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Signe Pierce, Performance. Photo by Svenja Trierscheid

Virtual Normality: Women Net Artists 2.0

Feb 20, 2018 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

Virtual Normality: Women net artists 2.0 is an exhibition currently on display at the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig that explores the possibilities and limitations of social media by showcasing female artists whose work questions feminine beauty ideals and gender stereotypes that have become standard in the attention economy of social media.  The exhibition is devoted to the female gaze in the age of digital stagings of identity. Every wave of feminism and new generation introduces new priorities and media, and these new media open up new subjects and possibilities. The internet and social media, in particular, have rekindled the debate about sexuality and identity, and female net artists are responding to these discussions with a hyperfeminine aesthetic that ranges from the aggressively feminine to the girlishly cute. Their materials are their own bodies, realities, and everyday lives; their stylistic devices are humour, irony, the grotesque, and hyperbole. The artists featured in the exhibition present a female perspective on sexuality, identity, and femininity in the digital age.


The Internet and social media, in particular, have allowed a new generation of women artists to find one another and make their voices heard. Though newspapers and magazines call them Tumblr stars, Instagram artists, or webcam princesses, net artists describe themselves as “reality artists” (Signe Pierce), “Instagram models” (Leah Schrager), or “online exhibitionists” (Molly Soda). Using smartphones, tablets, and computers to share their works and stream them live on social media, they often then become viral and spread across the Internet.


Signe Pierce and Leah Schrager play with the male gaze by ostensibly engaging in the art of seduction. Nakeya Brown thematizes the political dimension of hair. Stephanie Sarley frees female sexuality from associations with the obscene and the reprehensible, while Molly Soda and Arvida Byström engage with the debate on female beauty ideals. Common to each of these Women net artists is the conviction that it is especially the female body that is censored and controlled by social media.


In an ideal world, women would not be insulted and belittled; they would not have to feel ashamed whenever they depart from the norm or assert their sexuality. Women net artists 2.0 show what it means to be true to oneself and thereby encourage public discussion. The participating artists are  Signe  Pierce,  Molly Soda,  Leah  Schrager, Refrakt,  Nicole Ruggiero, Stephanie Sarley, Arvida Byström, Nakeya Brown, Juno Calypso, Izumi Miyazaki, and LaTurbo Avedon.

Juno Calypso, Sensory Deprivation, aus der Serie The Honeymoon, 2016 © The Artist

While still a student, Juno Calypso was already working on a series of self-portraits for which she invented the fictional character Joyce: a woman in the service of beauty who devotes herself to working on her body in the privacy of her own four walls. In 2015, Calypso travelled for the first time to a romantic vacation resort for couples in the United States. “When I decided to go to the honeymoon hotel I was thinking about couples and monogamy. And how funny it would be to insert a depressed single person into such an intensely romantic scenario,” says the artist.


The Honeymoon Suite looks like a new interpretation of the Birth of Venus for the 21st century. Calypso glorifies female beauty, but she also uncovers the sorrow behind it. In feminist debates, it is still an urgent issue whether or not women are allowed to conform to the myth of ideal beauty, and if so, to what extent this is legitimate. Calypso sides with those who support freedom of choice and says: “This is your decision!” Even if it hurts, takes time, costs money, and borders on the absurd.” You can go to a honeymoon hotel and be vain or narcissistic, and you can indulge in femininity and all its stereotypes without fear of being condemned or patronized or belittled or even abused. I think we all have the right to indulge in these things.”

Molly Soda, WRU, 2016, C-Type print on aluminium, 42.7 x 64.4 © The Artist.jpg

Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr are sites where young women can find one another and stimulate public discussion. Along with Petra Collins, the Swede Arvida Byström and the American Molly Soda are the most influential voices of this new generation of young women artists. They have created a new visual vocabulary: girlish, cute, dreamy. Pastel colours and pink dominate the landscape. These artists show how young women would like to be seen, and what the female gaze in 21st-century photography is seeing. They speak to a generation of youngsters who grab their smartphones first thing in the morning, wait the entire day for online notifications, and let go off their phones only shortly before their eyes fall shut.


