Selfies Can be Feminist - In Conversation with Charlotte Jansen
In late 2015, the art journalist Charlotte Jansen published an article in Elephant Magazine titled “Girl on Girl” about a new generation of female artists that are taking the art world and the Internet by storm. Her article made me want to know much more about female new media artists like Petra Collins, Molly Soda, Alexandra Marzella, Leah Schrager and Mayan Toledano.
A couple of days ago, I stumbled across her book Girl on Girl in my favorite bookstore Cohen + Dobernigg in Hamburg. I sat down in the café Less Political next door to read it and sent her an e-mail to ask if she would speak with me about the female gaze, selfies, feminism and women in the art world. The next day we spoke via Skype for about an hour.
Girl on Girl. Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze
Anika Meier: How did the idea for the book come about?
Charlotte Jansen: I am an art journalist. I spend a lot of time looking at art and photography. Since there are so many new and interesting photographers coming up, I felt that the way they were being presented was still quite narrow. There is so much more that could be done with this subject. I wanted to address that in a meaningful way. I was already connected with a few of the artists. I knew some of them: some I had interviewed or written about before. I started asking artists and curators for more suggestions. I was visiting exhibitions and obviously scrolling through Instagram to try to find artists with whom I then spent a year and a half interviewing.
Obviously, since I’ve started working on the female gaze and feminist art in the digital era, there’s been a lot more energy, conversation and discussion around this topic from some really amazing institutions. Slowly, this topic is being explored in more interesting and more nuanced ways.
Anika Meier: The Museum of Modern Art recently had an evening of performance, music and digital art, conceived and developed by Petra Collins with artist and close collaborator Madelyne Beckles. Molly Soda just opened her exhibition “Thanks for the add!” in L.A., after having exhibited with Nicole Ruggiero at Babycastles in New York. Do you find it weird that it’s 2017 and we still have to ask ourselves how we should look at women?
Charlotte Jansen: Unfortunately it is weird. I have conversations here with people in their ‘70s and they are really shocked. Some of them were part of the liberation movement in the ‘70s. They are really surprised about how little progress women actually have been able to make. It’s almost as if with the Internet we have to start from the beginning again. We face the same prejudices, the same ideas about women’s bodies – about what they represent – and about the things that women do and want to talk about. It’s almost as if the history got deleted and we have to start from zero again.
There’s a tendency, especially in the art world, to look at artists that are emerging from the Internet and to say, ”oh that has been done before, that was done in the ‘70s, that was done in the ‘30s”, but you can’t really compare that. Yes, there might be someone who dresses up as a character in front of the camera, but that doesn’t make them the new Cindy Sherman. Men have been doing things repeatedly year after year and haven’t been accused of being the new Van Gogh or the new Picasso. It’s quite unfair. It’s also a way of down playing what women are trying to do. The problem is the way that we consume photography, we don’t have any education about how we are supposed to look at or to read photographs, as John Berger would say. Unless that’s something you are really into, the messages that we get from photographs are very simple when it comes to women. There’s a lot of context that needs to be given, and we need to do the work ourselves if others are not going to do it for us.
Anika Meier: What about young female photographers like Petra Collins and Molly Soda and their online communities? They don’t really need the art world to be able to show their work to an audience.
Charlotte Jansen: Now women are creating their own communities. The female gaze is not just about what the work speaks about, it’s the way that it’s done. It’s the whole system, the whole structure of presenting and sharing images. Someone like Petra Collins, for example, or Mayan Toledano who are both in the book, yes, their work is on the Internet, but they are making their work for their own community. There’s a community that understands what they are doing. There is already a very clear understanding that this is what it is about and this is whom it’s for, and that’s coming from the artists. They are not waiting for a magazine or a newspaper or a critic to contextualize it for them. That has never really happened before. We haven’t had the tools to be able to do that.
Anika Meier: But isn’t that also a part of the problem? Girls or young women produce art for their communities, and it’s mostly selfies, it’s mostly about them, about their home life in their pink bedrooms. And then, people in the art world say, well, what do selfies have to do with feminist art? Is that where the negative criticism comes from?
