Meet Alphachanneling, Instagram's Favorite Anonymous Artist
With nearly 200,000 Instagram followers and his first-ever solo show, @alphachanneling is making a name for himself in the art world—without ever revealing his actual name.
Here’s what we know about @alphachanneling: he’s from Switzerland, lives in Oakland, works mostly in digital art, and has a penchant for all things sensual. Here’s what we don’t know about @alphachanneling: his name. His nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram don’t seem to mind, though, and neither does New York’s Jack Hanley Gallery, which just gave him his first solo exhibition, “Utopian Erotic,” up through April 17. For all his secrecy, though, Alphachanneling loves to gab—we spent 45 minutes on the phone before the show’s opening, which he may or may not have attended.
Congratulations on your first solo show. Did you ever think your account would get to this level? When did you first start getting such a strong reception?
I guess it’s exponential, but I began posting on Instagram about two and a half or three years ago. I’m one of those late adopters, so I hadn’t been on Facebook or anything, but I got on there because friends were telling me how much art there was. I think for many artists, the first impulse is to think, “Why would I put a piece of art that took me months on a screen that is so small that you can’t see the nuances? People are going to see in three seconds and feel like they’ve seen the work.” So then I thought maybe I’ll put out this other stuff that nobody sees, these stream-of-consciousness, unfiltered kind of drawings that have more of a provocative theme. I was kind of doing it a bit in jest, you know, like what would people think of this, but then there were likes and people tagging each other. It started steadily growing from that point on.
Did your friends know it was you behind the account?
No, no, only a few. But it pretty quickly went beyond my small circle of friends who knew my work.
Why did you decide to keep your identity a secret?
It just felt really natural to have this pen name and keep it distinct from my other work. I think if I put it under the umbrella of all my work, then it gets very confusing. Pretty early on I started to really appreciate how concise it was to not introduce who I am as a person into it, and let it just be this voice that comes from a very distinct space—a space that doesn’t have to contend with the realities of daily life, you know, the politics of things, certain risks. It’s really nice to have the work be protected in that way, and not have to have that person and that work answer to all these other things that are very real. I think that’s part of why Alphachanneling is what it is—it doesn’t try to encompass every facet of my life, and all my projects and how I meet the world. It’s a very clear, distinct little channel.
Is that where the username comes from?
The idea with the username is “alpha,” as in this high frequency of light or whatever, just a pure pulse of ideas. And then putting my attention and channeling it and filtering out all the other things going on.
It almost sounds like your safe space.
Definitely, that’s the premise of it. It lets me really think and express myself freely, and it’s something I just immediately started to relish—that ability to be unbounded.
Do you have an Instagram that identifies you and is more personal?
Yeah, I have multiple accounts for multiple projects. At some point, I stopped tending to them as much because Alphachanneling takes a lot of presence.
Were the other ones similar sort of art projects or more personal? Do you ever post photos of your friends, say, or food?
No. [laughs] That’s far from my character, to publicize my life like that. They’re all just different projects. Some have me in them, but they’re just totally different.
At one point, though, you did tell your name to Jerry Saltz, and he lost track of it. Did that sort of cement your decision to maintain anonymity?
I think with the anonymity thing, it’s not like I’m going to try to control it really overtly. I mean any detective or sleuthy person could probably figure it out very easily, and I don’t think it really matters if my name is out. I’m just keeping it in the background, you know? This is all new to me, but I think the way it seems to work is that things can be there, my name could be out there, but if it’s not part of the conversation, it starts to fade out.
So when you’ve worked on group shows, or even just working with Jack Hanley Gallery, have you made an effort to conceal yourself?
My work exists mostly in the virtual space, so I haven’t really had to do much managing of that. Most communication working with the shows is done remotely. It’s almost like that’s the world we’re in: the version of ourselves on these virtual kind of platforms is as much us as we are.
