Body Anxiety and a new wave of digifeminist art

The online exhibition sticking two fingers up at the art world via the body and the newest forms of media – from performance GIF art to poetry and photography

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Body Anxiety
RAFiA Santana, "Very Little Sleep", 2015, Digitally Manipulated PhotographCourtesy of the artist

Jennifer Chan and Leah Schrager are two names you need to get familiar with. The US-based new media artists have co-curated an all-female line-up of 21 artists – for the currently on show exhibition titled Body Anxiety – who use their own bodies in their works, while pioneering the newest forms of media: from online performance GIF art (see: May Waver and RAFia Santana) to web and digital art – alongside video, poetry and photography.

The virtual exhibit demonstrates the plurality of views on the female body politic, on self-representation and on agency. It also shows that these art works emphatically need to be recognised by a male-saturated art world. The artists are not united in their voice or aesthetic, but their collective force challenges gender stereotypes – particularly in undulating social space of the internet. The front of current of the wave of "digifeminist" artists, Body Anxiety puts two fingers up at the art world.

Can you explain a bit in brief how the show came together?

Leah Schrager: Jennifer, Ann Hirsch and I were chatting about our frustrations with women not having a voice in art, and Jennifer and I decided to curate a show that we felt gave women a voice. For me, I was particularly interested in presenting women who use their own image in their artwork. Most of the artists I suggested were women whose work I had been following and seen progress for over a year who had been experimenting with their image in various ways. It’s online because practically speaking that was most efficient, but also because the home of many of the artists’ work is already online.

Taken out of context, what's the difference between the images we see here and the general misogyny diffuse on the net?

Jennifer Chan: Self-sexualisation in a way that appeases men is problematic in my world because it can make the world worse for other women as the internet allows these images to be aggregated and shared to sexist audiences. But beauty-shaming is also a shame. In women seeing other women as beauty enemies I think we forget that there are difficulties every kind of body type and race encounter in lived experiences by dint of being a woman or intersex/transgender. I think some women (and men) enjoy looking/performing feminine and hyperfeminine – let them do that!

Effeminacy has been unfairly positioned as submissive to men, but I do feel this is a problem as reclaimed identities and sex-pos feminism has somehow ended up centering arond what's closer to heteronormative ideas of beauty.

Leah Schrager: The primary goal for me was to give women a platform in which to present their work – and to include a mix of styles – some pretty, some grotesque, some inviting, some off-putting. I feel that a female artist should be able to explore all the sides and aspects of herself that she wants, and it is problematic to say that 'sexy selfies' are fine for normal people but that they can’t be used in art, because I think it censors women. My call in my essay is to embrace the women who are sharing their images in an artistic context, and to start looking at how they are using it critically. But for sure, I think there is an element of context – eliciting male arousal and/or female jealousy is part of the art piece. I think female artists should be respected and supported in creating a variety of images and selfies – those that are “sexy” and those that aren’t – and in changing and exploring over time.

On the other hand, feminism is often a word that people wince at. Are women their own worst enemies? If we post a sexy selfie or if we approve these kind of images are we making ourselves part of this sexist system, designed to satisfy hetereo men? 

Leah Schrager: Indeed, women are both my harshest critics and most ardent supporters. 

Jennifer Chan: I know my feminism might be different from other womens' feminisms, and not all women who have feminist beliefs may identify as feminist and that's fine. We can still do feminist things, and have feminist conversations without mentioning the F word [laughs]. It is definitely anti-feminist to shit on feminism and other women's attempts to help women. I think growing up with the internet, we're indirectly influenced or aware of raunchy behaviour in porn that is mostly targeted at men, hopefully people become aware of that. 

I'm weary and sad about women treating each other as sexual competition when they use the terms 'bitch' or 'slut' on each other. I also wonder if I'm anti-feminist for critiquing women who participate in mainstream representation that appeases straight men (see: Beyoncé). The pornstar Stoya has said she is a feminist, but she doesn't think it can be considered a feminist thing to be having sex on camera where some episodes show her being slapped/degraded, but she enjoys exploring her sexuality on camera – so that's her thing. 

