THE PROMISCUITY OF IMAGES
PROPS: What is the role of images in your research?
Emily Watlington: The logic of images: consent once, circulate forever… those promiscuous little files. “Once it’s there, it’s there to stay…” write Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland describing familiar warnings to young women about images of their bodies online. “Once you’ve exposed yourself as a slut—as a consenting spectacle, as shameless—you deserve no protection, no privacy.” 1
When we put images of our bodies online, we lose control of their circulation. To flood the network with affirmation of your existence, to make yourself visible, does not always mean to do so on your own terms, even when you’re the author and subject of that image. Private images—nudes—get “leaked.” Image files get shared, or go viral, regardless of the consent or intent of their subject. Women are often blamed, and slut-shamed, for the promiscuity of images. 2
This holds users to a higher standard than their machines. “These women’s actions are condemned most when they resonate with our machines’ operations: when they reveal the ways in which we’ve been commodified and sold, precisely at the moments when we think we are in private.” 3
What we need then, Chun argues, is not more privacy. Networks obfuscate privacy; a “personal device” is a contradiction. Our devices are, by design, connected: promiscuous, not monogamous. To demand more privacy online is to follow a logic not unlike telling women to stop dressing like sluts if they don’t want to get raped. It is like asking women to stay home if they feel unsafe in the streets.
Instead, Chun argues that we need to demand to be public, to be vulnerable, without being attacked. Claiming the right to risk is claiming the right to participation; this is the goal of slut walk protests, which refute victim-blaming. But what, she asks, might this look like online?
FRANK BENSON 3D-PRINTED JULIANA HUXTABLE.
The sculpture is beautiful. Its presence is striking. In the museum, it immediately resonates with centuries of sculptures of nude women—to which the Guerrilla Girls famously asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” 4 But the sculpture, as it was shown at the 2015 New Museum Triennial, is set in a room of Juliana’s own prints, and her gaze is bold. She is both object and subject, artist and muse.
Even mature love is not above objectification; it “is less a matter of admitting constant equality than of taking turns being up or being down.” 5
Aria Dean wrote that, “To be Black… is to be at once surveilled and in the shadows, hypervisible and invisible.” 6 It’s not hard to imagine a future world in which images of our bodies can be used to make 3D prints, without our consent. Anyway, with increasing frequency are our bodies non-consensually imaged through surveillance. In rendering her body a file to be printed, Juliana has employed surveillance technologies to demand to be seen—in the museum, and as a work of art. In the gallery her full-scale, 3D-printed body commands a striking presence. She is shameless, she is spectacular. The sculpture takes and then goes beyond the logic of the leaked nude, the non-consensually surveilled body. It gets there—to the 3D-printed body—first, and claims visibility as a powerful act, rather than one of leaked privacy. It demands the right to be exposed and not be attacked.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were naked and they felt no shame.
Emily Watlington is the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and a graduate student in MIT’s History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture Department. Her research focuses on contemporary art (primarily video) through the lenses of affect theory and feminist theory. Her art criticism has appeared in publications such as Mousse and Frieze, and she recently contributed to the exhibition catalog An Inventory of Shimmers: Objects of Intimacy in Contemporary Art. In 2017, she received the Vera List Writing Prize for Visual Arts.
Digital renderings of painted Accura® Xtreme Plastic rapid prototype
1 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Sarah Friedland. 2015. "Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26, no. 2: 3.
2 Ibid. 1-28.
3 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2016. “Inhabiting Writing: Against the Epistemology of Outing” in Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
4 The quote is from an eponymous poster by the Guerrilla Girls.
5 Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. 32.
6 Dean, Aria. "Closing the Loop." The New Inquiry, March 1, 2016.