Charlotte Jansen: I don’t think it’s all about selfies. If you look carefully at the different artists, the artists that I feature in the book, they actually work in very different ways. They have very different aims; they talk about very different things. One of the things I was trying to say in the book is that just taking pictures with an iPhone and sharing them on the Internet is not all the same thing. It’s very misogynistic to say, ”oh, this can’t be feminism.” Everything can be feminism. If someone is saying that they are a feminist and that it’s their version or interpretation of feminism, than you have to accept that. There is no law about what is and what isn’t feminism. The current position of women as it is, we actually need fewer debates about what feminism is and need to work more forcefully and more willfully towards being understood clearly. We want to be accepted, seen and treated equally.
So, Are Selfies Feminist?
Anika Meier: Has speaking with the artists changed your point of view on the subject?
Charlotte Jansen: There is a tendency in the art world to really dismiss that selfies can’t be feminist. I totally think they can. I started out from the point of view that it can’t be and I actually had a quite fierce debate a couple of years ago about an article written about feminist selfies. I was very skeptical myself and through talking to artists, through researching it and through reading a lot about this subject I have really changed my mind about it. Our body is the only thing we have control over. The selfie gives you so much control over your own image that has previously been owned or controlled by someone else. That idea of control can be a strong feminist statement. But I am not saying that every single selfie is feminist. Of course not. But they can be used to say, this is me, this is my body. And, if I want to exploit my own body, that’s fine, I can do that; at least someone else is not exploiting it.
Another thing that I wanted to do is definitely to be critical, to see what the real function of this is because I do have problems with how these images are used. Petra Collins and I talk about this in the text about her work. You need to have those conversations with the artist first, and you need to have this conversation with yourself. At least now women have their own voice and their own publishing platforms; they don’t have to wait for someone else. Artists like Petra Collins are already huge; they are quite powerful in their own right.
Anika Meier: Is that why you focus on in the last five years?
Charlotte Jansen: Partly. I am interested in the now, in what’s happening in our times, because these are the times we are living in and experiencing. I am interested in how we are responding to that. Also, I found it interesting to connect these practices with the introduction of selfies and of the front-facing camera. The front-facing camera was introduced to the iPhone 4 in 2010; the first front-facing camera was around in 2003. But with the iPhone it made it much more wide spread. I wanted to tie it loosely to those technologies and see how those things together have affected one another or not. So many artists are not using those technologies and are not even using Internet platforms at all. But never the less they are being affected by that because that’s what people are exposed to regularly in their day to day life.
Anika Meier: With Instagram and social media in general girls and women can share their images very easily. How would you describe the female gaze?
Charlotte Jansen: Selfies are part of that because women can control their image and the way they are represented. Selfies are quite a useful tool that we never had before. Obviously, self-portraits had been taken before, but by selfie I mean the ability to actually share it globally to an audience without having to print or anything like that.
For me, the female gaze is not just about selfies or about feminism or about femininity, it’s actually not something that’s only relatable to women or that can only be understood by women. Especially considering that when women photograph themselves, the assumption is that they want to say something about the female body, about their female experience. The female body can mean many more things than that. The female gaze on the female body shows us that the female body has so many possibilities to express different things.
For me, the female gaze is a whole way of imagining the world. It’s a vision of the world that is far more fluid and flexible. Perhaps that’s something that women are able to understand much more easily, but I don’t think it only relates to women and it shouldn’t be portrayed in that way. It’s a vision of a world that doesn’t yet exist but that could exist in the future.
Charlotte Jansen’s Latest Book
Anika Meier: Who is interested in your book so far?
Charlotte Jansen: So far, of all the interviews and reviews that have been written about the book, there’s only been one male journalist who did not speak to me. It’s great to see how many women are in the media and are interested in this topic. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more men interested in that as well? That’s a failure not necessarily of men but on the whole: that this is presented as something that is only for women and only women should or can be interested in it. It’s about everyone. That’s just the way we’ve seen things for centuries. The way our world is structured, the economic system, capitalism, the political system, the way everything works has been designed for men by men. We haven’t seen how that would look if women have been kept in mind. Women had to fit in with it when they were allowing us to vote and work.
Anika Meier: What about body shaming, for example? Men don’t really have to come up with body positivity projects.
Charlotte Jansen: Men suffer as well, gay men, transgender people. Having a female body in this world makes you experience certain things that you don’t experience as a man. The reactions to you as a woman in a business meeting with a group of men or at schools shape you. That’s purely related to you having a female body. Regardless of what’s going on in your head, how you feel. You might not be feminist at all, but you still experience the world in that way.
