In late June, a provocative exhibition opened at New York City's Museum of Sex.
NSFW: Female Gaze - the first collaboration between the Museum and Creators at VICE - celebrates expression and desire in the female gaze. Historically, as described in John Berger's 1972 book and BBC series Ways of Seeing, art consumers were men, and the objects on which they feasted were the women who graced canvases or were sculpted from marble. In 1975, film theorist Laura Mulvey produced the landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which drew from Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalytic theory as a critical means by which to deconstruct the power structures around who is looking, who is looked at, and to what ends. Mulvey helped initiate a much-needed dialogue that surpassed its roots in film culture, one which today takes on renewed relevance as gender matters play out on social media platforms.
For NSFW, the all-woman artist roster works across a wide media and methodological landscape, exploring sexuality and positioning the act of women looking as a radical pursuit that resists social mores and gender expectations. I spoke with artist and Museum of Sex Associate Curator Lissa Rivera and Creators Editor-in-Chief Marina Garcia Vasquez about their curatorial approach, how "the gaze" is defined, and why an exhibition prioritizing women’s desires is critically important in this moment.
Interview by Roula Seikaly
Roula Seikaly (RS): Thank you both for agreeing to speak with me. Let's start with some context. Where did the idea for the exhibition come from? Was it a collaborative effort from the outset?
Marina Garcia Vasquez (MGV): I had a meeting with Serge Becker, Creative Director at the Museum of Sex, and we were talking about ways in which the Museum and Creators at VICE could collaborate. Creators has a series of stories that we publish on the site on a regular basis called NSFW (Not Safe for Work), and I found in the last year that the articles we were writing were about female artists who are dedicated to discovering female identity through sexuality.
When I talked with Serge about it, I mentioned the series and VICE's interest in expanding it and he liked the idea. Lissa and I were put in touch to discuss the types of artists who we wanted to bring on, to diversify the mix. It was very much a collaboration between the two entities. Lissa is very passionate about the artists, and we spent many months whittling down what the theme would be. We wanted to stand behind and support female artists who are engaged with this work as their primary focus, not as a singular project in their body of work.
RS: I've been absorbing as much of VICE’s media structure as I can, which has proven to be a big undertaking because it's evolved into a sweeping experience. I’m trying to understand where the exhibition NSFW fits in, and this contextualization helps. I didn't think it was a one-off for VICE, and it helps to understand where it fits into the overall programmatic effort. I find the Creators at VICE, and NSFW in particular, to be a beautifully generative media experience that now expands to a museum context. Congratulations on that accomplishment.
MGV: Thank you for saying that! One of the things we're really engaged with is being a space that supports cultural creation. We want to exist beyond being a digital publication, and I think NSFW is a reflection of that.
Lissa Rivera (LR): One of the remarkable things that Marina and I connected on is the fact that the audiences tapped into Creators at VICE and the Museum of Sex are younger women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who are eager to express their sexuality and use online sources and resources in that self-discovery. They're not afraid to click on something that reads "NSFW," and they're not afraid to visit the Museum of Sex, which is a very public space. Part of what we loved about this experience was connecting Creators readers and Museum visitors, and to reflect what they're looking for in terms of women's expression.
RS: I'm so glad you mentioned Creators at VICE and Museum of Sex audiences because it moves toward a question about who you are hoping to attract to the exhibition. What do you hope viewers of any age take away from the experience?
LR: We wanted to represent women's voices and experiences both historically and in a contemporary context, especially at the Museum of Sex, as so much of what is shown here is produced by men. I think the exhibition has attracted a wide and diverse audience. People are taking a lot of time to consider every object, read every label, and to take in as much as possible. I've seen a lot of feminine-expressing younger men and older women coming in groups, which suggests to me that a lot of people are interested in where this generation of artists is going and without generational restrictions.
RS: As curators, are there historic or contemporary exhibitions that influenced your thinking as NSFW was coming together?
LR: From a potential censorship point of view, we were looking to do something that couldn't be done in another institution. We weren't interested in exhibiting pieces that reinforce male perspectives on sexuality. We were interested in showcasing the work of artists who represent different experiential and educational backgrounds and methodologies. That approach seemed more democratic. Putting the exhibition on at the Museum of Sex meant that we didn't have to worry about "appropriate" nudity.
