Interview: Bess NYC
Doug Abraham, better known by his Instagram moniker @BessNYC4, talks to Lou Stoppard about his art, the future of branding and appropriation.
Doug Abraham, better known by his Instagram moniker @BessNYC4, talks to Lou Stoppard about his art, the future of branding and appropriation.
Lou Stoppard: Before you became known, you worked in a video rental place. Do you think that has anything to do with how you got interested in imagery and film and moving image?
Bess NYC: Maybe - probably. It was called Kim’s Video - it was a seminal ninties place in New York City; everybody went to Kim’s Video. There were five of them downtown maybe, and it was an underground music and video place. Back then there was no streaming or anything, so, everybody rented - no one got out of renting tapes.
LS: And you must have watched all the movies.
BNYC: Yeah, I was working and I was getting my Masters in Fine Art at the same time. We were open until one in the morning or something, so I would go to school, I would go to the studio and then I would work from 17:00 to 01:00. And then we got three videos a night, or something. And you could also get on lists too, so you could get into shows for free and you could see music. It was good. The pay was shit but I watched a ton of movies. When I was in school, I used to draw from film stills, so I would take videotapes and draw from the screen, which is not too different from what I do now.
LS: And some of the films that you reference now, were they things you came across during the period?
BNYC: Well, I think you get used to watching and kind of absorbing images. There were always movies playing and I was always watching films at the time. I think you get used to processing visual information quickly in that way. Working there, you’d have William Friedkin’s office or something coming in. You‘d have people who made movies come in to get videotapes. So you learnt, for example, what William Friedkin liked. And what Matthew Barney gets when he goes to the video store. These were all kinds of noteworthy people and you could literally creep on people’s accounts. So, if Gwyneth and Brad, who were a couple at the time, or whoever, would come into the store, you could look them up – you could look up everybody - and creep on their history. You could see who watched what and learn about them. And we had all the bootlegs, and anime; it was a film history. I definitely learnt more there than I did in art school at the time.
LS: Talking of art school, I’m interested in the aesthetic that you have now, as it’s so recognisable. You must get tired of people saying this, but whenever I’m on instagram, if people have reposted something, I know it’s your work. When did that aesthetic emerge? When did you start playing with that type of imagery, the logos and the branding? Was that something that was always an interest or how did it come about?
BNYC: Not really. I think I had a couple of Instagram accounts before this one that got deleted by Instagram. And, I think that in a way, created a little bit of a buzz. It started because Bess was a brand and we had a retail store in New York – so the Instagram was more of a traditional platform for press and inspiration imagery. The store had a Facebook, but someone else did it. I never had any interest. I was always someone who had a big photo-library and I never really did social media of any kind. But with Instagram, because it’s through your personal device and it was on my phone, I started doing it. And then it got deleted the first time for a boob in a press picture; Erin Watson’s nipple in a Bess leather jacket. And then because of that censorship, I think I got more interested in exploring the boundaries of what you could do and what you couldn’t do with images on Instagram. I think it was then that I become more interested in it not so much as a platform for showing brand products, but in terms of what the Bess aesthetic was in terms of making images and experimenting with advertising.
LS: It’s interesting – because a few of your accounts go deleted it’s hard to find a record of that progression.
BNYC: I started doing it really with @BessNYC3, the last account that got deleted, where I would put the Bess NYC logo on different kinds of images and do this thing where I would post in threes. So I was thematically appropriating images and branding them. And then that one eventually got deleted. And then with @BessNYC4, I think I started thinking about combining images more because I started playing around digitally. I haven’t really got a background in it – I just found out how easy it is technically so began to combine things. So, I started doing that, not really with fashion images, but then I became more aware of who was looking at my Instagram account – friends educated me more about the fashion industry luminaries were looking at my pictures. It was a private account at the time, which I think, maybe made it more interesting for people; it was secret. Then I started looking more at brands, through who was looking at my feed, and I started looking specifically at the photographers and stylists and creative directors who were following me. I also started looking at what people in the industry were doing in terms of branding. Around that same time I started doing a kind of collage thing, juxtaposing images. So I started with a Celine, Juergen [Teller], and Daria [Werbowy] one - that was probably my first fashion thing that was a collage. But at that time there wasn’t really so much difference in terms of the kind of images that I was combining; it was imagery that was already in my photo library. Once I started saving branding images it would almost happen automatically. The images would be in the same square, as I would scroll through my iPhoto on my phone. So it, sort of, naturally made an interesting picture, if I combined some of the images.
LS: It’s seems like it’s quite an organic process.
