An interview with Sophia Le Fraga

, 15 November 2016

“Online is where I live” admits New York-based poet and artist Sophia Le Fraga, speaking from her studio at Bard College where she is currently doing an MFA in photography. Recently taking part in group exhibition Cold Open Verse at New York’s The Knockdown Center in September, the poetry editor of Imperial Matters has a background studying linguistics. It’s evident in all of her work, which includes two books — I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET (2012) via Keep This Bag Away From Children and literallydead (2015) via Spork Press.

A poet since the second grade, Le Fraga credits the fact that Tumblr emerged around the same time she began to seriously make work as having influenced her interests, which, mirroring the microblogging and social network site, are diffuse and constantly evolving. Her output is emblematic of a generation bombarded by information coming from multiform sources. Le Fraga has been utilizing disparate media to send back her response. A study of gendered language takes the form of paintings and print on demand clothing. Found and assembled poems taken from subtitled film stills exist as sous_titre, compiled as jpegs and in print between 2014 and 2016, which seems to have influenced ‘not sorry’, a project made in collaboration with New York-based artist Rin Johnson. The project incorporates subtitled film stills but is presented nostalgically and more intimately through vintage Disney viewfinders.

Regardless of the medium, her almost urgent interest in language and communication conveys the sense of a unified aesthetic sensibility. While her poems are known for using the language and shorthand of the internet, titles like I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET speak to the intense anxiety borne of a life spent online.

As a side effect of ‘living online’ Le Fraga undertakes certain quasi-sociological endeavours, looking at the way people mourn the death of loved ones online with ‘literallydead’ and how the private and sincere is at risk of appearing trite when posts about mourning are mediated through ultimately public social media platforms like Facebook. Her interest in these spaces extends into her recent move towards object making.

Sophia Le Fraga, '$OPH NO FILTER', (2016). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + The Knockdown Center, New York
Sophia Le Fraga, ‘$OPH NO FILTER’, (2016). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + The Knockdown Center, New York

Le Fraga’s latest installation, ‘$OPH NO FILTER’ presents a bedroom with the backdrop of a green screen, using the aesthetics of the bed as a stage for performance both online and physically in a gallery context. The furniture contradicts itself, becoming a very intimate yet public space for interaction. Simple paintings decorate the area with quiet words and innocuous expressions like “I guess” or “I don’t know”. These phrases, Le Fraga describes as “filler words”, are at the conceptual crux of her latest creative venture. Illuminating how ingrained these constructions lie within us, while creating the possibility to disrupt our gendered conditioning.

Do you remember what you used to write poems about in second and third grade? Did you keep them? Also could you talk a little bit more about the blog you kept in high school?

Sophia Le Fraga: It was on Blogspot. My friend Stephanie and I kept it to make ourselves write and hold each other accountable for posting. So we’d rag on each other when the other hadn’t written in a while or something, it was a really good motivation to keep writing and self-publishing all the time. Of the stuff I wrote in the second and third grade, what I remember most clearly is a poem I wrote in a Tweety Bird notebook that rhymed ‘ice’ with ‘nice.’ It was about trees.

Is it archived?

SLF: The blog should still be online! I would need to find it…

Were you both writing poetry?

SLF: We were! I recall a lot of heartbreak in those years…

I gathered from looking at your website, that you often watch movies, you’d have to, I imagine, to gather all the stills you use for sous_titre. Why are you interested in film and using stills in that form?

SLF: You know, I don’t know much about film. The thing is, I’ve always had a really short attention span and fall asleep really easily in womb-like environments like movie theatres. That’s why when I want to pay attention to a film, I always put the closed-captioning on. Foreign language movies are great because the subtitles are on already. So that’s where my relationship to subtitles comes in, as well as my obsession with a still image capable of carrying within it all of this action through language. Like a meme. I wanted to see if a collage of subtitles from different films could make its own stand-alone poem. This was during a residency in Switzerland when I would spend my days surfing the web scrambling to figure out what to do. I owe a lot of these interests to the fact that I started making work around the same time Tumblr was born.

Is it very hard for you to sit through the films to get the screen shots?

SLF: For me, now having collected a bunch of subtitle stills and still compulsively screen grabbing, I feel like it’s kind of an easy template to work around and I think people like it because of what film stills they can and can’t place. I started ‘not sorry’ around the same time, which was this collaboration with my best friend, the artist Rin Johnson.

