Virtually Yours – A video project & an interview with Bebe Le and Giulia Gr
Arising when the only way to communicate with each other is virtual, through a creative flood in the midst of a pandemic lockdown, feminist photographers Bebe Le and Giulia Gr bring to us their first take on video: “Virtually Yours”. With the urge to break free from the male gaze, to gain terrain for healing and developing themselves, comes their need to point out entrenched misogyny and the violence it meant for so many women in the world, at every level in their lives: in their family, circle of friends, academia, and in their personal relationships. Bebe Le and Giulia Gr share with us their desire to be enablers, to reach out to people who have suffered from rooted misogyny and to invite us to join voices in order to fight back.
Why have you decided to make a video for Virtually Yours? Giulia Gr: The idea started as a photo series, but in order to capture it fluently, and to accomplish what we had in mind, we figured that the only way would have been to screen record our video calls. We then screen shot a series of photos out of it but after some time we realized the videos were so much more powerful. The fluidity of moving images fits perfectly in telling the story of our isolation and desperate need for connection. Bebe Le: We couldn’t see each other, we waited so long to finally be in the same city and take pictures. At that time the only way to do it was online, so we tried. I was trying to overcome a lot of my fears that when I am alone I can’t overcome. It was very therapeutic.
What possibilities did you encounter in this medium that you don’t experience in photography? G: What is different from photography is that it was a visual conversation, where the language was our bodies connecting, communicating and finally mirroring each other. B: With the video, you have all those moments in between that usually you don’t have in the pictures. Of course, I love taking pictures, but pictures are still. For myself sometimes it’s almost a lie because it’s so easy to be like boom there! at that moment! in that second! But in a video, you can’t escape it, it is like being in front of the eyes of people and that’s why it is so difficult to be in a video rather than in a picture if you are not comfortable being with yourself.
In general, the female figure is the core of your work. Could you tell us why that is? B: For me, it came in steps, I understand that I am not just Bea, I am not just me. I also deal with the fact that I am a woman and my body is the body of a woman. And men, at that time boys, expected me to be something that I didn’t think I was. I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that I couldn’t just walk freely. I couldn’t just be what I was. I had to always have a mirror in front of myself that was telling me you look like this, that’s your face, that’s your nose, that’s your legs, everything. I grew up in an environment of judgment from male figures, the male gaze that I didn’t know anything about. I was just a naive girl. I was putting their gaze on me. My eyes were looking at myself as if they were looking at me, trying to accomplish them until I was so so unsatisfied. I was feeling so bad that I told myself, stop it! just stop it! I understood that it doesn’t mean I am showing off to you, if I put myself in my pictures, it is more of a challenge to myself and also to their gaze. I can be erotic, I can be whatever I want, but they have to understand that the mistake is in their gaze, they are putting this on me because they cannot see further than that.
Something we all endure…constant male gaze upon us, especially women being trans, queer or cis. As a consequence, there is the split you were talking about, that involves seeing yourself from the outside, from the eyes of the male gaze that sexualizes and objectifies the female body. How do you confront this split by putting your body out there Gulia? G: It has been a journey to be honest. By the time I was discovering my body sexually, I started experimenting with self portraits and doing nudes. Putting myself out there, exploring, it felt so exciting and liberating. It has been a journey to be honest. By the time I was discovering my body sexually, I started experimenting with self portraits, especially nudes. Photography right away was a great tool of growth and self discovery. By putting myself out there and exploring I felt so liberated.
