Ann Hirsch: Camwhore Art Activism


 Ann Hirsch, Still from Scandalishious, 2008-2009. Video, color, sound, 42.5 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Ann Hirsch on Porn & Camwhore Art Activism

MIT’s List Visual Arts Center until Feb 21st, 2016


Ann Hirsch has had many incarnations in her eight-year career as an emerging artist who works at the matrix where the sexualized body, social media and storytelling cross and breed. In her shape-shifting, she’s been a famewhore, a camwhore, a reality TV star, a blogger, a vlogger, a painter, an x-rated app content developer and a performer.

Under her fearless gaze and by the way she throws her body and her life into her art and the public viewership, these accumulations of works become incisive investigations into technology, culture, psychology, gender and politics. Alongside her generation, who navigate many of the subjects of her work less consciously, Hirsch, by way of immersing herself into life today via art, has helped to develop a cyber-reality consciousness. She thoughtfully pollinates the longings and disappointments of IRL with URL, and lived experience with pop culture, to both capture and trouble the darker parts of contemporary conformity. Humour, sexual charms, nudity, feigned dumbness, awkwardness, pathos, empathy and scathing intelligence are all used by her to plant a subversive awareness inside globalized, sexualized online living. In this way, Hirsch’s oeuvre complexifies some of today’s most universal, intimate concerns, and solicits questions about them that it never answers. Instead, her work invites an emotional response so visceral that it sometimes gets censored. 

I hung out with the artist on a recent Saturday afternoon over Skype on the heels of the opening of a retrospective of her work at MIT’s List Visual Arts Centre, the first time this work has been shown together in the museum context. She spoke to me about her current state of mood on art and sexual activism, and about where digital and pornified relationships are at right now.

It wasn’t long ago that girls were completely invisible in life and in art. Thanks to the way girls have appropriated technology, and politicized sexuality, we’ve written ourselves into the script of cultural power. What do you see, a decade into your own art production, that digital girlart has contributed to culture?  

What a lot of “girl art” has done, even before it was digital, is redefine how women are represented. As women, we are constantly dealing with the different ways we are represented in the media. As soon as we break one stereotype, another one is formed in its place. So it’s a constant battle. I think this generation of girl artists has helped break the boundaries that have bounded them. Whether that means they feel they need to look a certain way or act in a certain way, they have used different digital platforms to define for themselves who they are as opposed to letting others do it for them. This has had a humanizing effect, which works in opposition to typical media, which aims to objectify women’s bodies. It’s the plurality of platforms on the Internet that allows women to be seen as multifaceted. Posting pics of themselves on Instagram but posting their poetry on tumblr, their rants on Facebook—it creates a more holistic version of ourselves that we never had access to before. And I don't think it’s just women who have done this—the Internet has given a voice to many marginalized groups and allowed them to portray themselves as they want to. Once you give a voice to any marginalized group, I think certainly that begins to change their status in many political/economical/social realms. I have hope that this will help bring change, but we have only begun to see it happen.

Being one of the pioneers of the heady, sexbomby self-discovery-thru-teen-webcam-sex movement, how do you think coming of age in public impacts individual growth, and pop culture?

I think it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, you get to express yourself and put yourself out there in ways you couldn’t get to before. You can have a “voice” and “make a stand.” You might get a lot of positive affirmation that way that could help make you more confident. On the other hand, you open yourself up to criticism and trolls, which is really difficult to deal with at any age. You also find yourself addicted to getting likes, getting attention, and you might alter your behavior in order to get those things, which in turn might lead you away from being your true wonderful unique self in order to fit in with what is popular. But at this point, public exposure seems inevitable for pretty much everyone so now we are faced with figuring out how we want to deal with it rather than *if* we want to deal with it.    

But the plot thickens, right? At the same time that we’ve been publicly exposing ourselves and negotiating all of that, free download porn has colonized our consciousness. I know you think about porn a lot in your work. You’re often quoted saying, “When you put your body online, you are, in some way, in a conversation with porn.” So what do you think is happening to our relationships with sex, our bodies, and our sense of ourselves as these spheres collapse into each other?

I think something like 50% of online video content is pornography and 90 to 95% of that pornography is not about the women’s pleasure (the latter statistic based purely on my own “research”). Often it is degrading towards women. Most porn seems to, these days, be about the sexual gratification one gets from degrading, or controlling, another person, and typically it is a woman in the submissive role. It’s not that I think porn is naturally degrading but the porn that exists today is. If you are a woman and you want to put your body online or be sexual online that’s what you as a person are competing with and being compared to.

If you’re a straight man or someone who desires women, porn is the dominant way you’ve come to desire them, especially for the younger generations. If a person’s first time seeing the sexual body and having their first sexual experiences is through pornography, they may begin to associate the mediation itself with sexuality. So in turn, if they then see a peer’s face on Instagram, even if it’s not a sexualized or pornographic image, because of the mediation, they may still sexualize that image. I think the cinema has had a very similar effect on us, although Internet pornography has magnified and intensified the objectification of women in media.

