Shawné Michaelain Holloway is a new media artist currently based in Chicago. Her deeply personal work, which often casts its unflinching lens onto the artist herself, boldly addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and sexuality in the internet age. She sees simply logging onto the internet as a political gesture that can be imbued with intentionality. Holloway asks important questions about our immersion and participation in a digital world that we all take for granted, but don’t necessarily understand.
Christian Petersen: When did you first become aware of computers?
Shawné Michaelain Holloway: Aware is a funny word: I had a computer growing up. My first operating system was Windows95, but I’m not sure I was aware of it as a device that processed complex data in sequences of operations. Because I never used it for anything offline, I thought of it as a shell for the internet more than anything else. Not until college did I fully realize the capabilities of computers, the machines themselves.
CP: What was your first experience of the Internet?
SMH: My first independent experience of the internet was registering for a hotmail.com email address. I used that account to sign up for things like TeenOpenDiary, AIM, Windows Messenger, and later Neopets. I was sodapop1616 everywhere for the longest. 20 years later, I’m #outHere as cleogirl2525—it doesn’t seem like my naming habits have changed any.
CP: When did you first think about using the internet as a platform to create art?
SMH: I began seriously thinking about the internet as a way to make art when I realized that it allowed me to connect to people across great distances that I wouldn’t ever have met otherwise. I was interested in how I could use it no matter how little space I had for a studio, how ill, or how broke I was.
CP: Does the potential of the internet still excite you?
SMH: Absolutely. Every day there’s something new to see and explore. It’s the first and last thing I look at every day. If it didn’t excite me, I wouldn’t revisit it so often—that’s why I keep working there. However, I don’t think we, as a society, yet have a concrete or even collective understanding of what the internet has the potential to bring us—myself included.
I truly believe that the general, very economic focused utilization of the network alienates us from creating a new language with which to embody the medium. I was invited to give a talk alongside Aria Dean at University of Arts Helsinki under the theme of “Rethinking Digitalization.” I talked about how understanding poetics might have an impact on the way we can understand cyberspace. Aria and I really united over a questioning of institutionalized narratives about the foundation of cyberspace (and other digitalization), suggesting that taking a look at non-philosophy, subjective disciplines, and otherwise overseen narratives can expose a lot about a space we think we know everything about. The proximity of everyone’s involvement is so close and crucial that we’re forgetting that it’s still a wild, glitchy figment of our creation that is able to be developed, reshaped, and re-historicized.
CP: When did you start to use the internet as tool for creative expression of political and social beliefs?
SMH: Logging on to the internet at all is a political action. It was more of training myself to become more intentional about how I was already expressing my social and political beliefs from which sites I used to order books and look at pornography to which email provider I chose to use. Creatively my work reflects this because of all of the UX design I leave intact in screenshots, which platforms I choose to distribute my artwork on, etc.
CP: What were the positives and negatives of your college experience?
SMH: The only negative I see about my education was that it was largely white and western. I’m only just now catching up to the books and media I should’ve been reading as an undergraduate—or, frankly, before that even. Part of my approach these days is to incorporate this investigation into the way I’m producing work. This way I can educate myself but also align my practice with perspectives that feel more closely related to my experience. Instead of making my work fit a discourse I see as either a) superficially constructed for academic purposes or b) overlooking entire populations for the sake of a higher purpose, I create work to align and #cosign histories I feel passionate about. For example, my work Picking Skin : Alignment works to express this visually, and my recent show/ongoing series, Daughter of the Cage, appropriates some of the imagery and language of work by filmmaker Oscar Micheaux in an effort to discover the early landscape of black cinema.
CP: Social media is an integral part of your art practice. What have you learned that is unique about expressing yourself in that way compared to more traditional art mediums?
SMH: I don’t see using social media to be any different than performance and I don’t see performance as an untraditional art medium. I can understand that perhaps both of those things are pretty recently accepted into fine arts institutions as a truly valued form of practice but I can’t be bothered to address that novelty. I believe it is crucial for the success of the discourse on the internet arts to relate to other mediums through the understanding that it was built by these other practices and that these practices continue to live on through new methodologies that web arts re-present. They are not separate. Take a look at my series of self portraits for example: they’re all a hybrid between performance documentation and a printable image that has been composed. My skills as a painter inform this practice as does my practice as poet. It’s this triangulation that creates the new media out the internet itself.
CP: New media has become a vital home for the expression of feminist and gender ideas. What about the medium makes it a particularly interesting way to explore those issues?
SMH: Internet art is a vital resource for anyone thinking about what it means to inhabit a structure, whether that is a body or a future.
CP: I’ve also noticed an increasing number of artists of color being drawn to new media. Do you agree?
SMH: It’s not increasing. They’ve always been there but maybe just not always in the news. Now folks are out here trying to decolonize their institutions in order to make space for women and POC to varying levels of success. That’s nice, but there needs to be less trying and more doing. I’m done showing up to art and tech festivals and seeing no POC on an entire schedule when I know so many who are around and have been around for ages.
CP: Do you feel that each work you create represents a specific aspect of your overall identity?