My family always supported me and encouraged me to take on an artistic path. But when I finally did I started encountering the first judgemental obstacles. The environment of my Art Uni – I studied in Italy – wasn’t at all the open minded setting I was dreaming of. Instead tons of bigotry, sexism and misogyny. The majority of my professors were cis-white-grown-up-males who would call female students names or vain or labeled their personal work as “someone who wants attention”. Attention? Of whom?! Of men?! Also assuming that I want a man at all, do you really reduce my art to that? When you are young you take these things personally and it can really crush you, push you to feel insecure. And that’s exactly what patriarchy aims to achieve. My personal relationships also took a toll on my artistic growth when I was starting. As someone working on the naked body it was really hard to be supported by my partner at the time (cis male). I had to hide my work as it was something shameful to his eyes. I knew he was so wrong but still that subtle gaze trying to silence me, slowly worked on me and made me doubt myself for so long. Now I see all these situations of the past and it’s clear to me that certain men I encountered in my life were scared of me and my potential. It was the male gaze all along. Now I can look back at it and be critical about it. It means I’m on a journey of liberation, I’m reclaiming what’s mine: my life, my body, my art, my being, my gaze.
I think your work exhibits a nude self-portrait not to please men but to claim yourselves as owners of your bodies and to be assertive concerning your body and sex positivity and autonomy. What’s your relation to it now? After having this journey and realizing how much the male gaze can be shameful towards women for exhibiting their bodies and how it can oppress and be an obstacle for the nude tradition. G: I am so angry. Angry about the constant gaze of judgement put upon women, everyday at all times of our lives. Angry for all the pain and shame we have to endure and eventually liberating ourselves from. I have my work, creating helps me to fight back, and I feel it’s my duty to be vocal, to have a radical approach in order to give a voice to our collective exasperation. We are tired. We had enough. We want to come forward and claim the space we are entitled to take. It’s an open conversation as well as a fight. We want and need to speak about these things louder! B: Virtually Yours is kind of a memento to remember that I have the right to do this, I have the freedom to be angry about this and to speak out loud about it, because when you speak to them– “oh yeah, of course, you women are always complaining, you are always angry”– and I can not deal with this anymore, it’s every single day in every aspect of our lives. G: Totally, in the end, is the male gaze again. B: Yea it’s always the male gaze and it’s everywhere. When we did the exhibition (exhibition in Loopwhole for Virtually Yours), the only two people that I had to argue with were two guys, who came to me just to say “yeah of course, you say all these things but in the end, you are just two sexy bodies… I like how you look.” And to me this is not ok, why do you think you have the right to tell me this? Why do you think I want to know I have a body that is sexy for you? G: Somehow we fitted the idea of what these guys think is sexy so they felt the need to invalidate us. Why do men feel so entitled to do so? That’s the thing that is mindblowing, is invalidation of everything, “is not ok” according to who? What we do is not for you! Our art is not for straight men and their opinion is not asked. B: In general straight men think that they have to tell us what they think about us, about our bodies, how we look, how we act, what we say. It might happen that you lose the point of what you’re doing, because to them you are just showing your body. But in this way, it is always them deciding. I thought, “ok I am gonna finally go to the arts academy, things will be different, I will express myself”. The sad thing was realizing that I couldn’t do it even there because they were not just art professors, they were still men! And they were judging me because of me being a woman showing my body, not because of my images. They took the freedom to judge me because I was showing my body, because I was writing about my feelings, because of me being whatever I wanted to do and be.
Throughout the video, we can see that both of you take up the space in the manner you choose, you claim independence and you choose your way of being a portrait. It’s a performance of reclaiming, constantly deciding for yourself, claiming your body. So what does it mean for you to occupy this space in such a way, what is the space you are creating in VY? G: It feels like the beginning of a journey. A fresh empowering path that I’ve been waiting to take for so long. It’s a moment of freedom and liberation and now I feel like occupying this space- in Virtually Yours and my art in general – is where I am supposed to be and it’s not an arrival, it’s a starting point. I am finally starting my journey, without all this baggage that I had to cut off my back in the past ten years.