Molly Soda’s real name is Amalia Sota. The New York artist grew up sharing her preferences and life online. Back in the day, she used Xanga, LiveJournal, Myspace and Tumblr. Now she is on Twitter, Youtube, and Instagram. She is called a “webcam princess” and “wi-fi material,” although she has long since become an icon of net art. In her art works and everyday presence on social media, she displays what it means to grow up as a young woman in the age of digital stagings of reality. What is my identity on the Internet? What is branding, and what is real life?


Whenever Soda shares something online, it also has to do with shame. When she is ashamed of something or finds it embarrassing, she posts about it in order to expunge the feeling. As she writes: “That’s activism in itself—just existing and putting yourself out there as a woman— being totally unashamed of who you are and what you’re about.” Soda surfs the Internet and watches teen flicks and beauty videos. She moves back and forth between kitsch, popular culture, and youth culture. All of it influences her artistic work and leaves its mark on her aesthetics.


Molly Soda was born Amalia Soto in 1989 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and currently lives and works in New York. She received her B.F.A in Photography and Imaging from New York University Tisch School of the Arts in 2011. Since 2015, her work has been represented by Annka Kultys Gallery, London. The artist has had two gallery solo exhibitions: Comfort Zone in 2016, and From My Bedroom to Yours in 2015. The latter was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with three original essays.

Arvida Byström, Untitled, 2014 © The Artist

On September 25, 2015, Arvida Byström wrote on Facebook: “Can we make a ceremony for all the banned IG posts?” The question touched a nerve for Molly Soda, who responded: “We should make a book.” Both artists had discovered that Instagram deletes images that do not follow the Community Guidelines. Their frustration with this practice led  them to make the following open  call on their respective Instagram accounts:


“Have you had an image removed from Instagram because it doesn’t follow their ‘Community Guidelines?’ Molly Soda and I are currently curating a book around Instagram images that have been taken down by the app for being deemed ‘inappropriate.’ Instagram’s strict content policies have been a source of tension and debate for many artists using the platform as a means to express themselves. This collection  makes us question – just what  exactly is ‘appropriate?’ This book will allow us to give these artists a way to show their discarded …”


Arvida Byström  (Stockholm) is a digital native with an intrinsic relationship to pink. Exploring femininities and their complexities, which are often tied to online culture,  she travels in an aesthetic universe of periods, selfie sticks and fruits in lingerie. Her photography and endless Instagram scroll have been in art shows all over the world, while she also starred both behind and in front of the camera for numerous influential brands. Currently, she is working on large, digitally inspired pieces for her solo show.

Stephanie Sarley, Grapefruit, 2017 © The Artist
Stephanie Sarley, Cream Cup, 2017 © The Artist

Stephanie Sarley is a prolific multimedia artist creating her own world of art, using humour and absurdity to boldly challenge how female sexuality is perceived and defined. Through her current works, she is redefining how people look at food. She is best known for her surrealistic fruit art series, featuring notable works such as Cream Cup and Blood Orange. The innovative artist has created the series Crotch Monsters and ‘Orcunts’ as well as a surrealistic colouring book, Dick Dog And Friends.  Her digital art encompasses a wide spectrum of works of multiple series of digital paintings, animations, films and photographs. Sarley frees female sexuality from associations with the obscene and the reprehensible.


On Instagram, Stephanie Sarley’s Fruit Art Videos also work very well, even though they are entirely unappetizing. Sarley’s fingers approach the fruits, gently caress their flesh, and appear to massage it with feeling. Her movements become faster, until her fingers slowly enter the fruit. Fluids flow and squirt. In short, this is fruit porn, and it provokes censorship. Instagram repeatedly deleted Sarley’s posts and blocked her account. As she treated female sexuality in a humorous, playful, cheeky, and indeed highly suggestive manner, a number of users on social media took offense, reported her account, and posted hateful comments. Currently, Sarley has more than 265,000 followers on Instagram, and her videos are going viral on the Internet. Her work has everything that is needed for that purpose: a controversial topic, bound to provoke discussions. The result: approval or aversion.


