After an exhibition at Gallery Steinsland Berliner earlier this year, the artist Arvida Byström is now bringing her world to Fotografiska. The photography gallery’s Black Box becomes the Pink Box as it plays host to Byström’s new exhibition Inflated Fiction, which explores femininity, identity and gender norms via her trademark form-fluid, multi-dimensional style. We met her for a long chat about it.
A lot of the work in this exhibition originated online, so what are the challenges in translating that into a physical space, like a gallery?
To me, the biggest challenge, and I wish this wasn’t an issue, is money. What I love with online space is that in general it’s cheaper. Yes, phones cost money, computers cost money, but it is something that most people have today, and it’s a very accessible tool to do creative things with, and to reach a lot of people without having a lot of money. For me, coming offline, that is the biggest issue. I never have a problem with lack of ideas.
But there’s a limit to resources in a way there isn’t online?
Yeah. And also, as a photographer, you get a lot of things produced. And sometimes I get anxious about that, because it’s hard to know the whole process. A lot of things that get produced get produced in China, and that feels so incredibly outsourced, like you have no idea how the work situation is for the people making things. So there’s a lot of things like that. So money, and things like that. So not so much the visual things, but all of the behind the scenes things, are what I personally struggle with.
But you said creatively, you have no problem coming up with ideas for this translation to physical space. So is that exciting for you, to bring these online things into the physical world, where people can interact and walk around in them?
Yeah, I think that’s really fun. A lot of artists show their work digitally without being interested in the platform as a medium, but I guess I formed an idea of it, coming from that community and coming from Tumblr. I was always interested in Net Artists, and people like that. So I guess I have looked at people that are more conscious about it. So to me it’s a very clear step from being online to offline, and the luxury of having a space. I think that’s fun, and that’s why I like things hanging from the ceiling, rather than things just on the wall. Not just things in frames. The internet today is very closed-source, not open-source like the early days, so you are very restricted. If you put up a photo on Instagram, it’s restricted to that little square.
It is more or less a series of frames?
Exactly, and you can’t really go outside of that too much. So to actually get the chance to do that I think is fun.
You mentioned this in the exhibition’s bio: “Now that phone photos are seen as art, it goes generally against a tradition (of exclusivity) and questions it”. So do you feel that’s because we’re all, more or less, equipped with phones, and we can all start an internet account somewhere and upload things, that we’re all essentially content creators and we can develop from there to become artists. So do you feel it’s a democratic form of creating art? And that’s why there’s a tradition against it?
I think people have been taking amazing phone photos for a long time. The artists I’m familiar with or acquainted with have used phone photos in exhibitions and the like for along time. It’s not super new necessarily, but it doesn’t take up so much space as a percentage (in galleries). Fine art spaces are built on exclusivity, and not everybody can penetrate that. To some degree it’s about social exclusion and hierarchy, you walk into an art space and you’re looking at this ‘genius’, and it’s kind of made to be unattainable – phone photography definitely challenges that to some degree.
And there’s also a financial and social barrier to creating that [type of] art?
And it’s usually kept like that. Because a lot of people use artwork for economic investing and then to flip later for more money. So if it’s too easy and accessible for certain art spaces, if there are no art spaces that can give the ‘ok stamp’, that this is like expensive or high art or whatever, how are these people going to invest in this unless there is some illusion of exclusivity?
They want a system of gatekeepers to preserve the financial value of it?
Yeah, exactly. And also a certain kind of cultural capital. With that comes status and with status you get more influential because people will listen to you. Sometimes I feel like everything is just a house of cards. But also that goes for our whole economy and system so that is not just the art-world.
Touching a little bit on the same subject, it struck me that for a lot of the art you create, the tools you use are quite simple. It’s often pretty much you, a phone, maybe a mirror, a couple of props, maybe you’ve styled yourself or styled the room you’re photo-ing in. You don’t tend to use crazy amounts of equipment. Do you prefer working with that simple set-up, and do you feel it fuels your creativity to see what you can do with that simple set-up?
