Interview with Jovana Stokic
Being confronted with Jen Schwarting’s sumptuous collages that use found images of unruly, indecorous, and seemingly lifeless bodies, one cannot help but feel caught in the act of ogling. These bodies– easily identified as belonging to young girls– are devoid of agency, unable to return our hungry gazes. The artist is not speaking for them, but rather, creating a visual formation that goes beyond apology. Her works manage to be profoundly ambivalent— sympathetic and provocative, seductive and critical at the same time. Schwarting’s strategy allows the works’ meaning to be unstable, only to be situated by the viewers’ ability to construct aesthetic and ethical coordinates.
This brings me to the feminist argument regarding the works’ supposed ethical responsibility in the age of the Internet via the historical context of “feminst waves.” As a feminist, I have always felt that one can easily imagine drowning if one misses the wave, and succumb to an undercurrent. The millennial feminists reluctantly introduced the notion of fourth-wave feminism to criticize the limitations of a wave as a historic paradigm. They see fourth-wave feminism as a “way of thinking that is open, fluid and connected, and one that is transforming our world.” And fourth-wave feminist artists are savvy and self-aware as they use female bodies as vehicles in their art.
Jovana Stokic: To begin with the notion of returning the gaze; it is so clear that your subjects are incapable of doing so, and yet you create a powerful viewing experience that is, in my mind, more than compensating for this impossibility. The viewer’s gaze is not blocked, or implicitly asked to be averted– it is actually engaged in an aesthetic operation. How do you grapple with the notion of beauty in your work?
Jen Schwarting: The notion of beauty is a relatively new development in my work. For years, prior to my “drunk girls” project, I made collages similar in spirit to what I am making now, but they were made from photocopies and newspapers, and completely unadorned— they eschewed beauty and carried the paired-down language of protest and subculture, reflecting the political aesthetics of my youth. Then about five years ago when I started my current project, I felt the lo-fi materials and formal language I had been using were no longer productive. I sensed my new project should reflect the visual identity of the present, where everything is hyper-attractive or manipulated to perfection. Thinking about my source material and the nature of the internet, I wanted the final works to be super-aesthetic and photo-based, glossy and vibrant, and I liked the idea of taking visual cues from popular media, like Vice magazine. So beauty is a new territory for me, and I’ve been experimenting with making the work more attractive and seductive, registering how that affects the viewing experience.
The collected works in the exhibition, Age of Consent, temps the viewer to first take in its elaborate formal qualities, and then requires time– more than a glance– to comprehend what is at stake in the overall picture. There is a bit of a slow reveal, where the viewer gets invested in the surface treatment and painted elements and then has to reconcile the disturbing photographs collaged into the works. I wanted the tension between beauty and abjection to complicate the work in a way that makes it more compelling, however, this balance is something I constantly keep in check, and I don’t want the conversation around the work to ever become more about the formal qualities than the political ones.
The collages’ aesthetic potential stems from your insistence on the dissonance between found image as a fetish, and its treatment to deny the fetishism. I see you achieve this by formal operations. Could you explain the process of how you treat the found image and its framework?
Hundreds if not thousands of anonymous photographs appear in the online search for “drunk girls,” so I try to consider and treat each picture individually, rather than succumb to the numbing effects of the quantity. I’m glad you asked about the fetish because it’s a term I’ve thought about in relation to my work many times, but haven’t articulated before. The images of passed-out girls can clearly be seen as sexual fetish, compiled by someone with a specific (I would say, predatory) sexual preference. But Marx’s theory of commodity fetish is equally fitting, wherein social relationships are mediated through an exchange of goods (photographs). So I really think about each photograph I select and each drunk girl individually— questioning the social relationships and conditions under which her image was exchanged and circulated, and what power dynamics are at stake, even if they are questions about specific situations that I can only guess at or partially answer.
Visually, I decided to create these very graphic, crisp and dynamic compositions around the photographs that both countered the casual, pixelated snapshots and at the same time, incorporated them. I drew on early Modernist graphic design and Dada photo-collage, which I love for their ingenuity and dissidence, and then I also added contemporary techniques like spray paint as well. However, as bold and intentionally attractive as the final works are, they’re not precious. The closer the viewer looks, the more apparent it is that the prints, paintings and sculptures are hand-crafted, rough and not at all refined. For the painting surface I use a textured burlap rather than canvas, the frames I cobble together using a jigsaw, raw wood slats and commercial drywall screws, and I screw the frames together from the front– right through the clear plexiglass– to remove any preciousness. In my mind, these small but strange ruptures in the frame insist that the works inhabit a critical space, and I hope keep the viewer asking questions.
Due to this perverse sub-genre of drunk girls’ photos that can be found in abundance on Google Search, were you guided by the fascination of this new trope, this representation of the female figure, no matter how abject it is? How do you avoid exploitative images?
