Controversial artist Hester Scheurwater circumvents censorship
by Catherine Somzé/photography Hester Scheurwater for ZOO magazine
In August 2009, Dutch visual artist Hester Scheurwater began uploading portraits of herself on Facebook. The images she shot in her studio often showed her barely dressed, in high heels, and striking provoking and sexualized poses. It wasn’t long before Facebook suddenly shut down her account.
The ban stirred immediate debate and brought Scheurwater a local notoriety she had until then only enjoyed abroad. Were her portraits art or pornography? And what did their censorship tell about social media and the division between private and public realms in the 21st century? 39-year-old Scheurwater is no stranger to censorship. Her videos and photos are regularly pulled from Facebook and YouTube, even though they feature in exhibitions of feminist art in the US. Her art typically involves fetish objects such as red-painted nails, guns, pumps and scantily dressed doll-like women, who are relentlessly observed by the camera to electronic beats as those by Chicks on Speed. Scheurwater’s trademark is a seasoned mix of erotic and grotesque fantasies. Some find it shocking and improper; others yawn at their sight. Are they a mere watered-down version of feminist art from the 1960s and 1970s? Or are they truly unsettling images? This year, legendary art book publisher Walter Keller releases Shooting Back, an art book by Scheurwater. It includes the Facebook photos―uncensored.
Catherine Somzé: How do you feel about your sudden and controversial fame?
Hester Scheurwater: I’ve never tried to shock my audience, or not consciously, at least. I believe controversy is in the eye of the beholder. I had never thought the selfportraits I started to take with my iPhone and which I daily uploaded on Facebook would stir up such varied and colorful reactions.
CS: But did these reactions come as a surprise?
HS: I have been active as a visual artist for more than a decade. In the States, my performances, videos and multi-media installations have been the object of several exhibitions over the past years. I had to wait a little bit more time to see that happen in my home country, the Netherlands.
CS: If I count correctly, Facebook has shut down your account about five times now, and YouTube censored your videos on one occasion. When will the ‘Scheurwater vs.Social Media’ saga end?
HS: It is not so much that I’m against social media. On the contrary, I am fascinated by the phenomenon and what it unveils about contemporary issues regarding privacy and the public domain. It is also my primary field of operation. Facebook was my preferred platform to show the iPhone self-portraits. The social network is a public domain, just as cities are.
CS: This is not the first time you’ve been working in the public domain, right?
HS: Since the late 1990s, I’ve been commissioned to create video-installations in public spaces such as Night Desire, a project I originally realized for the city council of Bilbao in 1997. I set up a video installation of nine channels, one for each of the windows of the building on the first floor. You could see from outside how the projections transformed the building into a gigantic box in which female figures would seem to be doing all sorts of things. They would, for instance, look outside and use the window frames as viewfinders. The building became alive.
CS: And in the past few years, you’ve been doing comparable projects in the Netherlands.
HS: Yes, but the crucial difference with Night Desire is that in those recent cases, I wasn’t commissioned to do so. I called these last projects Wild Beaming because I rented beamers at my own cost and asked locals to help me set up the whole installation. These are ephemeral guerilla projects; they only last for a night. But on the other hand, they do allow me to circumvent the bureaucratic hassle of asking for permits and so on.
CS: What inspired you to start with the self-portrait series online?
HS: Well, the Web is increasingly becoming the public space we spend the most time in. It is a city that never sleeps.
CS: So what was your particular focus with the Facebook project?
HS: I was above all interested in the issue of online social control. I find it very comparable to traditional forms of social control. Facebook has a decency code. It says somewhere in small letters that you cannot show either pussies or nipples.
CS: But were your photographs pornographic then?
HS: I don’t think they were. My pussy wasn’t visible, if not under panties, and nipples rarely made it to the Web. But someone somehow found them inappropriate and denounced me to the Facebook administration. That’s how it goes. And that’s how Facebook decided to shut my account down.
CS: This sounds Kafkaesque.
HS: Facebook is just like a modern state with its rules, administration and, more importantly, with its disciplinary gaze.
CS: What do you mean by that?
HS: Facebook is all about looking and being looked at. You are given access to the lives of others and, in your turn, you are encouraged to share details of your own private life. But it is also very much about what is permitted and what is not. You have to comply to standards of behavior in order to remain part of the community. People present themselves in a way that’s socially acceptable. They stage themselves. In this sense, it gives the illusion of truth and openness while it involves a great deal of coercion and performance. And this was the very reason for which I had chosen Facebook as a platform for my uploads in the first place. I was publicizing a set of overtly exhibitionistic self-portraits on a platform that was all about voyeurism and exhibitionism as forms of social control. By doing so, I was testing the boundaries of the new medium and its users.
CS: At your exhibition at the art space Roodkapje in Rotterdam, you presented your self-portraits together with a wealth of female nudes taken from the history of art and the popular media. Why was it important for you to bring these various images into dialogue?
HS: The question was whether there was a fundamental difference between these different sets of images or not.
CS: In which terms?
