The Internet has become an invaluable tool for artists and art institutions, and is arguably becoming an art institution in its own right. Artists are constantly reminded of the career-enhancing power of social media, ad revenue and online networking. However, despite its omnipresence in the lifestyle of contemporary working artists, and its prevalence in the daily lives of the general public, relatively few artists have addressed the Internet as a subject in their work since its conception in 1989. So called “internet art”, also known as “net art” – defined by the Tate's online glossary of art terms as “art that is made on and for the Internet” , remains a relatively niche phenomenon and a divisive topic in the art world.
Theoretically, the Internet should negate some of the issues and inclusivity associated with traditional art institutions, and should act as a free and open space for artistic expression. However, this is often not the case, especially for marginalized groups.
Throughout this essay I will discuss the work of two female creators of internet art – Jillian Mayer and Amalia Soto, better known as and henceforth referred to as her pseudonym Molly Soda, in relation to the course content covered in “Institutions I: From the Academy to the Internet”. I intend to consider some of the issues associated simply with existing online as a female artist, discuss the cultural developments which have driven both artists to raise awareness of these issues, and explore how both artists use the Internet in their work.
Art institutions have the ability to affect what the general public perceives and understands as “art”. The “1%” – the bureaucrats, program directors and gallery administrators of the art world – are able to filter what goes on display and into archive. Even at the level of smaller independent galleries, exhibiting one's work may come with a complex and prohibitive series of fees, logistical issues and organizational challenges that inevitably discourage and prevent less privileged individuals, and marginalized groups as a whole, from showing their art.
Since the early days of cult content-sharing websites like MySpace to dedicated image-hosting “galleries” such as Flickr and DeviantArt and contemporary social media, the Internet has a history of being an affordable space for artists to discuss, share and display their work. The International Telecommunications Union calculates that although access and affordability remains limited in developing countries, 81 in 100 inhabitants of the developed world use the Internet , and 54.4% of the world's population in total has access as of December 2017 -. Smartphone usage continues to rise consistently and Internet-connected touchscreen phones have become so popular that USA Today recently called the iPhone “culture-defining” . From statistics like these we can garner that being online and connected has become an enormous impact on our everyday lives, transforming how we interact and communicate with each other. Therefore it naturally makes sense that it has changed the ways artists interact with their viewers and other artists. Social media is now widely regarded as essential for the marketing and sharing of artwork – with such an enormous potential audience, it seems almost ludicrous not to participate. Furthermore, where traditional institutions have historically excluded women from notable collections, female artists appear to thrive online. Many major art institutions remain overwhelmingly male-dominated to the present day – for example, journalist Matt Reynolds recently discovered that only 36% of the Tate Modern's featured artists are women, even after plans for a major renovation . On the other hand, online art marketplace Artfinder reports that “50% of artists represented [on the site] are women...[and] women sell 40% more work than men, they [also] sell their work 16% faster and for every £1m of art men sell, women sell £1.16m.”
It is also apparent that part of the appeal of most social media and content-sharing websites is that they provide a platform for anonymous free speech– but this is the where the Internet truly becomes a double-edged sword. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for the UN's Human Rights Council, argues that access to anonymity online is a right rather than a privilege. In his first report to the Human Rights Council in 2015, Kaye stresses that “encryption and anonymity provide individuals and groups with a zone of privacy online to hold opinions and exercise freedom of expression without…interference or attacks.” He goes on to include artists in a list of professional groups for which encryption and anonymity are crucial tools – the Internet should present opportunities for artists to voice their opinions and freely share works which may be politically charged. However, he also admits that concerns about “how bullies and criminals use new technologies to facilitate harassment” are “legitimate”. These “legitimate concerns” have been worth addressing for as long as online communication between users has been possible – the scales are currently tipped against women and show no signs of evening out. In 1996, writer Stephanie Brail detailed her own harrowing experience with rape and death threats on the then-popular system Usenet – at the time of writing, her story was so lurid that “two years later [she] was still getting calls from reporters”. But rather than this problem being addressed over time, the Internet's rise in popularity has only seen a rise in harassment – in a 2014 article, journalist Amanda Hess describes a Twitter account set up for the sole purpose of making death threats against her, and states that although the comments by this particular account were extreme, they were to be expected “as a female”.
