conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 10.01.2023
MAYA MAN: THE ART OF ZOOMING IN
FEMINISM AND INTERNET CULTURE
Maya Man is a Los Angeles-based artist who considers the computer screen a space for intimacy and performance; her practice responds to contemporary internet cultures with a focus on identity and femininity.
In conversation with Head of Community, Margaret Murphy, the artist talks about multidimensionality vs. authenticity, the Internet as a performance, and feminine aesthetics in artwork.
Margaret Murphy: Maya Man, you have a background in computer science. How did you begin your career as an artist?
Maya Man: Growing up I always was interested in artistic expression. I was a dancer for most of my life. I didn’t consider being an artist something I could do, or that it would align with my interest in math and then eventually programming. But I met some people who were part of the Processing and p5.js, two software sketchbook libraries, communities after my first year of college. They were using code to make art, which opened my world to thinking about art beyond traditional mediums.
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania thinking artists were people who were good at drawing and painting. I didn’t have this expansive idea of what it meant to be an artist, working with other mediums or more conceptually. When I met artists that were using code as a medium, I realized that being an artist was something I could pursue that aligned with my interests in technology and performance.
Murphy: Were there any specific code-based projects that were compelling or inspiring to you?
Man: In 2015, I met Lauren Lee McCarthy through her work leading p5.js. Her art practice focuses on building programs and performances that explore social interaction. Around that time, she had made a piece called FOLLOWER, an app-based service that allowed someone to sign up to be followed around for a day. Once a person signed up, they would share their location and a person from the app (usually Lauren) would follow them without their knowledge. At the end of the day, the person would receive a photo that had been taken of them without them knowing.
A lot of my work is about social media and the absurdity of the ways we interact online. To me, this project developed an amazing exploration of the language we use and the surveillance that happens on social media all within the context of an application McCarthy programmed. This project felt radically different from other work I had previously seen or conceptualized as art that uses software as a medium. It really prompted me to think of what might be possible in my own work.
Murphy: You make art in direct conversation with the Internet. What is your relationship to the Internet?
Man: It’s really a love/hate relationship. Growing up online, I got a lot of pleasure out of posting photos of myself and things I saw and sharing my life online. But at the same time, I often felt a lot of guilt and shame around posting. Oftentimes, I would worry that what I posted felt fake, insincere, or inauthentic. My relationship with the Internet became increasingly complex because I loved building an identity online, but at the same time, I hated myself for loving it so much. I felt like there was something inherently evil about it. In many ways, it was dangerous, growing up and consuming a lot of toxic content and ideas that deeply affected my sense of self when I was younger.
Murphy: The Internet is a performance, whether we want to admit it or not. With your performance-based artworks, I find it impactful how you engage in performance art in an online setting—a performance inside of a performance. Do you ever wonder how authentic this performance is to your sense of self?
Man: I think about that all the time. As I mentioned, I used to feel like I was constantly chasing this idea of authenticity online. When people candidly talk about the right way to post, often the word authenticity comes up. People criticize celebrities for being inauthentic or seeming fake online. I always felt like I wanted to be as real as possible online because that seemed moral and good. But over time, I realized that that is functionally impossible. If you’re putting something on the Internet for the public you are always mediating, always thinking of the audience who is going to see it.
I really see everything I share online as a performance. That’s not to say that what I post isn’t meaningful to me, but I view everything I upload as a contribution to the idea of who I am on the Internet. It’s a hybrid performance of me as both a person and as an artist. These platforms make it impossible to represent your full multidimensional self. Even offline, when I’m with different people, I’m different depending on the context. It doesn’t mean I’m being fake with them; it’s just kind of how socializing works. Your whole self can never exist in a single space.
Murphy: Right, it’s nuanced. Multidimensionality versus authenticity. Just because I act one way with a group of people doesn’t negate the way I act with another. Both selves can be true.
One of your pieces that makes me think about multidimensionality is READ IT AND WEEP, in which you program three different data sets: your journal entries, your research notes on things you had read, and then pop culture quotes or references. All these text datasets represent you but aren’t literal representations of you. Conceptually, what is it like to turn text-based datasets and concepts into something visual?