There are exceptions, but I try to choose images where the girl is partially turned away from the camera, or her features are obscured, so that she would be very difficult to identify as a particular individual and is for the most part an anonymous body. I don’t show much overt nudity, but some of the images I choose do show the figure’s skirt flipped up— that “up the skirt” titillation being the reason the photographs circulated in the first place. Choosing which image to appropriate is challenging because I don’t want to further exploit, but I also don’t want to shy away from the reality or tone down the sinking feeling one gets when viewing the images— which is that these girls are vulnerable, “easy” targets.
Actually the question of exploitation is something I’m constantly reconciling, and I wouldn’t say I fully have a handle on it yet. I assume that none of the women featured in my artwork, taken from photos heavily rotated on the web, would want that representation of themselves disseminated. And yet a few of the students that I spoke to about my work during the course of the exhibition shrugged at the notion that these personal photos, exposed, posed a serious problem— because they grew up with the constant circulation of personal images through social media and no sense of privacy as I experienced it in my youth. Exploitation and humiliation have become cultural norms— ubiquitous in popular entertainment, easily accessible porn and Reality TV, and encouraged through new technologies, like Snapchat. Celebrity culture dominates the information age, and we see so much sensationalism– leaked sex-tapes and naked Selfies– rewarded with inordinate attention. So while it’s difficult to say what’s a shocking, abject or licentious image today, especially for so many viewers who have “seen everything,” I am still looking to get at an emotional core by exposing real images that I think should elicit a deep sense of disquiet. Whether they do or don’t is part of a conversation around the work that continues to inform and fascinate me.
Are you interested in making the viewer both uncomfortable and drawn to the formal beauty of the images? The collages are superb in their formal qualities, visually delectable.
I considered the site of the exhibition– the University gallery at Pace, where I teach– when creating the work, and I hoped to reach a wide audience. Not just art majors, but nursing majors, business majors, and any student that might stumble across the exhibition. The push towards beauty really originated as a visual strategy, with the intention of drawing the viewer in with work that was striking and strangely visually pleasing— and only on second glance apparent that the works were politically charged and fundamentally disconcerting. I wanted to play with the push-pull of attraction and repulsion and generate such an overall tension in the work as to keep the viewer questioning, probing. And at some point in digesting the project, I did want the viewer to feel uncomfortable. That is certainly how I feel when searching for the images online. The photos are disturbing, and also, the social permissions under which they circulate– social shaming and rape culture– are serious issues that require uncomfortable conversations if the practices and the underlying misogyny that supports them are ever going to change. In discussions, a lot of students spoke about the images relating to their own experiences, so I hope the work succeeded in surpassing discomfort and opening up dialogue– creating points of reflection, agency or potentially even empathy.
The title “Age of Consent” is ambivalent; it refers to the pained debate about sexual politics on campuses now, but it also exposes our complicity. How does this reverberate when shown within the University gallery context?
As awful as it has been over the past few years to read all of the headlines about high-school and college-age students being sexually assaulted by their peers, I am hopeful that the conversations around rape and consent have not only finally come to light, but have reached a critical mass. Throughout the country, school administrators have been urged to not only acknowledge the problem, but change their policies. I gave several gallery talks on the exhibition to students, and the group conversations that followed about image sharing and consent were extensive and spirited, because the audience felt such complete ownership of the subject. The reverberations were definitely there, and I know some art students experimented later in the semester with similar visual strategies. However, the complicity you mention was present as well, and some people went a step further to say they felt personally implicated by the work. It’s a difficult topic, and I expected some criticism. The most negative reaction to me was not the critical one but the one of indifference, where the pictures of drunk girls seemed to barely register, and seemed no different from any other pictures. The potential leveling effect of images disturbs me, and it’s something I’m still thinking about. To go back to the way the interview started, perhaps fluidity rather than leveling is a way to view this new paradigm. In any case, the dialogue with the students and faculty that grew up around the show at Pace was incredible and it will continue to inform my practice for a long time.
I see your work as being successful in subverting the traditional relationship between the artwork and the viewer. The works manage to go beyond the critique of the exploitative gaze and, I believe, return the gaze for the depicted girls who (not being present) cannot do it for themselves. This is how you return to them their agency, via aesthetic operations– by making beautiful works. Beauty deployed as a critical weapon, what a lovely possibility.
A really great and enlightening group discussion grew out of one student’s reaction to first encountering the work. Walking around the gallery, she was seized with apprehension that she herself might be depicted in one of the images, photographed unknowingly and exposed. The pictures seemed so personal and so familiar that the student actively searched for herself within each frame. So viewers, especially young women, spoke about experiencing the work though an active, emotive process of identification. And I channeled this kind of dialogue and the broader conversation about image sharing into a collaboration that was one of the most rewarding aspects of the exhibition. I worked with twenty-five Pace students to make a ten-foot-tall banner collaged out of found images that I exhibited alongside my own work. The collaborative piece had a raw energy to it that in effect bowled over my singular, carefully framed endeavors. It did feel like we as a whole were rejecting violence and embracing mediation, going beyond critique to compassion.
Jovana Stokić, PhD, is a New York-based art historian and curator