Shawné Michaelain Holloway

“What turns you on?”: Shawné Michaelain Holloway talks power + submission in Sub Not Slave at Helsinki’s Sorbus

24 April 2017

“I find it really uncomfortable to bring SM aesthetics into the art world sometimes for fear of having it be mistaken as pure aesthetics,” says Shawné Michaelain Holloway in an email chat about her current solo exhibition Sub Not Slave at Helsinki’s Sorbus, which opened April 20 and is running to May 7. Holloway’s practice is embedded in the relationship between technology and sexuality, and is not severed from her personal and ongoing exploration within the community itself. 

Courtesy Shawné Michaelain Holloway

The multimedia installation re-stages a sex club and confronts power dynamics and taboo head on, reinforcing submission, as described in the press release, “as an active gesture that is offered in exchange for something rather than something that is owed.” The Chicago-based internet artist uses sound, video, installation and performance as a tool to dissect and re-imagine our definition of sexuality and power, and the fluidity between “What turns you on?” and “What do you think is dirty?”

With recent work engaged in looking ‘up,’ Holloway’s recent exhibition asks us to look down. In a conversation about this choreography of viewership, the artist talks to us about her position and attitude towards a number of dynamics, as well as boundaries, morality of position and the violence of purity.

** Tell us a little bit about your interest in looking ’down.’

Shawné Michaelain Holloway: I’m very interested in looking. Period. For Daughter of the Cage, a solo show I opened in February in Boyfriends Chicago, I explored looking up. Everything was big and hung too high. I wanted to make the space feel cold and alienating. When I design exhibitions, I try to manufacture a certain level of intimacy so I can show the viewer how to experience a specific power dynamic, instead of tell them about it. Through being around architecture in Europe, I know that looking up at large structures heightens people’s awareness of their bodies in relationship to the constructed object and their fellow man. That there is the basis of any political structure and that’s where the investigation into power begins.

For Sub Not Slave, I organized the opposite. I wanted the viewer to feel their judgement was the highest ring of power in order to show that these dynamics are actually a spectrum that can be fluid. By putting myself in a toilet I’m suggesting, ‘you may be better than me. I’m outing myself right now as a lowdown dirty piss slut and I chose to be this way, so what or where are you and how are you feeling about that place?’ I placed them in the dominant moral position, but enticed them to do what I wanted. I topped from the bottom. But really, it is all a mirror. When you look down at me, you look down at yourself. I’m producing the image of a taboo so,’let me help you explore the origins of that taboo by assuming it completely.’ You’ll find exactly where your intuitive boundaries are and by extension where you feel you fit in the social structure.

Shawné Michaelain Holloway, from Text (s) to Screen’ series. Courtesy the artist.

You really have to put your face in the toilet to see the video and read what’s happening on the screen, so it’s a little daunting and a little gross. I had everyone line up single-file in the gallery to experience it (just like you would in a real toilet), so they could feel that weird rush of waiting and then that confrontation. My request for viewers to look down is nearly the same request as if I were to ask them to look me in the eyes.

** Do you ever take your installations to sex clubs?

SMH: Yes, both online and IRL. I’d like to continue to engage with these spaces more though. I have a four-channel video piece called ‘a:active, a:hover { or position: unavoidable;’ that I’m showing in New York City, as a part of the exhibition Sexual Fragments Absent curated by Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi that will be at Paddles, a kink club in Manhattan. While this is still a fine arts event, the invitation has extended to the kink community-at-large.

I find it really uncomfortable to bring SM aesthetics into the art world sometimes for fear of having it be mistaken as pure aesthetics. It’s not. I am engaging with these practices personally and undergoing the transformations and explorations alongside the rest of the community as it evolves. While I’m not concerned about authenticity, really, what I am very concerned about showing is respect to myself and others who dedicate their lives to this by fully embodying the history and practices. If I say I believe in this language as much as I do, I need to give back for its willingness to show itself and become available to me.

Shawné Michaelain Holloway, from Text (s) to Screen’ series. Courtesy the artist.

** Do you think virtue and purity are violent?

SMH: They can be, yes. Virtue is something I understand as hard won, something one must fight for and define for oneself. This can be won through slaughter, if necessary. Purity, on the other hand, is very violent to me. The title of purity is often given to the impure. It is also forced upon the innocent but the innocent are not always pure, or yet deserving of that kind of damnation. Purity can also be a damnation.

** I noticed some of your videos move in and out of silence in a really jarring way.

SMH: My interest in silence came from working with silent film in my primary research. Jean Genet’s film Un Chant D’Amour (1950) is the sole inspiration for my unreleased series Extreme Submission. I continued to work with silent film in Daughter of the Cage but I was feeling that my focus on Genet didn’t honor my identity in ways that felt were affirming. I restarted my cinematic studies with Oscar Micheaux’s silent films Within Our Gates and Body and Soul. All of my newest work is silent, too. Different types of silence help provide space for other cognitive processes like relating and processing.

