Artists Reclaim Their Bodies In New Online Exhibit “Body Anxiety”

January 23, 2015 | Prachi Gupta

Body Anxiety” might not #BreakTheInternet, but it is sure to spark a conversation about appropriation, the female body, gender norms, and sexism on the internet. The forthcoming exhibit by net artists Jennifer Chan and Leah Schrager (who you may recall as the Naked Therapist) opens exclusively online, featuring artwork by the likes of Kate Durbin, Angela Washko, Ann Hirsch, and Mary Bond to create “a collection of female-empowering artworks to present in one single location in hopes of reshaping pre-existing narrative of gendered appropriation.”

Ahead of the exhibit’s launch, ANIMAL reached out to Schrager and Chan for more information on the collection, how internet amplifies and distorts our voices, and how it helps feminism. This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

How did you get the idea?
[JC]: The impetus was in response to a few ideas that seemed glaring in contemporary art, some of them ongoing: 1. Why is womens self-as-subject work featuring their body and personal politics not regarded as important art? 2. Why does it become “art” in the public’s eyes when artists such as Richard Prince and Ryder Ripps appropriate it? Instead of blackballing these artists’ shows and slamming them, our resolve is to curate a selection of works by women and genderqueer people to empower them. 3. My own branch off these questions… Can’t (pretty) women capitalize on their own self-imagery without adhering to sexist cultural systems of representations? Is there an ethical way to do so? (My statement is an image essay and it’s going to push for “yes!”)

[LS]: Jennifer, Ann Hirsch, and I were messaging on Facebook about the appropriation of women’s imagery in male artwork. We fantasized about creating a female-empowered alternative. Jennifer was into curating it with me, so we decided to do it. My personal frustration is that the art world seems more likely to value women who are “made art” over women who “make art.” I was particularly interested in highlighting what I see as an emerging female-gendered painting practice where a woman makes visual art in which she marks (in some manner) on images (often manipulated) of her own body.


Why did you make it online, as opposed to in a physical space?
[JC]: I don’t think we really considered a physical gallery version when we started this. We did this because it was low cost, we both had time constraints, lack of travel money, friends are online, &all our art is inspired by the internet…I met all these different artists on various new media art communities online so naturally it would be an online show just to diffuse some of the dude-bro heavy shows from previous years.

[LS]: I know how to make websites and we had very little time. Plus, the Internet is such a seminal space for this kind of work, it seemed appropriate (as opposed to appropriating).

How long will it be available?
[JC]: As long as I can afford to renew the domain and be alive to do that. ;p

How did you choose the artists involved?
[LS]: Once we had the essence of our idea for the show, Jennifer and I compiled a list of artists whose work we had seen in the past that we felt were right. Originally I thought the show would be all women, but when we made the list we included not just women which pushed us to broaden our conception of the show itself. It’s more about an ethic and practice of using images of oneself in a particular way, and a way that we see as particularly female empowering.


How do you think the internet distorts, changes, amplifies the misogyny that women experience in daily life and physical spaces? Conversely, how do you think the internet has changed feminism?
[JC]: I think just the idea of being able to share and disseminate images of oneself online (as a female or effeminate acting being) is both empowering and vulnerable as internet magnifies the potential for sexual stereotyping, commodification and attacks when images of oneself become removed from their original context. (Selfies turned into paintings by Richard Prince in “New Portraits” for example) This would produce an invariable amount of *anxiety* of the self-image related to the body and one’s own reputation. How are women able to participate in public life today when sexually-suggestive/partying imagery of themselves can be used against their professional lives? (Recall hateful responses to Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech as an example, and Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures leaked without consent.) I selected works that push back against the professional/beauty myth. #tbt even dating on OKCupid was hard for me because there were people who were specifically seeking out Asian women as a fetishistic “type.”

The latter example is the notion of revenge porn and nonconsensual hidden camera imagery that I knew existed in user-generated porn spheres since my teen years–that is the source of my anxiety. It makes me feel just as sad when Instagram/YouTube stars’ selfies or images are maliciously collected and commodified as art by Richard Prince in “New Portraits,” for example.

