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Girl Swarm and The Soda Stream

Tumblr celebrity and multimedia artist Molly Soda talks feminism, art and intimate labor with Jesse Darling and Rosemary Kirton.

In June 2012 the independent publisher semiotext(e) introduced the first English-language print edition of Tiqqun’s much-vaunted Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (originally published in 2001 as Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la Jeune-Fille). Tiqqun’s Young-Girl is an allegedly ageless and genderless figure, a “vision-machine” who functions as both the subject and the object of advertizing and brand strategy. She is capitalism embodied. The muscle queen, goth tween, acid-house twink and “hiphop nightclub player,” are all Young-Girls according to Tiqqun’s definition: self-branded, self-selected market demographics who parade their unit-shifting subcultures around like living advertisements for branded goods and services. In the selfie scene, every [Young-] girl’s a cover girl. “The Young-Girl is both production and a factor of production, that is, she is the consumer and the producer, the consumer of producers, and the producer of consumers.”

Tumblr, six years younger than Tiqqun’s original text, can be seen as a Young-Girlist platform in that—like most social media—it functions both as consumer of producers and producer of consumers. Tumblr launched in 2007. Within two weeks it had 75,000 users, and today hosts over 100 million blogs.

In June 2012, Tumblr partnered with Adidas to announce its first major advertising campaign, but it’s possible that [her] users didn’t even notice. By then Tumblr was already firmly established as an aggregator platform for peer-to-peer brand advocacy and merchandising, as well as the towering babel of visual détournement to which trademarked content is daily subjected. But Tiqqun hadn’t counted on Tumblr, and could scarcely have imagined Molly Soda: Tumblr princess, selfie performance artist, and sometime queen bee of the growing online “girl swarm.”

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Molly Soda

In many respects, Molly Soda—who at 24 has already been on the Internet for 13 years—fits the image of the original Young-Girl. “For the Young-Girl, what is most secret is also most public,” writes Tiqqun, and certainly Molly’s Tumblr page is full of Molly Soda; her image and likeness, her thoughts and feelings and circumstances, a prolific broadcast of text and image to an audience of 29,000 (and counting). Like all influential Tumblr bloggers, Molly Soda also functions as a tastemaker. Her ad hoc brand endorsements—for Manic Panic hair dye, Buffalo sneakers, Taco Bell burritos—show up tagged in the sea of selfies that flood Tumblr every minute of every day, a Young-Girl army of lookalike blogalike spendalikes. “Precisely because of her nothingness,” sniffs Tiqqun of the eponymous Young-Girl, “each of her judgements carries the imperative weight of the whole social order, and she knows it.”

But.

Though much is made of the slightness and immateriality of the “attention economy”—and all the products and currencies it supports—the Molly Soda phenomenon extends to a functional peer-to-peer exchange system based on the affective, rhizomic principles of a gift economy. Molly occasionally enjoys material remuneration for her labor—or her art or whatever—in the form of pizza or takeout delivered to her house, since even in liquid modernity there’s no such thing as a free dinner, and everybody knows it. Molly Soda works hard doing Molly Soda, and her followers (customers, clients, consumers, peers) damn well see and value that. On a recent occasion when cash was short, Molly asked her followers for financial assistance in return for personalized GIFs and her lifelong affection, and so the rent got paid—at a rate of roughly two bucks a piece. “The girl market is the kind of market segmentation often described as a demographic, a group defined by shared socioeconomic characteristics,” writes Catherine Driscoll in Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. “But girls were and are a proliferation that does not entirely conform to its reputation as consuming prototype. However carefully girls were defined in these discourses and strategies, they were not fantasies of the advertising industry … that helped define them.” The girl swarm, in other words, is a market demographic that became a critical mass while nobody was looking.

It’s hard to argue Tiqqun’s case for the disempowered, dead-eyed, reified and alienated Young-Girl when faced with the affect-driven bargaining power of the girl market—and when faced with Molly Soda herself, who has become an unwitting role model to thousands, and perhaps a better one than anything the culture industry could crank out in a corset on VEVO.

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Rosemary Kirton

In the closing chapter of Theory of the Young-Girl, Tiqqun launches into the anorexic as a Young-Girlist model of bare life, asserting that “Anorexia expresses in women the same aporia that is manifest in men in the form of the pursuit of power: the will to mastery.” This is where the whole thing falls down, where Tiqqun start showing their age (shit, they didn’t even have Tumblr back in 1999) and their latent misogyny: though the Young-Girl is expressly not a gendered concept, we can agree that anorexia—as a societal paradigm at least—expressly is.

