Search View Archive
Critics Page

Vagina Dialogues
Ann Hirsch’s Free Speech Battles on the Web

We either debase our bodies with pornography and it’s disgusting or it’s like, ‘Oh, your vagina is a temple!’” Thus remarks Ann Hirsch, an artist who tackles the private and embarrassing activities we engage in on the internet in her video and performance work in order to propose more relaxed and open attitudes and dialogues about bodies and sexuality. “If that dichotomy didn’t exist anymore, it would be like, ‘Oh, it’s just a vagina. Who the fuck cares?’” she said in an interview with Vice.

It turns out the internet cares, despite its promise of being a neoliberal utopia where democratic, free speech values reign (Twitter’s general counsel once anointed Twitter “the free speech wing of the free speech party”). The original host site for Horny Lil Feminist, a thirty-part video piece which debuted in a New Museum online exhibition last year which prominently featured Hirsch’s vagina, pulled down the work, having changed its policies to bar adult content.

In Horny Lil Feminist, Hirsch employs humor to expose her vulnerabilities and challenge our comfort levels about nudity, sexuality, and (self-)representations of women. She mines and undermines tropes of female behavior on the web, including a screengrab video depicting the Facebook-stalking of a man (her husband), a shopping haul vlog piece where she goes over vaginal hygiene products, and a piece titled “Butterface,” in which she writhes and strips for the camera all while wearing a paper bag over her head.

Horny Lil Feminist was not the first work to get Hirsch into trouble with the internet’s culture police. Her 2013 work Twelve, an e-book app that recounted the online relationship of a twelve-year-old girl and a twenty-seven-year-old man that unfolds in AOL chat rooms (a narrative based on the artist’s own experience) was banned by iTunes.

While she was able to find another venue for Horny Lil Feminist, the platform-specific Twelve was effectively censored. (Hirsch and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery ultimately produced a limited edition of jailbroken iPads on which the work can still be viewed.) In grappling with issues of female identity, representation, and desire on the internet, Hirsch’s work confronts uncomfortable questions about women’s sexuality, and has challenged the internet’s limits on free speech. The democratic ethos trumpeted by internet companies in marketing (Facebook’s mission statement is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Google’s is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”) often obfuscates the fact that much of our activity is mediated (Facebook, Twitter) and provided (Verizon) by corporations that can and do often regulate what we say and do.

Though obscenity laws—the primary legal tool of censorship in the U.S.—are rarely enforced these days, contemporary practices of censorship are occurring in private—yet also global and highly public—spaces on the web where First Amendment rights often do not apply. The legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has commented that “lawyers at Facebook and Google have more power than a Supreme Court Justice.” Such a reality begs a reexamination of the rationale and philosophy behind free speech and censorship, and of existing obscenity laws and standards because the lawyers who are shaping content policies at internet companies rely on them for guidance.

Obscenity laws tend to adopt a balancing test, weighing the offensive nature of the speech against the public good interests that consider the literary, artistic, or scientific value of the speech in question. In the U.S., we apply the three-pronged Miller Test from a 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision, which looks at whether the work:

  1. appeals to the prurient interest
  2. is patently offensive
  3. lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value

Hirsch’s exchanges with Apple over Twelve illustrate a Miller-like balancing test. Recalling the language in the second prong, Apple justified its ban by declaring the work is “excessively objectionable or crude.” Hirsch’s response likewise mirrored the third prong, contending that Twelve was a work of art whose ban constituted censorship.

Apple rejected the appeal stating that it was not a “legitimate contention.” The company’s brusque dismissal of the notion that an app could be a work of art betrays not only crudely categorical and outdated attitudes about what art is, but also reveals the shortcomings of systematized review processes for content regulation that many internet companies utilize, which preclude nuanced considerations.

It is important to apply a more rigorous approach to speech regulation on the web, making space for the kinds of speech—of artistic and political value—Hirsch’s work makes. What Hirsch is doing is at the heart of what free speech is about, a humanist principle promoting discourse and progress. Her work is very much concerned with questioning our attitudes regarding identity, gender, and sexuality. She recognizes that adolescent sexuality is largely explored and shaped through the internet today. Twelve touched upon the predatory behavior, teen bullying, and sexual awakening that she and her generation experienced as the first generation to grow up with the internet.

Voices like Hirsch’s are particularly important in the still male-dominated cyberspace. Keenly aware of her place and responsibilities as a woman artist using the internet as a medium, Hirsch has characterized web 2.0 with its sharing and being real as the feminine side of the web. In her 2008 – 09 work Scandalishious, Hirsch created a persona named Caroline and posted YouTube videos of a young woman who by turns was geeky and sexually provocative, subverting stereotypes of the camgirl genre and attracting over two million views and a fanbase in the process.

Of the young teen girls who reached out to her to say they looked up to her and wanted to be like her, Hirsch has commented:

[I wanted] to write back to them, ‘Don’t be like me,’ but then I realized I was afraid of seeing these girls express their sexuality because of a fear of their exploitation. But at the same time, it’s something that they experience and want to express.”

Hirsch suggests that agency and sexual tolerance might take complicated forms; that shame and titillation can coexist and feed off one another.

Internet companies undoubtedly have a need to formulate and enforce community guidelines as hate speech can proliferate on public forums where one can remain anonymous. However, as we remap our social mores in the still young and continually evolving cyberspace, including redefining our notions of privacy, artists like Hirsch offer an essential voice that reflects and comments on the internet as a medium through which we increasingly live our lives and construct our sense of self.


Kibum Kim

KIBUM KIM is a lawyer and writer who is on the faculty of the Sotheby's Institute of Art. His writing has appeared in the the New Yorker, the New York Times, Salon, Foreign Policy, and Hyperallergic. He is a co-founder and director of the NEWD Art Show and runs the project space Skibum MacArthur in Los Angeles.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

All Issues