Internet Artist Molly Soda Talks Digital Graveyards, the Lost Art of Web Surfing, and Her First NYC Solo Show
Text by Wade Wallerstein
Last week, Molly Soda released a new video commission for Italian magazine StaiZitta entitled Hole in My Bucket, 2017. This isn’t abnormal: despite her young age, the 28 year-old artist is remarkably prolific and regularly creates new work for a slew of different sources. What was bizarre, though, is that for maybe the first time Soda shot herself outside in nature. This change of scenery was jarring—usually Soda depicts herself floating about cyberspace, an inhabitant of a virtual desktop, or, at the most concrete level, in her bedroom. To see her somewhere decidedly physical felt, ironically enough, surreal.
Soda has a different perception of reality than most people—or at least she’s just more honest about it. A self-declared resident of the Internet, cyberspace is where Soda calls home. When I interviewed Soda via Skype (where else, right?) I brought up the surreal feeling that Hole in My Bucket conveys. As it turns out, she felt the same way shooting it: “the real world to me is very much looking at my phone, sadly, or feeling anxiety from using the Internet,” she told me. “There’s something fantasy-like to be in a nature setting—it’s almost completely false to me in a lot of ways. Especially when you’re recording it and putting it online, you’re saying ‘hey look at me doing this thing outside away from computers but let me show it to you [online].’”
Everything that Soda does is mediated through the Internet. She is hyperconnected, and her work reflects the soaring heights of camaraderie that online connection can foster—as well as the crushing anxieties, which inevitably follow constant connection. As she puts it, “I can’t necessarily escape being connected.” This sounds extreme, and maybe it is, but it’s something that anyone with a cell phone experiences. “The distinctions have gotten blurry in terms of the way that we make use of our time. It can get really messy,” Soda explained. With devices constantly going off, it is becoming harder and harder to stay rooted in the present: “We’ve all messaged someone and then been like ‘why haven’t they responded?!’ We’re not considering what they could physically be doing at any time. I think in a lot of ways it’s a little sad, and to me, feels more surreal or less real than if those messages were not going off.”
This idea of compulsive messaging carries through Hole in My Bucket. In it, Soda addresses an unnamed subject: “To whom it may concern.” As the video progresses and the message to this recipient gets longer, the quality becomes more frantic and highly chaotic. The line of thought becomes increasingly hard to follow; Soda’s video simulates the manic thought process of reaching out to someone once loved or cared about, the impulse to share success, happiness, or good fortune. “You feel pathetic for wanting that [recognition] in a lot of ways,” Soda said. “I think a lot of the time we’re sort of looking at ourselves imagining that we’re someone else looking at us.”
Soda spends a lot of time imagining that she’s someone else looking at her. This is not because she is self-absorbed, but simply because she has a large and rather cult-like following. Her work is deeply personal and self-reflective, shared via the same social media that we, her viewers, use to share tidbits of our own lives. The difference is that Soda’s posts are part of her artistic practice. People, especially those who do not know her, react strongly to the intimacy of her online presence. Her viewers have a hard time separating the person from the artist, or the artist from the artwork. Then again, that’s essentially the point of Soda’s artworks: “I don't want people to think I’m tricking them, but I also think we have to think about what we see on social media a little bit more.”
Soda’s fans and critics play a prominent role in her work. “Is she real?” reads a random direct message that Soda has received, now printed on a funhouse mirror in her "I’m Just Happy to Be Here" show at 315 Gallery in Brooklyn. Soda’s first solo show in NYC, this is her most mature one yet. Pared-down from her typical maximalist style (see: From My Bedroom to Yours and Comfort Zone at Annka Kultys Gallery, London), Soda still manages to pack a wallop into deceivingly simple curation.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is greeted by a field of iPhone 4’s on the floor. Seemingly randomly placed, each one plays a different self-portrait video work—you have to crouch down on your knees to see these miniature-masterpieces. On one wall, the aforementioned mirror works—Bored, WYD?, 2017, and I Hate My Freckles, 2017—display unanswered direct messages (copied directly from Soda’s inbox) while reflecting a distorted image of the viewer back at them.
