A Conversation with New York-Based Curator Angelica Fuentes

A conversation between editor Ashlin Artemesia Ballif and curator Angelica Fuentes discussing her School of Visual Arts thesis exhibition: what’s ur handle? 

what’s ur handle? 
Pfizer Building 
630 Flushing Ave, 
Brooklyn, NY 11206
April 15 - April 29, 2021

Artists Included: 

Lena Chen 

Fabiola Larios 

Emily Mulenga 

Tabita Rezaire

Emma Stern

Images courtesy of curator

Ashlin Ballif: Tell me about your interest in digital to physical art practices specific to the artists’ works in what’s ur handle?—as well as how you went about choosing these artists? 

Angelica Fuentes: I wanted to discuss this because it was something that I noticed moreso during the installation of the show when all the works were together in the same room. This recognition came after the fact and it definitely wasn’t something I was originally searching for, I wasn’t trying to create an exhibition about digital and physical art and the crossroads between them. This process or transformation from digital to physical was something I noticed most with Brooklyn-based artist, Emma Stern’s work. I first met her over Zoom and wanted to talk with her about her process. For her oil paintings, she begins by making a scene on her computer—she uses a digital software that’s most commonly used by game creators, which lets you build, pose and characterize models. She uses it to import female figures in particular. The program has an online marketplace where you have a base model and Emma mentioned how most of the base female models are super-sexy, super idealized, conventional, light-skinned, thin, and curvy. It’s very sexualizing, especially emphasizing the fact that this is the base model. She has a few characters that she uses as a rotating cast, and then she poses in the software, and from that she makes the painting. It’s digital to physical in this way, it goes from her screen straight to a canvas. I think it’s super relevant because people in our generation spend a ton of time on social media, the internet, and are consuming video game aesthetics throughout these sources. However, I also feel our generation is becoming more intrigued by the ‘physical’ again—you know, the idea of antique furniture [laughs] or object-hood. 

    Heather (2020), Emma Stern 

AB: The nostalgia wave always returns.

AF: Exactly. Fabiolo Larios, who is now based in Florida, also uses a digital to physical technique in her work. She uses a lot of computer learning and AI. I reached out about her project Internet Humans (2020), which is a very multi-layered project that exists in many forms at this point. It started off as an experiment where she was training a machine on her computer, an AI, to create a human face. She generated the AI and trained it to make an image of a human face based on hundreds of selfie photos from Instagram. She grabbed images from Instagram using hashtags to find ones that specifically use Instagram filters. Some of the filters are oddly shaped, distort your face, etc. The result is a product of something that’s based on a filter, i.e., the name Internet Humans…not “real” people but based on real people. Her work really looks at the anthropology of social media, and the ways in which people give information, data, and images to social media platforms. It questions the ways we represent ourselves online, and that information becomes available to anyone out there…like the way Fabiola has access to selfies and uses them for her work. I saw this work fitting in really well for the exhibition because all the pictures that were generated are based on selfie filters that are oftentimes applied to beautify their subject. Her project flips this on its head a bit because although these filters are meant to beautify, they’re suddenly being used to create these inhuman or dystopian images. Internet Humans pokes fun at the selfie and the conventionality of trying to post a selfie online, how we focus so much on portraying what we want to look like while we end up distorting ourselves in the process. 

Her project became physical, and this exhibition was the first time her work was shown in this new format. Using all the data for this project she created an interpolation video where the faces morph into each other. She decided she wanted to make physical prints from that, and so she had holographic prints made. Each one has three seconds of the video on it, and there are ten of them, pretty small, about 11’’ by 11’’. The speed with which you move past them effects what part of the selfie you see. This showcases how complex of a project this is. It’s interesting, when Fabiola posted a picture of this project on Instagram, I saw the comments one of her followers posted, “the algorithm is tangible.” I thought that was such a great way of putting it.

