I CAN BECOME AN INFLUENCER: Wellness and post-irony with @afffirmations

Affirming anxiety through the 'cooked' aesthetic

I am Gucci Grandpa. 

I am excited for an anxiety-free summer. 

If all else fails, I can just marry a monarch. 

Prior to this year, these statements may have come across as arbitrary proclamations, grand statements of manifestation that fall into the category of obvious denial or irony – but since the advent of @afffirmations, it might just be the most 2021 thing ever. 

If you’ve been on Instagram at all since January, you may have noticed people sharing these affirmations to their story. @afffirmations is easily recognisable through its ‘cooked’ or ‘fried’ aesthetic – nothing to do with food, but everything to do with the incomprehensible level of overstimulation experienced when viewing. Its posts consist of heavily saturated, glowing stock images stretched to a square ratio, reminiscent of tacky 2000s real estate pamphlets, and accompanied by glowing sans serif font as the icing on the cake. There’s a glorious sense of ugliness, absurdity and viral subversiveness to the pieces. 

Mats Nesterov Andersen is the genius (“I would be careful using terminology as such,” he warns) behind what he terms a “Global Self Hypnosis.” “This is what I usually say that I’m doing. I’m doing self-hypnosis on stories and posts,” he says.

Andersen joined me on an evening Zoom call (mid-morning for him in Norway) seated outdoors at a cafe wearing his signature sunglasses, rugged up in a tan Fred Perry track jacket zipped to the top. We chatted about the weather and our mutual newfound interest in being outside. The only pauses in our conversation were when he ordered a coffee, lit a cigarette and unzipped his jacket. It was almost surprising that he maintained the exact persona he exudes on the account, oozing an ironic level of seriousness and entertaining conviction that is perhaps only paralleled by Mr Worldwide himself

Anyone who has watched the Instagram Reels of Andersen enthusiastically reading affirmations, each with a different backdrop, may wonder whether it’s all just a joke (the baguette he flourishes throughout this first video may have something to do with this feeling). But the authority and confidence in his voice, as well as his unrelenting 10-affirmations-a-day content schedule, may just command us into feeling genuinely affirmed. Perhaps this persistent output is just him putting into action one of the earliest affirmations on his page: “I CAN BECOME AN INFLUENCER.” 

“I don’t know how people consume [@afffirmations]. I’m not sure if many people think it’s satirical, which it’s not. It’s not ironic. I’m being serious when I’m doing this,” he says.

The practice of manifesting and using “mantras” has entered Westernised practices as a vehicle of actualising our goals and intentions through sheer will. The trend was further popularised through TikTok at a time when hitting goals became an unactionable impossibility. While Andersen is firmly part of the wellness phenomenon on social media, he distances @afffirmations from the aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism associated with more typical wellness accounts. “I would say most of these wellness accounts are very bland – aesthetically speaking – and boring,” he says.

Andersen says he created the account as a form of high conceptual art that involved months of research prior to launching at the beginning of January. Eight months on, @afffirmations is creeping towards the 700,000 follower mark – a testament of popular success that Andersen expected considering how young people are experiencing an age of loneliness.

“This didn’t surprise me, I knew that this account would make a huge impact. The thing about doing it in 2021…we’ve spent a lot of time alone [and] looking in the mirror. [@afffirmations is] sort of a reflection of how we are relating ourselves to the world right now. If not me, somebody else would have made this account,” he says.

Indeed, it does feel like an inevitability. The account is inseparable from a New Age context centred around secular spirituality, where horoscopes, binaural beats and healing crystals are critical practices of self-care. Revitalising the popular quarantine practice of manifesting, with a post-ironic touch, makes @afffirmations particularly consumable for audiences – particularly young people – that now view goal-setting as a memory reminiscent of a distant reality. The mere thought of chasing self-improvement and creating memories in lockdown feels prescribed by hustle culture and online productivity gurus where memes, irony and post-irony are the only weapons worth wielding in the face of this hopelessly ridiculous expectation. 

@afffirmations’ artstyle draws on inspiration from early web art, children’s cartoons and Y2K culture, which perhaps appeals to 20-somethings nostalgic for simpler times, and, whether intentionally or not, engages with post-capitalist imagery and consumer culture. “@afffirmations has nothing to do with politics whatsoever,” says Andersen. “But I realised that where we are in the world right now, neoliberal tendencies dominate in our culture. The music scene revolves around materialism and wearing gold chains and using designer clothing. I realised that people are familiar with these things. What I’m trying to do is commentate and capture it in some sort of way,” Andersen says.

Perhaps then, @afffirmations is the best example of a newer and transcendent kind of art practice – one that is able to distill abstract vibes and atmospheres into just a few words and images and genuinely resonate with thousands of people. When asked about how he, as a 20-year-old, was able to start @afffirmations and coin such ~relatable~ terms as CONTINENTAL VIBE, he points to his variety of life experiences.

“I was a black metal musician. I won’t talk too much about that. I don’t do music anymore. And I’ve actually written two books in our region. But I have no plans of releasing it. It’s just something I did for recreational purposes,” he says. In some ways, it’s hard not to see @afffirmations as a reactionary account, journaling the anxieties and emotions felt by young people from issues ranging from COVID, to student loans and climate change; the cryptic messaging only furthering its appeal. With terms like Epic Life and Coastal DJ having entered my everyday vernacular, I can’t help but wonder whether the affirmations are working.