I guess I have two practises in a way, if not more. But the two core ones are the selfie, and then my still lifes. For the latter I always use a 5D camera, if anyone cares about that. But I guess yeah, all the technology and that kind of side of things hasn’t really interested me ever. I do have more expensive lenses, but I tend to just use this cheap one with my DSLR camera. I come from an upper middle class background, so in that way my dad always had cameras, because he was photographing as a hobby when he was younger. So in that way I did have the equipment. I got my first commission for VICE when I was sixteen, and I kind of just took what I had lying around. I didn’t rent a studio, I wouldn’t have even known how to start that process. So I’m just used to working with and working around any kind of equipment issue. I don’t think it’s something I think about a lot, I’m just so used to working around whatever because I have done that for ten years. The equipment doesn’t usually make the photo. It can make certain things easier but…
But then also that is what is good and important with that cameras are cheaper and that phone cameras are accessible without that dad who spent his money on camera – because to some degree i guess it was important for me to have that and to have some equipment.
It doesn’t need to have that extra complexity?
Sometimes it just needs more planning. So If I’m doing a commercial shoot, I’ll just tell my assistant ‘I want the light like this, you book whatever you need to achieve that and make your life easier’. I don’t really care, and if they want to cut down on lights and shit due to the budget, I can be like ‘I don’t need a light, just give me whatever and I can make it work’.
You’ve both worked as a photographer for others, and as a model yourself, but in your own work you tend to make yourself the subject of your work, when it involves people. So when you’re in your creative mode, do you feel more comfortable using yourself as a subject?
Well, it kind of started with me being a teen, and not really daring to take photos of others, because I was too shy, and I thought people would tell me I did something wrong. It’s been a general vibe in my life, thinking that I’m doing something wrong, not so much anymore actually, but it used to be like that. When I was in my pre-teens and teens, that’s when the net became Web 2.0, and images got more important online. I was alternative, so I hung out a lot online, and I had a few friends from my suburb, who also were alternative, and then we made friends with other alt kids from other Stockholm suburbs through the www. So images, and presenting yourself as a cool alternative person [was important], and you saw people who had cool images of themselves, and cool images in general, got a lot of traction. So it was kind of simple. And then you’re a teen, so I wanted to know what I looked like, and wanted to look hot for the online people. I took a lot of self-portraits from like twelve to fourteen, and then when I was fifteen I wanted to pursue being a photographer. And I didn’t really dare to photograph other people, so I kept photographing myself. Now, there’s another aspect to it, when it comes to exhibiting things. At the show at Steinsland, I had a couple of other people, like the butts and the balls. But in general, I find it really complicated taking photos of others and exhibiting them. Not saying I will never do that, but in terms of money and who owns the photo…
A lot of other factors come into play?
Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of photographers I love and who do great things photographing others, and we talked about this a little bit when I was at a photography festival in Croatia a couple of months ago, and I was on a panel with a lot of other ladies that practise photography. I guess the usual practise is to photograph other people. I think a lot of people do great work like that, but I find it really hard. Mainly in terms of money and power, and owning the photo. You hold so much power in legal and moral sense when photographing someone.
I read an interview you did at around the time of the Steinsland Berliner exhibition, and I think they asked you how the internet had affected your art, and you replied “I don’t know, it’s just there. And I can’t imagine away something that’s always been there”. Do you get tired of being billed as ‘internet artist’ or an ‘Instagram artist’ or whatever? Because for you, and someone on your age group, the internet has never been a novelty, it’s always been a natural part of your world. It’s kind of like asking someone how paint or a camera has affected their art?
Yeah, ‘how has paint been important’. Honestly, I’m not tired of it. Just because I guess I love a lot of net artists, who are more like real internet artists, I feel like I’m not cool and internet enough to be an ‘internet artist’. So I wouldn’t say I’m tired of that question. I guess I’m an Instagram artist, but being an internet artist feels like that’s flattering me too much. I wish to be that, but I’m not sure I am.
Do you think of yourself more as an artist who uses the internet, rather than an ‘internet artist’?
No, the thing is I’d like to be an internet artist, but I don’t know if that refers to a group that is, I don’t know, a little more edge. I think it’s also because I just recently started to not be ashamed of being a photographer. Being a photographer in art communities is not really cool, I would say. Like being a painter, that’s also not that cool. When you hang out with people who aren’t in the art world, and you say you hate paintings, they don’t understand that. But if you’re more in there, art people are like ‘paintings are too easy to sell’, and it’s the same thing with photography. I guess at least if you are from a kind of leftist and queer art community and practise, the selling point obviously is not that glamourised, and in general is a pretty bad measure for the quality of an artwork according to me. I think what’s fun with the photography community though, they don’t explore so much outside of the frame, literally. Photos usually just stay inside of the frame. So I guess I’ve come to terms with calling myself a photographer, sometimes this community needs a little shaking up. But yeah, I love the internet, and I guess I am an Instagram artist, it’s an important part of my practice. Some people would say they just use Instagram to showcase their art, but I know it affects my art too, and I want to be conscious that it goes both ways, y’know? I find that interesting.
