07 Mar 2019

The sad girls’ revolution -- an interview with artist Audrey Wollen

A girl's sadness is an internal protest, an attempt to disrupt the predominant perception of femininity, says visual artist Audrey Wollen

Wysokie Obcasy
Zofia Krawiec Jakub Depczyński Wysokie Obcasy, Global
The sad girls’ revolution -- an interview with artist Audrey Wollen - NewsMavens
Audrey Wollen, Instagram, April 2016

The following selections from Zofia Krawiec and Jakub Depczyński's interview with Audrey Wollen originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in April 2017.

Zofia Krawiec and Jakub Depczyński: On your Instagram page, Tragic Queen, you’ve shown, among other things, pictures of yourself in tears posing in front of a mirror, in a public bathroom, in bed, and reflected in your phone.

There are also photographs where, in the poses of models from the history of painting, you show your bruises, black eyes, and smeared makeup. In another sequence we see you undergoing cancer treatment -- a tumor that was diagnosed when you were 14 years old. In short, through your Instagram page, you’ve shown different images of women’s suffering, your suffering -- cultural clichés of how women’s despair should look.

With each photograph you provide commentary -- philosophical, economic, and anthropological from the field of visual culture or art. You’ve created a feminist manifesto for girls who use the internet and struggle with their own subjectivity with the help of selfies and sincere posts.

What is the “Sad Girl Theory” that you’ve created? Who are the tragic queens?

Audrey Wollen: “Sad Girl theory” is the idea that women’s sadness may be interpreted as a political act, a form of struggle directed against an oppressive society. Sadness, according to this theory, is not understood in connection with personal matters, or as a symptom of neurosis, but is rather a public, political situation.

When a girl has depression, a suicidal mood, or hates herself, she takes part in a public discourse. A girl's sadness is an internal form of protest, an attempt to disrupt the predominant perception of femininity. That is what I think.

This theory begins from a simple question: What if we were to take a fresh look at all these women with depression -- those not accepting themselves, those who are suicidal, and even those from history -- and treated them as activists?

What would happen then? Their seeming passiveness would change into a kind of action that we have not thus far been able to call “revolutionary.”

ZK & JD: Why did you first set up your Instagram page?

When I started to use Instagram, it was free. There was no advertising, and it was accessible to anyone who had a phone. That didn’t mean, of course, everyone in the world, but it did mean all the people in my environment. I was an art student. I didn’t want to wait for someone to publish my book or for some gallery to exhibit my work. I simply wanted to show my things to the world as quickly as possible, and Instagram was the easiest way to do that. Besides, I love things that 14-year-old girls love. If there are 14-year-old girls somewhere, I immediately know that that is a very interesting place to be, and they love Instagram.

ZK & JD:  Selfie-feminists, or girls who use their selfies to affirm their subjectivity and to tell their personal stories, often encounter criticism.

I recognize that there are very many justifiable critiques of selfie-feminism. I also recognize that this critique is part of a wider feminist discussion. I don’t know, myself, how much I identify with this ideal, but I also recognize that it is very easy to hate girls who make pictures of themselves, and it is very easy to demonize new technology. It is even easier to hate those who do both at once.

I recognize that whatever selfie-girls, or Instagram girls, or simply girls on the internet, do, shows that they are painfully aware of what they’re tangled up with -- the context in which they and their images are functioning. They do not try to avoid this context, but rather to challenge it and overcome it on their own terms. Girls virally infect the internet with their ideas instead of running away from it and behaving as if it didn’t exist.

ZK & JD: Can the idea of girls’ sadness and thinking about their position unify women and create a new community -- a community of sad girls?

Girls make amazing friendships that in themselves have a radical potential for closeness, intensity, and political consequence. I would pause before saying that our goal is to unite under a single standard, because that would in some sense indicate that this community does not yet exist, and that is not true.

A “like” on my picture from a 15-year-old girl is part of that communality. Relations among sisters, or relations among mothers are communal ties.

It is more important to understand how different communal bonds can have any kind of influence on politics, rather than to appeal to mythic unity or unification. It is important to address each other despite and through the differences affecting us. Our intimacy is not born from what we have in common, but from what we do not share.

At the same time I recognize that probably the only thing that all girls do is suffer in this world.

ZK & JD: Why did you recently decide to close your Instagram account?

There were many reasons. I was online essentially without a break for three years. I changed; my work changed; and the internet changed. I could see how my work became spread out in many different ways, and I had no control over many of them.

Beyond that, I was interested in concluding and closing this work, so that it could become a kind of concrete Tragic Queen archive, and not a continuous process that is part of an infinite cycle of capitalist consumption. In such a cycle of consumption, one can simply pour more and greater content into the well endlessly. I wanted to take a step back and start something new.

ZK & JD: Do you see any limitations to Sad Girl Theory? Being a sad girlish feminist is not for all of us. Not everyone has the time and money to be sad and analyze their sadness.

I completely agree with this. There are very many people, who are not given the cultural or economic space to express sadness. The sad girl as a historical figure was always rather wealthy, white, and living in a privileged country. That is why she could lay on her bed all day and cry.

My hope is that Sad Girl Theory can be rewritten by other thinkers into something that will work for those societies to whom I don’t know how to speak.

I am limited by my own perspective, my own body, and my own world.

ZK & JD: Many female thinkers believe in the possibility of a women’s revolution. Do you believe that women can seize power?

I will say it dramatically. I believe that it is the only chance to save the world. I hope that everyone realizes it soon. Our planet and our society need it. It is not just ethically better, but necessary for our survival. I don’t know if the complete, total feminist revolution of our dreams is coming. For a long time, I thought it was impossible.

Later, I understood that impossibility is a space that frees us. If you say that something is impossible, then what can you do? You can do anything! What would it hurt? Women live in an impossible space -- in a reality that is ignored or called unimportant. If anyone could lead a utopian revolution, it’s us.


Translated by David A. Goldfarb


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