What’s the idea behind the “workshops” of people making erotic art, which you sometimes post photos of?
It’s this idea of, well, when is it okay for this to be a subject matter for people? Like, is it okay for old people to think about this stuff? Is it okay for young people to? Every young person is sexual, but we don’t acknowledge that they have that world. I don’t want to mislead you—they’re fictional workshops—but I have some with monks and law enforcement. It’s about seeing how people encounter them, if they take them seriously or get offended. It’s just kind of this proposition, what would that world be where you could do a workshop of this stuff with cops? Or politicians holding up an [erotic] image that they’re proud of? Why is that so crazy that this thing that’s so personal and sincere for everybody is so outlandish to actually have ownership of?
Since so much of your work is erotic, have you run into problems with censorship on Instagram?
Yeah, definitely. They took my Instagram down about a year ago; I just went to log in and it was gone. I really appreciate Instagram for so many reasons: the community, the sincerity, how I can really get a sense of people I admire, and relate to and even engage with them. But at the same time, it’s not really anyone’s space except for the company’s. It’s a double-edged sword. I had a backup account and picked it up from there, and then the main one somehow reappeared like a week later. I kind of describe it as a sand castle that the wave might just pull down at any minute. But it’s surviving, and I think they’re just exploring what their rules are, because there’s more and more art I feel like is getting through on Instagram.
Did that influence what you posted afterwards?
It has changed the way my work is made. I’m finding that I’m developing a style that kind of conceals all the overt stuff, just playing with making things graphic but hiding them in line work. It’s sort of a visual coding, so I can encode these images with this content and yet not have it be immediately apparent.
Do you feel more pressure to perfect the works now that you have a bigger audience?
At some point it has influence because, for one, most people are totally not cool with male kind of … If you show a penis, it’s very different. There’s a squeamishness about that. I definitely can sense which things people can accept, and which things push that edge. A woman’s nipple is offensive on Instagram and a man’s is not, but on the other hand, people can be much more squeamish if the male is present. There are multiple layers going on, which I tune into, but which don’t really drive my work.
But do you, for example, find yourself posting less penises than you would like to because of how you know they’ll be received?
It makes me consider how to include that element in the work in a way that’ll slide past people. I think it’s worth letting it influence you because it means I can get this stuff across to a more general audience, if I can find ways to hide it and keep it there. I think that’s partly why the work has some popularity, too: There’re all these themes and content that most people would put up an immediate barrier against because they feel like it’s shameful or embarrassing to like. But because it’s kind of hidden in this graphic, protective aesthetic, I think people can be more open to it. It seems acceptable.
How much do you communicate with your followers?
I’m definitely engaging with people, and I think it’s amazing to be able to see the conversations that happen when an artwork is put out. For example, in the gallery world, maybe the artist is there at the reception, but aside from that, the equivalent would be being there and hearing what people say as they looked at a painting on the wall. That’s kind of voyeuristic, but this is not because it’s public: It’s like everyone’s in a room together with a conversation in the open, and I think that’s just an amazing layer to having art online.
Tell me more about the works in this show at Jack Hanley.
It’s a mixture of new and old work, with the new taking place in this jungle environment where the plants and foliage kind of radiates the same energy going on between the people. I guess some of my influences are religious art: Tantric, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. It’s not work that proposes new ideas or challenges or innovates, though it can. The point of that work is to express and exalt the things that the artist is inspired by, and in that way I feel like it’s a form of prayer. There’s so much religious stuff that inspires me, though I don’t connect it at all to institutional, political religion.
What’s your art like outside of Alphachanneling?
A lot of my work is digital, so it doesn’t have any of that handmade, earnest kind of mark-making or childishness. It’s slick and very technical, much more about using new tools and playing with them, and then also some ceramic work. So a very different character, but it all tends to have a sensualness. I think, eventually, it’ll all fold into each other. That’s not my focus right now, but I do see that happening.Follow Us:
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