Sophia Le Fraga, 'Los Angeles is my fucking destiny', part of series sous_titre (2014-2016). Screenshot. Courtesy the artist.
Sophia Le Fraga, ‘Los Angeles is my fucking destiny’, part of series sous_titre (2014-2016). Screenshot. Courtesy the artist.

Yes I really like that,  I mean how I imagine it, I wish I could look at it. I remember those viewers from when I was a kid. What made you choose that form to show those particular images?

SLF: We made ‘not sorry’ thinking a lot about public and private spaces and viewing something in private while in public, which is where the idea of the viewfinders came in. Right now, I’m still invested in the idea of private and public, but I’ve been spending the past few months thinking about it in a different way.

While I was at MFA school over the summer studying photography, I started developing a bedroom TV set. I’ve been thinking a lot about different levels of mediation as they relate to selfie culture and trying to think around ways of making photography feel relevant to me in some way again. I plunged deep into a version of the TV set, the piece is called ‘$OPH NO FILTER’, where I went back into my undergraduate linguistics roots to think about femininity and language, how women talk, and how the most interesting thing about photography today to me is the endless abyss of self-absorption we engage in daily through social media.

I was thinking about your linguistics background and how that changes the way you think of language. Could you share some of your insights, regarding your new project?

SLF: Well, the part I did for grad school focused a lot on filler words and emptiness. That led me, a little tangentially to look into filler text like lorem ipsum and stuff like that. I’m a little all over the place now [laughs]. I’m also trying to work with an apparel print on demand company to make some of my text work into editioned clothing. They’re made to order, but I’m taking down names of anyone who wants one now!

I got into the filler language after reading Robin Lakoff’s 1972 paper ‘Language and a Woman’s Place’.

What is a woman’s place in language?

SLF: I think the way Lakoff thinks about it is more like, the personal identity of women as it is reflected through the way women speak, the way women ought to speak, and the ways in which women are spoken of and where that leaves women, something like that.

Do you have any thoughts about the way women speak today in contrast to the way they spoke in 1973, or the way women speak today in general? For example, do you see a difference between the way women speak online and the way men do?

SLF: That’s a really good question! I think that the frequency of filler words in women’s speech versus men’s is a big difference when people speak out loud. Online, I think emphatic language is something I see women do more than men. Rather, I mainly notice it online, probably because online is where I live. I think it’s called ’emphatic stress.’ In the examples Lakoff gives in the 70s, it’s like “Wow, that performance was brilliant” but now I think that language is more like “OMG that was LITERALLY SOOOOOO GOOD”, which I feel is somehow still gender-coded.

Sophia Le Fraga, 'literallydead' (2016). Book launch. Courtesy the artist.
Sophia Le Fraga, ‘literallydead’ (2015). Book launch. Courtesy the artist.

How do you think a guy would respond today to that example? [laughing]…Probably no response…

SLF: [laughs] I’m not sure, maybe something like ‘lol’ or ‘yeah it was good’, after you say something?

Why do you think women tend to have more emphatic stress?

SLF: I feel like maybe it’s to add legitimacy to their claims? Another thing I think is super interesting is how women check in with their listeners with a lot more frequency than men by asking things like, ‘do you know what I mean?’ or ‘right?’. They also check in with their speakers more, when they are on the listening end, by adding ‘mmhmm’, ‘yeah’ and signs of ‘I’m still listening’.

More thoughtfulness? It’s funny, I wanted to do that for you right now but I didn’t want to interrupt your train of thought.

SLF: I think of it like a gauge of attention? I think that’s what ‘um’ signals as well, like, ‘I’m thinking, don’t interrupt me, I still have something to say’.

How do you negotiate between deciding how a work or thought gets manifested into something like a poem or art work, is it intuitive?

SLF: I think it depends on my ‘inquiry’ [laughs]. Look at me talking like I go to school. Often my projects start as word games or as investigations about a certain form or framing of speech. ‘literallydead’ is like that. I thought, ‘how do people mourn in social media spaces? What is that language like?’ And then, in culling language or learning about it, things take more shape in my head as a performance, or poem, or video, or installation, or whatever.

What is that mourning like?

SLF: I’ve found that the kinds of things people say on Facebook when they lose a friend are ultra-personal but then when read en masse, they become super impersonal. I almost want to compare it to stock greeting card language, but don’t want to sound callous. ‘literallydead’ is in couplets, the lines are culled from profiles of friends of mine who passed.

That’s a very beautiful project. Could you share something super personal knowing it will become simultaneously super impersonal once this interview is published?

SLF: I think I’m the most insecure person I know.**

Sophia Le Fraga is a New York-based artist.