As I sit here in the Mordor of unemployment, a consultant agency designed for people like me to become more enthusiastic about applying for jobs (posters of stones and waterfalls on the walls, zen-y vibes to soothe the soul), I scroll through some Instagram accounts that I have developed a strange relationship with. Being unemployed is relentlessly hard, not least because people (i.e. the system of course) constantly remind me of the fast forward failure of human existence it is to not work. Within the framework of the unemployment system, work has entered the realm of ontology, work equals existence. The motivational posters on the walls of this place seem to point to that exactly.
The aforementioned Instagram accounts have become a fetish for me in this “rut” that I appear to be stuck in, and I can not seem to figure out why. A while ago, I stumbled upon an article in Atlas Magasin on this exact topic. Uncannily, Sigrid Kraglund Adamsson writes about the two Instagram accounts that I have been following with a mix of curiosity and dismay. One belongs to Emilie Knudsen, aka @femmeemilie, a girl I happened to know years ago, Denmark is a small country you know, and the other one belongs to @avalonkhan, her actual name, yes.
These two women, both of whom are ex-kindergarten teachers with a passion for (over)caring, have set themselves free and started their own individual businesses. Businesses conditioned by the framework of the social media platform Instagram, a platform that combines image and text, that strong cocktail we used to know as illustration in the pre-photographic era. They have both set out to make a living by making other women feel better about themselves. That is why they refer to their work as “heart business”. They sell audio-meditations to help women and children fall asleep, and other meditations to help women reset their “unhealthy” relationship to money. They do online as well as live lectures about self-care. They arrange dance parties that encourage women to “let go” of their insecurities, and currently, Avalon Khan is running her own educational program with the title The Love Leader Education. You can read more about this in Kraglund Adamsson’s article.
Emilie and Avalon have become my daily antidote to hopelessness while simultaneously feeding it. In glimpses, they present me with a vacuum of tolerance, acceptance, and love, and I reluctantly swallow up Avalon’s morning cocoa ceremonies and her “receiver’s mussel” (don’t ask). Their aesthetics are abhorrent but soothing. Their messages are overly banal, but they relax me. Scrolling through their images feels like stepping into an over-the-top spa led by a woman with extraordinarily silky hair and the kind of smooth-sounding voice that you might hear in a commercial for life insurance or meal replacement bars. But, in my miserably little unemployment-bubble, this spa is what I need.
Or, to put it more correctly, this spa is what I want. I really want to feel like I can fix my personal job situation and the problems of human existence in one fell swoop. I really wish I could. I look around the “office” I have been forced to endure for three weeks and realize their choice of aesthetics, if not their intentions, are similar to Emilie and Avalon’s. The consultant agency offers simplistic solutions for individuals to problems that are so obviously of a social structural kind. “We are here for you –“ one poster says, “ —all the way—but in the end, it is your responsibility!” The words strike a familiar chord. Did Emilie not say the exact same thing in one of her multiple Instagram-stories? Something like, I am here to grant you the energy to move on with your life. But in the end, it is your responsibility to make a change.
Scrolling through their images feels like stepping into an over-the-top spa led by a woman with extraordinarily silky hair and the kind of smooth-sounding voice that you might hear in a commercial for life insurance or meal replacement bars. But, in my miserably little unemployment-bubble, this spa is what I need.
The color palette of the consultant agency is not enthralling, to say the least. Nothing like the rainbow unicorn universe of Emilie and Avalon: Green, blue, red, earth colors and splashes of pink, always pink, in various degrees, to soften the seriousness of their sincerity. #Everydaymagic is a new hashtag Emilie came up with. A party umbrella in an otherwise mediocre glass of water, taking a little break from your busy day putting on nail polish, singing while driving, those are just some of the things you can do to spruce up the daily grind, she suggests. I take a deep breath and look around. The room I have chosen for my obligatory three-hour application writing session is sparse and grey, very grey. Even the coffee is grey. How is that possible? A man with a friendly face, an employee, asks me if he should look over my resume. I politely decline. A look of affected worry in his eyes. Are you sure? We both know that his job depends on my unemployment, so I assure him with my tone of voice that I am out of reach, a lost cause. Probably a favorite in their statistics, the literature graduate with a sulky facial expression, the spoiled millennial that, despite everything, does not own an iron.