SMH: I’m really struggling with the potential that my identity is ever truly represented in my work—it could be. In 2015, I talked to Kimberly Drew about it:
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. It’s intentionally nonlinear, but it is aesthetically cohesive and packed with small gestures that provide continuity across projects and mediums.
Since then, I’ve realized that whoever is in my videos is absolutely not me. While I’m making one single artwork, I’m still black, and still navigating the internet. There’s something about the continuous dissonance of seeing my body online, or my name in a text, having done and performed these things, that doesn’t necessarily resonate for me. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome, maybe it’s being young, or maybe it’s that I’m at a moment in my life where my identity is in flux. I’m not sure.
I do know, however, that it frustrates me when people feel they know me because they’ve seen moving images of me online in vulnerable positions. While I’m extremely polite and honest and present IRL, I’m a say-everything-but-disclose-nothing type of person. I think my work reflects that. Perhaps that’s exactly how I’ve managed to communicate an aspect of my true self there.
CP: Your work has also explored themes of intimacy and sexuality...
SMH: Intimacy and embodiment are the two biggest concerns of internet art because of its native environment. Interacting with a screen, alone, is quite intimate and the ever-increasing desire to put ourselves inside the screen is very clear via the public’s obsession with virtual and augmented reality technology. I think the language of sex and BDSM, in particular, fits very well with these rhetorics. I don’t make work about sex, I make work about networks and culture.
CP: Has your relationship with the “selfie” changed over time?
SMH: I started taking selfies for Myspace because everyone else did. I was too scared to really share photos of my face on the internet before that. It was still the time of net-based stranger danger horror stories—which are totally real—and I still remember how scared I was the day I left the house after uploading the first photo of myself. It took such a long time for me to quit hiding my face from the internet.
Now, I’m not afraid to put my likeness on the internet but I enjoy a fair amount of privacy and modesty. I control what people see and that’s no mistake. I try to hide in plain sight, showing only what I decide others are allowed to see. Controlled vulnerability is important to me. Sometimes it’s personal preference, sometimes it’s logical. For example, in photos, I am always careful of what details I’m giving away about my location because of my involvement in activities online that might require a bit of anonymity. Non-spaces without windows, like elevators or bathrooms, make regular occurrences in my selfies.
CP: Do you feel you are part of an online community? If so how would you define it?
SMH: I feel a part of a few online communities. I’d say there is a larger, very decentralized one connected to the arts that translates into IRL spaces. I’m also a part of a lively social media community on Fetlife and Xtube. With Xtube, it really feels great to be a part of something that is online and stays online. That is rare anymore. Most people I meet online, I eventually meet in person. I don’t particularly ever want to meet my Xtube favorites in person. There’s something erotic about that anonymity and I think that sentiment is often shared.
CP: New media art is traditionally very hard to monetize. What has your personal experience been of that?
SMH: New media art can be difficult to monetize but internet art is even more difficult. I got around that for a while by making sure all the footage for my videos was paid for by people online through sex cam/chat environments. Now, I’m rethinking that structure. From time to time, I do sell my work as prints or videos. Using https://www.ascribe.io/ has been really cool as a way to talk about relationships between collectors and digital artists. I first used it when Nora Khan, a writer and curator whom I respect deeply, curated an exhibition called Quiet Strategies for Survival at berlin-based Left.Gallery. We created editions of our work so I used the opportunity to set a limit to the amount of people who could have access to it. I felt like it was a necessary gesture to retain the conceptual integrity of the piece. Left.Gallery is a cool place, though—it sells downloadable files. I’m so excited about it.
CP: Who/what in the contemporary world of new media art do you find particularly inspiring?
SMH: I am most intrigued by the conversations that are beginning to surround Rhizome’s Web Recorder about web as performance. This is a relatively new tool and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Auriea Harvey is also endlessly inspiring. Her practice is vast, fiercely skillful, and honest. Her and her work are extraordinarily poetic and I appreciate the attention she pays to architecture, history, and other formalities.
Additionally, in preparation for my last solo show, Daughter of the Cage, I’ve been looking very closely at how new media artists translate their work into a gallery space. Sondra Perry’s exhibition Resident Evil at The Kitchen was extremely gorgeous and used space so well. It felt purposeful and integrated the whole body without verging into extreme interactivity. So often new media work in a gallery falls short of proper communication. Hers didn’t; I felt it and it’s still with me.
Luke R. Dubois instillation of the “Learning Machines” in his exhibition The Choice is Yours at Bitforms was really great, too—very technical. In new media we talk about transparency a lot. So many of us are occupied with transparent data usage but then turn around and go try to install something into a gallery, hiding the evidence of its construction, etc., effectively creating this weird double standard. In this exhibition, the construction of the Learning Machines was all so visible but never in your face. I liked the invitation to pay attention to it or not. The exhibition had an agenda—the form was an added bonus.
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CP: What other projects do you have coming up?
SMH: I’m really excited to be apart of Sexual Fragments Absent curated by Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi on the 27th in New York City. I also have my second solo show of the year, SUB NOT SLAVE, opening at Sorbus Galleria in Helsinki.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(All images: Courtesy of the artist)