Women take more pictures of themselves than men. That’s definitely a tendency that I have noticed. That’s something that should not be dismissed as narcissistic or vain. That’s part of the way that women are trying to explore themselves. In 2015, there was a very good exhibition titled Body Anxiety that was dealing with this worry of posting a picture of yourself or your body online and the reaction that it’s going to get. It’s something that women in particular are confronted with. With much more aggressive comments, they are judged very harshly for doing things like that. Perhaps that’s because men do it less, because men figure themselves out in different ways.
Anika Meier: Is it, therefore, easier for female artists on the Internet to get attention?
Charlotte Jansen: It helps them if they have a certain kind of body that happens to be accepted and appreciated by the dominant male gaze. Then they become popular and successful online. But, conversely, that will make it harder for them to be treated as a serious artist in the art world or in the cultural world. I don’t think that it really helps them to be taken seriously as an artist because people would still criticize them as playing into the male gaze.
Someone like Alexandra Marzella is playing with her sexuality. She is very attractive in a very conventional way. She is slim, she has got long hair, she’s very beautiful, she’s white. She was born with that body but that doesn’t mean that she can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to share it or play with it in her own way. The problem is ours, the viewer. We’re not able to see that in any other way than something to sexualize. We’re not able to accept other kinds of expressions. It’s the same thing with women who get plastic surgery. If it’s obvious, they get so harshly criticized. But at the same time we’re telling women, you have to look younger, you have to look good for your age. The amount of contradiction that goes on, the dominant rhetoric, it’s just unbelievable. The pressure is crazy for women that are artists and happen to be conventionally attractive. It’s hardly a surprise that there’s only one major female photographer who has emerged from each decade. All of us probably couldn’t name more than ten female photographers from the last century.
Changing the World One Shot at a Time
Anika Meier: This is a bit of a mean question. Is there a project in the book that you like best or a conversation with an artist that stuck in your mind?
Charlotte Jansen: They are all really interesting. I appreciate all of them for very different things and each one of them has something to offer. Some of the artists that surprise or impress me are the ones that overcome so much, the ones that had to find a strength in themselves that kept them going. It’s so hard to be a woman artist, especially a photographer because photography is so hard to make your name in. Someone like the South African photographer Zanele Muholi has overcome not just that but has also experienced rape and murder in her community and horrible abuse because of her gender, because of her sexuality and that of the LGBTI community. The images that she creates in the end are just so beautiful and powerful.
I like some of the more personal work. Aviya Wyse lives and works in Dresden. She is someone that people would look at and say, oh, that is so Francesca Woodman. But her work is different. She never photographs herself, her own body. She is a Jewish artist. She does these series that are very dark and haunting, she takes these pictures of the same body over and over again. It’s very affective in reducing the body to just the body. If you look at her work, you don’t see a female body or sexuality anymore. The body is just the physical strange thing that it is.
Anika Meier: Part of the book focuses on exactly 40 artists, but you interviewed more than just 40 artists. Why include only those 40?
Charlotte Jansen: I keep discovering people every week. The age of the artist and the format weren’t important as long as it was photography. They had to be working most prolifically in the last 5 to 7 years. They had to be photographing women in their work. Those were the only criteria. And, of course, their work had to be interesting and compelling. It might be popular or it might be less known, but it has to be influential or it has to offer a different idea of the female gaze. Each one, I hope, presents a different angle.
Anika Meier: Do you think that your book can change anything?
Charlotte Jansen: Probably not. I am not naive about what it can do, but you never know. You just have to do it. You just have to see if one or two people can change their mind next time they encounter a photograph when they are scrolling through Instagram or are about to troll someone on their journey to work. Maybe some women will see themselves in a different way. That would be incredible.
A new generation of female artists is emerging who have grown up in a culture saturated with social media and selfies. This book looks at how young women are using photography and the internet to explore issues of self-image and female identity, and the impact this is having on contemporary art. Forty artists are featured, all of whose principal subject matter is either themselves or other women. Each is accompanied by a short profile based on personal interviews with the author, giving a fascinating insight into this exciting shift in female creativity.
Featured image: Juno Calypso; Petra Collins; Phebe Schmitdt. © The Artist, Courtesy Laurence King and The Artist.