June 22, 2020 • Faith Holland on dick pics and collective mourning
In Faith Holland’s work, one is always attuned to the erotics of technology and virtual space: the sensation of stroking a trackpad, tapping a keyboard, or cradling a cell phone are revealed as genuinely intimate acts. Her exhibition “Soft/Hard,” now online and installed in the physical space of Los Angeles’s TRANSFER Gallery, has two parts: “The Most Beautiful Dicks Pics of All Time,” a series of GIFs hosted on Pornhub.com, and “Soft Computing,” a collection of plush sculptures featured in collaborative performances and a vanitas livestream. Here, Holland—who also recently cocurated an ongoing virtual show of GIFs titled “Well Now WTF”—discusses how her new work became, in part, a vehicle for collective mourning as it adapted to online viewing.
FOR SUCH A LONG TIME, I’ve been thinking about how technology relates to the body and how desiring something soft seems like a natural outgrowth of that. Mostly everything we put on our bodies is soft. The things that we sleep with are soft, whether blankets or cats or stuffed animals or other humans. All these things are soft. But technology is hard. It’s not just materially hard, it’s hard in other ways: It spies on you, it transmits your data, it reports to the military and the police. I wanted to re-envision technology in a soft way.
In March, as everyone scrambled to put exhibitions online, I thought a lot about what can be done that makes sense on the internet. What does it really mean to put a work online? I wanted to create an experience that somebody would want to have on the internet, something that isn’t just a row of JPEGs. I really wanted to do a show that responded to these new conditions. And I realized that both “The Most Beautiful Dick Pics of All Time” and “Soft Computing” reimagined hard things in soft ways—tried to make them powerless and lovable and, at times, abject. The sculptures in “Soft Computing” are plushies that represent different technologies: a computer, a keyboard, a mouse, wires, and a cellphone. These soft sculptures are meant to be touched, but touching means something different now, so that’s not going to happen for years.
The dicks were easy because GIFs are inherently online work. Dick pics are typically portrayed as invasive, unwanted images. My idea was to create images that could be desirable in more ambiguous or unexpected ways. So in these GIFS some of the dicks are flaccid, sometimes they’re almost obscured by flowers and bows and stars—soft imagery. It’s important to note that they’re not male dicks necessarily, just dicks. I originally shot a single model for this body of work, but then added some found imagery.
Holland, Blooming, 2017, animated GIF.
The GIFs are hosted on Pornhub, which makes sense—they’re dicks and they’re on a porn website, but they also act as a break from the site’s usual content. The Pornhub album is also kind of a joke about all these new “online viewing rooms” that are just websites with JPEGs. I first came to the GIF as a format because I was thinking about the evolution of the internet alongside or because of pornography. Pornhub actually integrates GIFs very robustly on their site—Tumblr used to be the main venue for erotic GIFS, but now that Tumblr is censored, all that content goes on Pornhub. Of all the different positions GIFs have occupied online, pornography has proven one of the most enduring.
The challenge with the plushies was how to convey, without actually touching them, that the work is all about touching. I distributed some of them to artists like Olia Lialina, Molly Soda, shawné michaelain holloway, Olivia McKayla Ross, and Laura Hyunjhee Kim. They’ll be performing with the plushies and those videos will be released on YouTube as the “Vicarious Touching” series over the course of the exhibition.
I sat with the soft sculptures and tried to reimagine what they could be. And while I was thinking about it, a lot of people died. My grandmother died. And under these circumstances, mourning has totally changed. You’re immersed in mourning because you know that so many people are dying. But at the same time, it feels so remote. I went to a Zoom funeral for my father-in-law. I did get to go to my grandmother’s funeral, but I couldn’t see her body. It was all taken on faith.
Now the soft sculptures will be part of a vanitas featuring old tech detritus, fruit, and flowers. The vanitas is called “Detumescence”—a deflation, softening, loss of tension. Mostly you hear this word in reference to softening erections, but it’s also what happens to a body after death. It loses its tension and begins to sag and release. The vanitas will be live-streamed and everything will decay over the course of the exhibition. The technology decays too, it just has a different timeline than the fruit and the flowers. Those different timescales of decay are well-suited to the livestream, which allows you to see something over a long period of time. My hope is that in watching, we can explore new ways of mourning together.