The characteristics of the platform feed back into your art? And the same thing with Tumblr too?
Yeah, it feeds back into what I do. Tumblr for me been the one, when I found Tumblr I was blown away. That’s how I guess I got conscious about a lot of new political things, I was already interested in some queer, feminist stuff, but learning more about post-colonialism and racism and stuff and being white. A lot of people taught me a lot of great things on that platform. And then also art, I learned so much about art on Tumblr. For my practise, it’s probably the most important thing that ever happened.
You said that: “I want more to show that sex and its portrayal in art, has often very little to do with sex in reality”.
Not so much sex in art. More like ‘sexy’, and its portrayal in general.
So do you feel like, ‘sexy’, has not so much to do with real sex, but is kind of a saleable image based loosely on sex?
Yeah, I think they use some implied sex to make things sound more attractive and to sell something, also to make things sound more edgy since sex has been stigmatised, but also is getting less and less so, sometimes I’m just like: ugh get over it sex isn’t edgy. Sexy though has been very different things throughout history, what kind of body types, even what parts of the body, ankles or showing your wrists or whatever. The imagery of sexy has changed a lot during history. I don’t even think it’s only the commercial version anymore, but I do use like a certain commercial aesthetic. There’s a quote from a book I’m not such a huge fan of, but I guess she has some points [Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy, 2005], and I know she quotes Paris Hilton in it, and she says ‘I hate sex’ or something. At some point, Paris Hilton was definitely some kind of image of sexy. So you can be extremely sexy and sexualised and not like sex.
Because they’re very different things.
Yeah! Having sex is mainly like looking ugly, and doing weird positions with your body. Sexy is something you’re not doing a lot while having sex, to be sexy you need to be self-conscious and I mean you can be that when you have sex, but in my experience that leads to not so good sex if you are too aware and think too much about how you look in that situation. I’m doing an Instagram takeover on Fotografiska and someone commented like ‘Oh, so you’re trying to shame people for feeling sexual feelings towards something?’. It’s not that, and I told a friend yesterday ‘I would get offended if nobody ever masturbated looking at my photos, but I don’t ever want to know about it’. It’s different things! I just don’t wanna know about. Just because someone sees something as sexy, doesn’t mean like I feel like that, or I feel like that towards them, or that that image with me in it to me represents anything sexual. It’s not that an image can’t be sexual, but it’s about questioning and not taking for granted that that’s the output the person in the photo wants to put out. I also feel the image of sexy is a lot about the feminine and the queer. And to be in that community and bond with your friends like that, you can play around with these images and these styles a bit, and that’s more about bonding with peers than trying to attract a partner. I actually usually dress down a little on the first date with someone, because I don’t want them to think that my very performative side is what I am in general. That side is not really tied to dating or being close to someone like that, but it’s more like bonding with friends in a different way. The people who follow me on Instagram are 75% female, and of course some of them could have sexual feelings towards it, but even if they do I think they feel a lot of other things too. I think they have multiple, more complex feelings towards the images than just thinking it’s sexy.
So we can say that your art, including what’s in the exhibition, is art that interrogates and discusses this idea of ‘sexy’, rather than anything to do with real sex.
Yeah. Because I always get the question about why I work with sex and sexuality, and I don’t think I really do. I think it’s doing a disservice to sex to say I’m working with that, because actual sex is a really important topic, and to say that my images have a lot to do with that is a disservice to sex. You don’t learn anything about sex from my exhibition [laughs]. It’s just that I use my body a lot in my art, and anything feminine gets read as sex. And I work with a feminine aesthetic, so I can’t get away from that, because feminine bodies are sexualised.
The quote you put out about that was ‘Bodies read as being feminine, in some way are always seen as being sexual’.
