I’ve just returned from an interesting, and challenging evening at RISE Manchester, at an event organised by the RedEye Photography Network. I was asked to chair the session, in which photographic artists Sarah Maple and Natasha Caruana discussed their work, and the impact of trolling – both being trolled, and being the troll, has impacted their work as they seek to provoke conversation and discussion.
I introduced the artists, largely drawn from the biographies they had given on the site – I had also visited their sites – but with a family funeral not leaving much time for research – went for the ‘respond to the material as in front of me’ approach, as I scribbled away in the talks – one side for notes, the other side for potential questions (you know me – right tool for the job, and tonight pen/paper was the right tool).
Sarah Maple: Pound Shop Exhibitionist
Sarah introduced us to where her interest in challenging feminist work started, with a piece of work at Art School, which caused controversy and offence, and seemed to highlight the split in expectations between men and women.
She spoke of her personal experience of being brought up as a Muslim in a Catholic school post 9/11. She mentioned how ‘old-fashioned abuse’ was received pre-Twitter for her artworks – how ‘feminism’ was not really the thing it was now, but how her work got the conversation going – you can read a lot of her ideas in a Guardian article – which she mentioned in the talk – in which she wasn’t sure whether reading the comments ‘below the line’ would help or hinder her thinking.
Sarah questioned whether there had been a platform like this before, which allows public shaming and humiliation of artists? She talks about having moved from a position in which she felt complicit with berating women to work that is outspoken and political … but which many critique as an attention-seeking, silly girl. She has taken that response and turned it into art, turning comments into billboards – but it didn’t work as expected as a performance because having seen her face-to-face, the ‘mob mentality’ and its associated cruelty didn’t come to the fore. Sarah was due to post another blog with the Guardian re trolling, but ironically, the Guardian decided not to run it because of the expected negative backlash … therefore changing the narrative and limiting the conversation.
Sarah moved onto talking about her work ‘Anti Rape Cloak‘, questioning victim blaming, and coping with comments such as ‘with a face like that, no one would want to’, etc. She’s currently working on looking at ‘freedom of speech’, and questioned whether it was right for moderators/sites to delete comments – where are the boundaries? She referred to the number of feminists who have given up seeking to change the conversation, because the backlash is too difficult – therefore returning to a place where the discourse is controlled.
Sarah referred to the way that Disney has shaped so much of the narrative around women, showing them as passive characters, whilst men are active (and the enduring popularity of old images), problematic GAP campaigns, and Page 3, which have all shaped our environment. In 2013 she responded to the case of Caroline Criado-Perez and the abuse that she got on Twitter, with a video ‘Freedom of Speech‘, which she showed as a final piece – in which she responded to slaps around the face with increasing emotion, and increasing difficulty in speaking. The room was left in complete silence at the end.
Natasha Curuana: Married Man, etc.
Natasha started with a notion of being both trolled, and how that gave her the confidence to use trolling in some of her work – what does it look like from both sides of the screen? She questioned the performative techniques that we use, and our perceptions of betrayal. Having grown up in the circus, life has been constructed as a performance.
In 2008/9, Natasha’s work went global with her work ‘The Married Man‘, leading to a huge amount of discussion – both positive and negative. She had been reading a magazine at an appointment, and came across an advert for rekonnect “your affairs are our business”, offering you the opportunity to “be a mistress too”. At the time she was also reading Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, reading how if things are repeated, they become pleasurable – and was becoming interested in how technology is changing relationships.
She started meeting with married men who were looking for affairs, going on 80 dates with 54 men, having had conversations with hundreds online, several phone-calls and then face-to-face. She took photographs on the first dates, with a disposable camera (the men knew the photos were being taken – and didn’t include their faces). She soon found, that unlike the romance, etc that is depicted in material about affairs, she was being treated as a counsellor by men who felt lonely, and that they had no place – unlike their wives (often as mothers). By the end she was meeting 3-4 men a day, trying to manage to remember names when most had used a pseudonym online and then a different one in emails, and then confessed their ‘true’ name once met face-to-face. Natasha’s performance was to mirror what they wanted. She felt she was playing with power roles, and in questioning the ethics of what she was doing, she considered that they were cheating, but then so was she in the role she was in. She was clear on her boundaries, was not targeting (nor seeking to reveal) individual men – so it was more of an anthropological approach. She always met for coffee, with the table becoming the ‘theatre of desires’ – but also a barrier. The work was exhibited in galleries, as a slideshow, and online – one photo for each of the 54 men she dated – offering a fragmented insight into the experience. Natasha described this as this being about the audience and their friends and family – provoking conversation, and removing herself from the process. We listened to an audio piece from recordings at meetings – this piece is only ever shown live and is not online – it is intentionally gritty/not clean, and gaps can be made up from the imagination. Words such as trust, fun, and disposible came through, as did the man who said there were many prostitutes in London (but he wanted something else).