“The video is basically about personifying and empowering vaginas through humour and absurdity,” explains Sarley. In the history of feminist art, this is nothing new. The analogy between food—once presented in the form of still lives—and the female body has also been a recurring topos. In the video 100 Food Porn, for example, Marilyn Minter confronted the viewer with his own voyeurism and demonstrated that the media present food and women in the same manner: seductive and ready for consumption. When Sarley touches phallic fruit like bananas with an unusually firm grip, the woman is no longer condemned to a passive role and subject to the male gaze. The female gaze can also be merciless.

Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, Video Still from American Reflexxx, 2013 © The Artists

American Reflexxx documents a social experiment that took place in Myrtle Beach,  SC. Director Alli Coates filmed the performance artist Signe Pierce as she strutted down a busy ocean-side street in stripper garb and a reflective mask. Artist and director had agreed not to communicate until the experiment was completed, but never anticipated the horror that would unfold in the course of the next hour. The result is a heart-wrenching Technicolor spectacle that raises questions about gender stereotypes, mob mentality, and violence in America.


The short film premiered at Art Basel/Miami in 2013, and was then shown in various other locations, including the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Two years later, Coates and Pierce uploaded the video to YouTube. Since then, American Reflexxx has become a viral hit with more than 1.6 million views. On the Internet, the angry mob following Pierce through downtown, all the while abusing her and finally pushing her to the ground, caused an outrage. These unsettling scenes took place only because she walked, like a porn starlet who had fallen into reality, through the streets in a miniskirt, high heels, and with a reflective mask obscuring her face. Pierce calls her art “reality art,” since reality is her medium. On Instagram, the artist also deals with female gender stereotypes.


Signe Pierce is based in the U.S. and typically works bi-coastal in both New York City and Los Angeles. She has performed and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the New Museum (NY), Palais de Tokyo (Paris),  the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA).

Nakeya Brown, Kanekalon on a Fork, from her series The Refutation of Good Hair, 2012 © The Artist
Nakeya Brown, Art of Sealing Ends Part II, aus der Serie Hair Stories Untold, 2014 © The Artist

When Nakeya Brown’s daughter was born in 2012, the artist started recalling her own childhood. She began to reflect on the paradoxical combination of pleasure and pain involved, for example, in taking care of the hair of black girls and women. Among other things, this involves the straightening of hair with a hot comb or the sealing of braid ends with a lighter, the aim being to make the texture resemble the hair of white women. How would Brown pass these memories on to her daughter? And what would they look like in the medium of photography? With the photographic series The Refutation of “Good” Hair (2012) and Hair Stories Untold (2014), the artist answered her own questions in a lovingly critical manner. According to Brown, she uses pastel colours in her own works because the bodies of coloured women also deserve to be associated with femininity and softness, and pastel is the preferred colour scheme on the market of femininity. “They [these methods of treating the hair of black women] are forms of care but at the same time can inflict physical pain. This pain is mostly endured in the privacy of our kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, and salons. It’s an invisible but shared experience amongst us.”


Nakeya Brown distances herself very clearly from feminism. “I do not consider myself a feminist artist because feminism has suppressed women of colour,” she explains. As Brown elaborates, “my work isn’t traditionally feminist in that it addresses patriarchy and male dominance—rather it’s speaking to black women about the politics of our bodies and the formation of our identities.”


Brown was born in Santa Maria, California, in 1988. She received her  B.A. in Visual Art and Journalism & Media Studies from Rutgers University and her Master of Fine Arts from The George Washington University.  Her photography has been exhibited at the McKenna Museum of African American Art, Woman Made Gallery, Hamiltonian Gallery, and The Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. Brown’s work has been featured in New York Mag, Dazed & Confused, The Fader, TIME, and Vice. Her work has been included in photography books Babe and Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze. Brown was awarded the 2017 Snider Prize by the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Molly Soda, Nicole Ruggiero, Refrakt, Slide to Expose, 2017

It is no coincidence that the title Slide to Expose resembles the instruction to unlock a smartphone. The device is as intimate as one’s bedroom. A glance at the display of someone’s phone reveals as much about the owner as a peek into her most private space. Slide to Expose, the augmented reality installation by Molly Soda, Nicole Ruggiero, and Refrakt, is concerned with precisely this kind of intimacy.


