Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality with our residents currently making it in Australia. Today
I'm here with Tyler Payne, who is a PhD candidate and lecturer at RMIT University. Tyler is a new media artist based in Melbourne, and her work focuses on the genre of self-portraiture in photography and video to investigate the relationship between women's embodiment through the lens used in gendered advertising. She interrogates the impact social media platforms such as Instagram have on women and their ability to visualise and share images of themselves. Welcome, Tyler.
Tyler Payne: Thank you very much for having me.
AG: You recently finished your PhD exam. Congratulations. Can you talk to us about your research?
TP: Well, my research started (by) looking at fitness culture on Instagram and how that is impacting how women experience their bodies and from there it sort of moved into looking at representation more broadly and exploring topics like the selfie and how the selfie has been portrayed in the media as a digital activity that is juvenile or immature, and it's often something that is sort of aligned to young women and gendered activity that is quite negative. And so I've started looking into how actually the selfie can be a different type of action that gives visibility to marginalised bodies in the digital space that maybe didn't have the same visibility before. So yeah, it's been quite a journey and the visual research object, as I like to say, of my project has been Kim Kardashian, because for me, the story of my PhD comes from a personal narrative in that I became very interested in fitness culture from having a fitspiration account and my experience with that and her being situated as the body of what was the ultimate to achieve, but also her very sort of intermixed relationship with the selfie in social media.
AG: You mentioned your PhD research stems from a personal narrative. What caused you to delve into these digital spaces?
TP: I was very interested because I had a fitspiration account many years ago, and for people that maybe don't know what that is, it's where you tell yourself you're gonna get fit and you post what you eat and you exercise. It starts off with the idea of being really healthy, but it quickly escalated into an eating disorder because a lot of the activities that this culture engages with are eating disorder behaviours. And so once I had actually reached a point of recovery, I started to look at my situation more critically through an academic lens. That was also how I came across Kim because I see her and her body as the epitome of what these accounts are aiming to achieve.
AG: Can you describe the art specifically you create around Kim?
TP: Yeah. The work that I have made has been a mixture of collage, electro-bricolage, (and) animation. I've worked in trying to bring in the landscape of Instagram alongside her body, I guess you could say, and trying to use collage as a way to de-objectify the body. There's a big background with photography coming from advertising that when you photograph something, there's this inherent truth value in how you see something. But now in contemporary photography, and again this is why I use Kim as my object, with Photoshop and airbrushing and all the apps, the retouching apps, there's so much dishonesty with photography. So I try to incorporate these concepts in my animations and how self-objectification occurs online.
AG: So you've moved away from being a traditional photographer. Is that concern around the truth-telling element of photography one of the main reasons you started working with collage and video?
TP: Yes. So I definitely felt very disillusioned with photography. The reason that I got a fitspiration account was because I was making my Master's final works and I was making this video series and using my body as a vehicle for humour. And part of the video was (that) I had to undergo quite a lot of airbrushing. I probably airbrushed my body in various poses for a hundred hours to create one of these videos. I really do remember that being quite a tipping point for the body image disturbance I started to experience. That's when I started to think; "oh, I don't feel so good about myself, maybe I'll start to exercise". And it all kind of went pear-shaped from there. So I became very disillusioned at that time with traditional photography and self-portraiture. So I moved into collage as a way to regain control of the female form. Susan Sontag and Laura Rempel, they both talk about how photography is given this inherent truth value, whereas collage is this like monstrous hybrid where you can take away the feasting of what you assume you will see and that is what I've really tried to do across most of the works.
AG: You made a last-minute video work for your PhD called 'Kim Vanitas'. Can you talk about that piece?
TP: Yeah. So with the Kim Vanitas work, and it's funny now even talking about this since the Met Gala has just been, I made the work and it's based from this painting by Audrey Flack called 'Audrey Vanitas'.It's referencing a historical period of time of Dutch and Flemish painting. It's a still-life genre, and it's looking at mortality and there's a lot of symbolism in the types of objects that are used in the paintings and it's looking at the fragility of time and beauty. There was a lot of self-consciousness at the time from people about the wealth that they had, so they made these paintings to represent that time is fleeting and Audrey Flack was, or is, but at the time was creating feminist paintings in a Vanitas style of photorealism. I read an article that said she didn't get the acclaim that she probably deserved despite her high talent because her paintings often showed imagery of cosmetics.
At that time in the 70s, there was a clash in feminism because a lot of women felt that if you engaged in cosmetics, you weren't being a good feminist. And then there was just a clash of what was acceptable at the time. I was really taken by that and this article that I read. I also read another article that was in Vogue this year announcing that Kim was being paralleled as Marilyn Monroe and that she had basically become the beauty icon of now, which is something I have been thinking for two or three years writing my dissertation. And then it's like Kim wants to help me write my own conclusion. She walks the Met Gala in Marilyn's Dress (laughs). So yeah, that really helps with my Vanitas work (laughs).
AG: You spoke about the way that Audrey Flack's work wasn't received well during her time, potentially because of the current wave of feminism at the time. What has been the response to your work from peers and audience?
