Panel event photographs courtesy of the writer. All other images via artists’ websites.
What is feminism today, in the age of social media, smartphones, and the Internet? When images of people are literally everywhere, it starts to feel as if all people are in some ways flattened, fragmented objects. How does one assert oneself as a feminist in an age when the feminist movement has been commodified and sent to market, much like the LGBT movement was years ago, when more female “visibility” in the media is wrongly equated with social change, and when “feminist-minded” celebs co-opt the slogan “the future is female” without giving credit to the original source? What could it even look like to be a feminist artist on the Internet today?
On Saturday, May 7, Artillery Magazine hosted the panel “Feminism 4.0: What feminist art looks like now”, with L.A. artists Audrey Wollen, Amalia Ulman, Lili Bernard and Siobhan Hebron. The panelists discussed topics such as “what feminist art looks like in the age of all things media and digital,” what “controversial feminist art” looks like today, and the meaning of “authenticity.” Moderated by writer Emily Wells, the talk was prompted by the May/June issue of Artillery Magazine, which is focused on photography today. There was less of a conversational vibe to this panel, and was focused more on each individual artist answering question prompts.
As expected, the panel discussion raised more questions than it answered. The interpretations of what feminism is today are multifaceted and highly subjective. To bring it back to a very basic level, however, note that a Google search for “what is feminism” will bring up the definition of the word “feminism” as a noun that means “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Some synonyms for “feminism” include the women’s movement, the feminist movement, women’s liberation, female emancipation and women’s rights.
The Panelists: Audrey Wollen, Amalia Ulman, Lili Bernard & Siobhan Hebron
Audrey Wollen is best known on the internet for her sad girl theory, which is about publicly enacting one’s own sorrow, and doing so as an act of resistance. To not share is to stay silent and unseen. Wollen’s sad girl theory was recently mentioned in the New Yorker alongside an essay that I co-authored with Kate Durbin on the teen-girl tumblr aesthetic, which also deals with sadness online. Others know Wollen because Richard Prince appropriated art from her Instagram account without her consent and reposted it to his account without giving her any credit. It was ironic that an old, white, successful, male artist did this to her work, which was literally a reiteration of white male privilege and the patriarchy, making her project of female sorrow and suffering even more culturally relevant, albeit through the process of being wronged by one who is in power. (Wollen also identifies as queer, though admitted to me at the panel that she is in a heterosexual relationship with a man.) As of this writing, she’s made a public declaration that she’s actually taking a break from Instagram, as stated here:
audreywollen i have decided to take a hiatus from social media ~~ i’ve grown increasingly unsettled and at times deeply hurt by the climate of online feminism and my own position w/in it. i worry my ideas are eclipsed by my identity as an “instagram girl” and i watch as ppl whose work i really respect write me off and ppl whose work i don’t respect cite me as inspiration. “sad girl theory” is often understood at its most reductive, instead of as a proposal to open up more spacious discussions abt what activism could look like. my internet presence has been the best and worst thing in my life, and i owe it so much (so many friends! so much knowledge! so much solidarity and hope!!!) and i also find myself afraid of it, afraid of fucking up, afraid of being misunderstood, afraid of trusting ppl. that fear is toxic and stops me from writing/making the work i need to make. i’ll be back, and you can always find me around email or LA. in solidarity, tragic queens forever, audrey xxxxxx
Wollen explained that she is interested in the discursive object or idea that gets manipulated as it moves through the internet. Her idea of feminism is based in this sense of the discursive and transformative — it is not goal-oriented, capitalist or laborious. She took issue with the “empowerment” idea of feminism, saying: “I’m way too depressed to do this,” with “this” being the idea of engaging.
Artist Amalia Ulman’s work frequently tackles question about the creation of narrative and persona on the Internet, and frequently employs the re-mediation of images through other means. She considers the ways that images are constantly reused and manipulated, creating a world that is entirely mediated and at times simulacra. She’s best known for her performative Instagram project, in which she researched Instagram profiles of young, attractive girls, looking at the types of girls, and what types of images got the most likes or reactions. She created an online persona for herself, based on these “types” that she named, including the “Tumblr girl,” the “sugar baby ghetto girl” and the “girl next door.” At the panel introduction, she explained that she doesn’t always consider herself a feminist, and also mentioned that she watches a lot of porn. Ulman seemed more interested in the multiplicity of viewpoints than a specific subjectivity of womanhood or gender essentialist views of what “a woman” is or could be.