“There is nothing in the Young-Girl’s life, even in the deepest zones of her intimacy, that escapes alienated reflexivity,” sneer Tiqqun, in anticipation of Vine and Snapchat and the Tumblr confessional. But the will to mastery is a poor understanding of what is at stake in the biopolitics of the selfie exchange. With Molly Soda and Mark Aguhar at the helm, Tumblr becomes a space of disclosure and recognition: these are the axes, bodies are inherently valid. Because we cannot imagine a space outside of Capital, outside of the Internet, outside the Spectacle (of our own bodies as commoditized image-objects), the gazed-upon turns the gaze on itself and begins to describe what it sees. Seeing isn’t necessary believing; seeing isn’t necessarily being. We rehearse our own iterations over and over: do you see me? And what do you see? And how should I presume? And what should I become? Despite the Old-Manist pontifications of Tiqqun and the mechanization of all relations under Facebook, the Young-Girl appears here as an agent of social class-consciousness on the affective level, as well as consumption and production—and the girl swarm starts to look something like a trade union.

“The Young Girl does not speak.” concludes Tiqqun, becoming part of the problem. “On the contrary, she is spoken by the Spectacle.”

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Jesse Darling

This interview is at least partially intended to contradict this claim. A collaboration between the artist Jesse Darling and the writer Rosemary Kirton, whose own work and research are respectively concerned with the [art]work/labor dialectic and narratives of performativity in online culture and interaction, this conversation took place on three different occasions, in three different timezones, over three different online platforms. The original text was written in ISE (Internet Standard English), and has been translated for accessibility.

—Jesse Darling
Rosemary Kirton:
You could say that the phenomenon that is Molly Soda emerged out of the girl swarm, created by the haters, and that you’ve only had to nudge her into existence. Meanwhile, the Molly Soda character continues to catalyze a tidal wave of visual and discursive content. When you Google yourself or scroll through the tags, and see all the copypasta, edits, criticisms, credited or not—how do you feel about the evolving or evolved image-object that is Molly Soda and [her] trajectory?

Molly Soda:
Molly Soda has become a caricature at this point. A character.

RK:
Your output is characteristic of a type of “girlish” performativity online; you perform a kind of emotional or intimate labor for which there is a demand but no societal recognition. Do you have any thoughts on the unwaged “service” you provide?

MS:
Honestly, I’ve never thought of my Internet presence as a service. If anything, I’ve always seen it as selfish, or self-indulgent. The way I’ve interacted with the Internet has always been to secure some form of validation, and the reason I share so much is because I want to know that others feel the same way, or have been there, or can at least sympathize, or give me words of encouragement or I don’t know. I think a lot of people use the Internet—and specifically blogging platforms like Tumblr or Livejournal or Blogspot—as a way to combat loneliness. If anything I think my relationship with my readers/fans/other bloggers is symbiotic… they help me cope, just as I
help them.

Jesse Darling:
So if this character, the Tumblr star or Tumblr artist—in this case the character of Molly Soda—is being “built up” by the labor of 1000s of others in a horizontal model, who owns the means of production? What is the means of production? And what’s the actual product here?

MS:
My “intimate labor,” I guess.

JD:
So the labor is the product.

MS:
Am I the product? I don’t know. It’s not anything tangible.

RK:
The “product” might be the feeling: the micro-stimulation of getting a notification.

JD:
In transactional analysis there’s this idea that we all need recognition of some kind; that everyone needs a certain number of “strokes.” Strokes can be seen as units of recognition; a like, a comment, a reblog, a bit of hate mail. If we don’t get enough positive recognition then negative recognition will do, provided it makes up the strokes quota.

MS:
Sounds hot.

RK:
You receive a lot of antagonism—“negative strokes.” Could this be due to the fact that the intimate labor of the kind you provide is devalued as “feminine”—narcissistic or self-serving, or simply a poor form of art? In this case the attention you garner could be seen to challenge established notions of value and exchange.

MS:
My “haters”—for lack of a better word—have a really special place in my heart. It’s more important to elicit some sort of a response—negative or positive—from people than have no one feel anything toward you. This is not to say that I want to provoke people into attacking me or disliking me. I simply put myself out there and if people like it that’s great, and if they don’t that’s great too. The anonymous messages have also given me a lot of great material. I made a ten-hour video (”Inbox Full”) out of me reading all of the questions that had been sitting in my Tumblr inbox for months. I remember at one point my brain just shut off and I wasn’t even processing what I was reading anymore. That was maybe more a form of therapy for me than anything else.

JD:
Who do you “work for”? Who is your ideal audience?

