Howie Kim on Making Art That Entertains, The Millennial Generation and What Authenticity Means in the Age of Social Media

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Slow Conversations
from the 10/2019 Issue

Filed under: digital illustration, illustration, internet art, painting
Howie Kim is a visual artist whose works revolves around the idea of millennials, their stereotypes and obsession with social media, popular culture and the internet. Majoring in painting back in school, he has since moved on to exploring other mediums such as digital illustrations, gifs, animation, photo manipulation and most recently creating AR filters. Howie’s surreal style of works has allowed him to work with brands such as IWC South East Asia, Tiger Beer and DBS Singapore.
Howie’s works are an unflinching byproduct of the exact times in which we live in. Just a few years ago, works like these would be inconceivable. Yet, they have found their way into the devices of viewers all around the world through social media platforms such as Instagram.

Let’s kick things off phones and social media, two things that you picked out for this interview. You’ve recently released an Instagram stories filter, Bee a flower, yourself. With filters, everyone can insert themselves into an image, bringing a different facet to our understanding of interactive art. As someone who works a lot with the digital, what excites or intrigues you most about how art and AR are colliding on accessible platforms such as social media?

I like creating works that have a surreal or fantasy element to them, so I think filters are great. It allows, as you say, the audience to become a part of the work itself. A lot of my work is interested in questions surrounding what being a millennial is and what comes alongs with being a millennial. This includes how we use social media, our obsession with celebrity culture, the Internet and memes. Filters are a perfect medium for me to explore all of these questions. Having said that, filters are just an extension of what I do.
¹ Bee A Flower (Instagram Filter), 2019
Howie Kim

You do draw on pop culture a lot in your own works as well. Just to list a few examples, you’ve worked with images of Paris Hilton, and referenced Mean Girls. There’s a clear inclination towards female celebrities, particularly those who star in teenage rom-coms or are popular with teenage girls. Is this inclination a conscious decision? If so, why focus on this specific corner of pop culture?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer for why I’ve referenced it so much. I like the entertainment value from this particular area of pop culture. A lot of it is very superficial, and that is what I draw upon. At the end of the day, most of us are looking to be entertained. When we’re bored, we scroll through our phones looking for something that will excite us.

I think this particular time in celebrity or pop culture captures our attention in a very different way. When we compare celebrities that are in the news today to the celebrities that were popular in the 90s, the latter seems more exciting to me. I’m not sure if that’s a result of social media changing how we understand or consume pop culture. There is a very direct connection now that fans can have to their idols that was not present before social media became prevalent.
² Birth of Papaya, Howie Kim

³ Gucci Boi, Howie Kim

There’s always this tension present between who a celebrity presents themselves to be versus who they might actually be in real life. Looking at this period of time through the lens of social media brings a very new perspective to something that’s past its prime, and your works have a very different aesthetic to that of the 90s. Would you describe your work as being nostalgic or drawing on nostalgic elements, or is that too sentimental a descriptor?

I wouldn’t say this was driven by nostalgia. I do reference contemporary pop culture as well, so I think it has more to do with me picking out things that I find exciting or even scandalous. Earlier on in your question, you talked about this gap between a celebrity’s public persona and their personal life.

If I were to draw out a very clear relationship between my use of filters and my interest in celebrity culture, I’d say that I like the idea of being able to create a persona or a character.

I try to channel that in a lot of my own works as well. I play out different characters, and there is this element of not knowing what the real thing is.

I picked out Britney Spears for our conversation because when you think of her, it was always very clear that she was a manufactured pop star. She started off in the music industry at a very young age, and so her recording label probably gave her an image and told her what to do with it. We don’t actually know who she is, and I like that sense of mystery around it. You think you know a celebrity, but do you really? It is similar to how we use filters on photographs now. When you think of filters such as Meitu XiuXiu, we can slap on a filter onto any image of ourselves — but is that how we really look like? It’s almost deceitful, but not in a bad way at all.

That almost seems to be the point nowadays. It doesn’t seem to matter who the person behind the filter is because we’re happy to take that image at face value anyway.

I think with a lot of my works, I do try to question what authenticity or reality is in this digital age. We read about models being photoshopped and airbrushed for photoshoots. We’ve gotten to a point where we know these images are not real, and I’m not sure if that’s a problem.