    Internet Humans (2020), Fabiola Larios
     digital art series of still images from AI artwork, ten holographic prints

Lastly, this trend is visible in Emily Mulenga’s work, a London-based filmmaker, performer, and digital content creator. She describes herself as a digital native, and a lot of her artwork is inspired by PlayStation, cartoons, and video game aesthetics. She has two videos in the show. They both focus around a character she created named Bunniana, who is a pink, super femme, sexy bunny-woman. I was drawn to this character and felt the need to reach out to Emily based on Bunniana because I loved how she was commenting on the absurdity of Western beauty standards attached to femininity. Electric Lady Land, (2018) shows Bunniana living her life, being a hot girl, walking around shopping, at the beach, out on the town, etc., and her other video, Now that we know the world is ending soon...what are you gonna wear?, (2019) shows Emily dressed up as Bunniana walking around and experiencing nightlife in London. Here, the digital character becomes her physical body. 

AB: Did Emily tell you why a bunny of all animals? I find it interesting how a bunny in particular fits in well with this project as exuding femininity “standards” of being cutesy, alluding to a sexy Playboy bunny, or submissive prey. It’s funny how she’s parodying that in a way. 

AF: Right! Emily talked to me about wanting to create a character that was not human, and one that didn’t subscribe to any race or skin color; she wanted to have a character to navigate an online space, specifically to get away from the characterizations that are attached to being a Black woman online. So, instead, she travels around as a hot pink bunny—the focus being to explore it in a raceless way per se. This also relates to Tabita Rezaire’s work, touching upon how Black women are perceived online. I think it’s super interesting how Emily takes this character to such a literal level, loving your avatar so much you physically become it. Those three artists translate that digital to physical process in very distinctive ways. 

AB: The process of digital to physical reminds me of a class you and I took together at SVA where we discussed cybernetic art, and I remember one of the papers I wrote had a theme of surviving feeling or how people might want to become machine to survive being human. I see this theme so clearly in Emily’s Bunniana. I guess everyone does this in different ways, some are online to not be human, or to not be the version of human we embody offline. And it’s more than simply escapism. Online we want to try on different identities and people can have the freedom of choice in identity in this space.

Installation views of Emily Mulenga's Electric Lady (2018) (above) and Now that we know the world is ending soon...what are you gonna wear? (2019) (middle, bottom)

AF: Right, I feel like occupying space online is the perfect way for you to be in charge of how you’re represented, or at least to create an image that everyone else can see you as. I think that’s why this exhibition sort of revolves around Instagram, this platform became a prime example of all these themes we’re talking about. Especially how women are portrayed online. Instagram is a way to create an internet avatar but in such a different way, versus a cartoon, an avi profile pic, or some kind of digital body. I think the avatar you create on Instagram is actually more interesting because it’s the way that you create your page, the kind of content you post and follow, what you put on your story, the pic you choose to have as your profile pic, your bio…all these additions are part of the internet avatar that you’re creating. The fact it’s on social media really heightens the aspect of how an avatar represents you. It’s become more complex in its politicization, activism, or performative activism, a lot of people are taking movements and attaching it to their identity on social media. I think it’s shown that social media is no longer (and hasn’t been) purely a place of communication but a space to showcase your political ideologies. 

AB: Completely mixing and intermingling the boundaries society establishes as what is personal—it’s not just images being shown it’s also a more mindful reflection of your offline self. You add in your morals or ideals to a platform that is all visual, so it begs the question, is your avatar taking action, does it exist offline? The situation is muddied when we think about the shop tab on Instagram and the capitalization of everything as well. You also discussed anonymity in your catalog, how this gives the opportunity to provide safety or to foster danger. 

AF: Yeah, I wanted to make sure to mention the danger revolving around the internet. I think when I began writing the catalog, I romanticized the internet quite a bit. It is a space of many freedoms, and a lot of inspiration was drawn from Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism, which I quote in the wall text. However, I began having more conversations with people and I was coming to realize more and more…maybe what I should be focusing on is less of the freedom you get, because as we’ve seen there are limits to these freedoms online. The actual thing I should be addressing is the fact that it isn’t necessarily free and to discuss what that means. So I did some more research about the Internet in terms of its safety for women, if it is or isn’t safe for those identifying as such in general, and what the internet perpetuates and circulates about women. I wanted to discuss the other side of the trendy, shiny social media platform. At this point, it’s mainly used as a marketing platform, especially ever since Facebook bought Instagram and there was a shift in ad usage. 