MS:
A year ago I would have said that my ideal audience is female, specifically tweens to young adults, but honestly now my ideal audience is anyone willing to watch and participate. Being a female artist can be frustrating because I feel that most of the time your work is automatically labeled as feminist, which can scare off a male audience. I’d like my work to be accessible to everyone and I think the easiest way to make art accessible is to make it sort of comical. I don’t ever want to take myself—or the work I make—too seriously.

RK:
Was there a turning point at which you realized that this was gonna be something you would have to commit to?

MS:
I don’t feel like it’s a commitment. I don’t know, I honestly don’t. Do you?

JD:
Could you quit tomorrow?

MS:
Could I quit tomorrow? I guess so. But why would I?

RK:
I couldn’t.

JD:
Yeah, why would you? It’s as though you’re doing your job, like doing your entrepreneurial thing, filling your unique self-shaped Molly Soda hole in the attention economy market.

MS:
I guess so. Jobs and commitment all seem so … not fun. I guess if it became a chore I would quit.

RK:
You provide intimate glimpses into your personal life through vlogging, selfies and text posts, and by answering anonymous questions. Do you see the vlogging/selfies/answers as artworks, or as promotional work for your brand?

MS:
I absolutely see everything I put online as art, but only in terms of my Internet presence as a whole, if that makes sense. A single Photobooth picture doesn’t stand alone as a piece of art, but if you were to collect every single Photobooth photo or video that I’ve ever made public, I think as a whole they would complete each other: show the “big picture.”

JD:
In amongst all this content you’ve produced a bunch of discrete projects.

MS:
But I do think creating individual, stand-alone pieces is important. That’s why I make things like “Tween Dreams.” I’m working on the second one but I don’t even want to put a wrap date on it because it’s sort of become this weird love/hate chore for me. It’s really important for me to finish it but I keep getting distracted by new ideas. I’ve always had a hard time finishing things. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier for me to just put a bunch of little pieces of the puzzle into the world and hope that others can put it together, instead of putting out big singular works of art.

JD:
What I’m interested in is this idea of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Are we living in a condition of pics or YOU didn’t happen? Are you a living manifestation of this principle in action?

RK:
It’s more a case of likes on pics or it didn’t happen: you can take as many selfies as you like but if you aren’t meeting the intuitive needs of your community in some way you ain’t shit. There’s this idea of “collective strategies of empowerment” that emerges from a mobilized online narcissism; I guess this is what I mean by the girlswarm.

MS:
Reblogs. Favs. If nobody reblogs you, you’re worthless. Say you had a blog and no one ever looked at it, but you wrote on it everyday and posted what you thought was interesting content—would you keep doing it if no one looked at it?

JD:
Then it may as well not exist, right? Like the tree that falls in the forest or whatever.

RK:
People do. My mum has a Tumblr; she’s had it for a year or two, and she has 90 followers.

MS:
What does she post on it?

RK:
The perpetual motion of the feed is captivating. What does she post? She reblogs pretty nature pictures, my stuff, art she likes.

JD:
Perhaps Molly functions both as product and means of production? Like, Tumblr is the factory, powered by the affective labor of all those likes and reblogs. The renumeration for this labor is recognition by one’s peers. It’s a very late-capitalist, liquid-modern model.

MS:
Isn’t that what everyone wants? Recognition?

JD:
But is that recognition enough for you?

MS:
Sometimes.

JD:
Say you’re heartbroken and you want to be hugged or kissed or fucked, and all you get is likes and reblogs. But maybe the likes and reblogs are better? I don’t know.

MS:
Sometimes it’s enough for a second.

JD:
Do you consider yourself a feminist? The body/self-portrait in feminist and queer art is seen as a way to manifest yourself in the world when the world isn’t looking or listening, like HERE I AM.

RK:
You could talk about the “girl swarm” as a way of girls “seeing” or validating the existence of other girls, and it becomes a kind of powerful critical mass.

MS:
I do consider myself a feminist. I think my early work, stuff that I’ve never really showed, has a lot do with that, and then it’s evolved into how I use my body on the Internet currently. It’s partially an insecurity thing, and also a way of me being like, “It’s chill to show your boobs cuz they’re just boobs and if I don’t place importance on nudity than other people might not either.”

JD:
But you don’t show your vagina, which would address that more explicitly.

MS:
I have shown my vagina on the Internet, though not recently. Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe today’s the day! Who knows?

JD:
When I was a live nude online girl it was so fucking long ago there weren’t even private webcams. The apparatus of image production was still a croaking, groaning industrial machine to which the monetized image of my body was in thrall. Now a generation of girls are queuing up to show their naked bodies for free on ten-dollar webcams. I’m confronted by that somehow; why would you do it if you’re not getting paper?

