Dec 20, 2015 3:55PM

Audrey Wollen On Art, Sadness & Internet Girl Culture

Sad girl theory.

Audrey Wollen is a 23-year-old artist/feminist theorist living in LA, who has a lot to say about what it means to be a girl in 2015. She's a big believer in Sad Girl Theory and, like a lot of young artists who are ~always online~, her practice is self-reflexive and intimate — a style that attracts its fair share of haters.

So if you're ever wondered what the hell Sad Girl Theory is, read on…

Rafael Martinez: Can you describe the Sad Girl Theory for us?
Audrey Wollen: Sad Girl Theory is a proposal — a gesture, a question — that's structured around the idea that girls' sadness and self destruction can be re-staged, re-read, re-categorised as an act of political resistance instead of an act of neurosis, narcissism, or neglect. This opens up an entirely new history of activism: what happens if we understand "revolt" as something that can be internal, personal, performed on our own bodies instead of anothers? Girls' agency has been so dispersed and diluted throughout history; it makes sense to me that maybe the way we fight back has stopped mimicking the masculinised tactics of past revolutions. We can redefine what violence, activism, and autonomy can mean for girls by looking at the actions that are already so pervasive in girl-culture (self-hate, sorrow, suffering, and even suicide) and asserting them as scenes of protest.

What is the role of art history in your conception of the sad girl?
I think because the actual history of girls has been so ignored and is so lacking, so full of holes, that sometimes the only access girls have to their lineage is through mediated representation — through paintings, sculpture, and myth (normally created by the male hand). Girlhood exists in tandem with imagehood (you can't really have one/be one without having/being the other), so that especially means that the history of images is integral to the history of girls. My first work with Sad Girl Theory was to explore how the women-in-bed, the archetypal art history nude, might be re-staged as an agent rather than an object. Or maybe we could dig into her object-hood and figure out what tools and strategies for liberation it offers us. The girl in the painting has always been read by feminists as sad, objectified, passive, and yet, we also all internalise her as the paragon of beauty standards. I wanted to abandon both readings and start again with her, try to understand the technologies of power that had produced her and how she might turn and betray that power.

Has sadness has helped shaped who you are? Is it useful for your creative process?
I don't want to think of sadness as "useful" because that kind of places it in a capitalist context, like, something is only important if we can get use out of it, produce something from it. I can't remember a time before sadness, just as I can't remember a time before girlhood. They are both affective experiences within a socially constructed language that was never innate but was taught to me. I don't know who I'd be without either of them.

Do you feel that taking a selfie is a barometer of our time?
In the sense that it predicts the oncoming weather? I hope so. I hope the tomorrow's weather is young girls collectively staring at their own image, erasing it, and then taking it again, erasing it, and then taking it again, until they get it right, until things are the way we want them to be.

What does social media mean for you? What do you think it says about the time we live in?
I like to think of social media like a landscape, with little territories that pop up, sprawling cities, and little one-to-one meetings, with easy communication between all of them. It kind of collapses what we think of as macro and micro, global and local. It's not utopian and it's not dystopian, it's just another landscape of human interaction. And it's all owned by corporations, just like our actual landscape. On Instagram, though, there are these territories of girls and other marginalised bodies expressing themselves and making friends that would be probably be seen as radical leftist communes if they existed IRL. Just because they're happening digitally and not occupying a more obviously material space doesn't mean it isn't happening.

Is social media a platform for sad girls around the world to get in touch with you? How would you describe this process?
Definitely. I have access to so many girls in a totally unprecedented way, and they, in turn, have access to so much material and can really take charge over their educations and their opinions. We are a generation of autodidacts, we don't have to rely on the academy or the art world to generate spaces for discourse. I love hearing from other sad girls, it's one of the few things on this planet that makes me feel like I am not alone.

You talked to me about going to an all girls school, how did that change your perception of the world and boys?
Girls' school was a bizarre, alienating, and very emotionally raw experience — but I think high school is generally. Mostly it meant that I didn't really encounter boys in a learning environment until I left for college. I only saw boys at parties, because I grew up as the only daughter of a single mom, so I kind of thought boys only happened at parties, where they mostly acted like idiots. When I went to college I was totally shocked to discover that boys, like, actually read books and understood them. I remember some boy made a really intuitive point about Middlemarch in my English class and I literally gasped with surprise. I'm still kind of surprised when straight white bros have something smart to say.

In one of your recent Instagram photos you talked about how cosmetics dissolve your construction of exterior self — what perspective do you have on the cosmetic industry and how it's affecting girls?
I think the cosmetic industry is full of the same problems any industry is: it relies on the dehumanisation of masses for profit that only benefits a tiny population. But make-up itself, if we can separate the object from its advertising and production? As an object and an experience, it's integral to my feminist practice. I put on my face every day. Beauty can be a space of real resistance; it allows a mutability of the self, it destabilises the idea of some innate, fixed identity stuck in an innate, fixed body, because it presents an option for other bodies, other modes of being, that you can perform and then discard. It emphasises the fluidity that exists within all of our gestures of self. I don't think we should take it lightly at all. I think make-up, fashion, beauty, and other traditionally feminine and queer realms will be integral to the struggle for our liberation.

If you could do a book club with five characters in history from the past and the present, who would that be and why?
Angela Davis, Angela Chase, Anne Carson, Isabel Archer, and Athena, goddess of wisdom and war.

How do you relate to Asuka Langley Soryu?
She's a loud, vivacious, emotionally damaged girl-robot with control issues who wants to save the world, and so am I.

What plans do you have for 2016?
I have two things on my 2016 to-do list: WRITE A BOOK and DON'T KILL YOURSELF.

Interview and Photography: Rafael Martinez
In-line photos: @audreywollen