Let’s go back to something you touched on earlier, particularly how you use characters in your work. You work with your own image a lot in your work, and looking through the way in which you manipulate images of yourself brings The Sims to mind. Do you see these characters as being avatars of sorts?

To a certain extent. A lot of people know that the images I put out of myself are not real, and there are similarities between that and how you play games such as The Sims. You’re able to curate your character to create this avatar, as you said.
The Millennial Funfair, Howie Kim

Apart from obvious reasons such as having easy access to the self, why have you continuously worked with images of yourself?

Convenience is definitely a factor, but it is only one of many factors. It also comes down to the fact that I know how I’d best like to portray myself. I don’t want to bring in someone else, take a photograph of them, and then make them do something that they might be uncomfortable with. I use images of myself a lot because, and I’m quoting the artist Frida Kahlo here, “I am the subject I know best”.

That is not to say that I haven’t worked with other people. When I graduated from my degree in fine arts, I got a bunch of my friends to dress up as millennial stereotypes. Someone was a party girl, another was a studious nerd; and I placed them all side by side to create this fantasy millennial world.

It’s also a lot of fun to work with images of myself. I don’t have to be like that in real life. When I think of social media, I think of how people curate their own profiles. You only put up photographs that you want other people to see, and I think this is an incredibly exaggerated version of that.
Charles, Howie Kim

Me & My Fr-ants, Howie Kim

⁷ Notes on ‘Camp’, Susan Sontag

Another visual descriptor for your works could be the word “campy”, first popularised by the book you chose for our interview: Susan Sontag’s Notes on ‘Camp’. Interest in this book surged after it was announced that it would be the theme of the 2019 Met Gala. Personally what did reading that book mean for you, and what is your notion of “camp” or being “campy”?

I think being camp is about being over the top and being too much. On some level, it’s also about not being taken seriously. In Sontag’s Notes on ‘Camp’, she writes that camp is not just a matter of being excessive. It is about being excessive almost to the point of failure or absurdity. For example, I think drag queens are very camp. They put on these large wigs with heavy makeup to give you the illusion of a woman, but you know they’re not women — they are giving you an exaggerated, over the top idea of what a woman could be.

The term “camp” has been associated with, as you mentioned, drag queens and more recently, the Met Gala. There is a very performative element to this term. When Sontag wrote this text, she spoke about camp as almost being a way of moving through the world as well — so it is very much about this performative exterior as it is an attitude. Did this duality strike you when you were reading the book as well?

It is definitely more than just an outlook. A person can be very camp in the way they behave as well. I always draw this parallel between the term “camp” and another term we use frequently today, “extra”. When you describe someone as being very extra, you mean to say that they’re being completely over the top as well. I think there’s some kind of relation between the two terms.

To bring it back to something we spoke about earlier, I don’t think I reference particular celebrities or films in my works because of nostalgia. I do so because, if you think about it, these characters are actually pretty camp. So maybe the camp aesthetics, behaviour and attitude is something that I find myself drawn towards.

Your works do reference pop culture and everyday life, but there’s a very alien-like quality to them that make them feel like they’re completely out of this world. There are works of art that almost demand a certain level of knowledge from viewers, but there isn’t that air about your work. Do you think that people have so much fun encountering and engaging with your work because it completely breaks away from these standardised modes of making?

I like the entertainment value of art, so I do try to make my works fun. I think it also resonates with how I perceive art. I don’t like works that I don’t understand. Having said that, I’m sure a lot of people don’t really understand what my works are.

These works are weird, but at least I employ figurative images. So the ideas within the works might be abstract, but the visuals are not abstract.

That’s just how I create my works. I want them to be entertaining, although it might be a very niche sort of entertainment.

I think the lines between art and entertainment are blurring. Back in the day, I’m sure people would never consider entertainment as art. Now, I think people are starting to warm to the idea of it because of how prevalent social media and digital mediums are.

The majority of the people who encounter your work on social media platforms are millennials, but how have non-millennials responded to seeing your works?

Most of them are incredibly perplexed, and others can be quite disturbed by the images I use. My parents, for example, are confused as to why I keep making such works. The times are changing, and along with that, so are viewers’ tastes and preferences. I enjoy listening to what people from different generations have to say about my work because it is often quite interesting.