Looking into a mirror can induce a feeling of control, confidence, and empowerment, and ultimately is like the first artifice of liberation from the male gaze. I think of it as the mirror being the first self-portrait, the first awareness of sight. Self-portraits are a major part of your work, but here you are doing a video call, VY is like a self-portrait-motion-image, you are self-portraying yourself and sharing it with each other. What draws you to self-portraits? G: I can’t live without making a record of what I feel. I have to make a record of my life, otherwise my anxiety and my mental health in general declines dramatically. Self portraits are completely therapeutic for me. Creating something is the reflection of who we are inside at certain times, a beautiful and powerful coping mechanism. B: After a while, I understood that when I take pictures I allow myself to be O.K., because during everyday life I feel overwhelmed, I am too anxious, and I have to say VY was also like a moment in which I felt O.K. in a place, even though I was in an apartment where I was not feeling O.K., I was able to create this tiny little safe space.
It’s definitely empowering and I think if you are in control it is equally positive and productive even if it’s kind of illusory. There is a feeling of longing throughout VY, there is a sensation of loneliness somehow, what was the feeling that motivated this performance? G: Ahm so, for me it was this urge to vomit completely all this feeling of being trapped inside our homes, it was the beginning of lockdown so it was not as desperate as it was in the later months. I was very confused about this situation, but I was also kind of excited about the time I had at my disposal to actually finally have a conversation with myself and what I wanted to do. I think it was fear and confusion and then this urge, it was like an urge to make something.
I couldn’t help wondering what VY meant, are you claiming yourselves so to speak? “I am virtually yours” or “I am virtually mine”? Why the name? G: It’s tricky because we let you think it’s you but probably it’s just between us. It comes from this way of saying goodbye in an email, or even a love letter: truly yours, lovely yours, I am yours. Now in a pandemic, everything it’s going to be virtual, but in the moment we were calling each other, we really belonged to one another. B: You think that I am yours just because you are seeing me virtually on a screen but in the end, what I am doing is just reclaiming myself for myself, so I am mine, she is hers but we belong together.
Are you planning on exhibiting or performing this piece in the future? Both: Yes. G: We want to share it with the world because it’s our statement to occupy space as women. B: I also think that in the end, we are giving what we want to receive, like going back in time if Francesca Woodman didn’t do what she did, probably we would have never or maybe later in life thought, I am allowed to do this.
G: Exactly, the work of so many female/identifying artists paved the path for us to be able to express ourselves. The process of relating to someone is very important. Their example allowed me to become who I am today, the female artists I looked upon, I owe them everything. This is what we were trying to do with VY. Maybe if we put ourselves out there someone else will recognize themselves in our images.
B: And I also think that after this whole history of not giving women artists space, right now people tell me, “Yeah but you women do all the same things, you are all naked you are all doing this.” YES, we have to! I don’t care if someone does similar pictures to the ones I do, I am happy about it, we have to be a million! a thousand! What I always say to people (men) criticizing me about this, trying to make my work less validating, less unique, less important, is: “why don’t you stop and ask yourself, maybe there is a reason why we are all doing this, ask yourself why, maybe you are part of the problem.” If every woman is doing this, maybe there is a problem.
Thinking about the future, what is the history you want to write by filling it with such powerful images? B: I want to arrive at a moment in which I am ok with myself, I am not judging myself anymore and I will not live fully until I drop this anxiety. On the other hand, I need to fight this battle, we need to be free. I can say for sure “omg this world is shit and everything is going down, we are bad people, the environment, this and that,” but at the same time I have so much hope for new generations. The more we do this– like putting ourselves in our pictures– the more we expose ourselves, the more the next generations will be free from all this judgment. So this is why I do it, I want those people who don’t seem to understand, to know that they are wrong. You can arrive at this point without positioning yourself as a political person that studies politics, that studies the history of feminism, but you can still acknowledge what’s wrong. I didn’t know anything about feminism but I realized that something was wrong. Each one of us can realize that things are not okay and we have to change them for us and for the others.
I think it is very powerful because you are also enabling a lot of people through your work so I wanted to say thank you for this interview! VY is very touching and I think it transcends more than the lockdown, it also speaks to many of us queer and feminist people. G: When you create something and even just one person comes to you and says, “I relate to this” it means the world to me. It means you touched someone and this is so precious. We did VY initially for an urge within ourselves but if it can speak at any level to people, to whoever identifies as a woman, then, that’s a beautiful achievement.