MS:
I don’t know. I really do think it all boils down to insecurity. I think everything human beings do boils down to insecurity.

JD:
Sure, but I guess I’m thinking that it’s some kind of a losing game, somehow; young women are in this uniquely powerful place in which their own image holds more value than their body ever will as a subject under patriarchy. The image of the Young-Girl is worth more than her ideas, more than her labor, more than anything she will ever have to offer past her selfie-by date. It’s the one time in a (girl)’s life in which she is genuinely more powerful than a male subject of the same age; but it’s a holographic power, given and taken away by the same systemic gaze that assigns it. When you’re looked at and desired as an image-object, it’s a brief reprieve from feeling meaningless and like you’re nothing and nobody cares about what you have to say, but then you’re also this sexual object and it’s hard to transcend that.

MS:
So true. I think that’s a great way to put it.

JD:
Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life? Being Molly Soda?

MS:
I don’t know. I don’t like to think about “the future of Molly Soda.”

JD:
What will you do when you “grow up”?

MS:
I don’t know. Live in a nice house, have babies, teach art students, open some sort of business: regular adult things. It all see fine to me as long as I can be a “cool mom.”

RK:
I think its cool how Molly is kind of like the Tumblr mommy as well as the Tumblr princess; there’s a lot of caregiving in what you do. We all watched you look after and mourn your pet rat Sarah Michelle Gellar, fall in love and break up with your boyfriend. We were invested. Do you feel a kind of responsibility to your followers?

JD:
For me this feels interestingly auxiliary to the Soda brand, as though despite everything we see a person emerge through the shifting Technicolor wetware of a character avatar. It’s cool.

MS:
Do I feel responsibility? Maybe a little bit, but not until recently. I like being a Tumblr mom. It’s a natural instinct of mine that has come about lately. The biggest thing I want to get across to my lady followers is to not hate on your fellow lady because it always comes from a bad place. Especially in potentially hard situations.

JD:
Yeah, like: girls have it hard, we’re just hustling out here, let me show you how to survive this. We don’t need this Martha Stewart/Betty Crocker kind of mom, but a comrade-in-arms. A mom-in-arms.

RK:
Do you think there’s natural parallel here with camgirling?

MS:
Yeah, there are parallels. I’ve flirted with it; I’ve done it. But camgirling is usually on someone else’s terms and it’s hard for me to do things for other people, if that makes sense. Like, I want everything to be on my terms.

JD:
I see the visual parallel with camgirling in the sense that the body is presented both as the product and the instrument of labor, but I think it’s more like being an artist or whatever. We are all prostitutes—or more accurately, personal brands. In any case there’s a rich lineage of feminist performers and video artists who presented their own bodies and unedited subjectivities, to which you also refer, knowingly or not. If someone asked you to put on a solo show, would you want to do something like that?

MS:
Like in a gallery? I would want to do something like that immediately.

JD:
So how would you install the work? So much of your output is based online and uses online image protocols, like animated GIFs.

MS:
Am I supposed to plan out an entire solo show right now? I don’t know: projectors, monitors, little televisions, feather boas? I’m really into feather boas right now.

JD:
The GIF section on your site, which is one place you create and showcase “art objects” distinct from your own meta-performance, is like super-maximalist.

MS:
Yes.

JD:
I like it: a total cascade of stuff.

MS:
So it would be something like that but IRL. It would need to be overwhelming, like, make you wanna throw up when you leave. Lots of audio and video and GIFs and colors when you walk into a room. I’m really into the idea of everything playing at once.

JD:
That’s interesting, a very Internet aesthetic – “too-muchimalism.” Do u think there’s a politics in your maximalist aesthetic? It feels like a response to late-capitalist glut, like when you walk into a store and there are hundreds of each thing to choose from and millions of new T-shirts made in China every day.

MS:
Ha, I never thought of it that way.

JD:
But you do embody that, a little: a hyper-capitalist teen tween Internet Young-Girl. The good contemporary artists now–and I’m also talking about the scene queens of Myspace and the club kids of 1980s NYC—are the people who can take the saturation in visual culture and basically make it their own thing, recuperate some aspect of it into their own brand. That’s what you do, right?

MS:
Yeah, that’s true.

JD:
But is there a critical politics in any of your work? Sometimes you do seem critical of certain aspects of that culture. “Tween Dreams” is almost a satire, right?

MS:
Yes, in a way. But I also have a special fondness for that culture. “Is it so wrong to want every color gel pen?” I mean I don’t think I’ve ever set out to make a direct comment on capitalism, but I can see how you can read that and I think it makes sense.