TP: Well, it's been very popular and positive in that I've taken a still painting and converted the painting to a digital moving image, and it's an installation - a moving painting. In my version of Kim Vanitas, I have swapped all of Audrey's pieces that she had for Marilyn with all of Kim's cosmetic images from her various beauty brands. So KKW Beauty, KKW Fragrance, and other iconic pieces of her jewelry and et cetera. To kind of talk about how Kim has really commodified beauty in a similar way or a different way, actually, I should say, than Marilyn, but also engaging with her selfie book, the art book that she made that's also in there because she's really commodified the selfie. And I changed the symbolism of the Vanitas objects into the digital space to represent how it's different now.
AG: Can you talk a little bit more about your creative process when making an artwork?
TP: Oh yeah. I don't even know what it is. Really. My creative process is that I read a lot for... I've been doing post-graduate study now for 10 years, so I'm always reading whether or not it's academic texts or gossip magazine-style things. I just start to get ideas that sort of start coming to me. I'm someone that really sits on ideas for a long time and I will sort of think about it for probably too long, and then I'll finally decide that I'm going to make the work and be quite decided on how it's going to be and do it very quickly. So it's not the best process (laughs). I think I could refine it.
AG: Why do you choose bricolage to communicate your research?
TP: Well, bricolage is a process where you take different materials and objects and you bring them together to change their meaning. I started to realise that for me in my process, I was taking different images from Kim and from Instagram and from influencers and from Kim's advertising campaigns, and I was repurposing them for a critique instead of their original intention, which is normally to sell something.
AG: Collage work creates such an interesting intersection between academia and celebrity and culture. How do you see your work fitting into current pop culture and more broadly the art world?
TP: Well, I guess part of what I have been trying to do is reworking traditional art pieces into the digital space. So taking historical references of paintings and in fine art and playing with their representation and trying to really engage a female or other gaze into works. So with my series 'Aesthetics', I was thinking a lot about how John Berger made the comment that we put a mirror in the nude woman's hand and condemned her as vain but we painted the painting to look at her. So then what I did was I took the reflections out and replaced them with Kim and her selfies because I was thinking a lot about taking control of your own image. And even though Kim can be seen as the personification of vanity, there is still control and agency in the choice, even though I do see Kim as continually perpetuating and almost glorifying the male gaze, and I'm not really a fan of that, but there's still an agency in a way that there isn't in some of these paintings by men that are critiquing vanity. So I guess I'm trying to play with pop culture and show that a lot of the imagery that we see from these traditional paintings, we're still seeing, And it would be really cool if we could start to engage more with a female gaze and an other gaze, and to see people using the female form to bring out a mode of qualities instead of just for objectification.
AG: Do you think that way that you play with pop culture does make it easier for the public to engage with the female gaze or an other gaze?
TP: Yeah. Well, I think one of the questions I spent a long time wondering about was; where was the female gaze in my works? Because Kim Kardashian is in all of my works, and I re-watched recently Joey Soloway give a keynote about what the female gaze meant to them. Joey Soloway talked about how for them it is about taking all of your vulnerability and putting it into a character, a protagonist, and putting them on the screen and allowing that to be seen - all of their flaws, all of their vulnerabilities. And I thought; well actually, that is my female gaze or other gaze as they also say. And Bell Hooks says too, because I've put my experience of my eating disorder and my time in fitspiration and how I've responded to that into this work, and I'm trying to critique how female, or female-presenting, bodies are positioned online or represented online.
AG: Yeah. Awesome. Thanks for sharing so vulnerably about your research. I read in an interview that you love Hannah Höch and was wondering what other people have kept you inspired throughout your PhD?
TP: Well, yes. So Hannah Höch was one of the sort of starting points. And then I guess obviously in terms of collage, I've spent a lot of time looking at the collage work of Deborah Kelly because she spends a lot of time exploring the other gaze through collage and her practice can be very aligned in a similar way to Höch in terms of how she wants to de-objectify. But then ironically, I did find myself going back to a lot of photographers, even though I myself had sort of pulled away from that. So like Ayana V. Jackson who has this wonderful series called 'Poverty Pornography'. She's got this thing where she really tries to re-represent representation and tries to address these persistent photographic notions of black bodies as impoverished or suffering or criminal and shows them in the light that she believes that they should be shown in and I find that really quite moving. As well, other photographers like Vivian Fu, who have turned selfie art into something similar (to) a contemporary Nan Goldin. So yeah, it's what I've been doing.
AG: Awesome. We do have time for one more question. What's one of the things you've learned since starting your PhD and then now almost having completed it?
TP: Oh wow. There's so many things. I mean, I definitely think I've become more sure of my own voice in a way that I probably wasn't. I think actually the process of learning video and the skills of learning video, because I am self-taught in that way because I chose to engage in collage and animation as a part of recovery, I guess. That actually was quite useful for my own confidence and freedom. So that really did support me in moving forward in just where I wanted to be with myself. But I think the main thing was that I really can't believe how much reading helps, even though I avoided it for so long (laughs).
AG: Thank you so much for joining us, Tyler.
TP: No worries.
AG: Thank you to our audience for joining us on Inside ACMI X. If you are interested in viewing Tyler's work, the link to her website will be added to the show notes. This is the last episode for this season, so if you liked the episodes so far send us your feedback via the platforms that you are tuning in from and share with anyone who you think might enjoy tuning in.