Just as intimate relations today are partly lived on smartphones, one aspect of the installation can only be perceived with an app. Behind the prearranged disorder in physical space, a second, digital dimension becomes visible. The app allows the visitor to scan certain objects, not unlike a QR code. As a result, notifications appear on the viewer’s smartphone screen. If she scans a laptop, the word “anxiety” is shown in caps in a jewellery box. If she aims the camera at a pillbox, heart-shaped tablets fly across the screen.


The installation draws on an old subject: the intérieur. In modernity, the interior, especially the bedroom, was a symbol for inner life, both a place of longing and a refuge. As Walter Benjamin noted, the 19th century contrasted the intérieur with the social exterior, in particular the world of work. In Slide to Expose, the outside world does not only encroach on private space in the form of digital media, but the visitor also becomes an intruder.


“We want the viewer to snoop around and actively engage in invading the private space of the fictional character”, says Ruggiero. “We constantly enter people’s private spaces through Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, but doing so in real life might give us an uncanny feeling.”

Molly Soda, Nicole Ruggiero, Refrakt, Slide to Expose, 2017


Refrakt is a Berlin-based artist collective formed by Alexander Govoni and Carla Streckwall in 2014. Born in 1988 in Vienna, Alexander Govoni studied visual communication in Austria and Berlin, finishing his studies with a Master of the Arts in 2013. Working as a designer ever since, he completed the Meisterschüler program at Universität der Künste Berlin in 2015 in collaboration with Carla Streckwall. Carla was born in Berlin in 1987 and studied visual communication at Universität der Künste Berlin and The Cooper Union, New York, where she started with her first exhibition in new media art in 2013. She is working as a designer and artist, and has taught as assistant professor at Burg Giebichenstein University for Art and Design Halle from 2015–2017.

Leah Schrager, Infinity Selfie, SFSM (Safe for Social Media) IIII, 2016 © The Artist
Leah Schrager, Veil of Love, from the series Self Leveling, 2014 © The Artist

In the 1970s and later, sexually explicit works by women artists were either removed from exhibitions, or sex-positive female artists did not make it into art shows in the first place. Contemporary women artists who make use of the aesthetic conventions of advertisement and pornography, by contrast, no longer have to wait until the art world is ready for them and they achieve belated fame like Penny Slinger or Marilyn Minter. On social media, women artists can make a name for themselves without having to clear institutional hurdles first.


Working as a model, the New York artist Leah Schrager came to realize that she does not own photos of her own body. She therefore decided to become a photographer and pose as her own model. She seduces, excites, and provokes. The art world, in turn, lets itself be provoked by her erotic photography. Since Schrager photographs herself naked and sexualized, her work—or so critics argue—cannot have anything to do with art; it must be mere self-promotion. Schrager’s response is this: “They seem fine with it in commercial spaces or if a man presents a woman as such in his art, but a woman doing it herself is not called art. And it’s exactly that kind of prejudice I’m fighting against.”


With the series Infinity Selfie, Schrager contributes to the establishment of the selfie as an art form in its own right that updates classical self-portraiture. Since the platform Instagram deletes images of naked female bodies, she plays with her nudity and creates selfies that are SFSM—that is, Safe for Social Media.


Leah  Schrager is an artist who works between the web and  NYC. In her work, she photographs and markets her own image. She is interested in the digital life of the female body. In 2010, she founded a new form of therapy as Sarah White, The Naked Therapist. She also co-curated the female-positive BodyAnxiety.com exhibition. After graduating in 2015 with an MFA in Fine Art from Parsons, The New School, she launched a celebrity-as-art- practice project called ONA, which is set to run until 2020. Making her a real-world celebrity has so far included the creation and growth of her Instagram account, which has over 1 Million real followers, the release of her EP “Sex Rock,” and the publication of “Self-Made Supermodels” in Rhizome.