BNYC: Yes - it’s also the great thing about doing things digitally. Instagram as a platform is kind of isolated – you lend to do it by yourself- so you can do things very spur of the moment, alone. All you do is just press that button and it’s there. So you can do it without a lot of pre-meditation. It was interesting for me, because you don’t know what other people are going to think is interesting. So, initially it was just entertaining myself.
LS: It’s so interesting because, as the notability around the work has grown, a lot of fashion brands whose imagery you’ve appropriated have come to like it – it’s become, ironically, an extension of their digital branding, especially given the number of shares you get. I imagine, when you started, some of them were not so sure. But now, it’s different. That must be strange for you.
BNYC: With the early ones there were people, like Fabien Baron for example, who were already following me at that point and engaging with the work - I think he left some positive comments. I think Alistair McKimm posted or reposted some of the very early ones. But I do think there were people that were within the industry who had a bit of brand clout that were initially hesitant. I wouldn’t want to say that people in fashion aren’t independent but corporate brands are, you know, cautious. But I think if the right people like it, particularly with the brands, then it makes it easier. I think it depends on how it is presented to them – it’s much easier for them to like things that they think that cool people like. Then they can see it’s worth something to them.
LS: Let’s talk about how the images are made. Do you pick the imagery based on each brand? Because, what I find interesting is that it does feel like you don’t always pick imagery that matches the aesthetic of the brand, sometimes quite the opposite, you pick imagery that almost contrasts the aesthetic of the brand, but it always feels like there is something in line with what the brand is about. Whether it’s because it draws parallel with it, or whether you’re deliberately contrasting. It feels like the image you would post with the Dior logo is somehow different to what you would post with a Celine logo, or a Givenchy logo. How do you go about choosing that?
BNYC: Well, you get an initial vibe and then you just really commit once you start channelling a specific feel for a brand. When I see a particular kind of imagery, whether or not in reality it relates to the brand, I start a narrative for myself, and its as if they were in paper folders and you were literally cutting things out then organising your clippings. So, for me, once I start a vibe for a brand, then I try and commit to it. I think, sometimes, there’s a subliminal aspect to branding that, if you’re trying to do it in a collective unconscious kind of way, can be interesting. You know that there’s maybe a sensibility that isn’t the overt sensibility but feels like the brand. I think Dior is a good example of something where there’s maybe a subliminal decadence of some kind. That might not be what the overt advertising is about, but it comes through in a different level of consciousness.
LS: It’s so interesting to think about what a certain image would be without anything on it, and then how it changes when you put, say, the Dior logo on it - it completely changes the meaning of the image, regardless of whether it’s porn or something of that genre. It makes you think about the way that logos and branding works. Sometimes, it elevates an image and you think, why does it now look classy and appealing and aspirational, when before, I would have just scrolled past that? It’s really, really clever. It really shows that words alone, a name, can knock you and catch your attention and, really, turn one thing into another.
BNYC: Oh, definitely, I think that logos do that. I don’t really have a history in graphic design and its really only through doing this have I learnt the names of fonts. But I think that definitely there is a lot of power in that and something that is a big part of advertising. And it’s hard to define how it works and why it works.
LS: You must notice it sometimes when you post. Do you think that you’re getting likes for the logo, or do you think you’re getting likes for the image, or do you think you’re getting likes for the combination? Are you able to distinguish it sometimes, or is it all three of them?
BNYC: There’s certainly things that get a lot of likes that don’t have anything to do with the brand. Celebrities in a sense are their own kind of brand. And I’ve noticed within my own Instagram that people really bring their own response that I wouldn’t necessarily have anticipated. Take, the Interview magazine Kylie Jenner picture - that’s already dirty and if I make it dirtier, then it’s really entertaining for people. And I guess that’s why fashion magazines are interested in those people that really have nothing to do with anything – they’re just brands in themselves.
LS: Well it’s that thing - saying things without saying anything. And I think it’s interesting that we’ve got to an age where visuals, logos, people and, as you say, celebrity, can stand for so much even though none of it is acknowledged or explained. Why is Dior so iconic? Why is Kylie Jenner interesting? It's all unsaid; it’s not something that is tangible. So you are playing with those visual codes.
BNYC: Yes - that's the interesting thing about social media. It’s different to understand or quantify – that’s why brands and print advertising is in a strange place. Corporations are trying to figure out how people use social media, and how in turn they should be using it for advertising. I think the future of it all is pretty mysterious.
LS: Do you ever feel like you’re doing free advertising for brands? Tumblr and Instagram are littered with fan-made campaigns or fake adverts – the Prada grumpy cat is a really good example of that. Do you feel sometimes you’re offering brands something that is even more relevant to this age than an officially commissioned print advertising campaign?
