“I actually hate the idea of selfies”, Cindy Sherman tells W Magazine. It might seem a strange stance to anyone familiar with the work of the New Jersey-born artist. Six of the 20 most expensive photographs ever sold are hers, each a self-portrait. Of sorts. The subjects in Sherman’s images are characters, at times over-the-top, cinematic portrayals, always challenging notions of identity and society.

“I really don’t think that [the images] are about me. It’s maybe about me maybe not wanting to be me and wanting to be all these other characters. Or at least try them on.” Which rather sounds like selfie-culture itself. “We’re all products of what we want to project to the world”, the artist told New York Magazine two years prior to Instagram’s launch, a statement that the past decade has magnified intensely. “Even people who don’t spend any time, or think they don’t, on preparing themselves for the world out there – I think that ultimately they have for their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present a face to the world.”

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Earlier this year, in an age where the stage-managed selfie has become ubiquitous, the mistress of disguise made her Instagram public, causing a mini sensation in the art world. Her warped selfies put together with a series of apps, they are the continuation of a life’s work both in front of and behind the lens. Marking her new Instagram adventures, Sherman collaborated with W Magazine on a project that aped the ‘plandid’ – “a newer, hotter version of the selfie”, as social media marketeer Taylor Loren puts it.

“I don’t think it at all competes with my serious work”, says Sherman. “They’re just fun, like a little distraction.” For many, though, Instagram is the serious work. This is a world where Zoella (11.2m) can command upwards of £10,000 per post, but also a world where – like in Sherman’s work – realities can become blurred. “I think plandids are so popular because this is an age where many people are living two lives – one on Instagram and one in real life”, admits influencer and consultant Kevin Benejam (17.2k), “so they are are a way for viewers to perceive them in a certain way.”

When top influencers and celebrities are posting altered versions of reality, millions follow, and we end up in a peculiar kind of fantasy where people’s online personas are often wildly different to their IRL versions. Taking their inspiration from both this contemporary conundrum and iconic artists like Sherman and Gillian Wearing, from fellow artists to models, a wave of modern female creatives are presenting over-the-top and unrestrained guises where the mask rarely slips – names like Juno Calypso (77.9k); Nadia Lee Cohen (157k); Tony Gum (44.9k); Millicent Hailes (48.5k); and Caroline Vreeland (265k).

Calypso’s work centres on a fictionalised character she calls Joyce, a female that could be anyone, such is her deliberate lack of identity. “She’s usually undressed, or dressed for seduction”, says Juno of Joyce. “So we don’t know if she’s waiting for somebody, or if someone has just left, or if she is quite simply happily alone. I like to keep it deliberately ambiguous, but these two states play in contrast and are centred on this feeling of isolation, or loneliness.” Through her Instagram account, Juno and Joyce have grown closer. As in the art of the plandid, there’s a sense of realities blurring. Is surreality the future?

Ahead of the curve for longer than most contemporary creatives have been alive, veritable deity Björk Guðmundsdóttir has long toyed with the representation of self. From as early as 1997’s Homogenic, the Icelander’s album covers have seen eccentric versions of herself thrust into the spotlight, her music videos equally as perverse. Arisen my Senses, Björk’s latest, sees the pop culture icon writhing around in a kind of giant slug – “a couple of years ago, this giant unidentified creature washed up in Indonesia”, explains the video’s artistic collaborator Jesse Kanda of its inspiration. “It was this gorgeous mound of white skin and fat and flesh in a pool of blood on a sunny beach. That really moved me – like total awe.”

Part repulsive, part awe-inspiring, the video serves as a kind of metaphor for this age of conflicting realities and hints at a limitless distortion of what we perceive as real. If travel is limited by our physical world, how could the over-the-top other-worlds created by these groundbreaking influencers be explored? Enter virtual reality.

Much has been made of the travel industry’s potential uses for virtual reality: VR tourism of fragile or dangerous locations like rainforests or the summits of the world’s highest mountains; exploring potential hotels from home; in-room experiences – but few have taken a ‘virtual’ leap into the unknown. “It can go so much further. We’ve only just begun with the virtual reality phase”, says Robin McNicholas, director of London-based studio Marshmallow Laser Feast, whose work focuses on the edges of art, science, and experience. “Just around the corner is the augmented reality phase.”

Which means Snapchat filters could shift into the real world, and Björk in a slug could sleep by the side of your bed at night. Hotel lounges could be rabbit holes of Wonderland weirdness, where you sip on a cocktail as an owl naively attempts to share a meat pie with a greedy panther. In their latest work, Marshmallow Laser Feast fused realities – allowing for someone to drop an actual bowling ball from the top of a nine-metre-high tower onto a gong, triggering a virtual tsunami for those wearing VR headsets below. As physical realities and surreal fantasies come together, experiences could be exploded beyond imagination.

Sisters squad at Disney ✨

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IRL, millennials are headed to theme parks on an unprecedented level – why trek to Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle when you can go to Cinderella’s and have a selfie with old Cinders herself? – and extreme architecture like that at Holland’s Hotel Inntel Zaandam (“I didn’t set out to shock”, says the architect behind it. “But this is, of course, an outspoken building.”) is on the rise. Thanks to Instagram Stories, bizarre filters have become more commonplace on accounts that might previously have retained a stiff upper lip.

As Kevin Benejam says of plandids: “many people are living two lives – one on Instagram and one in real life.” Perhaps the future involves embracing your over-the-top self.


Lisa Davidson
A traveller with a nose for curiosity, Lisa Davidson co-runs online culture-led travel magazine We Heart and has an insatiable appetite for the hidden corners of cities, long empty beaches and well-crafted cocktails.