I scroll through my Instagram feed and am delighted to find a new post from Avalon. It is one of her endless reports on feeling grateful. “I feel grateful for” and then the list goes on infinitely, emojis accompanying each thing on the list. Avalon feels grateful for her morning chia porridge (a flower emoji), the view from her apartment (sunrise emoji), her second-hand clothes and her ability to connect to so many women out there (unicorn and rainbow emoji). This post is complemented by a picture of herself sitting in her breakfast nook, eyes closed, as the morning sun casts its rays on her relaxed facial muscles.
The history of the collaboration between image and text for the sake of art, advertising and entertainment BI (Before Instagram) is long and crooked. Today, we rarely think about the photographic image/text relationship as anything but natural. Instagram among other platforms has made sure that we expect an image to be accompanied by a little piece of text, an explanation that is. Sometimes people do not add descriptions to their uploaded photos, but the absence of text always makes me think about what the caption might have said, and so, the collaboration is somehow still present.
The craft of illustration has been around for a long time, but the photograph has not, and many turn-of-the-century writers were very vocal about their suspicions concerning its negative potential. The American writer Henry James comes to mind. Initially, James held the view that any added illustration to his work would be superfluous. The images were already there, hidden within the texts, as he states in a mysteriously ambivalent preface to his novel The Golden Bowl. Witnessing the birth of the camera, James became fearful of a visual culture out of control. He considered the real to be “vulgar” and so if the camera was only reproducing reality—which was, in fact, the common view at the time—it was certainly an instrument of vulgarity; uncritical towards and not reflecting on the world it was portraying. He ended up changing his mind though. Throughout the famous New York Editions, a republishing of his life’s work, James included a couple of photographs on the first pages of every single book. He must eventually have come to the realization that photographs were not necessarily a threat to literature; that they were able to compliment and not substitute the essence of his work. Still, I wonder what James’s view on Instagram might have been. I am pretty sure he would have been appalled. From my point of view as a somewhat Instagram addict, James’s initial response to the camera is justified. Isn’t it fair to say that the art of photography has in fact strangled the written word in the way we now document most of our lives in pictures and not in text? The captions you read on Instagram compliment the pictures and not the other way around, right? Text is secondary.
these platforms are visible and very tangible evidence of capitalism as the all-consumer, and so I can direct my anger and frustration towards something, while at the same time being aware of my own delighted participation in the whole charade. There is freedom in that.
Emilie has just put up a new post about self-acceptance. In general, there’s a lot of “self” in both her and Avalon’s image descriptions and stories (if you are not an Instagram connoisseur, “stories” are short videos you can upload on your profile. The videos are only viewable for twenty-four hours at a time). The self seems to be the foundation of their linguistic and visual endeavors, and I get it, it makes sense. To start with the woman in the mirror and all that. What bugs me, among other things, is that I recognize this philosophy in the consultancy agency. And before the rant about capitalism as an all-consuming and ubiquitous entity fires off in my head and in yours, let me just say: the discrepancy in the way most of us criticize capitalism and love it at the same time becomes very real and very visible in social media. I think the way I lounge around in Emilie and Avalon’s pick-me-up profiles has to do with 1) that I seriously need to be picked up and 2) that these platforms are visible and very tangible evidence of capitalism as the all-consumer, and so I can direct my anger and frustration towards something, while at the same time being aware of my own delighted participation in the whole charade. There is freedom in that.
No longer a day-to-day victim of the soulless consultant agency, I am now no longer forced to be violated by messages of corporate management spirituality. Instead, I turn to Instagram, where the messages are similar, but wrapped up in the promise of delicious pink self-sufficiency, and most importantly, they are not work-centric. I still do not have a job, and I still sometimes take a peep at Emilie’s celebratory live stories and images. “I am here to give you energy,” it says in her caption of the day. “I will help you break free from what no longer is beneficial to you”. I look out the window, pick up my phone and contemplate deleting the Instagram application gleaming in front of me. Maybe tomorrow.