** The press release describes the interrogation booth as a way to confront the viewers with the question  “What turns you on?” and “What do you think is dirty,” is choreography a form of control?

SMH: Choreography is certainly a form of control. Especially for an artist, who may not always be present, the ability to move an audience’s gaze in one direction or another feels important to me. I’m all about intentionality. Technology provides me a cool space to foster that. However, I don’t want to make interactive art for physical bodies. I want to make interactive art for subjectivities. I guess that’s what conceptual art is but coming from internet art, I’m not sure that word carries the same amount of meaning as it does in relationship to to other mediums.

** Do you think power is a constant tension of back and forth or something that can reach an equilibrium?

Shawné Michaelain Holloway, from Text (s) to Screen’ series. Courtesy the artist.

SMH: Power is definitely a constant tension of back and forth but that tension doesn’t have to be so heavy as to push one into subjugation and break both parties in the process. That’s why I talk about it as a fluid gradient instead of a binary. #goals.**

Shawné Michaelain Holloway’s Sub Not Slave solo exhibition is on at Helsinki’s Sorbus, running April 20 to May 7, 2017.

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Hot New World Viewz (2016) documentation

17 February 2016

Hot New World Viewz is a show by Jen Chans (Jennifer Chan), Pappa Modig (Kimmo Modig), Goran Jacotey (Georges Jacotey) and Svea Holloway (Shawné Michaelain Holloway). Its work has been spread lightly. From the almost fictional press release (see between the images) in the run up to the exhibition at Dresden’s S T O R E gallery –where the reader was invited to imagine the four artists travelling through space, separately but dreaming and writing together –to the dedicated website made with, or for, or about, or in parallel to the show. Its work works like this.

Modig sends us several links. The top one is the website, so it makes sense to click there first. There are some flames burning in front of a black background and at first encounter it looks like one of those domesticated Tumblr holding pages, which is there to warmly tell you with a flame that you are in the wrong place. Over the top is the phrase: “Live Your Life Creatively, One Step At A Time” and above that is a time-out message counting down from 8:00 minutes.

Scrolling through, there are four pictures that act kind of like image-emblems of places. One from the South, one from the North, one from the East, one from the West. All images included on the page feel like they are trying to say something with the least amount of speaking possible. Inclusion is a gesture in itself and the lightness of work capable by an image feels like a very present thing that is being asked. Text is interspersed throughout in separate light grey paragraphs and much of it deals with the immaterial “growing stormcloud of unwritten social knowledge”. One reads: This is what we know: if someone wants to work with you, they’ll be active. You can smell forced socializing from miles away.

Then there is a red button, which may well have remained inconspicuous on the red background had it not been for Modig’s sweet note to click on the “Proof of Labour” link. A beautiful moment just before the button, which ties together these two parallel parts of Hot New Worldz, is a screen shot of photoshop in which a photo of Chan looking up at something is layered under the words “save for web?”


The button leads to another page tabbed ‘documentation‘ and it glows in red. Or, to be more exact: the two screens, the four beer bottles lined up by the artists with their names typed on their labels, the skinny shelves each topped by a fake candle fallen down behind an unidentifiable object, and the text printed large on the wall are all photographed in S T O R E’s gallery space that is lit with red light.

Also in this part of Hot New World Viewz are a couple of gifs. One is of a looping embrace between two people in the middle of the gallery space, both holding phones as they hug. The other is of a person holding and floating some paper around while reading in the space. The gif makes the reader do a short dance. Sometimes the videos and photos taken around a “work” are tender, full of expression and more meaningful –can you catch art like this instead?


The 8:00 minutes have run out on the other tab and a LinkedIn favicon appears. I click a step back and notice one more sentence: “Sometimes you drink wine on your credit card and ask yourself if art or expression is meaningful anymore…” There is so much here. So much is made public –even the pondering of what it is to make public –and yet it is not heavy with this. The documentation tab, which I soon understand an affection towards because it won’t abandon me into LinkedIn, and is nice and permanent, has at the bottom of the page a scrolling white text that reads: “Forced to Create, Compelled to Coerce…” I keep forgetting the rest and have to look back and write it down. There is room in Hot New World Viewz to keep coming back and to understand the subtle touches between where things are and how things fix, burden or release imagination. There is room to see the red hue and the softness of the gifs. There is room to understand things incorrectly, and for you not to take words as instructional, nor weighty, which feels like the right kind of aftermath to artwork. **

Exhibition photos, top right.

Hot New World Viewz was on at Dresden’s S T O R E, running January 7 to January 23, 2016.

Header image: Hot New World Viewz (2016). Install shot. Courtesy S T O R E + the artists.

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