Having said that, there are millennials or people who are around my age that don’t understand what I’m doing either. Some think there’s a deeper or hidden meaning to my works, but I really don’t think you have to overthink it. It’s meant to be like a meme, for example. It’s funny for that moment, you’re entertained, and that’s it. Move on. It is what it is, and I embrace that as well. This is just what I enjoy making right now, but who knows? I could be making something completely different in five to ten years.
Xiao Tian Tian, Howie Kim

These works definitely have a pulse on contemporary digital and social media culture, and having said that, these developments were only exacerbated over the past few years or so. What was the process of you coming to work with digital mediums like, particularly as a student?

To be very honest, I only came into these ideas when I was doing my degree. Before my degree, the works I made drew primarily from a personal loss that I experienced. I got to a point where I felt like I was done with that, and I wanted to move on. When I looked around at the rest of my classmates, I realised that everyone was tackling really serious, heavy topics. People were making works on issues such as feminism or gender, for example. I know these things, but none of them really excited me enough.

Personally, I can only make works that I enjoy making. I can’t create something that I don’t feel for. So I started asking myself, well, what do I care about? What is my deeper message? I realised, to be honest, that I didn’t have one. I’m just a regular guy that likes celebrity culture. Nobody said that those things couldn’t be art, so I decided to just go right into it. It’s almost a terrible thing to say, but it’s the honest truth.
⁹ Whack a Hoe, Howie Kim

With the onset of social media influencers, the performative aspect of these platforms have only been further emphasised. Beyond using Instagram as a feed to showcase your works, have you considered using Instagram as a medium for performance as well?

Anything could be performative, so that word could be use to describe about anything. The idea of us having this conversation is also, to a certain extent, performative. Any action is a performance. I think the word “performance” or “performative” has the element of putting on a show embedded within it. You hear the word “performative”, and you start questioning what is real and what is not.

I’ve been interested in authenticity in the digital age for awhile now. What constitutes being authentic today? I think there is a certain sense of authenticity in being camp or being over the top. It is so artificial that it is no longer real, and I’m not trying to fool you into thinking that it is.

If something that looks so unreal looks real, that raises the question of what being real means. Is it even possible to be authentic in this digital age?

I think the question is more of, how can you be authentic in this digital age? For example, if I’ve gone for countless cosmetic procedures and I look completely different now, but I tell you that this is the byproduct of those surgeries — is that authentic? This is in comparison to someone who tries to pass off as being naturally gorgeous. Sometimes in being overtly artificial, one gets a sense that there’s more authenticity there.

Would it be accurate to say that your idea of authenticity is about not being deceptive?

Definitely. People think of social media influencers as being pretentious. However if they go on to make a spectacle of their pretence, then you know what their intentions are. They aren’t lying anymore, and that’s something that I’m interested in. We’re also starting to see AI social media influencers, such as Lil Miquela, pop up on our feeds. There are people who comment on these photos, unsure if the figure in the image is even a real person. It might seem incredibly obvious that these AI influencers are not real, but not everyone can tell. These are not even real human beings, and yet they are perceived as such.

Social media and Instagram are things that have become a huge part of our lives now. As much as people say they are aware of its influence, I don’t think we fully grasp just how consumed we are by these platforms. Social media is so well integrated into our lives. We check Facebook and Instagram for updates multiple times a day, and we don’t even realise it. So I see the digital medium — and I refer to the digital in all its aspects — as being incredibly relevant. I used to be a painter before I started doing illustrations, and for me, the digital is an extension of that.

It’s interesting that you bring up AI social media influencers. They are designed to resemble real human people, and this brings to mind the Living Dead Doll that you picked out for this conversation. What is your personal relationship to this collectible doll?

I picked out this doll for our conversation because it was what gave me my aesthetic. When I was thirteen or fourteen, a friend gave the doll to me. He purchased the doll for himself, but it creeped his mum out so much that he had to give it away. I thought the doll was really cute, so I took it. I started liking things that are creepy and cute, and that’s what I’ve drawn on for the doll-like aesthetic of the figures in my works.
¹⁰ Siren, A collectable Living Dead Doll
Credit: Howie Kim

Accompanying the doll is a blurb that gives insight into her background and tells her story. This is something that you’ve been delving into with some of the captions that accompany your work as well. You’ve conjured up stories about encounters, creatures and landscapes. Why animate your works through these imagined stories?

