I was in Detroit for New Year’s Eve sometime in the recent past, and ended up partying at a place called North End Studios. I was taking lots of stupid party photos and snapped a photo of a friend who had nestled up to another girl I didn’t know. This mystery woman was clutching a tallboy of Coors, not unusual, but she also wore purple-painted eyebrows, a high-collared ivory fur coat, and a black beanie with skulls on it. I posted it on Instagram and instantly accumulated a hefty number of likes.
I came to find out later people weren’t just into her style, they were into the fact that she’s Molly Soda, the wildly popular digi-artist whose show Same opens tonight, Thursday, August 13 at Bushwick’s Stream Gallery.
The instant click appeal of Molly Soda, the personality, has been proven again and again by the number of views, likes, and re-blogs of her half-charming, half-cringe-worthy YouTube videos (there are hundreds of them), Tumblr posts, and social media presence. But Molly Soda, the artist, is a little more complex.
Her work is a mix of internet low-brow; the raw-as-hell, unapologetic sexuality of fourth wave feminism; and a Larry Clark-like fascination with that particular mix of seediness and the banal, sometimes Middle American underbelly, as it plays out in the digital sphere. I mean c’mon, when I asked Molly if her work at Same (glitchy, ghostly nude-ish images of herself printed on two blankets) was screen-printed, she answered matter-of-factly: “Actually, I got them from Walmart.com. They’re fleece blankets.”
Her work nails the fine art of the overshare. Most of her YouTube videos are shot in her messy bedroom while Molly is half-dressed, half in-bed. She’s unafraid to bluntly discuss her relationship status. And she has no problem calling out people who send her problematic (i.e. sexist, ignorant) messages. And this summer, Molly leaked her own nudes. Gasp! (But actually, these revealed that people still have hang-ups about seeing slightly erotic, non-pornographic women in the nude, even if it’s art.)
But Molly Soda’s work isn’t a one-sided contribution to internet infinite. Interactivity is an essential part of her work, which makes it true net art. Much like the internet itself, Soda’s work is anything but static, distant, untouchable. Because she posts stuff on YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, etc., it’s open season for fanboys and trolls alike. Part of the fun is the fascinating but sometimes twisted behavior Molly Soda’s work inspires in social media users, which betrays whether people “get it” or not (and it’s usually the latter). That conversation also influences her output.
Art work qualifies as “interesting”– a dumb word, sorry– if it’s polarizing. For as many instances of praise and attention as Molly Soda receives, there are also detractors. There’s definitely not much “Molly Soda is all right” being said.
One common criticism of her work (which is often confused for IRL Molly Soda) involves naysayers dismissing it as, essentially, “Myspace trash,” the words of one undoubtedly brilliant art critic who commented on a post about Molly’s new zine kiss kiss. The guy isn’t wrong, he’s actually dead on, though not in the way that he thinks he’s right.
And somehow, Molly Soda doesn’t seem to hate on Tumblr teens for not understanding post-modernism just yet, especially because that teen/tween way of engaging with the internet (or better yet, through the internet) is exactly what she’s grasping at.
To the critical eye — and to people who think about the internet and how it’s affected our thinking, our relationships, our social spheres, even the position of our neck — there’s a lot more going on here. And while, yeah, Molly Soda uses “Myspace bullshit” as her creative currency, she’s also picking it apart maybe better than anyone else out there right now.
I caught up with Molly Soda yesterday at Stream Gallery where, along with some friends and collaborators, she was busy hanging work for Same, a show she curated with a specific internet phenomenon in mind.
Oh no, I was always online growing up, from like Neopets to flirting with people on AIM. Then I was into blogging in high school, Xanga and then LiveJournal. So I was always very open on the internet and outward.
I went to school for photography at NYU. I would post photos online, but I sort of kept my internet self and my art self separate. I realized I was really unhappy doing that and that I didn’t want to be an artist in the way that I thought I wanted to be an artist, where I thought I’m supposed to make prints and hang them in galleries and that’s all I’m supposed to do. Or I’m supposed to work for magazines, like whatever. And I was like, I don’t even wanna take photos.
So I sort of decided that I wanted to work in different mediums. So I got really into web design, I got really into video art. And then I kind of just started putting my work out there and started going by Molly Soda, in 2009 when I started my Tumblr. That’s when it became more of an art practice and, “Oh, I blog about my life but I also make art in real life.” So it became more of one thing. And it’s been a steady evolution up until this point.
How did this exhibition come together?
I’ve always been aware of Stream, for a while now. I know the people who run the space. Christine [Tran] from Witches of Bushwick mentioned it in passing like, “Oh you should do something at Stream.” And I grasped at that immediately because I thought it’d be really fun to come to New York and curate a show here.
