Step off Ceci—there can be only one Amalia Ulman.

Ann Li, or @play_w_cc on Twitter and Instagram, lives and works in Pennsylvania                                                                                                                                                       

 Ceci takes a selfie. 

Ceci takes a selfie. 

Ann Li, aka “Ceci Green”, “Ceci G”, “CC G”—has this to say about her work:

Ceci is some kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl from hell. She is every manifestation of the id, stuffed into the body of an irreverent, pink-haired, nail-lacquered, platform-wearing millennial. She is the more successful, less-exploited derivative of the Suicide Girl, or a circa 2011 Kreayshawn with a little more class and sex appeal. She’s the “It” girl who shops at Unif, plays RPGs and peruses Giant Bomb, interns at i-D but denounces Vice (as an establishment) as “kind of clickbaity”. She was friends with Brooke Candy before she was Brooke Candy. She studies graphic design, or art history, or New Media, but banks it on her unique brand of Instagram “modeling”—in which hotel chains pay her to pose topless in provocative, ethically ambiguous photos in their establishments. She might be 19 now, but has been a Dollskill model for three years. She might have dated the frontman of Diiv...     

To launch the piece, Li converted her standard Instagram—uncurated, with occasional ink drawings and “outfits of the day” posts—into a performative piece meant to explore and develop “Ceci”. Overnight, she rebranded herself from the innocuous @annbli to the vaguely softcore @play_w_cc, inventing a hashtag to go along, and replacing her tagline with the "provocative" (but asinine) my blood tastes like pink lemonade. But the piece begins to falter from there. As it turns out, changing the taglines of all 315 pre-existing posts into “Ceci [verbs] [noun]” (“Ceci goes for a walk”, “Ceci plays dress up”, “Ceci goes to the pool”) without actually modifying the content only goes so far when the original posts on her Instagram do absolutely nothing to develop the persona—and when it comes to re-captioning selfies in particular, this semantic model tends to fall apart (seemingly at a loss for something more clever, Li tends to revert to the ambiguous and underwhelming “Ceci steals a selfie”).

Li attempts to align her trajectory with a long history of artist personas—conceptually, her work might stumble in line with that of Amalia Ulman, Lynn Hershman, or Nikki S. Lee. Li says that Ceci first emerged during a stay at a psychiatric hospital when she was 19 herself, and that the persona originally took the form of some being of pure, unadulterated catharsis. She kept journals from her time in the hospital, and recounts that Ceci “wrote most of the pages on the nights that I could not eat or sleep.” One time, Ceci even drew a face on the wall of the intake room with pencil—it was gone by the next morning. She imagines that the nurses had to repaint overnight.

This bears resemblance to Hershman’s performance work Roberta Breitmore. Just as how Hershman constructed a “fictional person that existed in real time” in Roberta, so Li utilized Ceci as an actual scapegoat to extract her own identity from the trauma of a situation (“Ceci wrote those pages”, “Ceci drew on the wall”). Out of aggregate psychological data, Hershman created a character who behaved in response to a simulated history, illustrating a tragic backstory of sexual abuse and incest. As an adult, Roberta manifested as a single woman in her thirties coping with clinical depression, who struggled to hold down a job and find meaningful relationships. As Roberta, she signed her own leases, opened her own bank accounts and credit cards, joined Weight Watchers, and had regular appointments with a psychiatrist. Hershman went as far as to hire a photographer to stalk Roberta’s interactions with roommates and friends, and fabricated medical and dental records for her. Towards the end of the piece, Hershman even encouraged others to dress up as Roberta, creating four “Roberta clones” who behaved in real time. Although Hershman initially considered Roberta a completely separate entity from her, she, too touched upon the Freudian, describing Roberta as “the underside of [her] that was fighting to be heard—probably a more independent and shadowy side”. Whether an id or a shadow self, both Li and Hershman eventually admit to assigning some measure of autobiographicality to their personas.

Interestingly, before her work with Roberta, Hershman had also been publishing commentary under the guise of three art critics that she fabricated (Gay Abandon, Herbert Goode, Prudence Juris). Each had a distinctive voice and differing aesthetic tastes, and wrote for different venues—but each critic praised and lauded the work of the artist (‘Lynn Hershman’) when she felt that she was being ignored by actual critics. The three critics came before Roberta, but established a precedence: when Lynn Hershman creates a fake person, Lynn Hershman commits.   