The press (e.g. Telegraph) has given many opinions on her work, but Natasha never ‘explains’ what her work means, she just lets it exist. This means that when she gets online abuse, she has to let it be, and not respond. This included criticisms about the ‘quality’ of the photographs, questioned her professional authority – including her ability to teach students photography. There was a strong sense of how people see photography and ‘what it should be’ – she decided to turn this criticism into inspiration, questioning expectations of a certain aesthetic.
Natasha now collects comments as part of the artistic process – questioning whether this is an important time to make art – including what is said, and the user names shown. Deliberate choices related to ethics included allowing 3 years to lapse between collecting the photos (2008), and showing it in 2011-12.
Between 2011-13, Natasha starting collecting ‘Fairytale for Sale‘ – in which she became a troll. She questioned whether the work of a troll, and the work of an artist, to provoke comment from the world, is the same. Starting from images seen on sales sites, of women selling their wedding dresses (but blanking out their faces) – she contacted them asking for high-res photos of them in the image (posing as a bride looking for a dress), preferably in ‘the trophy moment’ (demonstrating everlasting happiness), asking for fine detail on the dress (whilst looking at the masking techniques used, and the accompanying conversations). Natasha described building up relationships ‘that would not have happened in real life’, noting that this was built up around the time of Kate/Wills wedding, when women wanted to ‘be a princess too’. Unlike in the past, however, the dress was not a treasured item – but a disposable/performance piece – once the day had been documented, it could be sold on (not always immediately). With the faces of the bride (and groom) masked, the focus of the observer could move to other objects in the photo – what narrative are they telling (why is that groom holding a suitcase – where is he going?). She created a typology and trends – noting that the sea (or green spaces) were typically the trophy location.
Natasha describes what she was doing as ‘trolling’ because she was using an anonymous pseudonym, and asked all why they were selling (posing as a bride to be, who was somewhat superstitious). The trolling in this exercise was inspired by her experience of being trolled with The Married Man – maybe she didn’t need to reveal who she really was. She questioned whether trolls are ‘agents of online digestion’ who ‘weaponise exploitative material’. She collected together examples of the photographs that she had collected, along with a tag cloud of reasons for why people were selling their dresses (size, diet, space and dust seem to feature large).
Natasha is currently working with the Open Data Institute (set up by Tim Berners-Lee – who can still remember when he knew every page on the www). This includes looking at divorce data – which, ironically – seaside towns is where the highest numbers are (so why was the sea so heavily featured in wedding photos?!)
After the two presentations, I settled in for a conversation with Sarah and Natasha, drawing in questions from the audience. I introduced myself as someone who is an advocate for shaping a more positive environment online, a space that is a part of ‘real life’, so echoes commonly held beliefs, but also brings out specific behaviours. I mentioned the importance of ‘disinhibition’ in shaping behaviours that people see as ‘OK’ online, often forgetting that they are dealing with human beings, and bringing their vision of ‘normal’ to bear on the comments. In 2013 I started a piece on anonymity online, which I hope to pick up again next year, and included this quote from Caroline Criado-Perez:
If we don’t like what social media is presenting us [with], we should look at society instead, not just the tool they communicate with. (Interhactives)
- The Conversation (2014) Should McCann Twitter abuser have been doorstepped on TV?
- The Conversation: Articles on Trolling
- Wakelet: Negative Behaviour Online
We talked about links between Natasha and Sarah’s work, the dark humour evident, questioned whether the digital allowed better responses to trolling and not just suffering more at the hands of it, whether online reflects offline power status, the difference between cyberbullying and trolling (if there is one), how far works were curated/scripted, including the problems with constructions of masculinity and femininity (and our expectations). Most of the conversation was captured on Periscope:
— Redeye (@RedeyeNetwork) October 26, 2016
Digiexplorer (not guru), Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing @ Manchester Metropolitan University. Interested in digital literacy and digital culture in the third sector (especially faith). Author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age’, regularly checks hashtag #DigitalParenting.