A tactile bunch of pastel flowers weeps, heavy in their collective last gasps of life. Arranged in a clear vase and placed in a clear vase and placed in front of a pink silk-satin backdrop, puckered in places, they absorb your gaze until you notice a set of earbuds in the foreground. entangled among the hydrangea, dahlia and peony are two sets of headphones.
Further interrupting the scene, to the left sits a peach wearing a pair of sheer pink panties and, to the right, another peach, half-eaten. Aching with contemporary mores, the image was posted by Arvida Byström on Instagram last February. The caption reads: “A lot of people ask me why I make imagery themed with sex. Personally, I wouldn’t say it is prevalent in my work, even though it is an interesting subject. I do indeed work with imagery that could be read as sexual but these connotations are merely there because feminine and queer aesthetics, bodies and characters have a history of being sexualised. (Insert pink flower emoji, peach emoji and nails being painted emoji) and here is a lil feminized tech still life. Hope Monday has been good to you all!”
Byström defines herself as “an artist that works with photography as a medium through different formats”. On Instagram she wields 240,000 followers; as the daughter of an IT specialist, she began using the internet at a young age, as early as 10, especially to connect with others. “I was being bullied at the time,” Byström says in her Swedish lilt. “I would play therapist to help other people that were bullied worse than me.” This was in 2001, before the arrival of Myspace, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and all the other global social-networking sites now commonplace in contemporary culture. Back then, the internet was locally focused and Byström used the Swedish nationally funded news network SVT’s social-media platform. Today, the speed at which information is disseminated and the deluge of images that are created is awe-inspiring, and Byström is part of a community that has used it to shift views on bodies, feminism, gender, sexuality and technology itself, within both mainstream media and contemporary Western society.
“When I started putting photos of myself online, I was about 12, which was around when the web 2.0 started and the internet became predominantly image-based,” she says. “I was a preteen and early teen, and launching into that world, presenting yourself through photos, was super-important. I wanted to use them to see how the world saw me. I took photos of myself and shared them online, portraying myself as cool or hot – I thought they held some kind of answer. Looking back now, I feel that photos are a really bad measure for trying to figure out how the world sees you.”
Looking through Byström’s recent work, there is a distinct exploration into constructed and constructing identity; her images leave the voyeur questioning. There is a reasonable debate around the impact that social media has on the creation of untenable ideals and standards of beauty, and Byström’s work interrogates this. Developing her personal identity through the medium of sites such as Tumblr, she has played with forming an identity in tandem with the growth of this section of cultural history. “When I was an early teen, I had a fear people would meet me offline and say, ‘Oh, you’re hotter in photos.’ Eventually, I became so embedded in these thoughts that I had eating disorders. Discovering feminist thinking at 18 is when I began questioning how I saw myself and using self-portraits to explore, experiment and break it down. I realised just how toxic it was.” This self-referential, autobiographical tone Byström employs is common among a group of post-internet artists that have used these explorative exercises as inspiration.
The internet provides such incredible access to knowledge and increased connectivity. At your fingertips, instantly, is the possibility to explore a subject as complex as feminist theory, to meet people from far-flung countries, from entirely different cultures, who are exploring the same subjects, and to discuss your thoughts together. Harnessing, cultivating and capitalising on this culturally, Byström has embraced the debates that this has galvanised. So often, there is a focus on the negative factors to have come from the internet’s existence, but in just an hour of talking to Byström, they melt away. Rather than blaming it for the death of subculture, she describes a different series of events.
“When I was 12, I was alternative and lived in a suburb outside Stockholm. I had maybe four friends in my suburb that were alternative, too, so we went online and found other friends who were into the same clothes and music in Stockholm’s suburbs, even in other parts of Sweden. To me, finding internet friends has always been something I have done. My first partner was a guy and I met him online, the first person I kissed I met online. Before Facebook, I had a couple of different blogs. The one I had when I was 16 was a photography blog and through that, I met Tavi [Gevinson, who founded the blog Style Rookie aged 12]. I was blog friends with people from all over the world.” It brings to mind the punk movement, which resonated so deeply among disillusioned teens growing up in the suburbs of England in the 1970s, who would travel miles to see bands and connect with others. Perhaps the ways in which we previously measured counterculture, through clothing and music, are no longer relevant signifiers.