AB: You also talk about influencers on Instagram, what this term means, and how it’s used or portrayed. People market themselves as merchandise?

AF: Yes, Instagram’s product is people. I know how dangerous the internet can be, yet I still spend so much time on it [laughs]. But, that’s why I wanted to curate this exhibition, I wanted to focus on something relatable from varying angles. Even if someone hasn’t heard of these artists or ideas, they have potentially used Instagram and can view it from that lens.

AB: Tell me about the timeliness of Lena Chen’s project OnlyBans (2021).

AF: When I was first talking with Lena Chen, who is a writer, performer, and multimedia artist based in Pittsburg, she originally was going to participate in the exhibition through a work she was planning to make that features a character called Elle Peril. Elle Peril is an alternate ego Lena created for herself, who she performs and writes as. However, since Instagram changed its terms of service recently, many sex workers or sexual content providers on Instagram have been negatively affected. The platform is essentially censoring this material, blocking accounts, or removing posts in very hypocritical ways. For example, ads still exist on Instagram that are for lingerie, pleasure products, etc. These ads are not removed because there’s a direct link for Instagram to be a part of the transaction and profit from the products being sold. A lot of sex workers who use Instagram use it as an advertising platform, but not as a platform from which you receive payment. So now, sex or erotic workers are unable to use the platform the same way at all, for their business, it’s extremely prohibiting and difficult especially during the pandemic. 

     Installation view of OnlyBans (2021), Lena Chen

Because of this, Lena decided to go forward with a project she’d had in the works called OnlyBans, an interactive online game. She decided to develop this game and offered to put it in the exhibition instead of the original project, as she was worried it would be banned if put on Instagram. You can access OnlyBans now through a laptop or desktop (it’s not mobile yet) and you play this game as a sex worker starting a business. The game takes you through a series of questions, asking you what you would do if this was your reality. Would you use your real email or fake? What kind of pictures would you post? How risky would you be? It takes you through the process to build an understanding for those that are actually living this. I thought this work was important to add to the exhibition, as it focuses on how women are portrayed online in such a timely manner, and how they’re discriminated against for being sexual beings. 

I mention the article, "Sex Workers Denounce Instagram's 'Puritanical' New Rules", by writer Sophie K. Rosa in my catalog, and it states, “...most sex workers are women and gender non-conforming people, including a disproportionate number of workers who experience intersecting marginalization like trans women, single mothers, women of color…” So this project is important because not only is this affecting women and sex workers online but it disproportionately affects those of color or those who are trans or non-binary. 

AB: I like how this project is not only commenting on the way women are portrayed online, but also highlights people that are trying to normalize pleasure work as a whole, and people dealing with the effects of these terms of service changes. I also wanted to ask you about how the artists in this exhibition showcase the sexuality that is placed on femininity or the sexualized body of women in general. I noticed in the catalog you mention it’s the artist’s form of resistance or reclaiming the sexualized body because they very much use this body and even perpetuate these stereotypes to some extent. At the same time, they add little alterations to the body to make it less conventional (filters, dystopian, or avatar effects). For those that would ask, are those alterations really “undoing” the sexualization or perpetuation of that imagery or stereotypes placed on women? How would you respond? 

AF: I think specifically Stern’s paintings and Bunniana definitely comply with these stereotypes or standards. However, they do add eerie or uncomfortable details that don’t necessarily “undo” these standards but they challenge them. Stern’s paintings exude the conventionally “sexy” body but she adds inhuman effects such as otherworldly skin tones, no pupils, etc. Same with Bunniana, also representational of the stereotypical hourglass figure but is a hot pink bunny…so now you’re attracted to a hot pink rabbit [laughs]. I think those are the ways they make it sexy but change a detail so you’re almost perverted for finding these things sexy. They’re saying yes, this is idealized, this is what you wanted, right? Except that we’re taking away some of the core aspects of these stereotypes (no pupils, bunny instead of human). It points at the viewer and calls for reflection. 