BNYC: Yes - I definitely wish I was getting paid what the photographer got paid to take a picture of something that no one is going to look at! But when I do projects with brands, even in the last year, it still seems sometimes that there is so little thought about what things are going to to look like on a four-inch image. People still think in terms of print – they don’t think that you might not want six people, full body, in your campaign, because if you’re planning on that being your social media thing then no one is going to be able to see it. But I think that brands are starting to get savvier to how things look on that scale. And in terms of moving images, I think that brands are starting to think more about what can you do with fifteen seconds of movement. Hopefully brands are paying more attention to everyone who uses these platforms, and will become aware of the opportunities that the platform allows – there’s far more opportunities than they may think. Fifteen free seconds - if you think about it in the tradition of television advertising - is really a lot of time for free. But, I think, sometimes, when you’re not paying for something, it’s even more confusing for the corporate people to know how to use it.
LS: When the brands are quite conservative, I think they like understanding the parameters of the relationship; we pay you, you put the advert in. But the Internet is like the Wild West in some ways. Were you surprised by the brands that wanted to work with you?
BNYC: I’ve definitely been approached by more brands than I’ve actually done something for.
LS: I can imagine.
BNYC: It's difficult, I think brands aren’t exactly sure if they want to see what I would do in a print space, or they want to take advantage of the fact that I already have notoriety within a social media space. This spring, I did graphics for Marc Jacobs – just graphics for clothing. I think it’s good for brands, and for ‘creatives’, as they call people like me now. Making a picture is, for me, making a picture, so if it’s going to end up on a garment, or on a billboard, or in a magazine, or, on a postage stamp, it’s the same process. In terms of the usage of the image - there are so many different places that people can go. So it’s interesting what kinds of images end up where. I think a question that I get a lot is, can I do normal? Does it have to be scary or sexual? I think, is an interesting question - of course I can be normal.
LS: But why would you? Going back to the Instagram accounts getting banned. What is motivating you in the use of more explicit imagery? Is it to do with the parameters of what is accepted on social media? Or is it about, as you say, challenging how normal, conservative and polished a lot of fashion imagery looks? Or is it a bit of both?
BNYC: In one sense, currently there are definitely less different kinds of imagery within branding than there have been at other points in history. If you look twenty years ago, it was a lot easier to do things that had nudity for example -Kate Moss’ nipples were on a giant billboard on Houston Street. But, in a Calvin Klein ad now, on a billboard in New York City, you wouldn’t see a nipple. Ever. Even if you look at Comme des Garçons shirt ads, there was definitely much more of an experimental kind of image making within advertising and branding than there is currently.
LS: Do you think it’s because nipples etc are banned on Instagram, which is a way that people consume so much imagery, so actually, to use it on a billboard seems even more shocking than it would have done, pre-Instagram. I suppose the internet has changed the parameters.
BNYC: Yes, and I think all kinds of extreme sexual images and transgressive kinds of images are so easily available on the internet, which wasn’t in existence twenty years ago. I have teenage kids and God knows how much porn they’re seeing effortlessly, without even trying very hard.
LS: It’s so weird that running in parallel to that is how sanitised other imagery has become. Fashion imagery has become sort of prim.
BNYC: I think somehow that because it’s so easy to see things that are so much more extreme than in the past, there’s become an awkward contradiction between what’s online and sanitised mainstream imagery. Social media spaces are also very sanitised, but all you have to do is click on Tumblr. It’s a double life. I think it almost becomes like your daylife and your nightlife.
LS: It’s like the idea of a businessman that is suitable on the outside and together and polished, but then his personal life, he’s an American Psycho. It’s between what you reveal and what you conceal, and you’re bringing those two sides together. It’s the seedy underbelly of the Internet combined with fashion and, I think that’s what’s so funny. You see porn and violence and then you put them next to these polished fashion logos and it’s toying with aspirations versus reality.
BNYC: In a sense, we all know you can’t say what you’re really trying to say.
So, in some ways, I’m going to say what you’re really trying to say – so you’ll to see the direct version of what it’s like and not just flirtation version. I think if you lift the veil a little bit, it’s the catharsis for people in fashion, because everyone is so restricted. I think that’s the response to what I was doing initially from people who worked in fashion. The people who I’ve met that have been working in image branding and fashion for a long time seemed the most frustrated because they actually used to have a lot less restrictions than they do now when making images. And I think that’s across both editorial and branding. I think magazines have also somewhat followed a similar path, in terms of generating content. There’s so much more control, even in editorial imagery, from brands – things like, ‘oh you have to have the whole look or you can’t have anything.’ Or, ‘oh, we’re not going to give you our brand’s clothes unless you’re giving us a whole special about just our brand.’ You can’t just shoot whatever clothes you want with whatever, you can’t mix anything, and you’re negotiating all the time within every form of project. So I think that there is a lot of frustration in terms of the level of room for an individual’s creative expression - it becomes very diluted.