LaTurbo Avedon, Video Still from Browsing, 2015, © The Artist

Every day, we create new identities on social media. Fragmentary and carefully chosen stories from our lives cross paths with staged photographs; that is, with different or optimized versions of ourselves. Again and again, the question arises to what extent these artificial, digital identities are real, and whether reality depends on a tangible (human) corporeality. For LaTurbo Avedon, however, social networks are first and foremost about character creation. Since 2008, LaTurbo Avedon has only existed as an avatar on the Internet and social media. Nonetheless, her account is somewhat different from others. She chats, responds to emails, writes tweets, and posts photos and comments. Moreover, she exhibits her works in museums and galleries, curates an online space, participates in discussions, and DJs.


Her character and appearance resemble those of human beings.  She is a light-skinned woman with blond hair, blue eyes, and delicate facial features. She also continually develops her identity, as the video Browsing shows. In this work, only her head and part of her torso can be seen. The movements of her eyes and body soon make it clear that she is browsing the Internet. As time goes by, the colour of her hair, then of her eyes, and finally of her clothes are changing. Whenever she opens a new online account, she transforms her character. As technology continues to develop, LaTurbo Avedon will continue to change as well.


LaTurbo Avedon is an avatar and artist originating in virtual space. Their work emphasizes the practice of nonphysical identity and authorship. Many of the works can be described as research into dimensions, deconstructions, and the explosion of forms, exploring topics of virtual authorship and the physicality of the  Internet. They curate and design Panther Modern, a file-based exhibition space that encourages artists to create site-specific installations for the Internet. LaTurbo’s process of character creation continues through gaming,  performance and exhibitions.  Their work has appeared internationally, including TRANSFER Gallery (New York), Transmediale (Berlin), Haus der elektronischen Künste (Basel), The Whitney Museum (New York), HMVK (Dortmund), Barbican Center (London), and Galeries Lafayette (Paris).

Nicole Ruggiero, Jeremy McKeehen, Prash Thapan, Michelle Cortese, Calvin Pia, One Thousand Birds, No ESC, Screenshot, 2017 © The Artists.jpg

Nicole Ruggiero is a 3D visual artist from NYC who makes work based on the Internet and online trends. Nicole exposes the influences that technology imbues on culture and subverts them with the existential feelings people face when interacting through the medium. She emphasizes the social conditioning of the Internet by expressing emotion through different themes dealing with people interacting and representing themselves online. She continues to develop her craft by staying on top of current technological trends and using their new features to create work.

Izumi Miyazaki, Bread, 2014 © The Artist

In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary Online chose “selfie” as the word of the year. The selfie is a self-portrait taken with the camera of a smartphone, either at arm’s length or with the help of a selfie stick, that is then uploaded to social media like Facebook or Instagram or shared via messenger apps like WhatsApp. This is the original definition of a selfie. Today, the word is more or less a synonym for any portrait or self-portrait shared on social media.


In 2014, the art critic Jerry Saltz published a short history of the selfie. The selfie is a new visual genre that is not dominated by professional artists.  Selfies are spontaneous, improvised, casual—or are at least supposed to give that impression. Unlike a portrait by Rembrandt, they are not meant to last an eternity.


The self-portraits by the Japanese Izumi Miyazaki are grotesque and surreal.  Miyazaki caricatures stagings of the self and exaggerates the performative character involved in selfies that are meant to be of the moment. She depicts herself in front of a mirror or with food, just like the millions of people who share selfies or food porn on social media every day. In her photographs, however, there is always an ironic twist.


Miyazaki became internationally known through her Tumblr, on which she posts images that often become viral and spread across the  Internet. Perhaps her photos enjoy such a success because they satisfy a thirst for images that respond to the mass phenomenon of selfies with self-mockery, rather than self-absorption.

VIRTUAL NORMALITY: Women Net Artists 2.0

12.01. – 08.04.2018 at the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig

“Virtual Normality” was curated by Anika Meier and Sabrina Steinek.


Texts written by Anika Meier, edited by Gita Cooper-van Ingen.