Sub Not Slave is a multimedia installation that forces a viewer to look down. Through a creative re-staging of a sex club bathroom, the work heavy handedly presents an examination of power. Serving as a kind of interrogation booth, the work turns into a structure that simultaneously asks, “What turns you on?” and “What do you think is dirty?” The definition of this uncleanliness can fluctuate between its literal meaning to “forbidden,” “uncouth,” and even “lesser than.”
The exhibition title Sub Not Slave reinforces submission as an active gesture that is offered in exchange for something rather than something that is owed. By following the artist’s carefully arranged choreography of viewership, audiences are engaged in an act of play.
Shawné Michaelain Holloway (USA) is an internet artist using sound, video, and performance to re-stage personal narratives through materials appropriated from the web. Her work shapes the rhetorics of technology and sexuality into tools for exposing structures of power. Her work has been exhibited internationally in spaces like the Festspielhaus Hellerau (Dresden, DE), Lafayette Anticipation (Paris, FR), and on NTS Radio.
Sorbus interviewed Shawné Michaelain Holloway in April 2017 via email.
Sorbus: In your show at Sorbus you will present videos in recreated sex club bathroom scenery. Would you like to tell something about these videos? Could you also explain the exhibition title, Sub Not Slave, a little bit?
Shawné Michaelain Holloway: Sub Not Slave is a title encouraging people to think about agency. The word Sub is referring to being a submissive, or a bottom, in a sadomasochistic power relationship. Even if a viewer doesn’t understand the significance of what a Submissive is or does, they likely have a general understanding of what a slave is, historically. So, even with a limited understanding, this title is saying that whatever is in this gallery is not related to a kind misunderstanding or lack of agency.
Going in to view the installation, I wanted everyone to understand that I am taking a confident stance on how it is I want my image to be viewed. I’ve choreographed the space so that there is a critical play happening. There are two videos: one in a toilet, representing my likeness, and a multichannel video of me sitting and watching the space, positioned toward the toilet. To view the video in the toilet, one must place their feet inside guidelines on the floor to properly understand what I’ve created. It’s not enough to look, your body must be implicated. This way, viewers are flirting with a proposition, “Piss on me,” and are ultimately walking away having gone through a kind of negotiation. I suspect no one will accept the proposition but it is a proposition no less; each question on screen has a “yes or no answer” and everyone is encouraged to vocalize their responses while looking at the piece. It becomes a series of mini play scenes, but between whom – the artist and the viewer, the artist and the artspace, the artist and the artist, or the viewer with themselves?
Sorbus: There is this ideal image of (contemporary) art spaces as welcoming and open to everyone, but still many people don’t feel comfortable entering an art space. As with Sorbus, it feels that there is a separate audience that views our shows only thru the window. The same could maybe be argued about sex clubs (?). That there are people who are attracted to, but do not enter the club? Could this somehow be about a “protective distance” (or anonymity?) that gazing, but not engaging, can offer? And furthermore, how does showing works in online environment change this positioning? Can web based art cross the boundaries of IRL audiences, and if so, in what way?
SMH: I believe we are all attracted to certain things we don’t immediately have access to whether that’s physically or intellectually. The power of newness and desire mixed with responsibility and/or fear is really powerful. It fades in and out of being a form of self-reflection. It’s clearest when this “protective distance” becomes absolutely necessary to be able to make room for observation and decision making for or against interacting with the desired object. In some ways, and perhaps this what keeps many maintaining the distance instead of breaking through it, it is safety from the active escalation of that desire. Sexually, that’s the foundations of taboo. Protective distance has a lot to do with restraint and restraint is a very desirous quality to be able to maintain. It is my fundamental belief that restraint is the basis of all taboos, all desires, and all pleasure. If we see restraint as in service to itself, it is either the letting go or the maintaining of it that is foreplay in pursuit of a desire. That’s why the separation between screen and reality is so powerful.
Artistically speaking however, if we are talking about contemporary art – that this distance can be forced upon us and turned into a tool for ridicule. Some sex spaces are similar. For example, the pretension of the arts space is clearly catering to a specific class, if not branding the opinion that there should be a desired one. Some clubs are this way too. Money plays a huge role in whether or not different types of bodies easily can gain access to these spaces or not.