Through Tumblr, Byström began to find her voice. “When it comes to my practice, that was probably the most important thing to happen. I learnt about politics, I learnt about art, I found my own aesthetics. Tumblr is like a never-ending mood board of your thoughts. Initially, I was anti-Instagram – I found it very limiting. You have to set things in a frame, there’s no html that you can change. I was late getting a smartphone, too. I think I first got Instagram in 2012 and used it for the summer, then I broke my smartphone. I guess I started using it for real in 2013.”
I am struck by the ease of how this has all come to Byström, the casual nonchalance. Being an “influencer” is big business today, with brands paying to be aligned with individuals who inspire a captive audience. However, there is a very little celebration or scrutiny of the skill involved to nurture this type of following. In 1977, an article in British Vogue by JG Ballard predicted social-media, writing: “Every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on videotape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day. Regardless of our place in the family pecking order, each of us within the privacy of our own rooms will be the star in a continually unfolding domestic saga, with parents, husbands, wives and children demoted to an appropriate supporting role.”
This account, so chillingly accurate, alludes to the personal sphere, however, there is a clear distinction between Byström’s online presence and her personal domain. “People know very little about me from following me. I share very little about my private life,” she says. Each image in her feed is considered, just as when I curate an exhibition; they are selected to support a wider theme. When you look through her Tumblr feed there is a clear point of view on the world, socially, economically and politically – it is immediately apparent what Byström stands for.
Using these platforms to experiment, in 2012 Arvida made a series of images that were published on Vice, called There Will Be Blood: And It Will Flow from Vaginas. It features young, beautiful women in constructed daily-life scenes – kissing a boyfriend, taking a run, waiting for a bus – with blood running down their legs or at their crotches. The work draws attention to the menstrual cycle, a monthly occurrence for women that, at the time, was still taboo in mainstream media, which now seems both shocking and ridiculous.
A mere seven years later, I notice the pace at which Western culture has changed. This was a turning point and, shortly afterwards, Byström moved to London and opened a gallery called Gal. Always employing both digital platforms and traditional print-media outlets to tackle the subjects most important to her, Last year she released the book Pics Or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned from Instagram with Molly Soda, challenging the site’s censorship policies. An exhibition of her work, Inflated Fiction, is at Fotografiska photography museum, Stockholm, until February 3.
“My show is about the interplay and the distinction between sexy and sex. It includes a video work about Siri, exploring how Siri is a fembot, a feminine being that companies try to disembody using terminology such as, ‘She is in the clouds.’ She is so obviously in devices. Then there are feminine beings that can’t be separated from the body, I am one of those people. In my practice I work a lot with my body through images, playing with the intended meaning. In one photo, I position myself leaning forward, and reflected in the mirror you see my butt under the skirt. This can be read in multiple ways – in a sexual way or in a practical way. I am wearing a short skirt and merely picking something up but I don’t want to have sex. Working with my body and my feminine expression has a lot to do with bonding with a community, with other feminine people and queers.”
Byström says that, within her images, “is an aesthetic that is highly sexualised but one that I grew up with. As feminine people and queers, we have our bodies 24 hours a day and they look like that 24 hours a day. You can wear a thong the whole day, that doesn’t mean you want to have sex the whole day. Sometimes I struggle to understand why it is so hard to hold those two thoughts in your head, but it seems like it is. What is considered sexy has been a lot of different things throughout history. Sexy within an image is a construct that doesn’t say anything about the person in the photo. It doesn’t say the person in the photo wants to have sex.”
This opinion is entirely contemporary and one that Byström’s generation is working with to acknowledge past feminist theory, and to challenge and push forward new ideas and opinions around what it can mean for today. The pace at which her ideas are galloping forward is akin to the speed of technological innovation, and I’m intrigued to see what is coming next.
The interview and images were taken from Issue 62 of 10 Magazine, shot byArvida Byström. PRO-CHOICE, UNCENSORED, CODES is on newsstands now.