I sort of had this idea of doing the “same” theme, or playing on the “me as hell”— that sort of thing, that language on the internet— and doing a show that revolved around that. But for a while I had a hard time articulating it, I was like, “I wanna do pieces that mean ‘same’” or ‘I wanna reblog this’ or ‘this is me.’” I sort of didn’t know it I wanted to do pieces that I felt super connected to or pieces that directly commented on that, so it’s a bit of a mixture of both. So it’s me and four other artists.
It’s a mixture. There’s two photographers in the show. I have the blankets which I guess are technically from photographs. I don’t normally make physical pieces, but I wanted to do something physical for this show because all of the work I do just goes on the internet. And so sometimes when I have a show that like… actually, this is the second time I’ve ever made a physical piece for a show. I think I just wanted to do it just because. I also thought the blanket with the images would be a good idea.
I have a video piece by a girl named Sarah Cohen. It’s just a bunch of videos of her dancing in her room or like singing along to songs. I make a lot of videos like that. If you’ve looked at my YouTube channel, there are over 300 of me doing that exact thing.
So I was really drawn to her videos, because they really reminded me of mine, and I thought, we all have these videos of ourselves sitting on our computer. And I’d never get to see them in a gallery space and I think they’re really important. So I messaged her and said, “Just send me all of your videos. Send me whatever you want.” So I think there are five videos of her in the show.
What do you think it does for those videos to have them in a gallery, as opposed to on YouTube or Tumblr or whatever?
I think, weirdly, a gallery always elevates things. I think people immediately take things more seriously if it’s in a gallery, whereas if it’s just on YouTube or on our Tumblr feed or something, you might to click on it, you might not look at it, you might not care about it as much.
And then when you put something in a gallery, you kind of glorify it in this way, which I don’t really thing is necessarily good, in some sense. Because I think the best work that I see is online, so I like putting the work that I see online in a gallery space just because it makes sense to me and I want everyone to see it.
I feel like you’re going to reach more people on the internet, but it’s nice to see things you recognize from the internet or that you would see online, in a physical space, because I don’t get the opportunity to do that very often.
I think “net art” has turned into this very specific term to mean like, I dunno, weird, minimal gifs with statues, maybe that’s vapor wave, I don’t know. But I feel like internet art, or stuff like that, is really special solely because anyone can see it. I like being able to right click and save something to my desktop. But I think it also makes it so that people don’t view it as art, because they’re like “Oh, I can take this,” or “I can just steal this,” or “Whatever, I can reblog it.” I dunno, it’s still a huge thing and the selling of digital work is still a new thing.
But I also like finding new artists on the internet. All of these people in the show, I don’t know in real life. With the exception of Sarah [Cohen], who I met because I used a piece of hers in another show. Everyone who’s in the show is someone I’ve been able to connect to online, which is important.
To me, a really interesting element of your work, and that’s part of it being on the internet, is that there are so many different responses to it, especially the ones from people who don’t understand it as art. They think “Molly Soda” is a real person.
Right. Because anyone can find it and reinterpret however they want. And when you put it in a gallery it’s like, “This is art! You have to consume this as art!” It can’t be anything else for you, which can be kind of negative. So sometimes I wonder why I do things in galleries, but…
It’s a little bit of dabbling. I do like making physical work because I like having things that I can give to people and hold. That’s why I make zines, because they’re cheap and easy to produce and I can hand them out to people really easily. And I think there’s something really nice about holding something in your hand and looking at something up close, away from a screen. But I definitely care more about digital stuff, just because there’s more access.
That level of interactivity is so funny, or maybe intense to me. On your Tumblr someone had sent you an anonymous message like, “Don’t worry about being single!” and stuff. How do you engage with that kind of involvement? I mean, there are trolls and superfans, so how do you navigate them both?
I feel like I tend to not let things get to me because I know if you want to exist on the internet, people are always gonna have something to say about you. No matter what you do, even if you think you’re this perfect angel who can’t do anything wrong, someone’s always going to have something negative to say about what you do. So once you accept that, it’s easier to not let things affect you.
I think I treat everyone pretty evenly and fairly. But I’m not going to sit here and argue with people because it’s a waste of my time. So like 90 percent of the messages I get on Tumblr I don’t respond to, even if they’re positive. Well, if they’re positive I’ll respond to them privately with a smiley face or something.
When you started out doing this kind of stuff, were you surprised at the mass of people you appealed to? Because it seems to me it’s a whole range of people: young Tumblr girls but also people who are really into art.