Perpendicular to these are two flat-screen monitors playing Soda’s larger video works. Touch to Play, 2017, features a screen recording of Soda’s desktop. In the background, Selena Gomez’s Good for You video plays in a Youtube window. Beneath it, another window shows Soda in her bedroom, dancing alluringly towards her webcam. Disembodied hands move across the screen, poking, prodding, flicking, and swiping at Soda as she mirrors Gomez’s dance moves. The effect is eerie—it’s like watching someone who thinks that they are alone doing karaoke in their bedroom.
Across from this work, That’s Me in the Corner, 2017, plays back one of Soda’s Instagram live streams. Sporting a cowboy hat, she moves about ethereally as her follower’s profuse and unceasing likes and comments appear on top of her.
The most important piece in the show, and the one in which the relationship between Soda and her followers is the strongest, is Just Be Yourself, 2017. A Lenovo laptop sits open and ready on a wooden plinth. Pre-loaded on the device are scores of Soda’s artworks, fully available for viewers to view, augment, share, or delete as they see fit. More intimate than her social media posts, her live streams, and her digital portfolio of work, which is openly available online, Just Be Yourself takes Soda’s message to the next level by giving her audience the ability to augment and insert themselves into her work in a previously unseen way. Instead of pushing back against the agency that strangers online feel that they have in her personal life, Soda opens the floodgates, allowing anyone and anything in.
With endless possibility for both creation, augmentation, and destruction, I felt slightly crippled by choice. In a moment of panic I simply opened the notes app and wrote that I loved the show. This moment of indecision is one that Soda has been trying to highlight in her more recent work: “There’s infinite space and there’s infinite room for people to do what they want...we really used to think about [the Internet] as this utopian world. People were really hopeful about it. It’s not like that [anymore].” She continued, “Who’s at the hands of the Internet but humans? And human problems and issues and the negative aspects of human life are going to be reflected online as well as offline. The negative aspects of our political climate, or capitalism, or all of the structures that were already in place when the Internet was created.” While this may seem to be a pessimistic view, my positive and somewhat encouraging response to the work might mean that not all is doom and gloom on the Net.
With one show about spaces that are populated by humans and digital social interactions under her belt, Soda has begun to move on to work with spaces on the Internet that are devoid of any activity. Part of the anxiety that Soda feels regarding digital space, a space that she used to feel most comfortable in, centers around how limited dashboard or timeline-based sites can be.
“People don’t surf the web anymore,” she said. “I’ve been doing freaky Google searches. You find all these digital graveyards of just like things...There used to be all these chatrooms where you could be a 2D avatar and they were different themes. And you could chat, but [when I logged on], no one was on them. They were just dead. Dead zones. It’s like you’re literally looking through abandoned buildings—but, you’re on the Internet. You’re seeing the bones of something that’s functional but no one is using it because everyone has migrated.”
With curated and capitalism-driven content taking over cyberspace, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for niche digital communities to stay afloat in the face of social media titans like Facebook and Instagram. Right now Soda is focused on tapping into those abandoned spaces by practicing the lost art of web surfing. This had led her on a deep dive through the darkest and most far-reaching corners of the Internet No longer just a web resident, Soda is quickly becoming a cyber-spelunker. Soda’s next works will examine these themes and involve some element of Virtual Reality, a new medium for her toolbox: “It’s basically gonna be a very freaky Internet Myspace glitter-graphic hell zone,” she explained. Until then, you can catch "I’m Just Happy to Be Here" on view at 315 Gallery until June 30.
Molly Soda is represented by Annka Kultys Gallery, London.
You can learn more about Molly by checking out her site, or following her on Instagram: @bloatedandalone4evr1993