We, or I at least, weren't thinking about other exhibitions specifically. We set our focus on the portrayal of desire and sexuality, from a perspective often not seen in exhibitions that prioritize the female gaze. We're celebrating artists who are grappling with their own sexual identity and desires that in other exhibition contexts may not be addressed.
MGV: When we discussed the artist list, we went through many iterations before settling on who to include. Much of that centered around how desire was portrayed, and who was expressing it, and how it came through in the work. Also, we looked at what could be learned, or what could potentially change a person's perspective after experiencing these objects for the first time. We wanted to learn something new. We wanted the art to represent diversity in media and methodology.
LR: I'd add that Creators at VICE highlights a wide creative spectrum, and that's something we wanted to pick up on. So much comes from these personal, very layered investigations of identity, desire, fantasy, gender, and that's what we wanted to highlight. It's not just about pornography. We were looking for ways that audiences could see, and almost partake of the journeys the artists took or what they went through. It's a risk for artists to share something that is generally so private. Putting that into a public space, and the willingness to participate was really touching.
RS: Absolutely! Following on the statement about vulnerability and participation, I'm wondering how the artists have responded to seeing their work in the Museum, and how audiences are seeing their work? What feedback have you gotten from them?
LR: I've noticed artists coming back to the Museum, sometimes in groups and discussing their experiences. We set a date in the coming weeks when the artists will come in and discuss what it feels like to do this work. Artists have mentioned what it feels like to have a romantic partner who supports them, and what it's like to have a romantic partner who is physically smaller than you as a woman. So many different issues that relate to the body, or are more personal, like having parents that slept in separate beds their whole lives. There are so many layers of personal identity that overlap with or inform public experience through the lens of sexuality, and it's rarely discussed. For many of the artists, I think the exhibition provides a sense of relief.
RS: Will the artist conversations be filmed and available for audiences to stream either through the Museum or Creators at VICE? Given that it's a great learning opportunity for audiences, it's also very personal and possibly vulnerable for the presenters to take on.
MGV: Creators at VICE will hold panel discussions at our New York headquarters, and we'll stream them. We have three panels scheduled, and those will take on the meatier issues that we found run throughout the work. Those are opportunities for the artists to discuss their bodies of work, their practices, and also to engage with each other in meaningful ways.
RS: Let's pivot for a moment. How do you two define the "female gaze?"
LR: It's a tricky thing. I thought about that a lot and what I discovered is that as a human, we tend to empathize with others. Even as a woman, you might occupy a male gaze if you're trying to empathize with a male. Sometimes you might occupy the gaze of another woman who you may imagine to be judging your body. Or you might try to empathize with Natalie Krick and her mother - to experience Natalie's desire to understand how her mother sees herself. The exhibition's extended title is "The Female Gaze," because we wanted to take part in this larger conversation and we want to explore the gaze as a more fluid and possibly un-gendered state. I think the artists we worked with peel away conventional meanings of the gaze, without it being oppositional or stranded in binary terms.
RS: I think we've come a long way since the 1970s foundational critiques of the gaze by Laura Mulvey and John Berger and, much like feminism, we've developed a more nuanced and more expansive understanding of it. I'm glad to hear you speak about breaking it down into dimensional perspectives: how do I see this woman, how do I see this man, how do I see this person who identifies as transgender or non binary?
Given the context you established, do you think the female gaze is or can be as predatory or pernicious as the male gaze as we understand it?
LR: I think that the gaze is harmful when only one gender occupies the space of looking, and there isn't a space for others to participate. Also, as we know, women were for so long denied the right to express their desires or desire for others. I hope people will feel free to, and it's helped by the fact that the Museum of Sex is a sex-positive space, be the one looking and the one being looked at.
RS: What makes this cultural moment the right time for an exhibition like this? If it is, what do you think comes next?