Man: My choice to work so heavily with text and language recently wasn’t a conscious one. Whenever I considered what I wanted to communicate and what I was interested in exploring on social media, a lot of it often came down to what I could extract directly from a piece of found text. Collaging and remixing that text takes it out of its native context and forces people to see it from a new angle.
I’m interested in combining words with aesthetics that have some sort of clear cultural connotation for people. As a result, when a viewer is reading the texts that I’ve chosen to highlight in conjunction with the aesthetics and more formal aspects of the work, they unlock a portal to other associations that they may have with being online.
We’re constantly consuming content from all these different places at once—a tweet, an Instagram story, or audio on TikTok. I designed READ IT AND WEEP to feel like this push and pull between interiority and exteriority, how all these pieces you see in various places online come together and live in your mind in the same place that would never coexist anywhere else.
Murphy: It feels very subtle but is extremely impactful when experienced altogether in that work. The description of your intention for the viewer feels almost like you're trying to send a sort of subconscious message, like marketing or advertising. What kind of influence does advertising have on your art?
Man: In a lot of my work, I use the tone and aesthetics of advertising almost like a Trojan Horse. Advertising is a form of manipulation that mirrors how I view a lot of the content we’re consuming online. I often use the aesthetics or language of advertising to reference that feeling of being pushed to believe in or consume something specifically.
Murphy: As far as visual language, you use very feminine online aesthetics: teen magazines, and filter effects with sparkles, butterflies, and pink. You used the term “sugar cookie aesthetic” that you implemented in your project FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, a generative text project that you trained using text-based aspirational Instagram graphics. Historically, these kinds of visual accents are dismissed as being immature or frivolous and not taken seriously. How do you feel about that perspective when you are making these conscious artistic decisions?
Man: It was very natural for me to gravitate towards that aesthetic because that’s what I have always loved. When I was 13, my bedroom looked the way my work does now. In college, I reached a point where I realized that if I continued to outwardly embody that hyper-feminine aesthetic it would undermine people’s perception of my intelligence. As a result, I had a phase where I moved away from it because I was concerned people wouldn’t take me seriously. Well, it wasn’t just a concern, it was true. I could feel that people wouldn’t want to engage with the concepts I was addressing in my work if they were wrapped in this hyper-feminine aesthetic. But over time, I realized that’s the kind of tension I want to exist in my work.
I want to juxtapose the feminine aesthetics of girlhood against these darker and more complex ideas of what it means to be online and share your life on social media. At first glance, a viewer might think my work is about one thing but then when they spend more time with it, they start to grapple with topics they didn’t necessarily expect to engage with. It’s a tension that I really embrace.
Murphy: Would you say embracing the hyper-feminine in your art despite a cultural dismissal of what women are drawn to is an act of Feminism or just what you’re interested in?
Man: It’s honestly just fun. It’s what I naturally gravitate toward, and I do like that there’s this inherent indignance to it, which maybe means it’s read as inherently feminist, but I don’t feel precious about that label.
Murphy: When you really strip down the Feminist art movement, it’s about using “the feminine,” however you define it, as a vehicle to deliver more global, philosophical issues. So, you almost reel them in with the “sugar cookie aesthetic” and then get them to think about gender roles or expectations of performative consumerism.
I also think there’s something about it all that circles back on itself in dialogue. I think about the shame and self-loathing that we inherently feel as women and the pressure of being judged by how you post online and what kind of art you make…it’s like, “fuck it.” Just make what matters to you, right?
Man: There’s a lot of shame attached to my desire to excavate my experience of girlhood. I’m always worried people can’t see past my use of the hyper-feminine to the darker concepts I’m trying to communicate. I’m actively thinking about how to bring those more ugly feelings to the forefront of the work that I’m doing.
Murphy: Are there ever times that you just accept that maybe the message of the work won’t be delivered to every viewer, and are you okay with that?
Man: Yes, there are going to be people who see my work and don’t connect with it. And there have been. Sometimes, I think it’s because they haven’t grown up posting online. Sometimes people make the decision that they don’t want to engage with these social media systems at all because they feel critical of them. I also feel very critical of them, but I continue to engage with these platforms every day.
A lot of my art is about that complication. In some ways, it would be easier to just reject all of it completely but that’s where the love/hate tension that I enjoy really comes in. There are parts of me that do really find value in being online, so I want to continue engaging with these platforms while remaining critical of them too. There are people who just can’t access that layer of the work because they can’t relate to that experience.
Murphy: Does the use of yourself as a subject tie into the complexity of your work as well?
Man: I’ve gone through phases where I feel a lot of fear about how I use myself in my work because it feels extremely vulnerable and honest about the complicated relationship that I have with putting myself online. I fear people will look at my work and think, “Why is she making it all about herself?” But I’ve had some useful conversations with other artists about grappling with those emotions that come up when putting yourself in your work. It’s like if you see a character in a movie, even though you aren’t that character you can relate to that character’s experience and can see your life in parallel to theirs. When I’m making vulnerable work, I’m extracting pieces of myself and sharing them publicly hoping that people will relate to my experiences.
Murphy: Right, and as for the narcissistic slant that comes with any contemporary self-portraiture, it becomes almost impossible to talk about a work of art that uses a selfie regarding the Internet and social media. People can’t seem to take them seriously when they see them every day. So, then what does that mean for self-evaluative contemporary art?
Man: That reminds me of this quote from the 2016 novel by Natasha Stagg titled SURVEYS. The main character says, “Sometimes, when I’m on a roll, I feel like I’m DJing the Internet.” That has always stuck with me because the process of sharing my life and myself online has always been about control and the extreme agency you have over your self-image when you’re making choices every day that contribute to this public idea of yourself. In a way, being in that position of extreme control comes with so many stresses, there’s something very unnatural about it. I love the way that Stagg writes about this feeling of being up there in a DJ booth with everything available to you and you know exactly what to play because you know how to work a system and the way it's been designed. That’s the feeling I have when uploading anything.
Murphy: I think there’s an empowerment that comes with that control, especially as a woman living under the patriarchy. There’s so much as women that we can’t control but the way you’re perceived online is something you can and in doing so, you can make these systems work for you. It’s almost like an ego trip, this spooky magic you feel when you really succeed. Maybe it’s just chance or the way the cards fall, but I think there is a sort of intuition you can really tap into if you’re paying attention.
Man: It comes up for me often being an artist, questioning why I’m making this work. Why do I feel people need to see this? Why am I sharing it in this way? In my practice, I’ve noticed parallels between being an artist and modes of production and posting online. The question of ego plays a huge role.
Murphy: Do you feel like this question is unique to artists? Do you think there’s this moral responsibility to art making or is there no virtue in being an artist at all?
Man: The feeling I have about being an artist is somewhat of this gesture [Man opens and closes her index and thumb together.] It’s about zooming in on something or blowing it up in some way and asking people to consider the implications of it, what it means and how it functions in our everyday lives. A lot of making art is about asking the audience to spend time with art, to have patience, to move slowly, and to think about something they might not otherwise give a second thought to, even if it’s something they see all the time on the Internet. It’s a lot to ask, but I love posing a question and seeing if someone out there will hold it in their mind.
Murphy: It’s not an expectation of the viewer, it’s just asking them. You still make the work because it’s important to you and whether anyone cares about the art is sort of irrelevant, right?
Man: It’s an obsession. It’s a compulsion to make work because I need to externalize things I read and consume. Otherwise, if it just lives solely in my mind, I’ll just totally go insane thinking about it. I’ve said this before, but making art feels like a hack to just get people to talk about what I want to talk about. Every artist has their own thing that they’re so hyper-fixated on you see it come across in their body of work. I think that’s so beautiful. To me, artmaking is all about being able to talk to other people about what you're thinking about 99% of the time.
Murphy: To any artist just starting out who is looking to explore topics of social media, the Internet, and femininity in their own art, what advice would you give?
Man: I used to be super concerned with what I thought other people whom I looked up to wanted to see me make. I sought validation. Especially as a programmer, I used to be really concerned about whether or not someone would think what I programmed was hard to program. If they would consider me a “real engineer,” in a sense. But once I started making stuff that, even if it was small, was something I was really interested in it helped me feel less concerned with what other people thought of me and my work. It led me to make work other people were, in fact, interested in.
I think about a specific obsession that I have, zooming in on that as much as I can to start making something instead of trying to make something that other people might expect from me.
Murphy: Let your hyper-fixation guide you.
Man: Yes, exactly.