In her practice, Li has worked largely in drawing and photography, with her more successful pieces represented as installations. In 2014, she constructed an installation that took the form of a neon hand-dyed tent, with a strip of canvas covered in handwritten text.  The piece attempted to recontextualize memories that the artist had of her hospitalization, and the text—mostly stream-of-conscious and largely indecipherable—tells the story of the appearance of several personas, one of which would become the face behind the pink hair and #playwCC. Three years later and a week after she rebranded her Instagram, Li reapplied to the drawing and painting BFA program at her university as Ceci—a program she had originally struggled to stay in and eventually switched out of as she coped with her mental illness—in the attempt to expunge ("exorcise") the space of the negative associations it held for her.   

Every Monday and Wednesday I have class in VA 310, and I can’t walk through the third floor of the visual arts building without dodging some form of ecstatic vulnerability—so I walk in the Shortlidge door, go down a flight of stairs to the basement, sprint through the hall past the lockers and up three more flights of stairs. Or sometimes I walk up one flight of stairs and shuffle through the 2nd floor hall and up one flight of stairs to the 3rd floor—the 2nd floor is safer. When I get there, my classroom is the first on the left. I intersect with the third floor linoleum by a space of only three square feet

I wish to expunge myself of the highly irrational fear that causes me to avoid the third floor during weekdays, avoid walking past the offices of certain faculty members, avoid going to Patterson gallery openings for fear of being spotted by certain students, avoid certain students, avoid going to Wednesday Cinema Night, avoid eating cheese platters at Humpday gallery openings

Li should have stopped then and there, with the neon tents and video projects, because at this inchoate stage of the piece she can’t seem to fully commit to the online presence. Li really talks Ceci up in her statement: if Ceci were a real person, she would be almost inconceivably cool—not an alt bb but the straw man of an alt bb, some Frankenstein mashup of Brooke Candy, Grimes, and Tokimonsta—to a point where she almost couldn’t conceivably exist in the real world. And behind the pomp, Li does not seem to have a clear understanding of what an alternative ‘It’ girl might actually be, with an almost blithe ignorance of the actual subcultures around her, evidenced by the complete lack of cultural dexterity of her previous Instagram and Twitter posts. The image she paints of her “manic pixie dream girl from hell”—a muse, an icon, an Edie Sedgwick for Robert Smith (or a Grimes for BloodPop)—is nebulous at best. It does not seem to achieve a coherent understanding of the “iconic” in any single subgenre, and instead pulls wildly disparate references from the fashion, gaming, and music industries. At points, it appears that her artist’s statement is nothing but a series of namedrops plagiarized from more culturally savvy friends.

Cultural parasiting aside, what becomes even more difficult to reconcile is the disconnect between the Ceci that emerged when Li was hospitalized—this being of pure unadulterated catharsis—and the shallow, irreverent scenester-socialite splayed across her artist’s statement. The piece is clearly in its proto-stages, and the artist's timing is off: she talks big, but since her rebranding, she’s only posted two drawings, and one rather tame photo of herself in a pink wig. It’s a little half-assed—nothing’s deviated wildly from her old posts, and no narrative that vaguely resembles her artist’s statement has emerged apart from the rebranded captions, which are lackluster at best. Where are the polaroids from Dollskill? Where are the #tbt’s with Brooke Candy? Where are the softcore hotel promos? Where’s Diiv? Her intention with the piece may have been set, but so far, the implementation’s been tepid.

Amalia Ulman, the originator of the format, created a baby-faced ingénue on Instagram, and staged her swift rise and demise. In between, she was a socialite, an escort, a jilted lover, a surrealist, a mentally unstable political activist, and an expectant mother—until she was eventually “killed” off when Ulman’s gallery complained. She had many of her followers fooled until nearly the end. In the aptly-titled Hispanic Project (part of Projects: 1997-2001) Korean American photographer Nikki S. Lee took self-portraits dressed as a member of a chola gang, transgressing cultural standards of propriety and political correctness. When it was time to say goodbye to Roberta, Hershman formally exorcised her at the crypt of Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara, Italy. The ostensible connection between @play_w_cc and the girl who drew on the psych ward walls is that Ceci helped Li do something she’d probably never otherwise have done: stage a BFA application. It’s a start, but she’s afraid to commit—to jump in, let alone wade—even if the precedence is set and the tide pool is as shallow as it’s ever going to be.