Photographer Arvida Byström on her erotic female gaze and her new book.

Arts & Celebrities

In 2017 Arvida Byström became one of the leading photographers of the ‘female gaze’ art movement. The phrase was a riff on the cultural critic Laura Mulvey’s original term the ‘male gaze’, a psychoanalytic description of the act of men depicting women in art as objects, coined in Mulvey’s 1973 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Along with friend and photographer Molly Soda, in 2017 Byström released the book Pics or it Didn’t Happen (Prestel Publishing), a collection of images from young female photographers who found their work had been banned from Instagram under the platform’s censorship regulations that stipulated no imagery of female nipples or nudity.

The book was one of the first to platform this newly termed ‘female gaze’ and featured 270 images deleted by Instagram for ‘violations of community standards’ by Rupi Kaur, Petra Collins, Maisie Cousins and more. An introduction essay by Chris Kraus called the book ‘an act of random curation at least twice removed.’ Nearly a decade later, Byström is about to launch another publication, In The Clouds with Arvida Byström, published by the independent magazine Nuda Paper. She describes the book as having the same offline ambition as Pics or It Didn’t Happen. It’s ‘all about things that disappear online’ she says, ‘and saving them by printing them in a book.’

Since the launch of her first book, Byström has explored various forms of online persona through her art, using platforms from Instagram to Sunroom in order to assess the limits of censorship on female image makers. Her favourite tool in this pursuit is technology, including AI and photo editing apps. Almost always the work features herself, and she publishes the images on social media. ‘What differentiates me from other people posting pictures of themselves on Instagram is that I make art,’ she says.

As her first offline project in years launches after eight years, we discuss her view on representing the digital nude and the female gaze, a term now often co-opted by brands as a marketing gimmick such as Zara. In an interview in 2020, Mulvey said that the female gaze was exclusionary and lacked the same power of the male gaze: ‘I definitely take the position that there is no binary opposite ‘female gaze’, she said – ‘The critique of the male gaze is that the object of the gaze was oppressed. For women, why not just exist in the gaze?’ Byström agrees: ‘The term female gaze in the same sentence as subversive ca feel like a bit of a stretch.’

It’s been nearly a decade since you first released Pics or it Didn’t Happen. What made you want to publish another book with Nuda Paper?

The whole idea with In The Clouds with Arvida Bystrom was me working out how I can hold up a mirror to society and understand ourselves better. It’s been so enjoyable working on a book. The premise I would say is similar to my first book, which was all about things that disappear online, and saving them by printing them in a book. I wanted this publication to be to be an art piece of its own.

In the book you look at fake imagery created by AI. You described the concept in your initial email to me as ‘an exploration of what’s left of intimacy and desire in the world wide web of AI’. Can you talk more about that?

A while ago I saw an advert for a commercial app called Undress. The idea was that it could undress any image. And I just thought – interesting, especially in relation to censorship. With the type of art I make, I thought, either people will make these of me, or I can just start making them myself. So I did it, posted on X and the image got a lot of likes. It just made me feel as though the universe wants me to explore this. Manipulating technology is really interesting to me, I’ve created mythical creatures in the past and for the series in this book I go back to that. A lot of the images challenge the idea of what images generate likes online for a woman, I look distorted in a lot of them. That’s not a judgment on women who post images of themselves online, but I work in art and if I just put out images of myself were I look traditionally great, I would not have a career as an artist.

You talk a lot about the economy of the internet. As you make your money through your art and self portraits on social sites like Instagram, is that a complicated relationship for you?

I’m aware, and have been for a long time, that it would be nicer if the money I’m essentially generating through my images when I share them on Instagram didn’t go to some strange middle man. That was part of the inspiration of the book, to take these images offline. AI has manipulated everyone, the underpaid AI workers for a start.

Recently you created an AI figure of yourself ‘AI Arvida’, and you’ve been reimagining the nude online for nearly ten years. With an inanimate body double, how has that changed your relationship to your audiences?

People have these parasocial relationships with me, they open up to me. They really get into it. How I manage my audiences, and the only way I can do it because this is a profession, is to have a bit of distance. A lot of people that come to my page are interested in what I say and do, but it is essentially a service job and I have to maintain that boundary.

When I first interviewed you in 2017 we spoke in depth about the female gaze and you identified as a photographer in that canon. Do you still feel the same way about the term?

I think the funny thing is that since 2012 I was playing with the term girl gaze, and I’ve always found the term female gaze difficult. Of course it still has created amazing visibility for female photographers, but it’s marginalized them in some ways. You’ve got to remember the system is rigged. The term female gaze in same sentence as subversive is a bit of a stretch. It’s the female gaze activated on a platform owned by men.

How do you want people to feel when they look at the book?

When people pick up the book I’m curious to see what they do with it. I hope when people look at it they come away with some awareness of the difference between seeing these images online and in print.

In The Clouds with Arvida Byström is published by Nuda Paper.


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