this feminist curator is re-contextualizing sexts from men as art
Whitney Bell discusses her traveling show 'I Didn't Ask for This,' and why it's kickstarting a long-overdue conversation about digital harassment.
Thanks to former congressman Anthony Weiner's texting scandal and slip-ups like Marc Jacobs's full-frontal Instagram, naked selfies have become an unavoidable part of the public conversation. And now they've made their way onto the walls of a San Francisco art gallery.
The exhibition "I Didn't Ask for This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics" features over 150 unsolicited dick pics that will go on view at the SOMArts Gallery and Cultural Center on June 9. The show is curated by Whitney Bell, an artist, activist, and fashion designer who wanted "to demonstrate the pervasive and invading nature of this digital harassment," as she writes on the gallery's website. "The content is relatable to so many women, which proves the necessity of opening up this discussion," she tells me.
The San Francisco show is the second installation in a series that began last April in Los Angeles, when she displayed her first assortment of dick pics (sourced from her own phone and those of friends, acquaintances, and members of feminist organizations). Since then, the collection has grown and Bell is also including dick pic-inspired works by 30 artists, including London-based illustrator Laura Callaghan, who sheds light on the private lives of young feminists, and Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker Marina Fini, who puts goddess-esque women into otherworldly settings.
The exhibition is installed in a fully accurate recreation of the curator's home, with one obvious difference: there are over one hundred artfully framed dick pics hanging on the walls. The aim is to bring the viewer into women's worlds, since women all too often receive dick pics in the comfort of their homes.
The dick pic has come a long way since the early days of internet chatrooms and grainy flip-phone snaps. "Unfortunately, it seems the fad has not died," Bell says. "In many respects, I think it's only getting worse the more accessible we make ourselves on social media." She explains that most of her dick pics have come through direct message on Instagram. "The show was my response to the constant harassment that women receive online," she says. "I've been called a 'fat faced cum dumpster,' threatened with rape and assault more times than I can count, and received so many dick pics, it almost doesn't even phase me anymore."
The online comments and photos she's received have become commonplace. "I wanted to show this behavior isn't normal at all," she explains. "When you put hundreds of dicks and the aggressive comments that accompany them up on display like this, the absurdity of it almost becomes comical."
Other artworks in the show include drawings by Montreal-based tattoo artist Melodie Perrault, whose female devil character meanders through the modern-day dating world, while Louisiana-based artist Suzanna Scott is showing her "Coin Cunts" series of cloth vaginas made from inverted vintage coin purses. "They show all different sizes and colors of vulvas and really celebrate diversity," says Bell.
Not all the artists showing are women, either. Jimmy DiMarcellis, whose artist name is Porous Walker, is showing a sketchbook of comic drawings, which range from men having conversations with their penises to girls with hairy tongues. "He is showcasing the penis's evolution, beginning with a monkey and ending with a giant dick taking a selfie," Bell says. "He is oftentimes vulgar but always hilarious."
The show also features an installation from Bye Felipe, the open-submission Instagram account run by Alexandra Tweten, which shares online dating conversations in which rejected men turn hostile. The piece in the show, says Bell, features text conversations "spanning everything from dudes calling someone a 'fat whore' for simply turning down a date, to men texting 'rape is frat,'" she says. "It's important to give context, so it's not just a bunch of penises on a wall. Sending an unsolicited photo of your dick isn't the only way you can harass someone on the internet."
Not everyone is on board with Bell's mission. A few days after the Facebook event for the exhibition's opening went live, Bell says she was hit with a slew of comments and messages from a group of activists who wanted the show shut down. They cited California's revenge porn bill and are calling the show "revenge porn."
In order for the art to be considered revenge porn, Bell explains, the images must have been shared privately, be identifiable as someone specific, and be intended to embarrass the identified person in the photo.
"We had to get our lawyers involved and refute these claims to not only the gallery but also the city attorney and the San Francisco Arts Commission; it took about a week and a lot of billable hours for our lawyer but all parties involved confirmed what we already knew, that this is in no way revenge porn," she recalls. "Our overall mission is not to shame men or their penises, but rather to call attention to the pervasive and commonplace nature of sexual harassment."
Bell runs her own company selling feminist t-shirts, hats, and pins called Kidd Bell and will be selling her merchandise at the exhibition. After this show, she's planning to take the exhibition on tour across the country, to spark a larger conversation around this era — or art movement? — of the dick pic.
"The unsolicited dick pic is horrible, but what's worse is the fact that this is how little respect many men have for women," she says. "We think we have come so far but misogyny is just a prevalent as ever — whether that be a dick pic in your inbox, or a pussy grab from the president."
"I Didn't Ask for This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics" is on view at the SOMArts Gallery and Cultural Center in San Francisco from June 9.
Text Nadja Sayej
Images courtesy of Whitney Bell