AB: Talk about the title: what’s ur handle? You explain where this “handle” phrase originated in the catalog—from truck drivers back in the 70s who were communicating while traveling. 

AF: I think it’s kind of an endearing terminology or language. I wanted it to be called what’s ur handle? because I think that your handle is synonymous with your avatar. It’s your way of creating yourself or your identity. For example, to reference Legacy’s Glitch Feminism again, she begins the manifesto by sharing the username she had when she first went online. Some people might simply put their name, but if not, it’s another way of representing yourself.

AB: The term ‘handle’ always reminds me of the way pen names are used, and that name is what is attached to your creation. It’s fascinating how we separate the two or compartmentalize them. I think social media has created more space for bridging together your creative self and your “offline” self. These platforms realize the ways they could be the same or differ and put the decision in your hands as you brought up earlier. 

AF: Right! Because the show really circles around Instagram a lot, I thought the term was relevant. That’s how I hear it used most now. I wanted it to be playful, humorous, a call and response. It’s really asking, who are you online? How do you characterize yourself? All of the artists in the show ask these questions as well, it’s about the relationship people have to their online avatars and other online avatars in one way or another. The title applies to all the artworks but is also recognizable to those that maybe aren’t familiar with these artists. 

AB: I wanted to talk about the definitions you list for avatar in your catalog, there’s one that says it’s another way of defining or representing a deity. In Tabita Rezaire's Hoetep Blessings (2015), this definition really connects here, as a way of returning to self, or healing as Rezaire is showcasing. With this definition, it’s as if the avatar allows you to return to yourself in deity form, or lets you see yourself in a deity form because you are choosing your image for others to see. It questions what our views of perfectionism are too. 

AF: Exactly, I liked the idea of putting the definition on there because the avatar is at the core of the exhibition concept and it branches out from there. I was thinking about these definitions and how the term morphed into something else, like you said, a manifestation of deity. I read more about Rezaire’s work and Hoetep Blessings and made that same connection. It circles back to this particular definition. This form of resistance, practices of healing, celebration, and spiritual knowledge returns to the point of an avatar being a deity or something to protect. I like the idea of wanting to protect your avatar, practicing protection of self through these methods and your identity online. A lot of this work discusses how the word ‘Hoetep’ is proliferated, originally it’s a sacred word that’s used to empower and embrace the female energy, and through abuse online has come to be pronounced as ‘hoetep’ and used as this word that characterizes problematic representations of Black women online. I think this work tries to address this issue of how the female body has been viewed, distorted and discriminated against online—particularly the Black female body. So Rezaire instead celebrates the body with practices of healing, spiritual knowledge, yoga, etc. 

    Installation view of Hoetep Blessings (2015), Tabita Rezaire 

AB: In the catalog you write, “...your handle becomes your nickname for a reason.” It made me think about one of the themes you state of your exhibition, avatars as a form of resistance. If your avatar is an extension of yourself or your identity, how can people, women in particular, use them to feel safe online? Especially if the systems that are offline are online. 

AF: I guess it’s the anonymity, you have the option to not be seen, to create how you are portrayed. The exhibition itself is kind of meant to showcase the eerie or dystopian side of the Internet, while it also has these avatars that are a combination of the stereotypes we talked about earlier. I wanted to offer this space that you can embrace the creepy and don’t have to choose conventional beauty. 

AB: Creepy and sexy at the same time, but on your own terms. 

AF: [Laughs] Right, I think that’s why these topics are so important to discuss, it’s embedded in daily life for so many people. 

Angelica Maria Fuentes is a writer, curator, and art administrator based in New York City. Fuentes recently completed a thesis project in the form of an exhibition and catalog for the School of Visual Arts’ MA program in curatorial practice. Fuentes’ curatorial interests include interactive, digital, and intersectional feminist practices. Before moving to New York in 2019 she received her BA in Art History at the University of California, San Diego, and has worked for various institutions, art organizations, and businesses such as UCSD’s Visual Arts Department, The New Children’s Museum, and Contemporary Conservation in NYC. This summer Fuentes will work as a curatorial intern for the Queens Museum.