As part of our webcam series, Girls On Film talks to female artists Carlin Brown, May Waver and Vanessa Omoregie, all of who have used webcams as either the focus or the technology behind their feminist digital art. We explore how this democratic, affordable camera has made way for a new generation of girl art, one in which the female body and all its connotations are most often the subject of this delicate grainy imagery.
From turning webcam girls into imitation art to documenting the threat of webcam hacking, the webcam was, for most girls, their first tool to experiment with video. Like most things I did as a teenage girl, my experience with webcam was one that I reflect on as premature. The thought that my parents gave me one, at the dawn of my puberty, seems irresponsible. MSN and webcams went hand in hand, but so did MSN and Stranger Danger. Although for me, webcams went out of style as quickly as flip phones came in, for many girls, the webcam was their first taste of self expression, sexuality and, often, sexualisation.
As Generation Y’s dominance over art technology becomes stronger, so does our reformation of “artistic spaces.” While our iMacs sync with our iPhones and our iPhones sync with our iWatches, there are strong waves of digital feminist artworks being created with accessible, easy technology; technology that can react to our thumbprints and even watch us sleep. At the forefront of this peak are three artists, Carlin Brown, May Waver and Vanessa Omoregie. Their work, whilst using the same technology and similar aesthetics, seeks to question different aspects of the digitalised female.
American artists Carlin Brown and May Waver both manipulate their online personas into hyper feminine malleable beings whose existence behind the webcam questions its most common use as a tool for sexual transaction. Works such as Carlin’s got 2 look perfect lol ☺ are so sweetly pastel that her image almost becomes a blank canvas for projected male fantasy. May’s video, gallery and Etsy shop project, REAL GIRL, took the angel from behind the screen and transferred her touch and scent onto physical garments. “It goes back to last summer when I was selling my worn underwear online as a way to make some money. It was a business transaction for me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what gave these garments their value to the people buying them. Was it the physical object itself, or was it the knowledge that I, an authentic human girl, had a bodily relationship with it?” She elaborates, “I’m critical of how authenticity is constructed and used as a marketing strategy to sell things, and how this relates to the commodification of bodies themselves. In REAL GIRL, my aim was to expand this conversation beyond explicitly sexual objects, and consider the ways intangibles like intimacy and care are also redefined, packaged, and sold to us as commercial goods.”
“I want to stake out a space for people of all genders to be tender, to reject toxic masculinity.”
But what does it mean to be real? For Millennials, “realness” no longer exists in the binary of real and fake. There are levels and hierarchies of “realness” in the digital age, where sounds, text and time all affect the “realness” of you. “The title, REAL GIRL, is loaded with meaning for me. The idea was to confuse the definition of real by exaggerating my performance of these feminine ideals to a point where it couldn’t possibly be genuine. So on one hand it is ironic, in that who I became in that work was a caricature of what this society deems ‘Girl’. But the project also represented a very sincere part of my inner dialogue. I do believe in the radical possibilities of being soft, caring and gentle with people. I want to stake out a space for people of all genders to be tender, to reject toxic masculinity. How does one exist vulnerably and tenderly in a society that rewards hardness and exploits the caring?”
Vanessa Omoregie’s project g-Urls.net and Girl Code challenge the “realness” of online women by destructing or altering the code and format of their images. On one hand, Girl Code removes the authenticity of the subject as she slowly dissolves from the original image. While similar themes exist in g-Urls.net, the project offers options to the viewer. Move her lips. Move her eyes. You can deconstruct her and put her back together again, so her “Realness” lies on a spectrum and is in constant flux. But in any case, “The Online Girl cannot and will not exist offline.”
All of these artists expose the simulated “connectedness” and authenticity that the webcam medium can offer. Carlin tells me, “When someone watches you on webcam, looking into each other’s eyes is ineffective – to appear to look directly at someone through a webcam, you look instead into the computer’s eye (the webcam lens). This is an active reminder of the absence of physical presence and the abstractedness of the viewer or audience on the other end of the video feed. To quote Dora Mouton, the creator of Webcam Tears: “Computers became the witness/spectators of our lives. We eat in front of them and we fall asleep next to them. We talk through them, we dance, we laugh, and we masturbate in front of them.” Sometimes, the presence of a human viewer isn’t the most important aspect: instead, we perform for our computers.” This suggestion completely alters the context of her work and other female digital artists work, in that their connection to their constructed imagery, questions and exposes the gaze, of which the male and the computer gaze both exist. So what, if there is one, is the difference between them?
“In the media, the dominant gaze is assumed not only to be male, but also to be heterosexual and most often white. I think this is the case for the Internet as well.”
