Photo courtesy of Lisa Solberg
Hailed as the "Feminist Basel," the annual art fair in Miami Beach was rife with strippers and nude selfies.
During this year's Art Basel, for one night only, the Soho Beach House in Miami is transformed into a pop-up strip club for the sake of art. In a packed tent on the beach, Miami dancers from a local club, Eleven, sway on poles. The ocean softly roars over the sound of techno music. This was the vision of LA-based visual artist, Lisa Solberg, who tells me that this installation is her most personal work so far. "I can only say this work is representative of my philosophy, what I am interested in metaphysically," she says. "This is about power and sensuality. I wanted to elevate the dancer as an artist. People ask: 'Why strippers?' And I ask, why not?"
Solberg notes that in this piece, the dancer is an avatar for power. Specifically, she adds, female power, though the dancers were not allowed to solicit or accept tips. She explains that the dancers represent "mortality and potential," and that in making this piece, she first began to consider herself a feminist artist.
Artist Lisa Solberg (center) with dancers. Photos courtesy of the artist
Meanwhile, in the pink bathroom of the Soho Beach House, digital artist and Instagram model Leah Schrager Snapchats a selfie-mirror video for her new curatorial project, ArtGirlTV, a Snapchat channel run by a different female artist each day. The artists featured on ArtGirlTV are given reign to broadcast any material they fancy, as long as they show at least one selfie.
"You can't let other people get in the way of taking a good selfie," says a woman with a blonde buzz cut, admiring Schrager's form as she holds her iPhone's front facing camera in the adjacent mirror. The blonde girl asks what everyone does. Everyone is an artist, and everyone is taking selfies. Everyone is hot.
Suddenly everyone is talking about feminism. "That's the buzzword this year," says Schrager. "It's apparently the 'Feminist Basel.'"
"Feminist art is trending," agrees someone else. "Feminism is a brand."
Solberg's show isn't the only feminist installation. Women-only group shows dominate the fair; the Rubell collection features a massive all–female show entitled No Man's Land. Miami Art Basel thrives on trend, so it's no shock that feminism is a buzzword at events like the Pratt Institute's "Women in the Business of Art," or at the "feminist champagne brunch," whose digital invite came in the image of an American flag that was printed with the words: "WOMEN SHALL HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES AND EVERY PLACE SUBJECT TO ITS JURISDICTION." However, it isn't entirely corporate. Satellite fairs bring Rebecca Goyette's "Feminist Film Screening" and an all feminine–spectrum show, Little Sister, which focuses on local Caribbean artists at Spinello Projects.
Also featured in Miami, screening for the first time, was The F-Word, a documentary by Robert Adanto about outsider female Internet artists. Although in this film they are presented as major cultural forces. They are, the film alleges, "fourth–wave" digital feminists who "use their body as subject matter." These aren't artists who make anything near blue–chip profits off their practice.
Read More: How To Become a Great Woman Artist
The F-Word focuses on a crop of artists who mostly got a start bypassing the gallery system via self–publishing work on the Internet, where the "economy of attention" and social capital is felt acutely. Certainly these artists are influential socially, though mostly outside of an art market context; for the most part, these artists fund their own projects and are not making a living from their art. It features artists Leah Schrager, Narcissister, Rebecca Goyette, Faith Holland, Katie Circcone, Ann Hirsch, Rafia Santana, Damali Abrams, and Sadaf, among others.
With The F-Word, the film's director Adanto—although new to both the feminist and art worlds— attempts to create a mainstream documentary, one he could "show to his neighbors in South Florida." The documentary features a few experts who attempt to link these artist's works to a deeper feminist art history, focusing on artists who using their bodies as media in the 70s and 80s, like Carolee Schneeman, Cindy Sherman, and Hannah Wilke. Strangely, he doesn't make the connection to closer artists from the 90s and early aughts, like Tracey Emin, Andrea Fraser, VNS Matrix, Ana Voog, the Guerrilla Girls, Vaginal Cream Davis, and Adrian Piper, who explore the same themes as the artists featured.
The film, which is not in wide release, offers a sometimes confusing and homogenizing glimpse into the works of these different young artists. Their works are not explained in a linear or straight–forward way. Instead, the women share inspirations and thoughts while, on-screen, images of their selfie–laden work linger. One imagines that Adanto's coveted casual viewer might be intrigued, but left with no idea of what the works are about.