LS: And you see your work as a response to that?
BNYC: Well, I think words like collaboration, although they sound like positives, often just mean that nobody gets to do what they want. Certainly, when I work now, I’m getting a dollar from somebody for something and I’m ‘collaborating,’ in quotation marks. But you can’t be collaborative and autonomous at the same time. But, in a way, doing things well depends on having single point of focus. But it’s really easy for that to get lost. Once you lose a little bit of it, you just lose the whole thing. It’s sometimes, unfortunately, a bit of an all or nothing type of proposition. Because it’s hard, I think particularly in something like fashion, where you’re always advertising a little bit. Even if you’re trying to do your own thing, if you’re trying to make art at the same time, which, I think, a lot of people have done successfully, if you’re really constrained, then your work is only going to get to be seen by anyone if you don’t do this or do that. By the time it does get to be seen, then how much has it been diluted? How much has gone from what you originally had an intention to do in the first place? I think, that that’s what’s a good thing about something like Instagram, in that it gives creative people a little bit of an opportunity to actually run their own thing. And therefore it gives people an opportunity to get inspiration or whatever from people’s actual ideas instead of the version of the idea that they are paid to do.
LS: But with that freedom, there’s always this thing where your Instagram account can just be deleted. In your case, it feels like each deletion of your account has contributed to a growth from you and it’s spurred you on. But it must be frustrating that all of the followers, all of that imagery, all of that work, just goes.
BNYC: Yes, certainly. But I think, now, I can, in a sense be freer, because once you have a certain level of noteworthiness within the platform, you meet the actual people who work on it. When you have a lot of attention in that format you have more security. You’re not as likely to get the axe. But while they might not delete my account, frequently, I’ll scroll through and suddenly it’s all jumbled because pictures have been plucked out and deleted. I’m definitely still held to a high level of sanitisation from the platform - at their discretion they remove things that they’re not comfortable with.
LS: A lot of the work that is deleted is reposted by other people anyway. Which is amusing given that your work toys with ideas of appropriation. You must see your images reposted and shared, un-credited, a lot of the time. Is that all part of the process of what you do? Or is that frustrating for you
BNYC: No, it’s not. I think most times I am credited but it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m not. And I don’t really know if it matters anyway. I appreciate when the things get out there - people say, ‘oh, you know, everyone’s starting to do your thing now.’ But it kind of happens in everything.
LS: It’s ironic. Through playing with branding, you’ve become a brand. That combination of a logo with an image has now in itself become a logo or a recognisable brand. We were talking about when things become iconic, and when things become familiar, but you don’t know why it feels familiar or has an impact on you, but it does - your aesthetic now has that.
BNYC: Sure. When we were an apparel brand, we made studded vintage combat boots or something and then two years later you walk down Broadway and All Saints or Topshop or H&M have their version of your studded combat boot - it’s, kind of, similar. You don’t really get to cry ‘not fair’. If you don’t capitalise on your thing, somebody else is going to. It’s not like a pharmaceutical company copyrighting a drug. Things, once they’re out there, are out there for everybody.
LS: And what’s your next plan next it all? How do you see it growing and developing? One thing that I’ve become interested in fashion is the use of secret branding. Things that aren’t obviously a logo name, but they are just as obvious as branding, like the Givenchy Rottweiler for example. I feel like, in a way, there’s a slight move away from written logos. And is that, like you mentioned with the celebrity thing, is that something you’re interested in as well?
BNYC: I’m interested in when brands take on different symbols. I think that, certainly in street culture, that’s always been something that kids paid attention to. I’ve also tried to encourage brands to do more branding that isn’t about showing the product. Because I think that that’s a part of what I’m trying to say or do; if you’re showing the logo, you don’t really need to show the product. At a certain point, if you’re really doing cool branding, you’re not really showing it either. You’re just trying to make people compelled, and if they’re compelled enough to know, to try and know more, then they’ll figure it out. How cool is your brand if you don’t have to show the product? Maybe you’re the coolest if you’re just trying to tell people a story or, show people a picture, and let the viral nature of the medium educate people. If you’re on the, say, Gucci Instagram profile, people already know who’s posting the content, so do Gucci really need to show the product? Or can you just create content that is defined by the institution or by the space? What tells people they’re looking at art isn’t necessarily because it looks like art – it’s because it’s been validated by the institution, because of where it is. I think branding, certainly, can be like that.