Sorbus: In the recent ArtSlant interview you speak about intimacy and embodiment of internet art and desire to put ourselves inside the screen. As Sorbus is located in a kind of “red light district” of Helsinki with bars, Thai massage parlours (offering sex services), strip joints and sex shops, your exhibition might be read quite differently than if the space was located in a different part of the city. In the same interview you said that your work is about networks and culture, and not about sex. How do you see that Sorbus’ location will influence the work, when intimacy and embodiment are present in flesh next door?
SMH: I’m excited about the potential for Sorbus to become part of that landscape for the duration of my show. I talk about my work not being about Sex (with a capital “S”) because Sex isn’t always just about the act itself. Every once and awhile I’ll do something purely poetic for the sake of indulgence but it’s rare. Regardless, any kind of subjectivity I might represent is inextricably tied to a personal history and those histories are tied to social histories. That may be essentializing a personal experience but at a certain point, if we are to study, research, and really try to take a look at the impact of sexuality on an individual or an environment, we get into questions of socio-cultural rules and expectations. Those rules and guidelines are all dependant on networks and thrive through exchange. The computer embodies this completely. It is language, though, that is the real unifier and truth teller. For example, think about how words like “master” and “slave” function in tech, sex, and society.
My aesthetic is quite related to the BDSM community because that’s what looks and feels right to me on the daily. Honestly, I’d rather be sitting in a sex club than an art gallery so I try to bring that element into my installations, if not try to show out in the club itself. At some point, I have to ask myself “who am I making this work for?” It’s not something I generally think about when I’m making work because I’m making work for whoever finds it online. The anonymous viewer ~ the voyeur. I’m not naive in thinking that, institutionally, it functions the same way. That’s my biggest struggle as an internet artist moving into physical space – being without the traffic of dedicated lurker clicking through sorting algorithms whose investment in the topic is already high.
The fact that Sorbus has a window to the outside is exciting and scary but really perfect in this neighborhood. Artistically, I’ve always tried to mask the appearance of the work from the public and only those interested would be exposed. There’s a level of exhbitionism that I’m beginning to become comfortable with, if not excited by, as I move forward in my career. Showing at Sorbus is a healthy and manageable stretch for me in this way.
Sorbus: In 2015 interview by Kimberly Drew for Walker Art Center, you stated that “Everything that I’ve made is one singular artwork—each piece contributes to a stream of digital artifacts (films, status updates, music, publications, etc.) that, all together, carefully detail/describe one Black gURL’s #identity + xxxperience of sex and pop culture online”. Do you find it hard (or even necessary) to have a so-called offline identity, that’s not merging with the online? And as a follow up, as you work in online environment, how do you separate work from other areas of life, or is this division needless?
SMH: Keeping IRL identity and online identity separate is difficult so I don’t try very hard to do it. I let them bump up against each other in uncomfortable ways because living inside technology has extended my understanding of how identity can be communicated. Mine is kind of a long-form narrative you’ve gotta follow to understand. This is also the same with my work and why I’m always talking about each piece being a part of that singular arch.
To make XXX content I upload to websites, I go into another headspace like any other performer would. SM play also requires a kind of separate headspace. However, the question is: am I a different person entirely in these two places? Perhaps, but I am always in an imaginary watchtower overseeing things from afar. For me, it’s important to to escape myself entirely from time to time and just operate from the perspective of a user with content.
In general though, I am privileged with a fair amount of anonymity in my daily life and I want nothing more than keep it like that – eg: constantly switching my appearance on Instagram and confusing everyone about what I might look like if I were to show up at the function is fun for me. I always get, “but I thought you had a shaved head?” or “You don’t look like your photos.” It makes me laugh every time, like “um, was I supposed to?”
I’ll only admit to it being uncomfortable when I meet a person I like out in the world who doesn’t know about my work, I’m start flirting with them, and all the sudden she finds me on IG and is like, “Who’s this?!” That also makes me laugh, too – except it’s the nervous and vulnerable kind of laugh. I don’t know why I care but I do. I’m slowly learning that someone who freaks out about that duality isn’t anyone I need to be with anyways; so it’s a good filter.