I just think popular representations are problematic for all other women who face lived realities of sexual harassment/assault/sexist comments, but maybe at the end of the day it's because I believe there is a way – whether one is considered conventionally attractive or not – to actively push back against those types of objectifying representations, it even comes down to how you pose. And artists might have a responsibility to analyse that, or we're just perpetuating what the entertainment industry delivers. So, artists aren't required to use their body, but to be aware and critical of these regimes of representation whether by remix (Hannah Black), transformation of body types and parts (Andrea Crespo) or poetic response (Aurora Parker) is just as powerful, sometimes just being present as different is.

What about men?

Leah Schrager: What about men? Many men are anxious about doing the wrong thing. My 'day job' is as the Naked Therapist and a very common concern that men express is that they are afraid to compliment a woman because they don't want to offend or objectify them. Obviously this sucks since we want these sweet and sensitive guys to be talking to us! While it’s easier said than done, I would encourage men to not be castrated by this anxiety, but to push through it to talk with women. Overall I encourage dialogue – if a woman feels she is not being treated well then she should say it and the man should absorb it and listen respectfully and learn. Obviously, every woman is different, and a man needs to recognise that as well. Ultimately I think discussion is important and in the end a man needs to be able to express himself in a way that's true to him and the woman can respond, and vice versa, and if a coupling is to work then negotiations and conversation are likely and beneficial to be had around this topic.

Jennifer Chan: I know that and they're in a tough position and it's hard for them to feel they can help, and they can because fortunately or unfortunately they are afforded with more power to speak – and be listened to! The first step is listening and talking to more people who have experienced disadvantage. A lot of them feel angry because they're exhausted by being routinely dismissed and shutdown, told they were complaining/playing the 'gender/race card'. If you're a dude call other dudes out on casual sexism! As far as I know with being someone with academic privilege, the hardest thing I find is recognising my own internal biases and trying to correct them – so that means apologising if I hurt someone, learning to (re)act differently.

Body Anxiety included a range of approaches, but there was more self-imagery by white female artists featured.

Jennifer Chan: Responding to some obvious and important questions from peers on Body Anxiety's underrepresentation of queer or non-white artists – whether intentionally or unintentionally, I realise we featured more self-imagery of white female bodies and a lot of press discussed it in terms of reclamation of self imagery – whereas certain non-white feminists would feel this wasn't representative of their approaches to reclamation because their race and/or orientation is already marginal in visual culture.

There are perhaps fewer female-identified or trans artists who make work about the body, but that we didn't even think of this as a crucial feminist issue is a problem for an exhibition with this title, and even reflective of larger systemic issues of queer/racial invisibility that even a liberal str8girl like me want to contest, but didn't put to practice. 

Jennifer Chan: With the unexpected amount of press we got – a Rhizome review even aligned our show with cyberfeminist history – it looks like the issues around maintaining agency over representing white bodies appears more valuable and prominent than those that bigger bodies, disabilities, trans and queer bodies may experience. While this was inadvertent I really think its reflective of how open-minded people like me can internalise colorblindness/white normativity in regards to feminist art. Moving forward, I realise for changes in exhibition to happen, the people who curate it should be constituted by all of these groups.

Finally, when we invite people from minorities to exhibitions like these, it's not on us to place the onus on these marginal bodies to promote themselves better or bear the 'burden of representation' of making themselves visible – I don't like being the token visible Asian woman artist either – but to give them a space to respond to the topic however they want creatively. In the future, I think collaborating and curating with people who are representative of these different feminist groups would be more enriching and equitable. There's a lot to for me to learn, and much more to be done...

You were accused of ‘speaking for other women’. Yet the show examines a range of feminist approaches: do you believe in an ideal of a united ‘sisterhood’? 

Jennifer Chan: Because of their prominence in advertising and Hollywood movies, the white female figures are often interchangeable with the standard representations of a human woman. It's from talking to women artists who weren't in the exhibition, who were from these different queer/non-white/trans positions that I discovered they had different ideas in terms of reclamation/subverting stereotypes. What works for feminists who use self-imagery doesn't work for someone like me who can't drop the race-fetish stereotypes and has a history of medical and sexual trauma. I think all our approaches are valid as a joined battering ram towards an art world that values men's work and men's use of female imagery more.

I could really see where their discontents with the racial/queer/trans distribution in this exhibition came from, and reconsidered my own very Western-influenced feminism. I don't believe I speak for them if my experiences are aligned and similar to theirs. I think some people on twitter forgot I wasn't white or American [laughs] I think highlighting those differences in feminist exchanges is inclusive, aware and empowering. To ignore them is to say those opinions ultimately don't matter.

See the full exhibition online here

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