MGV: As we were planning the exhibition and since it opened, we've been invited to all kinds of exhibitions about the female gaze that are put on here in New York. It's a topic artists want to explore, and at least in part due to the political climate, women want safe spaces where they can have these conversations. My desire as a curator and someone who runs a visual and cultural site, I want to see more women develop bodies of work like what is on display. I hope that women will feel supported and encouraged to take on a very personal topic and share it.
LR: I'd add that it's important to understand the context people are working within. When Nona Faustine's project came out three years ago, there was nothing like it. Sexuality is considered a personal experience, not something to be discussed publicly for fear of making others uncomfortable. The other stereotype is that if a woman is making work about sexuality, it's an easy way for her to get attention. These bodies of work aren’t attention-seeking or immature. This is people taking big risks, and investing a lot to make and exhibit this work.
RS: Marina, I'm thinking about VICE as a media entity that bucks traditional operational modes. Was there anyone on the inside who balked at the subject matter for reasons of content or how it would impact hits to the site?
MGV: Not at all. Everyone we worked with on the exhibit was overwhelmingly supportive. They know why it's important and why it needs to be in the world. There was never a sense that it was "too much." I think that also speaks to the strength of the curation. We had definite goals in mind, and it didn't include nudity for the sake of nudity, or debasing erotic experience. It's really about personal identity.
RS: Lissa, your series Beautiful Boy is represented in this exhibition. Has this experience changed the way you relate to the series, or to your partner BJ?
LR: I feel inspired by what others are doing, and what they're putting out into the world. I am moved by how personal the work is, and how deep some artists go into the semiotics of images. I'm moved by all the different ways artists come to this subject. It's been such an eye-opening experience for me.
RS: Was there any hesitancy on BJ's part to be displayed in this context?
LR: He's been nothing but supportive, and really enthusiastic about getting the work out into the world. He's so surprisingly open, and I'm constantly asking if how I portray him or what I post to Facebook is okay. His experience of the feminine and access to that space reminds me, and makes me really sad to be honest, that most men don't or can't experience it. Being seen as beautiful, being placed on a pedestal for our admiration, or expressing characteristics that defy gender norms forced on men is a rare experience. I'm lucky to see that beauty of having BJ as a romantic partner and muse.
RS: Finally, we're wondering if there was a Spotify playlist or mixtape that accompanied NSFW: Female Gaze, who would be on the list?
MGV: This is funny because when we were developing the video, we had serious conversations with the video team about the look and feel? Is it Selena Gomez? Is it Solange? Is it Sade? We settled on Sia. It was the best meeting.
LR: I was thinking about Debbie Harry of Blondie a lot. She really reversed the gaze, and that was groundbreaking for pop music in the 1970s. I listened to Parallel Lines and started to see more of it in the work.
RS: That's an epic playlist. Thanks to both of you for speaking with me, and congratulations on a fabulous exhibition!
About the curators:
Marina Garcia-Vasquez is the Editor-in-Chief of Creators, VICE's arts and culture publication, covering every aspect of the creative process of developing emergent arts and the artists behind them. Prior to joining VICE, she was a writer and editor at international and online publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Architectural Record and others. She is a graduate of Columbia University's School of Journalism arts and culture MA program.
Lissa Rivera is a curator and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. Rivera has worked in collections for nearly ten years. As Associate Curator at Museum of Sex, Rivera curated Night Fever: New York Disco 1977–1979, The Bill Bernstein Photographs and initiated and co-organized Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art. Prior to joining the Museum of Sex, Rivera was a Photographer and Educator at the Museum of the City of New York. Rivera previously worked as Creative Director at the Burns Archive, where she produced exhibitions and publications including Mirror, Mirror: The Burns Collection Daguerreotypes. She received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, where she became fascinated with the social history of photography and the evolution of identity, sexuality and gender in relationship to material culture. As a fine art photographer, Rivera’s work was featured in "Woman to Watch" for the biennial exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Selected honors include the Griffin Museum’s Peter Urban Legacy Award; Feature Shoot’s Emerging Photography Award; Photographic Resource Center Exposure 2016; Danforth Museum Purchase Prize; Filter Photo Festival’s People’s Choice Award; and the 2017 D&AD Next Photographer Shortlist.