sleepovers and summer camp: an interview with alexandra marzella
Girls Only founder Antonia Marsh catches up with New York artist and poster-girl for sex-positive feminism Alexandra Marzella.
Alexandra Marzella and I met in 2014 at the opening of an all-female show where we both had work on view. Feminism was in the midst of re-entering public discourse with full force, and regardless of whatever problems and provocations this exhibition implied, Ally and I both submitted work. Hers, a video piece and mine, a toilet bowl I lugged across the city and scrawled GIRLS ONLY onto — both as a nod to the residency program of the same name I had just founded, and as some sort of tenuous Duchampian comment on the criteria of the exhibition it sat in. While my Home Depot readymade was my first foray into art-making, by this time Ally was already notorious online for her suggestive dance videos and selfies, the more explicit of which, Instagram had a severe habit for policing and deleting, vigorously calling into question its censorship criteria.
Regardless of the incendiary nature of this environment, social media became the ideal arena within which Ally could generate an audience to perform to. Arguably a poster-girl for a much-discussed new wave of feminism, Ally's practice raises important questions about accepted notions of beauty, the body, narcissism, sexual openness, and the performativity of all the above online. Aware of her work, I was wary to meet her in person — half intimidated, half jealous. Shocked and enthralled by her immediate sensitivity, deadpan humor, and generally extremely chill attitude to life, I was hooked. In the two years since then, she has taught me more than she probably realizes about sexuality, shame, addiction, ego, polygamy, and psychological introspection.
One sticky NYC night, I dragged myself onto the J-train and went over to Ally's beautiful loft space in the middle of nowhere for our latest excuse to do an interview: a sleepover.
Antonia: Last time I was here, why was I here?
Alexandra: I don't remember, for a shoot?
Oh I know, we photographed your tits for those T shirts we made.
That was a long time ago.
I suppose we should talk about art. Do you ever see art that's mind-blowing and makes you rethink your whole practice?
Of course, all the time. Everything. Instagram. It depends on how you look at it. Sometimes, it will be really big productions, that blatantly cost a ton of money or manpower, but other times it could be something so simple where someone is just epically talented. But at the same time I feel that these things are learned — it's fairly rare for someone to be super naturally talented where they never had to be taught anything. Everyone has to be looking at other things, for the most part. To be an artist I don't think necessarily has to come from inside. There's pros and cons to both practices, like for instance pop art is extremely derivative, but there's something really beautiful about the obsession of an artist. But you hate art, I'm an artist…
I don't hate art… I'm just struggling with it at the moment to be honest.
I'm just kidding, I know exactly how you feel though, and I have to say there's a lot of banality in being an artist in the summer, especially being in New York City where the daily grind of working and hustling can be so exhausting…
Catching each others yawns, we digress into chatting about Ally's mother's buzzcut in college, attachment issues, and whether or not you can eat tortillas rolled up straight up. A few weeks later, me in London and Ally on a shoot, I FaceTime her to hear how her time at the Buoy postfeminist art residency and retreat in upstate New York went.
Tell me about your week away, was it good to get out of NYC?
It was life-changing and amazing and perfect and really necessary, and hard at times. I took more of a facilitating role this year, India, Claire and I went as a trio. It's a DIY artist-run residency so of course there were teething problems. Problem solving became a part of our practice, as did appreciation, understanding, and consideration.
I can imagine it as quite a humbling experience…
I had some issues with a lack of clarity surrounding my role, but the whole week gave me a really good lesson in ego. I battled with my ego stopping me getting the most out of the project by doing my best for the other women involved, I had to be put in my place a bit. As an artist it feels really important now that there's a complete loss of ego.
Do you think there could be anything in the women-only environment that had some role in this?
The energy was very feminine, maternal, and loving. We had so many discussions while we were there. We would go to the woods, with a bunch of women, who were there for generally the same reasons — to make work with intention and focus, to quiet the brain and the mind in a natural, loving environment, with a lot of communication and a lot of giving and less taking, which is so rare… I feel like existence in New York is just take take take.
I've been trying to get out of London as much as possible too this summer. What is your perception of the metropolis as a site for working versus a more rural environment?
Your armor in the city is so egotistical. Living in your head, obsessed by what job you're getting, whereas as soon as you leave, you learn from each other, about each other, and with each other. There's so much ego in a city and leaving made me really aware of that and reminded me that that's not my ultimate goal as an artist. It's hard to do that when you're trying to be somebody interesting, do something interesting, pay your bills. In NYC you're doing stuff for everyone else whereas in nature you're doing it just for you.
Well it sounds like you were all doing it for each other. That's a pretty idealistic view of art-making. How is it sustainable?
I think by constantly recharging and giving away, it comes back to you — busying yourself by giving to other people means you don't have to keep taking. It's like karma or reincarnation, the passing of energy. You work your whole life trying to be a confident person and you need to start spreading that as much as possible. teaching others and learning from them. Learning where people lack and where they need to be picked up and supported.
At this point, my internet dies so Ally and I check in again a week or so later, when she's gone to LA and I'm sat at home on the sofa.
I'm excited that the span of this conversation has extended so far afield. What are you doing in LA?
Well considering you sent these questions 13 days ago and I'm just responding to them… I'm not in LA I'm back in NYC no but what I WAS doing was a Hugo Boss campaign shot by Harley Weir. It was chill, but more hot hot hot because we shot in the desert.
Your work is often innately sexual and sexually driven. And from knowing you so is your life. To what extent is your work intertwined with your life and love and sex and everything? I guess I'm asking whether your persona online is equal to your persona in real life… I would say a big yes from my perspective, just because you are an inherently sexual person, but you're also goofy like your selfies, and silly, and forthright, and direct… and like weird food…
I like weird food, I like taking pictures of weird food, I like taking weird pictures of food. I'd like to think that me online is the same as me in person. But I can't be as candid online as I'd like to be. So no — social media is really just an image, a reflection of some sort — it can't be the real thing. But it's real enough in it's own way.
You're one of the most honest people I've ever met — not to mention self-reflective and introspective — and I don't believe that you ever wouldn't be who you are online. Maybe the internet is just as much a part of reality now?
Yes exactly. Who's to say where it begins and ends? People make stuff up all the time, but part of me feels like if they're willing to make it up they are also adopting it as their own. I suppose that argument could go over really badly in this political climate though…
Sometimes I worry you aren't so honest with yourself though, but maybe this is just the human condition?
I think I am as honest with myself as I can be. I make excuses, that's for damn sure. But I try, what do you think I'm not honest about?
I don't think you're dishonest in any way. That's why I like you so much. I was just pushing. Honesty and openness… do you think these are vital characteristics of good work?
I think they're vital characteristics of good people.
What's the most irritating/boring/worst question you get asked in interviews?
This one. Or really petty shit that's not touching on my struggle or the other struggles that need to be discussed.
Alexandra will be performing alongside Zuri Marley, Jerome AB, Aarron Ricks, Richard Kennedy, Precious Okoyomon, Ser Serpas, Young Gun Lee, Gia Garison, Giovanna Olmos, India Menuez, Ysanne Spevak, Patric Dicaprio, Maria Jota, Daniela Czenstochowski, Lee Armoogam, Compile, Tristan Reginato, Olimpia Dior, Jasper Briggs and Claire Christerson at National Sawdust on August 22, tickets available here.
Text Antonia Marsh