A Cruising Ground of Aesthetics, Porn, Politics and Selfies: An interview with Jess Mac – Mikhel Proulx

Jess Mac – the covert username of artist Jess MacCormack – is a savvy Tumblr-user who I’ve followed for the better part of the past decade. Unlike Jess’ other art projects more openly tied to activism (as in works around HIV activism, mental health, prisoner rights, and with the absurd interventionist collective Desearch Repartment), Jess’ Tumblr is an ambivalent rambling of pop-culture detritus, political memes and masturbatory gimmicks. Where earlier blog cultures of the 1990s – the first ‘social’ media – pushed the frontiers of publishing through truly personal, unedited, live broadcasting, Jess’ blog participates in today’s over-saturated media flow of commercial network platforms and the babbling current of lowbrow Facebook feeds and inane tweets. Scrolling through some of the eight years’ worth of blog posts here, one will encounter content alternately irreverent, funny or appalling, but always perceptive. From stylized images of tortured Abu Ghraib hostages, to manipulated gifs of celebrity selfies, to flashing political slogans, Jess riffs through the visual artefacts of ‘Net culture with eyes turned equally to runway fashion, gay porn and tacky blogroll memes. In this interview, we chat about Jess’ daily ritual of creating and spreading digital imagery though this critical compendium of regurgitated media consumption.

Mikhel Proulx: I showed your Tumblr to a group of undergrads once, and the discussion we had was amazing. We chatted about what you were up to onlinewondering exactly how ‘Queer’ it was. Finally we decided that Tumblr itself is a fairly Queer spacecontext-collapsing, boundary-crossing, etc. Tumblr maybe allows us to see Queerly.

Jess MacCormack: Yes. Semi-anonymity as a cruising ground of aesthetics, porn, politics and selfies. Reblogging as a quickie – one can touch without forming lifelong bonds, or without one’s family and boss seeing. The context collapsing also implies that one can be multiple; sexuality is not partitioned from one’s politics (i.e., the way Facebook controls nipples and butts) and aesthetics. Gender can be performed in a plethora of ways, as selfies are not a prerequisite to participation.

I play extensively with the extreme gender coding I see on Tumblr – the pale pink girly aesthetic and the Yves Klein blue 1990s computer graphic aesthetics (coded as male) – emulating both, adding queer content and mashing them up. I’m ultimately interested in expressing how gender and sexuality intersect with feelings and mental health, that are ever shifting paradigms. Like I’ve made so many uterus gifs, but they come out of my own emotional ambiguity about bodies, gender and intellectual ideas of reproduction, rather than an essentialist affirmation of womanhood.


No one ever asks my gender yet people often write to ask if I am gay, which is amusing.

Many of my gifs and images use emojis non-conventionally (lol) as I’m fascinated by how emojis are shaping our emotional selves, communication and relationships (emojiotics, as desearch calls it). This has now been expanded upon with Instagram and Snapchat offering filters, stickers and uses of facial recognition technologies (that literally allow us to use our faces for advertising products without pay).

MP: And so you’re bringing to the foreground this online play of gender and sexuality and identity and whatever, but you’re also so pop. You’ve got content here that seems so deeply personal and some heavy political stuffand the very next post might be Kim Kardashian or Nike or Big Ang or some shit. I’m basically curious if you’re operating as a critic of capitalism and celebrity and pop culture, or actually relishing this stuffor if that distinction matters anymore.

JM: We are all commodities now! We need a following and brand – I accidentally made Jess Mac out of a curiosity about how one could get reblogged and disseminated throughout the Tumblr ‘community’, how to reach vast audiences and go viral – so I emulated memes, symbols, hashtags, representations and methodologies to find an audience. Of course, in the end, I am not playing by neoliberal capitalism’s rules and am too critical and inconsistent, therefore making online ‘popularity’ impossible, as it is always a question of power and promotion – the algorithms and those controlling them.


Tumblr did promote my work for a while – which came to a halt with the White House incident, where they asked me to create content for the It’s on Us campaign to be posted on the former (Obama) White House Tumblr. I asked to be paid well for my work – the equivalent of what an advertising employee would be paid, versus their token small artist fee and ‘exposure’. Then they didn’t send me a cheque for a year and by all appearances blacklisted me thereafter. They chose me in part because I am a survivor of sexual assault, yet they had zero sensitivity to the realities of what this means and wanted to exploit my labour.


They also didn’t seem to notice how critical I am of the American government.

A few years ago during a cold winter in Montreal I watched documentaries about Syria every day for a month, until I started to realize how traumatized I was and thought I should switch it up for lighter viewing. I then turned around and watched all seasons of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I had used Kim’s image before watching the show, as I am very curious about why people feel closer to fame by reblogging a pic of someone famous, but also crying Kim was already a meme. I loved this pic of her after her ‘vampire selfie’ and felt it reflected the irony of my earlier extremely polarized viewing experience – the irony of America. Indeed her marriage to Kanye took that one step further. I produced a radicalized Kim that dons Kanye’s Yeezus mask – an album that addresses race in amerikkka with the song entitled “Black Skinhead”. Kim discovered racism after having a child with Kanye, while on an airplane to Europe in a very late season of KUWTK.

