The internet has become a powerful canvas for female artists to create a mirror image of our online habits
31 Octubre 2017 12:06
The internet is a strange and confusing place for women. While cyberfeminism has comfortably founds its fourth-wave home base between webpages and online platforms, the shapeshifting internet universe can be an incredibly hostile space to navigate. Selfie culture has taken on a life of its own; we are all supposed to perform our identities through the plasma-plated lens of our smartphones. And our mental health is apparently getting worse the more we log on, click, and share. But among the tide of naysayers and internet haters lies a group of female artists using our online obsession as a weapon of resistance and self-exploration. Both celebrating and critiquing the ways we present ourselves digitally, these creatives explore how gender, art and the internet converge.
Becoming a celebrity is a complex process, as Leah Schrager can attest to. The artist, musician - and DIY celebrity - has built up a following of millions through sexually explicit photographs, a carefully curated image, and a quest to get her ass on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. ‘My original goal was just to create a celebrity as an art practice so I could successfully appropriate my own image in my artwork,’ Schrager says, ‘As I did this, I realised I didn’t want to fake it, and it has turned into a very big, intense, real undertaking.’
She created her alter-ego Ona as part of her five-year Celebrity Project, with three main goals to achieve by 2020: hit one million album downloads, pull in 10 million online followers, and, as mentioned before, be the cover girl of Rolling Stone. Schrager’s mission is almost entirely driven by the internet. Ona, as with Schrager herself, is a sex-positive, fourth-wave feminist who has no problem sexualising her image to to gain notoriety.
‘Lots of people still have issues with the female body, nakedness and sexuality, which I celebrate,’ Schrager explains, ‘Our society (particularly America) is still extremely uncomfortable with these things. If a heterosexual woman presents an image of herself that happens to garner a large number of male likes, it’s assumed by some that she is somehow alienated from her true self, that she has lost agency, is behaving like a puppet. This seems absurd and even cruel to me.’
What Schrager has done is put a spotlight on the ways we manufacture celebrity through social media and online spaces. In a post-Kardashian world, the mixture of exposure, sexualisation and self-promotion enables nearly anyone to become a celebrity within specific online circles. Just look at the popularity of YouTube stars and it’s easy to see how, with the right amount of work and dedication, celebrity status is no longer unattainable.
For Schrager, Instagram has been her power platform. ‘Each social media platform has its own type of celebrity since each platform has its own growth mechanisms and strengths,' she tells me, 'I personally love Instagram.’ @onaartist currently has 1.1 million followers - and counting. She wants to show that a woman can be both sexualised and liberated, and that there is no shame in seeking fame through social media fandom.
‘We, as women, are constantly looking at ourselves,’ says New York-based artist Molly Soda, ‘We have to look at ourselves the way a man would look at us. We are looking at each other through someone else’s gaze, which is why I don’t believe in a female gaze.’
Soda is the ultimate ‘girl alone in her room’ webcam artist. She hails from a generation whose artwork could exist almost entirely online. Her work has explored femininity, body image, webcam subjectivity and female objectification in a number of intriguing - and controversial - projects. Soda was one of the first cyberfeminist teens to dominate Tumblr in the early-2000s with around 30,000 followers. Skip a few years, and she was the ‘wacky’ digital artist who publicly dated a teddy bear for her series Me and My Bear.
One of Soda’s central themes has been examining projections of shame on women and their bodies through the internet. In 2015, she ‘leaked’ her own nudes as part of her Should I Send This? project, confronting hegemonic ideals of feminine beauty with unwaxed pubic hair and unfiltered selfies. In fact, selfies have played a key role in Soda’s artwork. How we present intimacy and sexuality behind a screen is a point of exploration for her.
‘I think there are feelings of shame over being a woman and women apologise for everything,’ Soda tells me, ‘We refresh refreshing the page when we upload a selfie to see how people react. And for me, it is a self-validation thing as well. Not everything is art.’
As Soda has grown up, her relationship with the internet has become more ambivalent. Having spent years locked up in her room, screaming into a microphone, crying into the camera, she now takes a more cautious approach to her online engagement. ‘I was trying a lot of identities when I was younger and experimenting with things,’ she explains, ‘For self-protection purposes I share a lot less than I used to. The stakes become a lot higher when you have more followers.’
Nevertheless, she credits the internet as a place where feminism can thrive. ‘The internet has enabled a quicker way to connect women and movements. It has helped me a lot. It helps me think about how I can do better with my feminism.’
For performance and digital artist Kate Durbin, based in California, the internet is an elaborate labyrinth for women to move within. ‘The internet is a battleground of warring interests, including the interests of those who want, simply, attention at all costs,’ she says, ‘but there are spaces full of potential for women and artists to project the self and the work they want the world to see.’
Durbin examines the collision of gender and pop culture, often satirising western fetishisation of women as fairytale creatures. Her art performance Hello Selfie saw a group of young women dressed as mermaids, covered in Hello Kitty stickers and glitter, wander the streets of Miami taking selfies.
‘I chose to explore selfie culture because I saw how much crap women were getting for taking selfies,’ Durbin tells me, ‘This seemed absurd to me. Of course women are taking selfies. They are highly objectified, so they are hyper-aware of themselves as objects. I was also interested in how the selfie is a self-portrait, with the author choosing the self they want to present to the world. So there is a sense of authorship there that could be potentially liberating or a “fuck you” to dominant culture.’
Like with Soda, Durbin has used online platforms to both celebrate and criticise the internet’s tight grasp on us all. Without online tools at their disposal, these artists wouldn’t have created the compelling digital artwork they have, but they both agree their projects have taken a more critical turn as the internet has grown.
Durbin says: ‘The internet is always changing; it is not a static or safe space and it is really new in human history. Some of the potentials that the internet held previously - and are still held to some degree - have to be balanced now against the sheer negativity and cruelty we witness on the internet all the time. Therefore, my recent projects are taking a darker turn regarding the internet.’
There's no arguing that the internet is a double-edged sword. Hate groups and terrorist organisations like Isis have used it as a breeding ground for spreading their violent rhetoric. Social media usage has detrimental effects on our bodies, minds and social interactions. Cyberwarfare is a very real concern. Yet, it also offers shared space for people to come together, to offer hope and togetheness, to examine humanity under the lens of technology. And for feminism, the internet has been crucial for normalising strong female voices.