Yeah, even if you do super queer art that’s anti-aesthetics. There are a lot of 70s performances that try and be gross, or anti, queer aesthetics that try and subvert things. But usually that gets sexualised too. So it doesn’t matter where on the spectrum you end up, even if the person isn’t seen as a generic body, it’s always got the connotations of sex. I just feel like god damn, yeah you can have sex with bodies, but most of the time my body isn’t having sex, even a body that has relatively a lot of sex probably spends their time mainly doing other stuff!
So how do you go about making art that challenges or defies that effect?
Honestly, I don’t think I can really do anything that, in the imagery, defies that so much. It’s more to do with the theory and talking about it. Because if I just left my things without saying anything about it, it would be read in a different way.
So it’s about how you set the tone and narrative about the art?
Yeah. And talking about things in a more anxious way. People are always so dogmatic about things, things aren’t just either or. It can be some anxious thing in the middle.
To follow up on that, this is actually a quote from Molly Soda, from when you were promoting your book Pics Or It Didn’t Happen: “There’s a great fear that surrounds the female body – a nude photograph immediately becomes pornographic, even if that’s not the intention”. So if you’re talking about taking control of the narrative around your images is important, is therefore presenting a photo of a body, and saying then ‘this isn’t pornographic’, is that a challenge to this effect of how female bodies are read?
I think so, I hope so. With things like that, it’s so hard to know how things will be and how they’ll pan out in ten years, or twenty years. But I think that’s the intention. There’s also the sadness of it never being able to be anything else. And trying to figure that out, and having to have a conversation with your own body in a way, because it is a weird stigmatised subject.
So let’s talk about the video instalment in the exhibition.
It’s a monologue that I wrote for I-Phone Siri. AI assistants that we use in our daily lives are usually feminised, but it’s a different kind of feminine.
More like an assistant, submissive feminine?
Yeah, like a disembodied feminine. Like the mom, people usually don’t sexualise their moms, just this idea of a very un-sexualised assistant, the feminine that’s always there for you and tending for you and remembers things for you like a mom reminding people of birthdays, but without the nagging sides.
Which doesn’t have its own interests, basically?
Yeah. Which is also an idea that a lot of women struggle with in, for example, dating, a lot of people want someone who doesn’t have their own agenda in life. I don’t know if you watched the old version of Stepford Wives, where basically a lady comes to this town with her husband, and all the other women are too perfect for their men and all the men are like mediocre. And then eventually she realises that they all got turned into robots, and then she gets turned into a robot for her husband, it’s so sad! Back to Siri. If you ask her if she’s a woman, she says she exists beyond our concept of gender. But is she really beyond out concept of that? They really designed her to connote to a cis woman that just helps. Then the video transitions into her also talking about how tech companies talk about the cloud, and how they try and make technology seem disembodied, and talk about it as if it doesn’t strain the earth at all. But it does! If we keep on changing our iPhones all the time, it’s really bad for the environment.
Yeah, they’ve got some weird metal in them that comes from some horrible child mine.
Yeah, exactly, and the people who make the phones have really bad working conditions. And in that sense Siri has a body too. When people talk about environmental problems, they often say things like technology will help us. And it depends on what we do with technology. The way we use it today is not environmentally friendly.
Which is why they use words like ‘cloud’, such an unthreatening word.
Yeah, and you put something on a cloud drive. And it means billions of outsources hard drives basically. But if you say you’re putting it in the cloud it doesn’t sound like that, it sounds like you’re just putting it in the air. Swoosh! How great! My photos are just floating in the air.
And if you see them in real life, they’re these huge storage banks that need tonnes of electricity and water to keep them going.
Yeah, to cool them down. Not very environmentally friendly. So that’s what the video is about, the other side of feminised beings. The one that can’t detach herself from her body and the one that’s created to pretend as if she doesn’t have a body.
You described as the artist’s job as ‘inviting people into your worlds’. For you, is that the most special part, when you’ve created a world, like this exhibition, or online or whatever, and you get to invite people in and see them explore it?
I mean yeah, probably. I do like that, it’s fun to see people interact with certain things. Honestly, I don’t know what the most special part is. I don’t know if it’s special, being an artist, sometimes I feel like it’s stupid. The reason I’ve been working a lot online is that I don’t like real-time feedback, the worst thing I can think of is having an [exhibition] opening. But it is fun to have this show, because people here don’t necessarily know what I look like, so I can see them react without them knowing I’m the artist walking around in my exhibition secretly listening to what they tell their friends.
All photos: Arvida Byström