We become the voyeurs as Signe Pierce sits in her bedroom installation checking her messages. Is this art imitating life or life imitating art? Virtual normality women artist exhibiton at MdBK, photo: maeshelle west-davies

Virtual normality. Netzkünstlerinnen 2.0

There’s a lot of dust flying at the MdbK and it’s Alfred Weidinger who’s kicking it up. He’s been actively working to bring the museum into the current century. I must admit that I now have hope, having previously been disappointed by their lack of modern art forms other than paintings.

This is not a passive exercise. Onlookers watch as museum goer tries to navigate her way through a virtual world at mdbk virtualnormaility, (Photo: maeshelle west-davies)

A museum is not a gallery. Their job is to educate, not play it safe. Weidinger is definitely not singing the same old played out tune. In the current exhibition, Virtual normality. Netzkünstlerinnen 2.0, curated by Anika Meier and Sabrina Steinek, we see what’s inspiring today’s female digital native artists to create.

Like most artists, they react to their environment. The digital world is the place where digital natives share. Sharing is caring, right? Who do you turn to when you’re having a blast, when you’re bored, when you are in despair? For digital natives, it’s the internet. It is in effect their best friend.

How virtual is the virtual world?

And, dare I say it? Your version of the net reflects you. It is very self-centric. What comes up in my feed does or does not come up in yours. My Instagram may be full of one thing, while yours is full of another. It’s algorithmically designed that way. You are your own brand.

Molly Soda uses this to create a portrait of a woman online. Just like many who are going through the evolution from young adult into womanhood, among the seemingly mundane, she publicly outs her shameful secrets. She wants to rid herself of those feelings, so she puts them online and they are magically gone, released into the virtual air. Now that they are in that device, they are no longer real somehow.

“All the work I do is very much about and for girls in their bedrooms – from my bedroom to yours. What we do when we’re alone and making that public.” – Molly Soda

One of the photos from the pages of the book, “Pics or it didn’t happen” by Arvida Byström and Molly Soda. (Photo: maeshelle west-davies)

But this is dangerous ground. Will the net support her or create a shit storm? When you blur the lines between life and art, how much effect do the trolls have on you? You may say it’s all about the art, but how much bashing can you stand before you take it personally?

One of my favourite pieces in the show is a book by Molly Soda and Arvida Byström, called Pics or it didn’t happen.  It features banned Instagram photos. How and why things are banned can seem very random.

Take breasts, for example. It’s ok to have some side boob showing, but heaven forbid there are any female nipples on Instagram. For some reason, male nipples are ok, though. This has even led to the Free the nipple campaign, where one of their actions is printing stick on male nipples. That way you can cover your offensive girl nipples with fabulous boy nipples. #LOL

I actually had one of my promo photos for a video banned on Facebook recently, after it had been there for a couple of years. No idea why it took so long. OMG! There was a nipple in it! They did send me a questionnaire when it was up for review. I answered that it was my art. Seems like they aren’t exactly following their own policy.

Facebook’s official statement:

“We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”

You can also get banned for certain hashtags. There are 114,000 hashtags currently banned on Instagram. I don’t know about you, but it makes me just want to say #desk, #curvy, #humpday. Yes, they are all banned.

#WTF, right?

Izumi Miyazaki’s surreal portraits portray our attempt to recreate ourselves for our public. In so doing, she reclaims the female perspective that is often lost to the male gaze. Virtual normality women artist exhibition at MdBK. (Photo: maeshelle west-davies)

Other artists in the show react to the broader world and protest prescribed views of femininity. As modern day feminists, they want to show the world another variation of what it’s like to be a woman. At the opening, another guest said to me that this had all been done. She had seen the same type of topics covered years ago. That may be, but the battle has not been won. In fact, it may even be more of an issue with the advent of social media. With women’s nipples and body hair being singled out, it is clearly a woman’s issue.

In October 2013, Canadian photographer Petra Collins posted a photo of herself in a bikini from the waist down. It was set against a gold lamé background and looked like a 70s Polaroid. Instagram deleted the image and her account. Her offence? There were peek-a-boo pubes. OMG!

Despite there being no mention of body hair on their list of forbidden evils, somehow there are pube police at Instagram, and they had discovered them amongst the 28,254,225 posts hashtagged #bikini. Petra was forced to resort to Twitter, where nudity is allowed, for her reaction.

“Wow, @instagram, thank you for letting us know that an unshaved bikini line MUST be censored.” 

Just last October, detractors of women’s leg hair bombarded Swedish model Arvida Byström for an ad she did for Adidas. She even got rape threats via her Instagram DM. Hmmm. Now I’m confused. Does that mean they like leg hair? Or (bingo) do they just want to overpower anyone with versions of women that are different from theirs?

Nakeya Brown uses her hair to discuss how Western beauty norms affect African American women. Virtual normality female artist exhibition at MdBK. (Photo: maeshelle west-davies)

All of the works in the exhibition are strong, but another one I, personally, very much related to was Signe Pierce’s American Reflexxx. I was happy I got to talk to her about her experience. I was mesmerised by it.

There she was, walking down the boardwalk in pornstar attire, including platform slides. Her face was obscured behind a plastic mask. Crowds of mainly teens gathered. They filmed as they taunted. While loads of followers online is a good thing, in the flesh they became a mob with a mob mentality. They questioned her gender. They questioned her right to be there. They questioned her right to exist. Eventually, a mother-daughter tag team tripped and pushed her to the ground. It was shocking.

This is not for shock. This is real.

What shocked me more was that it took place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Myrtle Beach, where I had played as a kid. Myrtle Beach, where we all went after high school graduation. Myrtle Beach, where I had lived and worked in my early 20s. This was not my Myrtle Beach where cars lined up either side of the drag to flirt.

Signe had not staged this. She had simply gone out to shoot a little walking film. What she got was documentation of how being behind a screen has objectified us to the point of not caring. The world we watch through our screens is no longer the world we are living in. It is like we are watching everything on TV. It is there for entertainment value only.

Last year, I was sickened as I read the account of a disabled 32-year-old man drowning in Florida. As he screamed for help, teenagers taunted him as they filmed him dying. “You shouldn’t have gone in the water,” they laughed. This is well and truly unthinkable, but actually happening.

Thankfully, Signe was not permanently damaged by her experience, but how lasting is the damage being done to the psyche of digital natives and immigrants? The artists in Virtual Normality. Netzkünstlerinnen 2.0 are using the digital world itself as a medium to reflect the dangers it poses.

Digital anonymity is a double-edged sword. It emboldens some and causes others to think they are helping without having to get their hands dirty. Thank you to MdbK for mucking in. I think the following words written by the show’s curator Anika Meier, and spoken by her co-curator Sabrina Steinek, sum it up best:

Strange is okay, but please not on my doorstep.

Porn is okay, but please do not on the street.

Body hair is okay, but not on women’s legs.

Feminism is okay, but please do not print a statement on granny panties.

Net artists are okay, but please not in the museum.

Cover shot: We become the voyeurs as Signe Pierce sits in her bedroom installation checking her messages. Is this art imitating life, or life imitating art? Virtual normality women artist exhibition at MdBK. (Photo: maeshelle west-davies)

Virtual Normality. Netzkünstlerinnen 2.0

Anika Meier and Sabrina Steinek

Signe Pierce, Molly Soda, Leah Schrager, Refrakt, Nicole Ruggiero, Stephanie Sarley, Arvida Byström, Nakeya Brown, Juno Calypso, Izumi Miyazaki and La Turbo Avedon.

MdbK Leipzig

Artist, curator and writer: maeshelle west-davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums.

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