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Artist Cecilia Salama Subverts Heels And Grand Theft Auto

Artist Cecilia Salama attempts to capture what’s lying just beneath the surface—from the ways we dress up and romanticize aspects of our culture to the ways we cast digital shadows that can never really disappear. Through her work, the London-born, NYC-based creative subverts what is commonly considered cute or sexy—think butterfly clips, latex gloves, and high heels—to talk about issues such as power, internet privacy, and vulnerability. The result is a thoughtful and multi-faceted body of work that makes viewers consider the trust and autonomy they have in their own lives.

We sat down with the artist to talk about her latest solo show, in the name of love at AA|LA Gallery, and the ways in which she believes coerced consent and involuntary transparency replace love and safety in contemporary society.

Where did you grow up? What brought you to New York?

Growing up I bounced around between London, English suburbs, New York, and Virginia. I absolutely hate moving now and knew if I wanted to pursue art I should be in New York, so I went straight there after I graduated college.

Was there a specific moment growing up when you realized you wanted to be an artist?

I had a really interesting substitute teacher for a semester when I was fifteen. He ate dog food and would yell at me all the time but also showed me so many different types of materials– resin, wax, latex, lead, plaster, fabric—it really informed the language I use in my work to this day. He encouraged me to sign up for this art scholarship program at my school. It was only for 2 percent of my grade and involved an all-day test of timed drawings, sculptures, and a walk-through of my portfolio. I didn’t think I’d get it, but I did! And then after that I thought, “Maybe I could really do this.”

Are there any common themes you often address in your creative practice? Or mediums you typically work with?

My practice ruminates on romantic fantasy, obsession, consumerism and femininity and how these concepts have been affected by our constant use of the internet. Lately I’ve been using a lot of digitally printed velvet and digitally printed rug pieces, as well as fabricating clear acrylic pieces engraved with words.

What inspired this specific body of work?

I guess this project started for a number of different reasons—I stopped going through the full-body scanners at airports (I am prone to cervical cysts so am paranoid about my radiation exposure) and starting opting for pat-downs. The feeling was almost dissociative, to get touched so intimately by a stranger. I started looking forward to these encounters. I wanted to explore this feeling in my work. My friend recommended the book The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security by Rachel Hall which really helped me work through these thoughts on sexual privacy, performance, and voluntary transparency.

The idea of the show really came into fruition when my boyfriend went away for two and a half months on tour and I realized how crazy you can feel being away from the one you love, and how not hearing from them for a couple of hours can make you resort to extreme thoughts. A lack of trust can lead to wanting to know every thought every move when your partner is away. It made me think of the parallels of going through TSA, the full-body scans, the pat downs, putting our contraband liquids into clear plastic bags, the amount of transparency we ask of each traveler in order for the “greater good,” for people to feel “safe.” It made me think about the amount of transparency we ask from our partners, “in the name of love”.

You talk about romance in your work including the balance of power and euphoria as well as the ways the Internet has changed how we experience relationships.

Relationships can be seen as a constant navigation of boundaries and power between two people. In the best scenario, interpersonal interactions and the close proximity between them trigger euphoria. Yet, this balance of power is easily thrown off balance and taken to extremes. The inability to interpret or decipher thoughts and feelings can lead to a lack of trust and isolation, which in turn forces transparency in order for the other party to feel in control, or “safe.”

Holding safety in such a high position brings danger of dis-allowing the ability to not consent once you’ve agreed to the parameters. As we progress further online, our relationships can cast a digital shadow. In some ways, we are forever tied to our connections, without our consent. Severance of ties must be deliberate—there are always follow up questions to block users from our social networks. Every click leaves a trace that can be easily monitored through third parties, reducing relationships to a sum of recorded experiences.

Can you tell us more about the concepts of forced consent and involuntary transparency? How did you attempt to translate those ideas into works of art?

I wanted to focus on three “extremes” of power balances thrown off, in a series of aluminum prints: a hot pink “burner” phone, a pink latex glove, and a platform heel decorated with butterfly charms. CZ Phone features the namesake item, which is the most commonly smuggled model of cellphone into penitentiaries. The width of a finger, it is small enough to fit inside a body cavity. Pre-Check presents a pink latex glove that is employed by the TSA during breast cancer awareness month for a highly invasive pat down. Mostly done in public and surrounded by other travellers, a TSA pat down subjects the flyer through a routine of forced but naturalized touching. The “back of the hand” is a frequent gesture used to make the encounter feel less personal, sexual, and invasive. Pleaser, referring to the pink “pleaser” stripper shoe, alludes to the tiered system of consensual touching at stripclubs, which varies based on the amount a client pays. The pink pleaser stripper shoe casts a feminine overwash on a space that, while about female economy, is ultimated determined by male pleasure.

I also wanted to create a video piece that tied the whole show together—combining footage of me filmed getting a pat down at JFK airport, and gameplay footage from Grand Theft Auto. The video game screen-captures portray a prisoner unable to escape a jail cell and a first-person strip-club encounter. These examples of intimate touching highlight the lack of autonomy over one’s own body under dominant structures in contemporary society. Getting the footage at the airport was TERRIFYING. I was so scared my friend and I would get arrested!

In your work, you often employ a feminine “cute” aesthetic as a way to discuss dark and violent topics. How does that contrast underline the message of your work?

I’m kind of drawn to the way that we can mask feelings through something though something very innocuous. I deliberately chose these three objects bound by their feminine aesthetic, in some ways to reclaim them. The pink and pastel colors, butterfly crystals, floral print overlaid on Grand Theft Auto strip club scene—conceal their complicated position within male-dominated structures. In the sculptural works, I further contrasted the aggressive and delicate forms. I chose a weighted velvet for the soft, delicate floral print, and constrained it with baby blue cargo straps in an imposing vitrine that is repeatedly engraved with title of the show, in the name of love. For Kathryn consists of a chalky resin head and an acetate rod, surrounded on the floor by heart-shaped locks and keys. A staff that can be wielded as a symbol of violent power, its dominance is undermined by its pink color and submissive placement, presenting this dichotomy of innocence but also darkness.

What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing this body of work?

I hope that In the name of love shows the violence right beneath the surface of the things we dress up and romanticize in hopes of making ready consumability a valid replacement for transparency, and transparency a valid replacement for real trust and safety.

Images courtesy of AALA Gallery

Stay tuned to Milk for more art happenings.

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