I don’t really know why, but I think it is because these captions give context to an image. It adds entertainment value, firstly, but it also helps to frame how the viewer might perceive the work. It’s similar to how artworks in a gallery are accompanied by a write-up about the artworks on display. These texts help to give you a sense of the work’s background, or an insight into what the artist was thinking at the time.

With my captions, I try to inject a bit of humour into them. The images themselves, as surreal as they are, can be rather absurd as well. I like creating captions that accompany the visual, and it also helps lighten the mood so that people don’t take these images too seriously. Also, more is more. So why not just throw in an imaginative story with the work?

Although these captions bring your works to life, you’ve also been exploring animating your works with GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) and videos. GIFs, in particular, are continuous, looping images that many of us are familiar with. What do you find appealing about this format of moving image?

The loop creates this idea of infinity — it goes on and on and on. You publish these GIFs on the internet, and I’m interested in how uploading something onto the internet means that it is there for all posterity. That was my initial reason for working with GIFs, but I’ve also found it incredibly visually appealing to watch a series of images go on and on. I like the fact that GIFs do not stop, and that they’re open ended.

The animated image is a very natural progression from the static image. As someone who works with both the animated and the visual image, what do you think the place of both is, particularly given the image-saturated environment we now live in?

We see so many images everyday, and moving into making animated works was a very natural step for me. This is why I started making filters as well. To be honest, I would love to make a film someday. I know it’ll be incredibly expensive, but that’s a medium I’d love to experiment with. I know I keep talking about entertainment, but it really comes back to that. People want to be entertained. I want to be entertained. I’m sure my works are not for everyone, and that there are people out there who don’t enjoy my works. But on the flip side of that, there are people like me out there who’ll appreciate this kind of work as well. I think it is just about expanding our visual understanding, and incorporating things that are more exciting.

You’ve worked on a music video, which is an incredibly condensed version of a full feature film. Would you say that that experience whet your appetite for more?

For sure. I’ve wanted to make a film for awhile now, and this is something I think about even when I’m making GIFs. I’m always thinking to myself: “I want to make extended versions of these works.”

Perhaps I use captions in my works because I want to tell stories. I’ve always enjoyed telling fictional stories, and so I think it all relates to one another. A film is a visual version of a book, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do with the way I use captions or how I make moving images.

Across your works, there is a very clear tendency towards the kaleidoscopic, the surreal and the imaginary. Despite that, they aren’t complete abstractions. What does reality or realism mean to you, and what do you make of the futuristic abstraction in your works vis-a-vis that understanding?

Reality, to me, is the same thing as being authentic. How you understand reality comes down to what one’s intentions are. Honestly, I don’t even know if authenticity is real. My question would then be, does it matter? Does it matter what reality is in this day and age? We live in a time with VR and AR, so I don’t even know if what is real is important anymore. People go onto AR chatrooms and talk to other through their avatars, and those characters aren’t even real. The future that we are in right now is making that possible, and reality is constantly changing. That could be reality in the very near future.
¹¹ The Mona Lisa, Howie Kim

If what we thought was abstract a few years ago is now reality, it makes one wonder what abstraction will look like in the future.

I have no idea, and I think it is exciting. I think a lot of people are often scared of the future because it is unknown. It is obviously better now, but speaking from personal experience, my parents did not start out being receptive to the idea of using Facebook. They’d ask questions such as, “Why would you want to share so much of your life with strangers?” Now, they’re on Facebook. The world is changing, and we have to accept the future and its accompanying technologies. Personally, I’m someone who completely embraces technology. I think technology is great, and I think it is amazing.

Perhaps when people think of reality, what they have in mind is human connection. Given that definition, social media would seem unreal because it lacks a genuine face to face encounter with another person. But we might be living in age where such encounters are quickly becoming the reality. I love watching the TV series, Black Mirror. A lot of the scenarios in the show are really scary but if you think about it, we’re only a few steps away from that. Some of the ideas presented in the show are pretty good as well. In particular, I’m thinking about the episode where one’s consciousness can be uploaded into the cloud after they’ve passed on. I thought that idea was brilliant.

I don’t really know how to answer your question of what abstraction would look like in the future. If the future is a world without cafes, for example, an actual cafe would then be abstract for its context. We will never know. As scary as it is, I think it’s also incredibly exciting.

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