MP: These imageslike your own thinking, I’m suresurge between these extremes: between pop-culture reaction memes, this porn-like half-clever filth, and then your more pressing political concerns. You flatten out any distance I expect between these limits. The artist Hito Steyerl has this great term, the ‘poor image,’ to describe those degraded, fragmentary digital images that so commonly cycle onlinepirated and stripped of context. But this also means that online media exchange flattens out hierarchies: this stuff is produced and shared by anyone with a computer. And indeed your graphics show up everywhere. The images, then, are often impossible to track down and ascribe as ‘yours.’ And in this deemphasized authorship of yours we can see a real commitment to lowbrow viral media culturefrom farm to plate there is no allegiance to high-res here.


JM: Yes, this gives me life. It has helped me stay in a playful and free expressive state where most of the time I can think to myself, “this is not my art practice, this is something else”. Everything I make is shitty and usually quickly made from internet debris. But now I realize this is my practice, but maybe not for art – maybe I’m practicing something else? Like how to stay critical of media, how to understand youth culture, how to express and shape my identity in the Internet Age...


I don’t feel attached to my audience – they are mostly anonymous or collective in my mind – but this also means I am not worried about how they perceive me (as a whole) or how I represent myself (as a whole). I actually have lost a lot of audience because I’m obsessed with juxtaposing old and new gifs and imagery on my page through reblogging my own stuff (which is irritating for followers as I am not using the site conventionally and I overuse their feed).

But me aside 😉 – this is why there is so much porn and so many gruesome dead body images floating around or Nazi propaganda because everyone is anonymously trying to reach their perceived audience, through desire or shock.

The randomized juxtapositions of images and content in a feed is like an art film. Our collective unconscious in the digital age…  I just scrolled through four posts: an astrology meme about where our hearts are, a video of a woman being choked and fucked, and then an image of some children from the 90s, followed by this quote: “Desire is the kind of thing that eats you and leaves you starving.”  Like wtf?! It’s like a storyboard.

Two posts later, this:

MP: This kind of strange practice is of course the most basic function of being online. All of us have to deal with the problem of sifting through media plenitude. And the particular, playful, peer-production practice that you’ve developed also has real political potentials. Some have taken a critical view of this kind of practice, branding it a mere narcissistic curiosity in trends – anonymous hipsters culling detritus out from context and cultural knowledge. But I have a more hopeful view of the kind of work you do: remixing imagery as a kind of conspicuous online consumption. It might be a model for good Internet engagement, an ethics of Web browsing.

There is a common reductive claim that participatory media effect political change, and an older conceit that new technologies themselves are liberating and democratizing and emancipatory. We can of course see how digital networks can be used progressively, from Idle No More and Occupy, to #metoo and the Arab Spring. But this rather inflated sense of a “Twitter uprising” or a “Facebook revolution” diminishes the feet-on-the-ground stakes of traditional activism. Malcolm Gladwell put it well: “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

The kind of social activism that I see your Tumblr involved in is a rather more specific concern for representation within networked media itself. It gets at the question of how social media networks are used, and what kinds of productive discourse can happen within them.

JM: This is why Tumblr still still seems like a relevant site to engage in – it continues to be an accessible space for self-representations of peoples from various social movements (trans+ folk, POCs, Indigenous peoples, women, queers, fat folks, disability activists, BLM and more). Though this is generally very North American-Centric representation. I try to weave these themes in my blog with more direct messages.


 

In part this process is a practice of learning and understanding the newly forming codes and syntax of circulating decontextualized images and text fragments as identity production. But I’m also interested in how the unproductive discourse is functioning – as Tumblr is also a space inhabited by right-wing extremists, misogynists, homophobes and creeps. With my blog I’m trying to draw audiences from all streams into my queries.
MP: And so in these networked spaces both identity and media itself are flexible and fluctuating. We can see this certainly in the kinds of diaristic identity production that your Tumblr enacts, but also in how your media objects themselves move across platforms and through different hands. Someone called this effect of media its spreadability. Where certain online media practices rely on aggregating reposts and ‘likes’ into one’s social capital, the kind of engagement your imagery participates in is rather about intersecting flows of ideas – a practice of spreading and sharing media charged with political and personal meanings.

Yes, I have struggled so long with trying to articulate my own sexual trauma and subsequent mental health problems. Trying to make sense of the ways being a survivor interacts with sexuality, gender, memory, identity and feelings – it interests me that I could create an accessible symbolism around this for (young) people to identify with and spread. As a teenager and young person in the 80s and 90s I didn’t have access to computers, representations of difference or extended communities online. I was totally alienated. I spent my evening yesterday teaching a struggling teen how to make gifs.


Visit Jess’ Tumblr at
jessicamaccormackrmack.tumblr.com

 

Jess MacCormack’s art practice engages with the intersection of institutional violence and the socio-political reality of personal trauma. Working with communities and individuals affected by stigma and oppression, they use cultural platforms and distribution networks to facilitate collaborations which position art as a tool to engender personal and political agency.

Jess Mac’s digital work has been shared through various online platforms, such as VICE Creator’s project, PAPER Mag, Art F City and even the White House Tumblr. Their animations have been screened internationally at festivals such as Ottawa International Animation Festival, MIX-26 the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, Transcreen Amsterdam Transgender Film Festival, LA Film Fest at UCLA, Inside Out, Imaginative Film Festival and International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA). jessicamaccormackrmack.tumblr.com

Mikhel Proulx is a researcher of contemporary art and digital cultures. Mikhel is a PhD student and faculty member in the department of Art History at Concordia University, Montreal. His research considers Queer and Indigenous artists working with networked media.