It's clear that Adanto wants to support the artists and to bring their work more visibility. But it might be worth asking: Who profits from women artists who make themselves and their lives into art? Who profits when women put this work online?
Leah Schrager as the Naked Therapist. Photo via The F-Word
True to the economy of attention, Adanto gives the most space to the self-objectifying artists who already get a lot of attention—which is similarly how social media trends work. In the age of Insta and Snaps emerges "Hot Girl Art," a practice in which selfies, hot photos of friend groups, and performative sex work become a medium of their own right. What "Hot Girl Art" explores, as it elevates the selfie to the status of art, is the emotional labor of feminine visibility online. That is, the ways in which women create their own "pornographic" avatars, on purpose or not, by posting their image to social media sites like Instagram, where "hot girls" are sexualized and rewarded in an endless stream of likes.
(Other artists not featured in the film, but who are certainly under the Hot Girl umbrella, include Internet–famous names like Juliana Huxtable, Amalia Ulman, Alexandra Marzella, Labanna Babylon, Nightcore Girl, Molly Soda, and Petra Cortright. The list can go on and on. Other artists may simply be hot girls and not incorporate it into their practice.)
In the age of Insta and Snaps emerges "Hot Girl Art," a practice in which selfies and hot photos of friend groups become a medium of their own right.
The artists featured in The F-Word are popular on social media for a reason: Much of the work remains conceptually complex in dealing with self–representation while still placing a focus on the "like." Whether in the case of Ann Hirsch's comedic and sometimes sexual Scandalicious project—in which she vlogged on YouTube as "Caroline," a cam-girl caricature of Hirsch who sometimes uploaded sexy dancing videos and sometimes just talked about her life as an art student—or Leah Schrager's nude selfies as @OnaArtist, these artists intuitively understand social media and the makings of viral content. They get attention for their smart and deliberate self–representation as well as their intriguing sexual (sub)text.
Also featured liberally is Narcissister, a classically trained dancer with a background in commercial art. Narcissister employs elements of burlesque and theater in her work. Wearing several identities via mannequin masks, she often subverts the art of the strip tease. In one video work she, a black woman, begins as a white man jerking off to a black model in a porn magazine before tearing apart the costume and becoming the porn performer herself, questioning the power and direction of gaze.
Narcissister. Photo courtesy of The F-Word
Aforementioned bathroom–selfie–taker par excellence Schrager also appears in The F-Word as the Naked Therapist, a project that sees the artist take on the role of a shrink who slowly undresses during the session. Men actually hire her to do this; thus, as the Naked Therapist, she appropriates the male gaze for profit and sells her image as a cam–girl for social and monetary capital. She elevates sex work to the level of post-modern art simply by asking it to be viewed as such. Of all the young artists featured, Schrager's work leaves her viewers most unsettled.
Additionally, the film highlights porn-critical works like Faith Holland's Porn Interventions, "a series of site-specific videos made for Redtube," and Ann Hirsch's Porn Foley Performance. As part of Porn Interventions, Holland shaves her legs with Reddi Whip, and in another she licks her webcam. Hirsch's Porn Foley Performance, originally a live performance at Transfer Gallery, sees the artist Mickey Mouse her voice and foley handmade sound effects over hardcore gonzo pornography that features graphic or violent sexual narratives. Hirsh, at first, inserts humorous dialogue into the scene and then imagines the inner thoughts of a porn actress who feels completely violated during the shooting, but continues with the scene.
Leah Schrager. Photo courtesy of the artist
These porno-critical works smoothly read as "feminist," while Schrager's work sits in a more uncomfortable—perhaps more honest—contemporary truth about the place of women in the art world. Schrager revels in her sexualized power and abject labor and uses it as a conceptual segue to address not only issues of agency but to also sub–textually address which bodies are privileged over others.
These are not questions that Adanto's film asks; however, they are as obvious to its core as the "male gaze" is to its making. Without a thesis, arc, or room for self-criticism, the film essentially embodies the male gaze, which most of the artists featured flexibly employ as a medium.
Among the digital artists featured in the film, there is the schism we've seen again and again when feminist artists use their own bodies in their art: some work with the social capital of their bodies—profiting from their beauty, whiteness, etc.—while others protest it (e.g., selfies with hairy armpits).
Hot Girl Art at Miami Basel, and elsewhere, doesn't feel like defiance. Though, in an environment when "feminist" has become so much of a buzzword to almost be rendered meaningless, maybe Hot Girl Art just reflects our cultural reality back at us.
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