I always feel the internet offers spaces where identities can be reinvented and reclaimed; it’s always a place of contestation. The best thing about it is how it makes it much easier to meet and have meaningful conversations with likeminded people. Hence the much derided “Twitter feminism” or “Tumblr feminism”, which I really see as young people being vocal about their politics, if not at least trying to connect to other people to do socially transformative things together.


[LS]: I think the internet is very exciting for feminism, and I sense it’s empowering “fourth wave feminism” – a new wave enabled by the internet. It allows for a very beautiful space of female performance and display and experimentation without what used to be a very real potential physical threat of a man being in the same room. So I think it’s allowing women to explore themselves, their sexuality, and many things in conversation with other people, but safely, virtually. But as you point out, the aggression still comes thru messages and threats, so women (and men) have to get used to this new threat, which sadly can become a potentially physical threat. But my sense is that so far the internet is much more freeing than it is constricting, and that we are all trying to figure out if there can be an enforced code of ethics. People can say what they want on the internet behind a screen of anonymity, or at least from a position of great physical distance, so the language is often far more direct and abusive than it would be in person. That is true with misogyny and all other kinds of hate. I really have no idea how that effects the real world. I sense that’s still being sussed out.

I’ve received death threats and doxing myself, and it really sucks. But since starting in internet art six years ago and dealing with identity questions, I’ve started to take some of these aggressions into my practice as an attempt to reclaim power and re-appropriate control.

Some of the way misogyny spreads on the internet is by the policies by large corporations (.e.g censorship, images of naked women labeled NSFW). What are some policy changes that need to change in order for the internet to be more gender equal?
[JC]: Some of this is engineered… a la Kim Kardashian “#breakingtheinternet.”

How about including more women at the level of policy making or development so that these systems could be designed to be inclusive?

[LS]: My personal issue is most with Facebook and Youtube deleting videos and profiles and fan pages that were totally within their community guidelines – no nudity – and they didn’t even link to anything nude! For me they have been deleted and I’ve emailed to try to get them reinstated and have never gotten a response. They disappear and no one knows! I think the censorship is targeted at smaller groups and people. It’s really too bad, and I think it’s correct to see this as a kind of misogyny. Since social media is such an important way to network and share, I really wish these corporations would be transparent about responsible in their policies. But unfortunately I don’t know how to ask them to be accountable. I’ve tried to no avail.


What are some of your favorite pieces from the show, and why?
[JC]: Andrea Crespo’s System Map which seems to employ a two-headed female anime character severed down the middle to depict two or more sides of a feminine self that are overlapping and conflicting. I empathize with this double state a lot in recognizing there are gender “norms” one may adhere to, co-opt or reject.

Hannah Black’s My Bodies Video, a supercut of popular musical moments where the female songstress croons about her body juxtaposed over an absence of bodies, instead showing white mens’ mouths and the empty insides of caves. It is really a great deflector of sexual expectation and excitement.

[LS]: Victoria Campbell’s The Wretched of the Gaze: Penelopmachine includes screengrabs and a video-capture of her scrolling through modeling photos. I think she’s done a really interesting job presenting a modeling profile in a nuanced and elegant way.

Kate Durbin’s Hello Selfie is video documentation of a live performance in LA. Her performance and presentation embrace and celebrate femininity while still getting us to think about the roles and the situation.

What projects are you both working on next?
[JC]: I’m currently making a 15 minute “filmic” (film-style?) video about workplace equality with natural disasters, graphics, and an essayistic voiceover. It’s long, didactic and boring unlike my other work but I’m challenging myself to make a piece that’s not like the rest of my other neurotic remix work. Also working on some websites.

[LS]: I’ve recently been painting. I’m currently experimenting with building my new Instagram account that explores the intersections of modeling, commodification, and art.

BodyAnxiety” launches on Saturday, January 24 at 2 PM.

(Image: Leah Schrager)