Lydia Prescott talks to artist Bex Ilsley, winner of last year’s Warrington Contemporary Open about her new exhibition. ‘Emotional Processing‘ is on show at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery from 29 July – 28 October 2017.
How did you become interested in digital art? Is digital art your preferred medium to work with?
I started to think about digital art because I was already making it. Using my Instagram account to post pictures of what I was working on at university seemed like a no-brainer – I was enjoying it and I noticed that I wanted to show it off. After upload, the online images of my older paintings and sculptures seemed to become works in their own right, parts of a continuous feed. My posts became more popular, I felt more self-conscious and I saw that reflected in the level of polish and effort I began to put into what I was sharing. Others began to repost my images or re-use them as part of digital collages and memes. I saw how much of a journey away from the original physical object that was and I read a little theory about that, ultimately deciding to put my own body through the same journey of flattening and commodification. I like working in many different ways and wouldn’t necessarily say I prefer to work digitally over anything else. The boring, truthful answer is that is has reach, it’s relevant and it’s useful because it isn’t as expensive to make web-based art as it is to make sculptures.
Your work often explores the difference between physical reality and digital constructs that we experience in modern life, how do you think this difference affects our mental health?
I can only speak for myself, and so of course it’s anecdotal, but I’ve experienced both my happiest days and my worst ones through the maintenance of a virtual ‘persona’ (though I don’t really see the figure as separate to myself). At its best, social media has connected me to unprecedented opportunities – my most successful collaborations and most important connections. The links I made through Instagram have taken me places from The Flaming Lips’ tour bus to Grand Rapids, Michigan for transatlantic collaborative projects. If you tell people through images that you’re a hardworking interesting person, they might just believe you and sometimes magic happens.
Of course, it’s very difficult to maintain that momentum, I established myself as a kind of branded artist, with a certain aesthetic language which couldn’t then grow or change easily. So you stay the same, interest begins to slip, as it always does, and it can feel like a personal failing. I have definitely become preoccupied with this mediated, imitative part of my existence to the detriment of other important aspects of my life.
Coming out of university was hard for me, I’ve been depressed, and needing time to find my feet again felt like slacking in comparison to others I knew who were busy in the studio or travelling the world. I am definitely guilty of comparing myself to these ‘highlight reels’ – my friends’ ‘best selves’ and I have felt inadequate and miserable. I’ve fallen into a trap of thinking far too much about what kind of image I was putting across, even when I knew that semi-ironic mocking self-branding was what I had sought to do in the first place. I told myself that ‘@bexilsley’ was a person who says ‘yes’, so I was doing things I wasn’t even sure I was comfortable with to sustain that appearance. I began to measure my success by my follower count. I have scrolled and scrolled in bouts of total self-loathing. Even knowing what I was participating in, I still let the downsides consume me.
Do you think that attitudes towards our digital image are sustainable alongside our offline lives?
Like anything, heightened connectivity can work for us or against us. It’s important to remember and to teach that this is media, not truth, that there are many types of success. Knowing when you need to disconnect is vital.
Many of your works contain relatively sexualised images of the female form; do you consider yourself to be a feminist? How do you think the concept of gender equality is perceived and represented on social media?
I do consider myself a feminist but I don’t think I’m a very good one in practice. I find it hard to follow my own advice. I can understand why, to some, I don’t necessarily look like much of a feminist when I’m naked on my back wearing hair extensions and false eyelashes. Of course, feminists don’t ‘look like’ any one thing, but I’ve really struggled with how I approach representation because I’m very much aware of where my body stands on a spectrum of bodies, where I benefit from and where I lose out to structures of power, standards of beauty, and so on. I don’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. I would put myself far down the list of artists who have insightful feminist messages to put across.
