Artist Spotlight: Ashley Guenette Artist and UW fine arts alum talks TikTok algorithms, activism, and the importance of artists in a tech-driven world

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When UW fine arts alum Ashley Guenette started her master’s degree, it was the start of the pandemic. She had just moved to Waterloo and didn’t know anyone — so she turned to social media to engage with others. “I spent a lot of time on my phone just to feel connected with people,” she explained. 

At the same time, she was learning about the built-in codings of social media platforms through the novel Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble and Design Justice by Sasha Constanza-Chock. “I downloaded TikTok at the same time as I was reading these books so it was kind of enlightening because I realized how fast my algorithm was adapting to me, my life, my traumas, my interests.” 

Curious, she started to play with the algorithm. “I would tap on certain things or like or save certain things, all these little engagements, to see if certain things would pop up over others.” What she began to notice was that the content that she started receiving was content about becoming “that girl” — an ultra-specific persona embodying an impossible-to-attain standard of perfection.

The overwhelming realization that social media platforms were rooted in hateful microaggressions crystallized into her thesis art exhibit titled, Put a finger down if you’ve ever been personally victimized by social media algorithms. The exhibit is filled with tongue-and-cheek musings on issues like the romanticization of mental health disorders and slut-shaming. Pastel drawings of a salad titled “What I eat in a day” based on the trend of influencers cataloguing everything they eat – or don’t eat – give way to a Staples-themed red button that reads, “You’re so easy.” The latter theme of objectifying women ripples across to a row of racks in which T-shirts have calculators spelling out the words “Boobs,” pointing to the normalization of misogyny beginning in childhood. 

“The joke is repeated until it’s not a joke anymore,” she said. 

Still, when making the exhibit, she wanted to address hate using humour since this light-hearted tone would situate viewers in a comfortable environment when faced with complex issues. She also wanted to mirror the online environment “where it’s all fun and games” while, in the process, subverting it. To do this, she had to directly engage with the microaggressions and hate she was aiming to counteract.

“I started thinking about how I can talk about this stuff using art so I grabbed my sketchbook and two-dollar art pastels and I came, sat down, and started scrolling. While I would scroll, if I hit a trend that fit into what I was talking and thinking about I would let the TikTok play on loop so I would draw a reactive response and draw for five minutes.”

Playing TikToks on repeat would cause the app to chart this engagement, and she would receive even more microaggression-filled content, thereby fuelling more sketches. “I made seventy-three of these drawings and they started to get super repetitive,” she said. Certain ads and products kept showing up. Microaggressions piled into macroaggressions, and individual drawings became larger works. “That’s when I turned a few of the drawings into large, six-feet by eight-feet drawings, so there were three of those, and there was a large soft whoopie cushion.” (For those curious, the whoopie cushion reads “Hot girls have digestive issues.”)

When asked about what distinguishes Tik Tok specifically from the social media platforms she grew up with, Guenette says it’s a difference in pace. “It was slow [then]; you would scroll, and you would only see posts from people that you followed. What’s happening [now] with the advancement of technology and advancement of engagement on these platforms is that they’re moving very fast.” A TikTok trend from two weeks ago is already old news, and users will have already moved onto the next trend.

“What I came down to was all these social medias have very similar architectures — the only thing that is changing is the branding and the appearance. They’re all emulating each other using the same architectures, all showing us all of this hate in very, very clever ways that we get addicted to and we just keep scrolling, and it’s becoming so embedded in our daily lives.” 

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Guenette had been making art for as long as she can remember — but still, going to arts school was eye-opening. “When I got there, it was kind of a culture shock because majority of the students had gone to specialized high schools for art, and I’m from Northern Ontario, and there’s none of that and most of my art was self-taught. I had to adapt to the environment.” 

Living up North was very different from living in a metropolitan city, but she stresses that the key issues are the same. “In a big city, there’s more diversity, but the bad stuff is better hidden. When you’re a small community, these issues just come flying at you, [and] you just hear it in the grocery store.” 

Addressing nuanced economic and social issues in art, Guenette added, is made easier by how 

fluid the medium is. “There’s so many different types of art, there’s visual art, there’s audible art, and it’s malleable so it’s easy to talk about these issues in different ways.” It’s about finding different ways to make the same ideas resonate for new audiences. “That’s why art is so valuable, and why people are magnetized to it as artists to talk about it.” 

When asked about what advice she’d give to aspiring artists, she reinforces the importance of being educated on your surrounding world. “I don’t mean to go to university, I mean read — read about current events and past events and think and learn in your own way.” 

This is notably a continuous process. “When I started doing this research, I started learning about these issues and I learned I was very ignorant in a lot of these departments. Check yourself, talk with people [since] we develop biases inherently and subconsciously, and it’s good to have conversations with people who have different views.” 

She also stresses the importance of being willing to screw up creatively. “As an artist, make stuff. Make art. You’re only gonna get good art if you get the bad art out of the way – there’s no way of only making good art.” 

Currently a sessional instructor at UW and an educator at Art Shine and the K-W Art Gallery, Guenette’s long-term goal is to become an art professor. She’s focused on teaching youth — which has also been informative for her research. 

“I’m realizing that these devices and networks are affecting a much younger generation than I thought. I teach junior kindergarten up to adults so I see the vast range and I’m seeing people as young as five reiterating stuff on TikTok — it’s terrifying!” she laughed. 

Put a finger down if you’ve ever been personally victimized by social media algorithms runs until April 22nd in the University of Waterloo Art Gallery.