“I’ve created a number of projects that speak directly about my relationship with my webcam and the way my computer is my lover, my confidante and my best friend.” Carlin discloses. The personal relationship to the computers gaze is one May shares. “As I’ve gotten older, [webcamming] has become a more private zone. I keep a video diary, a kind of confessional space when I have no one to talk to. I record my body. The webcam became a part of my practice very intuitively; it holds a lot of baggage in regards to my body, visibility, intimacy, connection, and isolation.” It is so easy to be critical of digital artwork, when its themes and importance aren’t explored with the same merit as other mediums. It’s easy to slander a female artist who uses her body as a narcissist or “slut.” Ultimately, it is easy to assume they are playing up for the male gaze, when in fact; this form of artistic expression involves such introspection and emotional courage. Carlin concludes, “The expectations of gendered self-representation are socially-inherited and impossible to escape. Like any other media-manipulated platform, the Internet is coded and corrupted by our patriarchal and screen-driven society. This is especially present for those of us who came of age at the Internet and social media’s peak, experiencing the pressure to please through our images at an accelerated rate. In the media, the dominant gaze is assumed not only to be male, but also to be heterosexual and most often white. I think this is the case for the Internet as well.”
So while we’ve established the strength of the male gaze in either female work or in it’s criticism, it is in no way the be all and end all. “The idea of the male gaze and talking about it now is that it’s so “everything” that it’s nothing. It is default because it’s everywhere and so hard to escape. When exploring the Internet and digital images it’s a real fight to step away from “gaze” and “gender”. But I like to think that what we’re doing now is figuring out ways to distort it, ask more questions and open up new spaces for different perspectives.” Vanessa tells me. Nothing is more exemplary of this fight against the male gaze, than her renowned and ongoing Tumblr project, CamGirls. Using classical paintings, from Edouard Manet’s Olympia to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s After the Bath, Vanessa encourages women from behind the keyboard, to take a selfie, either with their phone or webcam, and reimage themselves as the females inside the paintings. “I started with The Birth of Venus because it’s such a prominent piece; there are so many depictions of this woman who’s actually not even “real” and I found that interesting. Those ones in particular I was drawn to, I think I used about 6, because it’s been interpreted in so many ways I wanted to see how it could be perceived within a digital space.” What is so unique is that due to the context in which the images lie, by inserting themselves into history, the beautiful, varied forms of the female bodies become less sexual and more relatable. Its outcomes have become a debate for women about what these artworks represent, how our bodies have become censored and who has ownership of them. Developing on this, women of colour can reclaim ownership of their naked bodies, as the “new” image is not the result of the colonialist gaze. Or, they can overlay their flesh onto the classical white woman, and begin to fill the historical void of women of colour in 17th and 18th century art, in a way that feels wholly necessary because it speaks for our time. For a younger generation, the bedroom becomes a gallery space and reconnects them with art that seems antiquated. And once more, the democratic, accessible ease of the webcam becomes a saving grace.
The environment of the female bedroom automatically sparks thoughts and fears of voyeurism, privacy and consent. Is a girl’s bedroom more private than a boy’s? And is it a luxury, an honour, to be allowed into a girl’s personal space? Vanessa and May use the space differently. “It is a great backdrop and sanctuary for me, it’s my studio as well as my bedroom. It’s a safe space for me to work and I like that I can make mistakes here. We talk a lot about feminist spaces especially in digital cultures, but a personal space like the bedroom is the physical embodiment of that space so it’s always going to be something that is influential.” Says Vanessa. May has gone one step further using her bedroom as the canvas for her latest NewHive project, Embedded Lullabies. “Most recently, I did a commissioned collection which featured webcam videos of cliché nature tableaus created with the materials of my bedroom. Over each video I recorded myself singing a different love song, unedited with no background music or production. I was interested in the soothing capacity of gentle singing, particularly as it relates to our relationship with the Internet as an access point to relaxation (see: meditation videos, ASMR). I like the idea that, beyond the layers of intellectual or emotional meaning, my art could actually be a useful way to help someone who is stressed or lonely fall asleep.” As the folds of her bed linen gracefully ripple over time, her place of sanctuary becomes inviting, in a way that excludes sexuality or any of the dark residue one can find in webcam videos.
There is a burgeoning relationship between young people and lo-fi technologies, the desire to cut and paste has developed from zine culture to multi media art forms. For many, the memory associations with webcams have created a resonance with this form of girl art. More importantly, it has opened up access for more women to experiment with video. “I used to be interested in photography as a way to document life, and over the years I have moved from film to digital to iPhone quality images. It’s about accessibility; webcams are the epitome of that. The ability to capture video or images directly from my computer is ideal: create an image and disperse it, all in one.” Says Carlin. May agrees, “I use my phone’s camera and my webcam to shoot all images and video. This is partly out of necessity and partly an aesthetic choice. Even if I had the money to buy loads of fancy equipment, there is just something about the quality of a webcam, that grainy softness and glow, that feels important to the message of the work. For me these tools reflect aspects of everyday life, and using them to make videos in an art context brings a different kind of attention to the images they capture. Who can use new technologies, and for what, is still a very uneven playing field.” When we deconstruct the word, “webcam”, we can find even more options behind this democratic technology. Vanessa concludes, “I think the webcam as a medium doesn’t have to be an actual webcam, it is more about that interaction that somebody has between a screen and their own image, and the spaces that it creates between what’s online and what’s “IRL”.
Despite its few restrictions, webcams offer an immeasurable ability to translate themes of the Internet, women and sexuality. What was once seen as a dead form of technology is now currently harnessed by some of the brightest young female artists, who make contextual decisions to reject the polished lens and scrutinise a society on the brink of complete digitalisation.