Think Tank on Identity | Pink City by Naomi Skwarna

Instagram is best viewed at night, each frame suspended in uninterrupted darkness. When I can’t or don’t want to sleep, I hit the magnifying glass icon and scroll through dozens of images selected, like so many things, using the data taken from prior taps. It warms me, looking at strangers’ pictures of sun-soaked Miami and early morning Hong Kong and magic hour Oaxaca and even Toronto, my own home city. So long as the tones are vivid and the composition harmonious, I am temporarily mollified. The Instagram algorithm understands me better than I understand myself.

As a teenager I expected to grow into life as a painter, even though I had minimal talent. I liked its rituals, and before 18 I was still the kind of person who believed the thing that gave me pleasure would eventually open its arms to me. So I drew and painted, rarely finishing anything before deciding to buy a new sketchbook or canvas. It was mostly an excuse to linger in the art store, handling the aluminum paint tubes and oil sticks with their startlingly bright colours. These items provoked an unnameable impulse to squeeze until they disgorged their insides into a glistening coil in my palm; the shit of a gorgeous, non-existent creature. Thick oil sticks I imagined dragging along white stucco in rolling waves. I bought colours that promised impossible brightness—cobalt and lemon and Alizarin crimson, most of which dried to dullness under my supervision. Years after I threw out my rusted, clumpy brushes did I realize that my interest in painting was mostly a way to give colour my full attention.

Recently, I rolled an apartment eggshell white. I paint my nails with lacquer that makes them appear to be dipped in candle wax. But the pictures I post on Instagram are a circus of saturated, sun-struck colours and clean angles. I hate crooked lines and I have mixed feelings about red, which never captures right to my eye. The comment that thrills me most is Where are you?? since the answer is always Toronto.

On Instagram, I follow people based on my intangible desire for colour and light, an extension of that former desire to take in the brightness of acrylic and oil. Instagram is, of course, more widely used as a visual diary—for yourself, friend, foe, Kardashian. But for me, Instagram is a tool that allows me to compile isolations of my city (recycling bins and endless brown brick redacted) and to seek out users who do the same.

“If Twitter is the street, Facebook the suburban-sprawl mall, and Pinterest some kind of mail-order catalog, Instagram is the many-windowed splendor of a younger Bergdorf’s, showing all we possess or wish for, under squares of filtered glass, each photographic pane backlit 24/7,” wrote Sarah Nicole Prickett in T Magazine nearly two years ago. That is inarguably still what Instagram is most successful at: offering peepshows of lives out of reach, illusory proximity to glamour and beauty and fun and wealth. Props, characters, and captions make tableaux vivants of still images. As Prickett writes, “Such Instagrams are mimetic: the contents, the casually rarefied setting, the off-kilter composition. What each says is not ‘this is a good shoe’ or ‘these shoes look good on me,’ but ‘these shoes look good in my life.’” Instagram can make that goodness feel catching, even if it also stokes envy, exclusion, despair—which it can and does.

More than the other social media sites, Instagram is a flexible tool, like a claw hammer that with a flick of the wrist can remove the nail it just beat into a plank. It isn’t only a showcase for all the sweetness life has to on-tap for those who can get their hands on it. It can also be a dank collection of Cornell boxes that display nothing anyone would fear missing out on. Instead, they supply a fave-able flow of schadenfreude in real time.

“If Instagram proper has certain conventions (aerial shots of artisanal food, latte art posed beside print media, selfies depicting compulsive leisure), then depressiongrams too have tropes: the medication tableau, the bed selfie, eerie photographs of screens that reflect too much time spent alone on the internet at night,” wrote Jamie Lauren Keiles in a remarkable photo-essay for Medium, where she described the experience of documenting her world while ensconced in a particularly deep depression. “Like the sun-flooded Kinfolk-y brunchstagram, the depressiongram has a recognizable aesthetic. I took these photos mostly at night, with a grainy fuzziness that looks as thick and impenetrable as depression makes life feel.”

The –gram suffix is a Greek loan that means—enormously—a thing written, drawn or otherwise recorded. Instagram encompasses the “otherwise” for many of us, something we’d like to keep in one place, the way we used to keep small, significant pictures in our wallets. As both Prickett and Keiles argue from different latitudes, Instagram offers a forward facing mise-en-scène that shows what we want it to show, and occasionally something we don’t.

Over the past year, the pictures I post to Instagram have become more and more purely about colour, which I often locate in doors and walls. Peach and mint and buttercream; inoffensive as saltwater taffy. Even more than other people’s pictures, it comforts me to scroll through a single column of my own shots, days devoid of night, rain, of anything displeasing. I don’t use filters, but every image I decide to keep and show is filtered through my psyche. Based on my feed, Toronto looks flush and welcoming and suspiciously unpopulated. Strategically, I’ve created a record of a city that doesn’t exist—at least not in one piece. What does that say about me, I wonder? That I spend a great deal of time looking at other people’s houses? That I’m afraid to leave the city I’ve spent my whole life in?

Whatever the subtext, I like that I can isolate colour without facing my own mediocre painting skills, articulating a more agreeable version of my environment, best viewed in the dark.

Naomi Skwarna

Naomi is a writer, artist & avid Instagram user. She lives in Toronto, where she captures the world around her.