HS: Take famous works from the Western history of art, paintings, drawings and photographs displaying the female nude. Many of these works have become standards of beauty and embody artistic excellence. We can look at the wonderful drawings by Egon Schiele of naked women who surrender to the inquisitive gaze of the painter and, by default, of potential viewers. Everybody finds that natural; nobody makes a fuss about it. But I believe it is significant that the artist was a man and that is true for most of the history of art. It is ‘normal’ for male artists to look at the female body and turn it into the object of their art. It becomes an aberration when it is a woman who handles the chisel or stands behind the camera, especially if they portray themselves.
CS: You believe the reception of your work would have been different if you had been a man?
HS: Undoubtedly. I think it’s the core issue here, and I’ll give you another example. I have three children and a husband. There is up to now almost nobody, journalist or friend, who hasn’t asked whether my work has had a negative influence on family life. Well, I bet nobody has ever asked the big daddies of photography such as Helmut Newton, Araki or Terry Richardson whether their artistic practice disrupts their family life or whattheir beloved ones think about their sexuallyloaded images.
CS: Many have associated your videos, performances and photographs with the work of feminist artists from the 1960s and 1970s. Do you agree?
HS: I do and I don’t. I think there is no way I could deny or underestimate the importance of figures such as Marina Abramovic and Valie Export have had on my work. After all, I even based one of my performance videos on a classic performance by Abramovic, originally called Art Must Be Beautiful. This is a classic piece of so-called ‘cosmetic’ performances from the 1970s. But at the same time, I think the issues at stake today are different from those that were important to the generation of women artists working with performance, photography and video in the 1960s and 1970s. Besides, artistic means and paradigms have also shifted since then.
CS: Can you elaborate a little bit more on this?
HS: I have difficulties with art criticism that deals with art made today using criteria and ways of looking from the past. Women artists working nowadays seem to keep on being judged on the basis of ideas that were popular in the 1970s, but that are now obsolete. I talk about this rather negative and pessimistic view that puts women in the role of the victims. The emphasis shouldn’t be put on women’s oppression but rather on their strength. In this way you don’t reinforce the problem, you actually point at the means of liberation.
CS: Then what is your strategy?
HS: I want to show women’s power and women in power.
CS: Could you tell me a bit more about this?
HS: Some of my videos, from the early Dazed from 1996 to Ani(fe)mal(e) from 2006, show women as a force of nature, in touch with her instincts. Blood seems to be a normal thing to her in Dazed while in Ani(fe)mal(e) she constitutes a threatening presence in front of the camera.
CS: But in other works, it is the camera that seems to prey on her. It literally stalks the woman and inspects her body from all possible angles. It turns her into the object of our inquisitive gaze.
HS: The use of a mobile camera that functions as an enquiring device is surely a recurring aspect in some of my videos. I guess I owe it to my mentor at the Vrije Academie in The Hague, the video artist Frans Zwartjes, with whom I have kept on collaborating since I graduated in the mid-1990s.
CS: Frans Zwartjes famously declared once: “There is only one topic, the vagina. In fact, there are no other relevant topics.” His video work has often been the target of fierce criticism for what seemed to some as an endorsement of womenunfriendlyideas and practices. In many of his works, women are overtly looked at, stalked by men and their mechanical eye, the camera.
HS: An important aspect of Zwartjes’ work is dealing with power relations and how they are embodied in plays of looks. Who is active and looking, and who is passive and being looked at are essential questions to understand the way in which some groups in society have more power than others. And there is surely an ambiguity here. You cannot denounce a state of inequality without somehow contributing to it. It is the inherent tragedy of representation.
CS: How do your videos and performances relate to your iPhone self-portraits though?
HS: The questions of who is looking and how a woman has to present herself in order to be seen as one, have been recurring issues in my work. In the iPhone self-portrait series, I was trying in an almost compulsive way to comply to contemporary codes of femininity as we abundantly see them reflected in all sorts of advertisements from billboards to MTV videos. These codes define women as sex objects and link a woman’s identity with her sexuality. I was trying to appropriate these clichés of the ‘sensual, seductive’ woman and flip them on their head. As I like to say: “I take them in, chew them, and spit them out again.” I shoot back.
CS: But why?
HS: I believe they are what I call ‘fake media images,’ images that lie about what desire is about and what it means to be a woman. With the self-portrait series, I was trying to deconstruct this dominant discourse by switching the ‘subject-object’ relationship without being victimized by it.
CS: A few months ago, you decided to stop uploading pictures on Facebook. Why?
HS: I still upload one self-portrait a week but I do so on my own website. I am still active on Facebook, but I believe the pictures can find their way into the world through other channels. I don’t see them anymore as a means of testing the boundaries of social media but rather as a goal in themselves. They have evolved into a set of images that are worth looking at for their formal qualities, and not solely for what they socially set in motion. They have become a sort of visual diary about my own female consciousness, desires and fantasies. They have grown into an autonomous body of work. As for my videos, I circumvent the YouTube ban by uploading my videos under new user names. You should still be able to find me.