Film as a medium historically helped to objectify women even more so than they had been prior to the advent of the cinema, because of the appealing nature of the medium itself, combined with the way predominately male filmmakers chose to portray women in film as well as with the ubiquity of the medium. Pornography is now doing a similar thing where we have this very seductive form of media (HD video) that is being used, primarily by male pornmakers to show women in a very specific sexual way. A way that typically has to do with their sexual oppression and degradation. And over the last five to ten years, porn has become even more easily accessible than film ever was. If we can agree that film and television changed the way we perceive the world and the people around us, we must concede that the widespread proliferation of pornography is doing the same thing. This manifests in a few ways. First, I think young people especially have come to think that “porn sex” is normal sex...or is at least the kind of sex they should be trying to have, or is the kind of sex they are “supposed” to be having.

And also, because “porn sex” is alluring but also kind of intense, I think there are a growing amount of people who would prefer just to live inside their pornography rather than engage in real sex. It’s very easy to retreat to porn, it feels very safe because your fantasies get full reign. But then if you actually try to have sex with someone, and you have this fantasy in your head, and then the real sex doesn't live up to the porn sex, then there is a disconnect there. Maybe you feel ashamed because you wanted it to be a certain way but your partner didn’t, or you can't reconcile your sexual desires, which have been based on porn with the reality of what sex with another person is. So porn is safe, because you don’t have to deal with those realities of human interaction. Or, maybe you’re like me and you have your fantasy world of porn and the real world of your sex life and they are equally great in different ways, with maybe only slight overlap.  

Ann Hirsch, Still from Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca),
2010. Video, color, sound, 14 min. Courtesy of the artist.

If we look at you as a role model here, and female sexual self-expression as an area of ‘culture’ that’s coming to light through net art and girls everywhere who are horny and secretive and coming of age publicly with digital strangers like you did, how do these stories touch on one of our culturally darkest spots and reveal what’s there, needing to change?

I think our sexual desire, and the politics of power would change if female sexuality were allowed. And by that I mean if female sexuality wasn’t a shameful thing, a sacred thing, an unknown thing—if people saw female sexuality as integral part of our personhood rather than a separate piece of them. We would have a lot to re-evaluate though. It would mean that just because we like something sexually doesn’t mean it’s politically positive. Look how BDSM has exploded. We have Fifty Shades of Grey in the movie theatre. Power has become bigger in sex than it ever has been before because of the Internet. Even if women are doing better on social levels in power, in the bedroom, we’re losing because it’s become all about domination. This plays into our inner porn fantasies. So even if I like it, it’s not necessarily a good thing. So that’s why I am not able to identify with the sex positive movement. I love trashy Reality TV too but I don’t think it’s a good thing, I think it’s terrible. Why can’t we say that about pornography if we can say that about other areas of culture? The truth is we can’t even conceive of sex without power. All our desire is wrapped up in that. I don’t think it has to be like that.

How could it be different?

Sex could be about respect and admiration. Like you’re getting off on someone because you think they are a wonderful person. It sounds so cheesy when I say it but kind of a nice alternative idea. Sexual positions could reflect that dynamic as well, where it’s not so much about a person on top of another physically, but maybe something more intimate, more equal/side by side.  

I sometimes wonder if one way to try this is by working in the pure fantasy of digital relationships where there is no body to mediate. If you’re sharing ideas, which is a way to be together that’s maybe more equal and not so much about ego or orgasm, do you think having a cyber bf or gf is potentially more intimate and changemaking than putting bodies together?  

It can be more intimate in some ways, yes. When you interact with a bf/gf in real space, you can sit together and do nothing for hours and that’s fine. But when you’re with someone online—you’re not doing anything with them unless you are actually interacting with them. Which means constant chatting or sharing. And that can allow the two people to form a very quick and intimate bond. Also the reality of fantasy is extremely intense. A bf/gf you have that is solely an online relationship, means you’re in deep in this fantasy with them. The fantasy can often get intense because there’s less “real life” stakes so the drama/emotions can get even more heightened than they would otherwise. The sexuality can be heightened as well—because it’s in this relatively safe arena of mediation.  

I like the way you use empathy in your work to get at some of these ideas. Is empathy a crucial cornerstone in this whole arena that should be talked about more as a way of being, and a method of investigating? 

Empathy is important for art and artists because it allows the things we want to discuss to not only become more human, but also more complex. When you are looking at something or someone from the outside it is often hard to understand the complexities there. You might see something just one certain way, or make up an ill informed opinion on it. But when you have empathy, and are truly willing to look at something from someone else's perspective, you can see how complex people are and how certain things you made assumptions about previously, you understand are more complicated. I think complexity just makes for more interesting art because it’s going to be more nuanced. You want your art to be something people spend time with, make them understand the world differently than they used to. It’s very easy to be satirical and to make fun of something and people laugh and you feel good. It’s not as easy to step into a role you yourself might disdain and show others who disdain it as well, the humanity in it. Evil is banal, but it’s also human and if we can’t see the humanity in evil—how can we ever expect to change it?  

MIT’s List Visual Arts Center is currently showing a retrospective of Ann Hirsch’s art works, The Scandalishious Project (2008-09), Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca) (2010) and Twelve (2013). The three works on view, including her interventions on reality TV and on YouTube, have never been shown together in a museum context. The show runs till February 21, 2016. WM

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Caia Hagel

Caia Hagel is the co-author of the groundbreaking book Girl Positive, editor-in-chief of SOFA magazine, and a speaker on innovation, culture, the internet and the future.

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