Fraser Morrison charts his quest to combine Instagram’s power and reach with a physical forum to share ideas for sustainable cities from around the world.

The medium is the message

I’m sitting in Tate Modern swallowed up by the other-worldly dark fields of Mark Rothko. I could sit here peacefully for hours. But all of a sudden there is the click, click, click of a phone camera and the illusion of solitude shatters. Ugh. Our devices are replacing our ability to see, to pause, to interrogate, to understand.

I’m well aware of my own addiction to imagery. A few years ago, in my early 20s, I would take hundreds of photos in an evening, feeling if I didn’t capture every fleeting moment, they would be lost forever. Yet I never look back at these images. This need to over-record has been growing at an alarming rate. In 2012, we took 380 billion photographs; in 2014, we took one trillion.

Technology allows us to consume imagery at a previously unimaginable pace. My point? We need to move beyond almost subconscious scrolling into a more conscious way of being. Why? The world as we know it is dying, and the meaningful use of technology could save it.

It may sound naïve but I think my generation sits at a tipping point of the potential collapse of neoliberal capitalist life. At a recent lecture, Naomi Klein told the audience of Guardian subscribers that she looked to the younger readers in the room to instigate change. She saw social media as key to spreading the message of the millions of students who have united to strike against climate change.

The photo-sharing site Instagram was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion just 18 months after it was founded in 2010. With over a billion monthly users, it is the primary vehicle for sharing ideas among a younger generation – my generation.

But is Instagram equipped to engender the dialogue, creativity, collaboration and debate that are needed to tackle the challenges we face? Is it possible to move from transient and superficial consumption to more meaningful engagement? Ultimately, can Instagram act as a catalyst to progress real-world issues and bring about positive change?

Like most people, I have scrolled through Instagram aimlessly for years. A single swipe transports you through endless lives and brands. But what makes us pause? From analysing traffic and interaction on my own Instagram account, I’ve found that the simplest images are the most successful. Maybe people like images that require less effort. This can be clearly seen in the proliferation of Instagram accounts that compile architecture students’ work. With audiences in the hundreds of thousands, these are increasingly drivers of tastes. But is this beneficial to students looking to find their own aesthetic? The danger is that the most interaction the user has with the work is a quick ‘like’ or a short comment. Nothing is given much thought.

Frustrated with the lack of conversation around digital works I instigated the ‘We Aren’t a Gallery’ project. It evolved from a belief that, if Instagram is the visual language for architectural ideas and trends, there should be a way of using it to spark deeper engagement with bigger issues. My (reluctant) flatmate and I took an existing physical space – our own living room, which opens onto a quiet street in Hackney – and paired it with Instagram to create an exhibition in a physical space where anyone could come and interrogate the ideas.

Through Instagram we promoted an open call for work around the tagline ‘We Aren’t Sustainable’. The brief asked contributors to respond through any medium in any way they saw fit. Within two weeks we had more than 50 submissions from as far afield as Brazil and Australia. The projects spoke of social infrastructures for minority ethnic groups, of new systems of living, of futures in which we find a way out of climate crisis, of hope. While curating these pieces, I delved deeper into the ideas of my peers, and picked up on the nuances that I would have otherwise missed while swiping.

On the opening (and only) night, our empty unfurnished living room came alive as people critiqued, and debated the chosen works. Once the exhibition was dismantled we posted the submissions on Instagram again. For the first time in a while we experienced meaningful interactions: people messaging questions about the work, commenting, and in turn proposing topics for the next ‘We Aren’t …’ exhibition.

It proved there are real people on the other side of the emojis and heart buttons, and that meaningful social engagement need not only happen offline. I found an optimism and inquisitiveness I was yet to experience on the Instagram super-highways of other architecture-sharing pages.

Through critique of architectural imagery that favours substance over style, we watched as the ideas found a life of their own through multiple mediums. The physical medium was finite: our living room once again houses a TV and a cheese plant. The digital medium archives and disseminates far beyond our little neighbourhood in Hackney.

The fetishisation of half-baked architecture visuals on Instagram has to stop before every architecture student’s degree project is composed of arches, scallops, and post-Postmodern pop colour palettes. We need to encourage students as consumers to scratch the surface to discover what lies beneath; and as producers, to create imagery that expresses the core architectural intention, rather than simplistic crowd-pleasers to garner the most likes.

‘We Aren’t a Gallery’ was motivated by my worry that we aren’t caring, we aren’t progressing, we aren’t sustainable. But the young, aspiring architects who submitted their pieces and thoughts reassured me that we are.  At a time when it is difficult to physically visit any galleries it is promising that Instagram can potentially be used in lieu.

See the projects below: