Images by kyle malanda
Tell me a bit about how this work came to be?
So when I made Surreal Erotica I was heavily inspired, first of all, by sex workers who blur their faces and have clever cool little tricks. Escorts in particular and full service sex workers who advertise on the internet and also blur their identifying features, which I thought was a really interesting way to subvert surveillance and facial recognition. And then thinking about women in general and the rules that we have for sending nudes, making sure your face isn’t there and that you’re posing in a way that doesn't show off your tattoos. That’s why I created this work.
I was thinking about all this and how people have lost income, are home more and have had to find new ways to generate income. One of the ways that this manifests is people finding their way to adult content. All of these platforms have seen a massive increase in users, not only in terms of consumers but also content producers. And why is that? You have a lot of people coming into online sex work and trying to figure it out, realising that there is a lot of shame attached to their jobs, a lot of societal push back and so they are also trying to figure out how to protect their own government identities. So this is something that’s been very interesting to me for a while now, thinking about all of that is what essentially brought Surreal Erotica to life.
I found it very interesting that you’re using Instagram to share your work and that’s a platform where sexuality has been policed at so many levels, especially for Black women. Was this an intentional choice?
I honestly just used it because that’s where I share my work. With all my posts I have my nipples blurred out. Honestly, Instagram just needs to get with the program, because if we remove the sexual content and in the loosest sense of the word. This could be someone at the beach posing in a bikini - anything that can elicit a sexual response, if we did that how many people would still be interested in the platform?
It’s always really strange to me because these platforms are very specifically anti-sex worker and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand that because these platforms are anti-sex worker, all the women who may behave or post in ways that sex workers do, will be treated just as badly. Nobody is free until sex workers are free.
A lot of women in New York last year had a massive reckoning when this bar in Manhattan randomly decided that single women can’t sit at the bar anymore. They know that sex workers do this so now every woman on their own is considered one. The goal posts are always shifting.
Michelle Obama was the most respectable person and people still treated her terribly. You can’t be a respectable woman. There is no true respectability under patriarchy, only the constant erosion of the self and the constant erosion of our freedoms. You keep making concessions, each time you chip off a little bit more of yourself and that’s when you realise that you’re the only one making compromises. Patriarchy doesn’t compromise. There is no appeasing, there is only dismantling.
In terms of Surreal Erotica, do you speak about it in terms of your inspirations and the sort of work and things sex workers have to do to remain safe online?
I just think about it in terms of inspiration loosely. I think that more people are influenced by sex workers than they would care to admit. Especially Black trans sex workers, strippers in clubs in Atlanta - these people are literally defining fashion, technology, how we subvert all of these surveillance systems; these people are doing that. I think a lot of the time you look at the Instagram aesthetics and you’re like, okay but where are they coming from? Even the Kim Kardashian body, where is that coming from? It’s always from Black trans sex workers. You don’t even know that what you’re aspiring to is the very thing that you’re trying to shun.
I love how inspired you are by sex workers in your work. What was the process of then deciding, this is how I’m going to make this work look, this is how I want the feeling to be like?
I wasn’t really sure what things were going to look like until the first image. My partner helped me take the first image and we went to this little hill in my neighborhood and it was rattlesnake season so we were also trying not to get bit by them, trying to be quick about everything. [laughing]
I just knew that I wanted to start talking about depersonalisation and making it really surreal by using something so typically feminine. It’s all flowers because I wanted to talk about how, anatomically, things are referred to as these delicate, flowery things and retaining that femininity, some of that identity that’s being lost in the depersonalisation. For example, keeping my tattoos there, which I don’t really show much during my daily life because I wear very loose things and long sleeves most of the time. Or having one of the pieces being me wearing a headwrap and thinking about the ways we can retain some of our identity while going through the process of depersonalisation.
I do think that a lot of people would have reinforced and reasserted their identity, saying that this is me, this is who I am. But I also, and this is a super valid response and I’ve had moments where I’ve done that, reasserted my identity. But I also think that in terms of protecting yourself depersonalisation does play a key role in keeping people safe and that’s not something that is the most ideal but it is necessary. Yes, people should be able to express who they are at all times, with their identities laid out to bear, being sexual beings and have no repercussions but that’s not the world we live in.
Even OnlyFans got hacked earlier this year and had this massive data dump of all of this sensitive content that people had put up behind paywalls. So we know that even these platforms aren’t doing the necessary work to protect the content creators but we also know that people face real repercussions. Women in particular face really real consequences for sexual expression, so how do we create an environment or create a culture or create tools that continue to allow people to depersonalise as a way of expressing themselves sexually? Humans are sexual beings and we enjoy expressing ourselves sexually but we haven’t really created a society where sexual expression is equitable. Thinking about how depersonalisation is a valid tool in response especially if you are unable at the time to really deal with the risk that comes with expressing yourself with your identity attached to it, because that means loss of employment, losing family, losing housing, and you can even face immigration problems and be deported or banned from countries. I know so many people who’ve been banned from different countries because of sexually expressing themselves online. So there are very tangible, real consequences to this.
Also just like thinking about how we have lived, and are living through the biggest privacy crisis in the history of humanity. I think sometimes we don’t even realise that we’re in the midst of this surveillance state and we’ve done it so cleverly that it’s mostly in the hands of corporations. We’ve done this as a way to survey each other and ourselves. It’s a way that people make money, it’s how they interact with people, community, support groups. You have all of these things, a lot of validation and very tangible positive consequences of participating in this surveillance culture: what are you wearing? What are you using on your skin? Where did you eat last night? Where do you go to school? Who is your employer? All of these things, all of these details that people are putting online.
I think we need to depersonalise more, personally. Someone will post a group picture on Facebook and it will know that that’s your face in it. These algorithms just keep getting better and better and better until we have no sense of privacy or ownership anymore. Where we rent everything. It’s ridiculous to me to think about this world that we’re living in is making sure that people have no privacy, are observed 24/7 and it’s very expensive to even own things. It’s now wildly expensive to own anything - you can’t own music, all you do is stream. You can buy music but they push streaming, ten different services for TV, for music, there’s so much that we’re renting. Even software, remember when you could buy Microsoft Office, the whole thing on a CD and you owned it forever? Now you pay $300 a year. Every single year you’re paying for Photoshop, all of these things that you used to be able to own before but now corporations decided that their services are so valuable that they can just do this and no one owns anything and they make money from you for the rest of your life.
No one has privacy, all our data - we don’t get to keep anything.
So what thoughts do you have around us depersonalising ourselves more but also how do we get to the point where we’re creating an internet culture that allows us to protect each other? Do you think we could ever create some sort of protective internet?
I think it depends, maybe we need to redefine internet culture. Maybe we need to get rid of celebrity culture first. Everyone wants to be famous so we’ll always end up with some sort of hierarchy. It’s a difficult question to answer.
I think it’s possible for people with some tech know-how. It’s weird to think about and to answer. I think Facebook groups are the most relevant example for what I have in mind. People have these communities online where they have guidelines on how they care about each other. These spaces that say that this is and isn’t acceptable in our community, in our space and I think that’s the one thing that we can do today. Say that this is my group of people that I want to know, am interested in and saying okay you can come in, or not. Carving little spaces that are just for you and your little community and saying this is the space that is made for us and it’s safe here, we can share what we want. There are different features and apps for this, like the Close Friends list on Instagram or whatever. We can start by creating small communities.
I’m going towards a direction where I want as little internet as possible. I’m sort of like trying to head towards a life where I can be by myself and be self-sustaining. I’m very much trying to withdraw my participation from society, which is actually really expensive. So I have to think about that. I can’t withdraw from society without money so I have to participate to get money so I can withdraw. [laughs]
Even your withdrawal from society is made as expensive as possible so that not many people can access it.
I saw this GoFundMe on Twitter that I think is perfect. A group of Southerners who might be queer, they’re trying to buy land and are raising money to buy it because they say we need a space that’s ours, for ourselves. A lot of people don’t realise just how important this is. It’s what slavery and colonialism took from us, they robbed us of land so we don’t have a place to all our own anymore. It’s so complicated so we have no access, we have to rent everything, we have no privacy, can’t grow our own food, can’t build our own homes, can’t do anything so you’re forced to live this exhausting, exploitative life trying to get by. It’s all connected. I do think that my vision for the future is Black people owning more land and building communities on that land. Not using what society has decided is success.
That’s my dream.
This conversation between kyle malanda and Tshegofatso Senne has been condensed for purposes of this interview.