shawné michaelAin holLOWAY
Shawné Michaelain Holloway is a Chicago-based net artist using the internet as a medium to explore the themes of BDSM, regulation of intimacy, and the language surrounding sex practices. We met up with her and discussed her recent exhibitions Sub Not Slave, and Sexual Fragments Absent.
So, what’s the Chicago art scene like?
It's amazing, it's very DIY and community-based. I do not have a studio practice although many here do. I grew up making noise and I love that scene; I was the only black woman though so I quickly learned how to navigate that in a certain way. I don’t interact much with the larger gallery scene, but they exist. If I do attend events, it’s more in the artists-run spaces. So, my experience of the “scene” may be different than others’.
Do you consider yourself a digital artist?
No. I consider myself an internet artist or a new media artist. I use the internet as a medium. I don’t make work for the internet only, but internet is the medium with which I speak. Whether it’s appropriated YouTube videos or videos I take from websites. I use the language and the interface of the internet to express whatever it is I need to say. My work has many layers, all talking about power, but the internet is the substance with which I choose to understand what's happening everywhere else because, to me, it's the most relevant conversation.
Do you feel as an ever evolving medium, what do you think the future of digital art is?
It's weird, I don't know. It's important to ask people who have that particular genre-positioning. The technological landscape is always uncertain. The internet is a good place to be creating because it is always evolving. Even if that dies, you get a new medium. And that's what new media is and that’s why I am a new media artist, not a digital one. New media has history, and digital is just a binary that’s apart of that history.
What defines an internet artist?
I think it’s different with everyone but I’ve noticed ways the artworld has been defining it for me. For example, being an internet artist, it’s sometimes hard to understand what galleries can do for you. I'm only just starting to understand how to interact with them. I always tell galleries working with my online work in an expanded/commission-based capacity, that bringing my content into a more physical form is not something I’d usually do so they need a budget for that. There are boundaries here because I’m not about to overextend myself. I don’t have a studio practice for a reason. In the DIY scene it is understood that you do everything and you get as much out of it as you put in but the gallery situation, it’s so different and I’m not about to play games. I’m excited to get to a financial position where I can stop working this way and expand into the physical world on my own terms. I’m almost there.
Can you walk me through how you got into the work you make?
I’m a very sick person; I have chronic pain condition and part of my thought process was like, “what can I do that doesn’t require a lot of physical activity?” It’s funny because the work that I make is incredibly physical, but in a different way. It's redefining that physicality and questioning what space can I be physical and intellectual in at the same time.
I started making work about sex because I am invested in BDSM, personally and professionally. I don’t just fuck around with the language I use. It’s not a distant interest. It became an obsession of mine when I was 18 while working at a sex shop and online as a cam entertainer, because I saw the language of the culture connecting to the way we understand the internet. It connects to the structures of power we see in the world.
Eventually, I started to understand what it was meant to be a black woman in these spaces and things changed personally and creatively.
Do you think escapism is involved?
Sure. My online performance work is centered on a kind of transformation out of my physical self and into where I can inhabit a full self, full of dimension and nuance. People ask me "what’s the difference between your online and offline identities" and I hate this question. I’m always like, “I don’t know, nothing?” I’m not building a character anymore than anyone else is. That's not necessarily a different identity to me. People seem to forget that I’m still attached to my body on the other side of the screen.
What drew you to BDSM and is that your lifestyle?
It's an incredibly intellectual practice. It's theoretical and I like the idea of systemizing intimacy. The sexy parts of BDSM are a part of my lifestyle but I think, more importantly, the point I’m making by studying it exhaustively is that it’s a part of everyone’s lifestyle.
For example, if you go to a college and ask to study BDSM you might study Hannah Arendt, Lacan, Deluze and Guattari, Hegel, or Freud. They all talk about political power and talk about domination. It's the same language you use when talking about bodies. In BDSM, you are always redefining your relationship to the political.
When did you decide to turn it into an art practice and meld the two?
It’s always been apart of my art practice. I used footage that my clients paid me to make when I was an online femme domme. I’m moving away from talking about BDSM and sex work, though, and moving towards talking about the interiority of being a submissive in a romantic or “lifestyle” situation.
What makes it art?
It is and it's not. It's an intellectualization of something, which is scholarly. The work that I make has to do with these videos that I take of myself in these situations where I am experimenting with something. But also, it’s art simply because I said so. No one really had to qualify that, in my opinion.
You have had a lot of recent exhibitions, tell me about them.
My last show "Sub Not Slave" was at Sorbus Galleria in Helsinki. It was saying that submissives are not necessarily slaves. The power dynamic between submissive and the dominant might be that someone always has the power, sure. But slaves do not have power. There needed to be a boundary set within my body of work that expressed that explicitly.
Submissiveness in the connection to the black body is difficult. I don’t use the word Slave and really needed that to be clear. I only engage with people of color in these spaces in order to avoid that kind of rhetoric. I don’t judge people who want to use it, it’s just not for me. There was a time I did use this language but I have moved past that.
Thematically, I used watersports (a piss fetish) as a basis for everything. I installed a toilet in the middle of the gallery. There is a video in the toilet and you have to stand in a certain place to look at this video of me rolling around in yellow water. There are also monitors in the corners where I appear, watching people put their faces in this toilet to read the text in the film. It’s clusterfuck of gazes reflecting off each other, hopefully confusing the power dynamics in the space. Ultimately everyone leaves having experienced a “scene” or “playtime” with me.
You also exhibited at Paddles, a sex club in New York?
Yes, for an exhibition “Sexual Fragments Absent.” Paddles is usually a very cis white gay man-space and this exhibition disrupted all of that.
What would you like the audience that is not aware of the bdsm culture to know?
It's a question that we addressed a lot in "Sexual Fragments Absent." Having people come into the kink space and experience it alongside the work was extremely important to us as not to sensationalize the culture from which the work came. Away from that instance, I don’t care if people know anything about BDSM or not because my work is also about technology. BDSM is just a vehicle towards the understanding of other things like transformation and ritual.
Is BDSM research for your artwork?
No, artwork is research for my kink.
What’s the next step for you?
I had three solo in the past three months in different countries. I’m going to take a break for a while. I produced three major series and I want to redefine what I want and how I want to get it.
Who are some contemporaries that you are looking at?
Tiona Mcclodden, JonCates, and all the minds at Triple Canopy.
How far are you willing to go?
Not far. I don’t have a death drive. People get turned on by the idea of the extreme but I’m 100% not.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done on the internet?
Fall in love.