Greta Sharp, January 2020

Vital behaviours is Okiishi’s latest film which had its UK premiere in November 2019 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts as a part of their annual Image Behaviour programme. It is a documentary style video, recording a young model (Brian) re-enacting his Instagram photos in a loosely organised improvisation ‘game’. Living and working in New York, Okiishi works across various mediums from painting to writing to video. He considers and plays with language, technology, image culture and memory.

He looks like a Calvin Klein model. I think I recognise him, but I’m not sure where from. He dresses and undresses so casually, I think he must have the kind of intimacy with the artist behind the camera that only comes from knowing someone for a long time. It turns out he was Okiisi’s SoulCycle instructor - not an intimate friend at all. He looks over to something off screen, before changing his clothes again, this time stripping to his boxers. Hands on his face, flexing his muscles. ‘Definitely a model’, I think to myself. He changes the song that plays in the background, searching the studio for the next piece of clothing he needs. Posing; re-posing. I am watching the duration of a photograph: what comes before and after the split second where the shot is taken.

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Vital Behaviours by Ken Okiishi [film still]

© Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, NY/LA

Okiishi’s Vital Behaviours (2019) is shot mostly in one recording in his studio in New York. Mimicking Warhol’s films, he constantly zooms in and out, the image blurring in and out of focus. It is reminiscent of 'mockumentaries': the low-fi camera quality and operation that you don’t get in mainstream, high budget productions. For the best part of an hour, we watch Brian perform the very act of posing for photographs. Except the entire performance is being filmed, and there aren’t any photographs. He is explicitly re-enacting the photos from his Instagram in the last 18 months, from the present day backwards. Not only is it fascinating to watch someone who poses for photos for a living place his body so specifically, and take such care in recreating a scene, we also witness him reminiscing upon his past self. Sometimes Brian pauses to tell Okiishi (and us) the story of what happened that day the photo was taken. Like celebrating July 4th on Rockaway beach with his ‘buddies’, or preparing for fashion week. Each time he recreates a pose, his memories resurface. 

This reality is revealed to us over the duration of the film, creating a duality between the scripted and unscripted. It is clear to us that this character isn’t performing a specific script, but the attention that he gives to his performance suggests this has been planned. He talks to someone behind the camera (Okiishi), breaking the fourth wall, so we become aware of the position that the camera is taking, as the object that has created this intervention. Sitting somewhere between documentary and performance, Okiishi comments that in creating this set up, he allowed a space for this character to be played out. We are ‘let in’ on a certain construction of reality that the model creates on a daily basis to project to his ‘fans’ on Instagram, and that in turn feeds back with how he views himself. “People like my face”, states Brian. Both abruptly true and self-aware, his words lack the narcissism which would make this an irritating observation. He is naively cheery and honest, with the kind of confidence that most likely comes from the privilege of being a conventionally attractive white male who is successful in his career. But this only plays into the lure of Okiishi’s film because, as a character, Brian benefits from the image circulation culture that has become so prominent; if your own image is rich, why question the system that allows you to be successful? 

Brian’s sharing of personal stories feeds into the idea that we can know about someone’s life from their social media timeline; but in reality, it only shows a curated portion of their lives. A false sense of intimacy is created, between both Brian and us, and Brian and Okiishi, who states how intrigued he was by Brain as a SoulCycle instructor who pours out personal information about himself and his life during classes. As Okiishi points out, Brian is only revealing to us in this film what he has already revealed on social media. His life is no longer just his, as he must live stream it to construct and maintain his career. Everything has become a sharing of the self, an act of intimacy, and so nothing is that intimate at all.

Vital Behaviours acts as a kind of social study on the current world we live in, which will have changed by tomorrow as technology constantly evolves. We are encouraged to reflect on the peculiarity of the act of taking a photograph, both for professional models and their Instagram followings of thousands who don’t explicitly benefit from this culture, but still choose to partake in it, as there doesn’t seem to be an alternative option. No matter how you choose to engage with Instagram, and even if you don’t, you cannot avoid the fact that it has become a sales platform for oneself.