Yeah, well I think when I first started my main audience was younger girls. And I think as I’ve been on the internet for longer, more people who are interested in art have seen it and respected my work, but I feel like for a while I had this struggle where no one was taking my work seriously and they saw me as just a blogger, or something like that. Like, “Oh, she’s famous on Tumblr, so she can’t actually make legitimate work or have anything to say. She’s a girl that dresses weird.”
I think so. And I think a lot of it has to do with my image, like using myself in my work because I think a lot of people write it off as vain or easy or low-brow. Like, “Oh you took a bunch of photos on Photo Booth or your webcam, why is this art? Why does this matter?”
I think it’s great. I like using tools that a lot of people have access to just because a) it’s what I’ve always been using and b) it’s not stuffy and it doesn’t elevate it to, “Oh, I’ve spent all this money on this paint.” I dunno, it just feels like a lot more accessible this way.
I’m sure a lot of people have asked you about living in Detroit, and I feel like there’s this whole fetishization of Detroit, which is sometimes founded but mostly ridiculous. So what do you think about that image?
There is such a fetishization of Detroit. Everyone has a comment on it, even if they’ve never been to Detroit. And they’re like, “Oh, so many artists are moving to Detroit. It’s so cheap. Everyone’s moving there and no one’s going to live in New York anymore.”
And that’s not really true. I like living in Detroit. I lived in New York. I lived in Chicago. And I grew up in the Midwest, so I like being in the Midwest. I personally felt really drawn to Detroit because of the community there. And it’s not so much that all of my friends are artists— actually my friends do all sorts of different things— but just that everyone’s so genuine and positive. Everyone’s really down to help out, which is something I don’t see in a lot of other cities. And there’s a lot less pretension and it’s way easier to meet people and feel comfortable with people right away, which is what drew me to there.
Also, I realized I really appreciate having space and I like having a house. And I like having space to make work at home, because I make most of my work at home. So it’s really important that my home life is comfortable, because that’s where I am most of the time.
Obviously you’re interested in online behavior— the show “Same” is about that practice of posting a photo, not your own, and writing “same” or “me right now” or “me as hell— but is there another trend right now you’re picking up on?
Do you know the mom thing, like how people comment “mom” on pictures? It’ll happen to a lot of celebrities. Like Taylor Swift or something will get teenage girls commenting on her photos, “mom,” implying she’s this mother to them or something.
That trend’s really peculiar to me, because I’ve had girls comment that on my stuff. And obviously, these girls I could never be their mother because I’m not that much older than them. But I think it’s kind of a new way to say, “I look up to you in this way.” I think it’s kind of nice, but also a little weird. So, I’m not sure.
Yeah definitely. It’ll be a lot of relationship stuff, people will get very specific about their relationships and what’s going on. Or it’ll be like questions about body image, like “How do I become more confident?” or “How do you deal with anxiety?” Just kind of anything I’ve already talked about.
I quit drinking in November, so I get a lot of question about that. Basically anything I’ve put out there, people see that I’ve been open about it and they don’t mind asking me questions about it. And I don’t mind answering.
I think I was drinking too often. And I quit because another friend was like, “I’m gonna quit for a month.” And so I did too. But by the end of the month, I was like, “I actually really enjoy not drinking.” So I just haven’t been drinking.
Well, I’m never hungover, so I never lose a day to that. And I feel like I’m a lot more productive and I feel like I never regret anything. I never wake up being like, “Oh fuck! What did I text this person last night?” Just stupid shit. I don’t have to deal with that anymore.
But the downside is that I’m a lot more anxious, I can’t chill as hard or I don’t feel very chill, ever. Which is sort of negative, sometimes.
It’s easier in Detroit, I’ve found, to not drink. But in New York it’s fine as well. Detroit is a really big drinking town. I drank a lot when I first moved there. I think that had a lot to do with me wanting to go out and meet new people, so I was going out and drinking a lot to do so.
Yeah, I think I do. I feel like a caretaker in a lot of ways, or a role model. I think I’ve become a lot more aware of that role, the older I’ve gotten and the more I use the internet. When I first started using Tumblr and being really public, people would send me negative stuff and I’d be like really catty. Or people would send me genuine questions and I’d make up lies and make fun of them sort of. And now I would never do that. I like actually just want to be really sincere online.
Right now, I have a solo show in November in London. So after this show that’s what I’ll be working on, basically just gathering a bunch of materials. It’ll be my first actual big solo show. And we’re gonna transform the gallery essentially into my bedroom or like my house. So I want it to be messy as fuck. I want there to be a bed with a laptop playing and a pile of clothing with a phone in it. I just want it to be very much like I Spy or something, but the art is just in all of it.
I’ve always wanted to do that and I finally got the opportunity to do it with this gallery. I’ve always thought about what I could have at my dream show and I think this is what I want it to be, so I’m really excited.