagram alongside her work, and I realized maybe my work is about trying to make the opposite of a thirst trap. What would the opposite of a thirst trap even be? Maximalist grotesque? I’m just seeing far too much of this cleaned-up perfection on there! When we talk about Instagram specifically as a platform—as a tool—there are certain connotations or associations with it, like, “oh, yeah! the influencers with the perfect life! It’s very aesthetic!” Whereas I’m looking at—all disturbing Zuckerberg stuff asidewell, this is a fantastic tool. Look at all the things that we can do!

 

I like that both your Instagram and your gallery shows seem to be about “curating” a very chaotic process! I mean, in both your digital work and your painting practice you seem to surrender a lot of control to happy accidents, and then you cut up and remix what sticks.

I am naturally a very messy person, and then when I know something is going into the public realm, whether it’s a gallery or online, I have this conflicting impulse to clean it up, but I love using very gestural lines and surrendering a bit of control. But my Instagram isn’t very curated. I do try to balance a rhythm of alternating photo/video, painting, etc. My studio is very much “curated chaos.”

I love your photographic eye. One of my favorite things about following you are the absurd snapshots you post in your Instagram stories. I am glad I screen-captured this one of a dilapidated shack of a building with neoclassical columns that just says “INTERNET” in handwritten lettering in that Instagram story you posted last week… it’s the perfect visual metaphor for the decline of Western Civilization! And also what grandparents in the ‘90s thought the Internet was like: “COME HERE CHILDREN, STEP INTO MY CHILD ABDUCTOR DARK ROOM!” 

With the columns, yeah! One of the things I also love about being in Mexico is that there’s such a strong visual element of just… wandering the city. I don’t think I would find a hand-painted “INTERNET” above a door somewhere in Canada.

Or the physicality of digital images in the built environment. Just last week I was talking to an urbanist about this, how those damn vinyl banners are so accessible and ubiquitous here that they’ve totally blanketed every inch of the city. It’s funny how dystopian futurists always imagined the megacity of the future as being blanketed in video billboards or holograms. In reality it’s the digitally printed vinyl banner flapping in the breeze that’s subsumed the built environment. Every dentist office is covered in terrifying, blown-up, pixelated banners of teeth with wonky aspect ratios, or restaurants with human-sized images of totally unappetizing looking food to the point where the architecture disappears. You’d never guess some streets in my neighborhood are gorgeous blocks of colonial architecture from the 1600s because they’re covered in digital prints. The built environment becomes an architecture of images, which I think is weirdly complementary to your work.

Yes! I always like when people hand-paint over vinyl banners to change prices or something. Like the taco stands with the hand-written notes taped over vinyl… there’s something charming about people having to correct the “failure” of digital images. Like, “oh, something digitally printed will look more ‘professional,’” but it never works out that way. That’s what I love. That’s what I am looking for in the limitations of editing videos on a social media app. Where does it fail? And where does the AI fail?

*****

This is FOLLOWING, a series of profiles and interviews of the art world social media accounts that make us think, laugh, cry, love, or sometimes just “like.”

 

Art images courtesy of the artist

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