The third panelist, Lili Bernard, is a Cuban-born, LA-based interdisciplinary artist and an accomplished actor with guest spots on The Cosby Show and Seinfeld. She discussed her artwork mostly in relation to herself as a rape survivor; she was one of the 60 women who was sexually assaulted by the comedian Bill Cosby, and also experienced other types of abuse from men. Her artwork used to deal with these issues in covert ways, by framing herself into Antebellum slavery paintings, but now she speaks out more directly about being raped by Cosby. She also spoke passionately, honestly and at length about her battles with suicidal thoughts, her hospitalizations and the systemic racism she experiences as a woman of color.
The fourth panelist, Siobhan Hebron, spoke about her current body of work, which began two years ago when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor (brain cancer) and began chemo. In documenting her chemotherapy, she is able to get through it, and to cope with it. Her trauma performances, as she calls them, are associated with her work on the Association of Hysteric Curators. She felt most invested in using her artwork to present images of the sick woman’s body, which she described as a radically charged body, an inherently feminist image; we are used to being shown representations of the healthy woman’s body or the sick and dying woman’s body. Much of Hebron’s project is about looking at and asking questions about the sick woman’s (living) body.
Feminism 4.0 Questions
Given these vastly different points of view and life experiences, the answers that each of the panelists provided felt more divided than overlapping. They all came back to the questions of representation, however, which at times felt like the only thing bringing them together.
In a question about the trickiness of the term “authenticity,” for example, Wollen delved mostly into the idea of performing the self 24/7, thus nullifying the potential for anything “pure” or “authentic.” To consider authenticity in relation to the female experience, furthermore, felt problematic for her. Does it feel “authentic” to respond or react in a certain way when women are constantly under the threat of violence? How then can that response be read as authentic when it is manipulated because of systemic cultural fear?
Ulman commented on authenticity by bringing up her Instagram performative project, noting that people seemed upset that she had created a fiction of herself. The main critique she received was that people felt “lied to,” or hurt, because they thought she was being “herself” — they wanted the performance to be “authentic” because they believed it and emotionally investing in it. It is as if to say TV shows are okay because they’re clearly not “real,” but because social media is one’s own performance, it should be “real”? How could such a standard exist when social media is already an edited version of the self? Ulman also noted the very gendered way that people expect women to perform certain roles, which also coincided with the fact that people are performing their roles all the time.
Bernard’s response to authenticity was far more direct and less theoretical than Ulman or Wollen. As a rape survivor and sufferer of PTSD, she explained that her artwork was her lifeline. She said that her experiences were authentic, and that her silencing of her own voice led to auto-immune diseases such as gray’s disease, which she currently battles, and her many suicide attempts and hospitalizations. She also discussed the ways that Cosby threatened her to keep her quiet — threats that he would tell all of Hollywood that “she was a whore,” and get her kicked out of show business, and other violent threats.
Bernard was the only completely visible woman of color on the panel and the only person who spoke so much about physical and sexual abuse at the hands of violent men, rather than discussing living under the threat of violence as a woman as Wollen did. Bernard’s discussion leads one to wonder if having the opportunity to even ponder the question of authenticity is one of white female privilege. At this panel, it sure seemed like it. (Ulman is from Argentina but her work doesn’t highlight that aspect of her selfhood.) A more interesting follow-up question would have looked more specifically at questions of authenticity and privilege; that is, what does the nature of “authenticity” mean for oppressed peoples, such as women of color, queer people, not-able-bodied people, sick people?
Hebron’s discussed her relationship to authenticity since her diagnosis did touch on this, however. She noted the nature of performed womanhood and also that she thought more about authenticity in relation to gender and less so in terms of the feminine. She also made an observation about how the art world often times misaligns the authentic with the performed.
At some point in the conversation, Ulman noted that femininity is 90% image-based, and on the Internet people pay more attention to images of people than anything else. For her, photography has been a way of communicating with people all over the world. We now live in an age where you’re forced to show how you look online, and that definitely did not used to be the case. It leads one to wonder if the real questions about feminism 4.0 have to do with deciding what to share and what not to share, about what’s public and what’s private today in an age where any piece of information can be quickly let loose on the internet for all the world to see, feel and share.