Sorbus: Partly connected to the ongoing 100 year anniversary of Finnish independence, we have seen heavy branding of Tom of Finland‘s homoerotic fetish illustrations (illegal and marginal at the time of their original publication). In addition to a big museum exhibition we’ve seen the appearance of Tom of Finland bed sheets, mugs, coffee, postage stamps and a feature film. Besides this, it happens that your exhibition also coincides with the branding of digital and internet art in a big (Ars17) exhibition at Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art in Helsinki. Both of these phenomenons could be seen as subcultures being adopted by the mainstream and used for nationalistic intentions. How do you feel about these things? Do you see them as recognition or support for, or exploitation and appropriation of these cultures?
SMH: The visual appropriation of both digital arts and SM have been wildly popular for a while now. I have mixed feelings about it but I am 100% not the authenticity police. Everyone should be exposed to these things in one way or another and it’s nice that people can go and look at it in what, comparably, could feel like a safer space. In the case of obscure digital art, having a place to go be exposed to it at all, is a step in the right direction. In terms of Tom of Finland (TOF), it’s nice that these activities are not demonized. Especially with TOF’s explicit connection to homosexuality; it’s like yes, please get the general public there to see that. The culture doesn’t need validation but the public need exposure to new things. People tend to hate what they don’t know.
However, nine times out of ten, this goes wrong. These institutions don’t invite the people who are really involved with the scene they’re researching to in conversation with that work and that is when it becomes unacceptable and objectifying. Presenting a surface read of any obscure anything is wrong. Under-curating an exhibition with this kind of material is detrimental. It’s the responsibility on the part of the curators to step up and make the right decisions. If they do not, it is undermining the artist’s work, the people it depicts, and it can also be dangerous for those inspired to become better acquainted with the community in question.
The realest and most pressing issue, especially with sex culture, is that there is no guide for what happens after someone’s interest is piqued. Digital arts are fine and everyone’s invited. However, subcultures have rules. When you’re dealing with real bodies in real spaces, so many things can happen. This goes back to what I was talking when I said my work is not about Sex, it’s about networks and culture. I cannot comprehend wanting to present a thing without an understanding of its histories and futures unless you fill it with subjectivity and are #AboutThatLife with your own money or body.
In terms of digital art: new media, digital or not, is always already everyone’s aesthetic and I feel there is no way real to appropriate it institutionally barring a complete lack or respect for a proper investigation. We’re all using technology and we’re all creating content for or inside of that technology. Note that I said, new media and not digital arts. That means something when we’re talking about accessibility.
Shawné Michaelain Holloway: Sub Not Slave, Edit-taidemedia, 4.5.2017
Sub Not Slave on taiteellinen rekonstruktio seksiklubin vessasta. Se tarkastelee valtaa asettamalla katsojan tarkasti koreografioituun ruumillisen leikin ja katsomisen aktiin. Teos toimii eräänlaisena kuulustelukoppina esittäen samanaikaisesti kysymykset “Mikä kiihottaa sinua?” ja “Mikä on mielestäsi likaista?”. Näyttelyn nimi Sub Not Slave (Alistuva, ei orja) korostaa alistumista aktiivisena eleenä, eräänlaisena vaihtokaupan välineenä.
Shawné Michaelain Holloway (USA) on internet-taiteilija, joka käyttää ääntä, videota ja performanssia lavastaakseen henkilökohtaisia narratiiveja netistä kaapatun materiaalin avulla. Hänen teoksensa muovaavat teknologian ja seksuaalisuuden retoriikkaa työvälineiksi, joilla voi paljastaa valtarakenteita. Hänen töitään on ollut esillä kansainvälisesti mm. Festspielhaus Helleraussa (Dresden, Saksa), Lafayette Anticipationissa (Pariisi, Ranska) ja NTS Radiossa.
Sorbus haastatteli Shawné Michaelain Hollowayta sähköpostitse huhtikuussa 2017. Englanninkielinen haastattelu on luettavissa ylempänä.
Shawné Michaelain Holloway: Sub Not Slave, Edit-taidemedia, 4.5.2017