That said, it’s an important lens to view any artwork through. So, thinking about self-branding led me to explore ideas along the lines of Ann Hirsch’s assertion that “Whenever you put your body online, in some way you are in conversation with porn”. I felt so looked-at and the way I watched myself inside my own head changed. It became more voyeuristic. What value does the flattened image of my body have to consumers? As an awkward teen who really struggled with body image, I had never dared to see myself as sexually desirable or attractive. I felt this was completely off limits – something for skinny girls, for tanned girls, for girls with nicer hair and better bodies. So, doing that felt like… wobbly irony. Joking-not-joking. It’s definitely problematic to say ‘oh, thank god I can use Photoshop and the guise of Art to feel sexy!’ I can use the unreal, a confident, transcendent vision of myself which wins against all criticism and self-doubt. I’m malleable, I can distort the image instantly, so it doesn’t matter if the goalposts keep moving. It’s not a noble thing to aspire to; to finally fall in line with something that damages people. I don’t mind being problematic sometimes; it tends to open up good debate.
In your artist statement you use the phrase “’performative existence’ or ‘voluntary objecthood’” when describing attitudes and behaviours on social media. How does the virtual world affect our view on reality?
‘Performative existence’ and ‘voluntary objecthood’ are not synonymous with or confined to the limits of the virtual self. I don’t equate the virtual with fakery or the physical with authenticity. It’s blurrier than that – all of it is jumbled somewhere in the middle. I perform ‘Bex’ the entire time I’m alive. Social media is a platform for inauthentic representations of experience, but so is any kind of media. So is ‘dressing for the job you want’. So is small-talk – saying ’fine thanks!’ when really, you kind of want to die. Perception management is everywhere. Adam Curtis would agree that we live in an entirely simulated, simplified world. Perhaps debates about authenticity are useless now.
It’s about living one step removed from myself as I interact, self-consciously watching myself, judging how I’m doing – the voyeur in my head. Even now, responding to these questions, I’m writing as the part of me that wants you to take me seriously as an artist, writing as the part of me that hopes I don’t sound stupid. That feels just as much like performing as posting my best selfie does. I no longer trust in my ability to be authentic. My sense of self is wobbly at best. There’s a sense of being observed, of playing a part, even when I’m alone. Maybe it’s paradoxically more honest to say ‘here’s a mask’, to be upfront about it. This thinking is heightened by maintaining an image on social media but social media is not its sole cause.
Your exhibition at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery is called Emotional Processing, how do you interpret this title?
I find titles hard and I’ve come to accept the fact that every single one I come up with is going to be cheesy and gimmicky, and that’s okay. ‘Emotional Processing’ refers to processing as a computing term, so a nod to what I’ve spoken about here – our lives as data, the mediation of intimacy, vulnerability within a superficial feedback loop. It also refers to the terrible year I’ve had, to depression, to losing sight of myself and feeling helpless, watching my internal responses to trauma and anxiety. My own neurological processes have been trying to make sense of the state of things while my phone stays stuck to my hand, uploading my latest thinly veiled cry for help, spilling my feelings into the ether as data and hoping something inside that realm might save me from myself. Two concurrent emotional processes.
Many of your previous works are in the digital format only, what effects do you hope to create by combining sculpture and digital art in this exhibition?
The objects I’ve chosen to put together are questions more than they are answers. They bring together elements of leisure, exercise and furniture design, which can be a nod to a sort of plastic, playful version of the performed ‘aspirational lifestyle’. I aim to reference commodification, commercial colour palettes, screens and mirrors, self-conscious looking, manufactured body parts – fragmented, perfected, thing-like, isolated from the whole. It’s the body torn up and mangled by all of the above. Alongside that, I use looped video and circles because this search for personhood feels, to me, circular. I have tried to define myself both within and outside these virtual stages and it has never felt like a liberating, linear journey. There is no A to B, no transformation, nothing to be found. I’m wary of the idea of ‘progress’ because ‘progress’ never benefits every person neatly. Maybe it’s something like taking comfort in ideas like eternal return and amor fati – at least that takes the pressure off me while I’m figuring out what it means. The world is very strange; I feel a sense of powerlessness against what seems like a constant tide of lunacy, destruction and fear. So the loop is ‘stuck-ness’ too.
Your sculptures feature several items associated with children including a trampoline and a sand pit, what made you include them in your work?
I think the use of childhood references and some of the playfulness in these new pieces to speak of the temptation of regression and a blurred sense of time and identity on a personal level, as well as a responsibility towards the effect technological progress and reality-simulation may have on future generations. What parts of us are new, and what parts have always been? What’s inevitable and what should we take responsibility for? Which cycles can be broken?