The cultural issues I have discussed thus far bring me to the two artists I have chosen to discuss as per the essay brief – the endless examples of inequality and injustices factor into why artists like Molly Soda and Jillian Mayer feel so compelled to create art about the female experience online. Soda and Mayers both acknowledge the sexism and objectification women face online and are successful in drawing attention to or subverting it using their unique respective styles of Internet art. Just as Brian O'Doherty wrote that “the gallery as a white cube is inseparable from the artworks exhibited inside it” , Soda and Mayer fully engage with their platform by creating art about it and for it.
Molly Soda's work is arguably one of the most pertinent examinations of the way women are treated and portrayed on the Internet. Rather than being overtly critical, her frank and honest documentations of a life lead online encourage the audience to reconsider aspects of the Internet that are so common, we begin to take them for granted. So often we see women's bodies and sexuality weaponized against them – rape threats, “leaked” images of a sexual nature and so-called “revenge porn” are growing trends. Soda's potentially most controversial work is a collection of photography – mostly nude self-portraits – and text in the form of a “zine” entitled should I send this? (2015). It has can be interpreted as a reclamation of the artist's own body-ownership and agency: Jezebel covered its publication in an article titled “Artist Leaks Her Own Nudes So No One Can Do It For Her” .
Soda, Molly. (2015) Should I Send This? Digital publication, 2353 x 3570 px.
Criticism of Molly Soda's work on the Facebook page for Dazed, 2015, largely centres around her gender and appearance.
Soda continues to examine cultures in digital spaces with Bruises On Her Ego, a video capturing the artist's computer desktop as she pours over images and videos of other young women. Although Soda has once again placed herself in the center of the composition, she appears to be idolizing the anonymous girls around her. The aesthetic as a whole harks back to an era that can be viewed as a precursor to our current culture of over-sharing on social media. Now-outdated “emo” fashion, seen worn in the “selfies” on screen and the YouTube tutorials that Soda is seen recreating, is heavily associated with MySpace users in the earlier 2000s. There is a sense of idolatry, as if we are viewing more unpolished and lower-resolutions of today's “Instagram influencers”.
Soda, Molly. (2017) Bruises On Her Ego. Video, 27min 49sec.
It appears that hostility against females is almost intrinsic to Internet culture, fuelled by the opportunity to be anonymous, or at least a safe distance from one's target. Jillian Mayers similarly refuses to shy away from the hypercritical voices that would stop her from using her own body in her photography, videos and web projects. In Hot Beach Babe Aims to Please (2014) Mayer places her own body in front of the lens as she emerges from the sea, swarmed by mouse cursors that assume a pattern “based off eye-tracking research websites”. The cursors feel invasive and predatory, thus could be seen to be mimicking the aggressive treatment of women's bodies online. The title implies a nameless, depersonalized woman who exists for pleasure, mimicking the kind of phraseology that is often used by pornography.
Mayer, Jillian. (2014) Hot Beach Babe Aims to Please. Video, 1min 12sec.
From the cultural evidence discussed throughout this essay, it can be concluded that a digital glass ceiling, a “glass web”, exists online: whilst the factors that contribute towards the glass ceiling in traditional art institutions are moot on the Internet, women and other minorities are unable to achieve their full potential in any environment that is directly and deliberately hostile towards them. The opportunity to be anonymous fuels a sexist anti-woman culture that can only prevent female practitioners from fully engaging in an art space that is becoming increasingly valid and important. Mayer and Soda are two artists who have successfully flipped the script, both utilizing the very culture that vilifies and belittles them as a springboard for their work. Whether intentional or not, their respective work contributes to the reshaping the Internet as an art institution and a safe space for marginalized people. Artists like Mayer and Soda are vital to the Internet's expansion as an art institution and safe space for creative expression. So long as such individuals are undeterred, women can feel validated in their right to exist without persecution and harassment online.
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