Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Interview with Heather M. and Malcolm Bolivar

Holga 1 by Malcolm Bolivar

Husband and wife duo Heather M. and Malcolm Bolivar are partners and artistic collaborators. With a focus on visuals, they seem to often simultaneously tell their own stories and hold up a mirror to society. Their often-erotic and compelling visual work has been exhibited in traditional and non-traditional spaces in DC and the greater metro region, and they maintain a strong, often boundary-exploring online presence through various social media outlets.

Heather's website for the The Femme Project is Malcolm is more mysterious. We recently engaged the duo about their art and their thoughts on Eros...

Arts Community Connection: Would you describe the first project you both did together?

Heather: Our creative partnership has a long history, both personally and professionally. However our first truly artistic project together started with the purchase of a plastic Holga camera. Malcolm had expressed an interest in photography as a way to tell a series of stories. So, I bought the Holga as a way to jumpstart the process. It was the beginning of our artistic collaboration that continues to today.

Malcolm Bolivar: I would say it has to be the early shooting we did with the Holga Camera. I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I wasn't sure what the best vehicle would be. Heather bought a Holga camera and so we planned to shoot with it. The photos that came out of that shoot are still some of the best work I ever did. I was very happy with the results.  

In Window by Malcolm Bolivar
ACC: Some of your images are very aesthetically pleasing...if not also highly sexualized - which can still of course be aesthetically pleasing! While others seem intentionally unsettling. Is this your intention? What do you think of the term unsettling? 

MB: I don't think I set out to be unsettling. My goal has always been to look at the reality instead of the fantasy. But often you have to engage in fantastical elements to get your point or story across. Sometimes reality is unsettling. As I started working with models and stories, I knew I wanted to tell stories about sex and sexuality. I wanted them to be real and not fantasy erotica though. I recognize that the line between porn and art about sex and sexuality can be blurry at times. So the challenge for me was how to hold up the mirror, show people what I want them to see and still make it visually interesting and pleasing.

What happens can sometimes be unsettling. But if it draws the viewer into the story and they get something out of it, then I am not worried if they are left feeling unsettled. I think, as a society, we have a love/hate relationship with our sex, desire and sexuality. We are bombarded with sexualized content but we don't really understand our own bodies, how they work or talk about sex in an honest and open way. I think that needs to change and if people get unsettled by it, then I think that is a good thing. You know...our species will die out if we don't have sex. 

Heather: My background as a designer has trained me to seek out aesthetics. I've used that love of balance, symmetry and form to help a viewer engage with the work in order to better communicate a message. Underneath beauty, there is sometimes decay. If something unsettles, perhaps we are spurred to consider a perspective and gain a better understanding. But I feel strongly that great art touches you in ways that are memorable - beautiful and horrific. I am a big fan of this contrast.

I am working on a project at the moment that mixes the beautiful with the unsettling. Without giving too much away, I am taking something that society often holds up as the standard of beauty and overlaying it with raw sexual imagery that conjures up something very different. My hope is to capture that perfect mix of beauty and horror and leave people unsettled about what they previously thought of as a standard of beauty.

Selfies by The Femme Project
ACC: Does the expectation of others' occasional discomfort or stimulation play a role in the images you both stage, model, capture and create?

MB: Yes. My hope is that someone will leave after seeing something I have done and it won't get lost in the assault of sexual images we get regularly in our society. So if they are uncomfortable or stimulated, that means they will remember it. I hope then that they got the message I was hoping to convey.

Heather: At times yes. I believe challenging conventional viewpoints leads to discussion, and hopefully, will help us reach common ground and understanding. For women, sex and stimulation is very taboo. By creating messages and imagery that embraces our sexual energy, it says we can enjoy sex, celebrate it, explore it! How empowering that message could be...
Banned Hashtags - Vagina by The Femme Project
ACC: Recently, Heather has had some focus on the vagina - the terms for it, the depiction of it as both a sexual organ and a symbol of femininity. What spurred this?

MB: I will let her talk about that.

Heather: Several months ago I was perusing my own Instagram account and hashtags, noticing a few of my images did not appear in the search results. In a few of my hashtags, I used variations of the word "fuck" "nude" and "breasts" which flagged and censored my images. They weren't deleted, but this just made the photos harder to find in the general image population of IG.

I've also been inspired by the #FreetheNipple campaign and other censorship advocates like Serenity Hart working to change the x-rated view of women's bodies. Working from that, I created a #takebackthehashtag project exclusive to Instagram. I wanted to put the banned words out there in a way to show a deeper, and sometimes misunderstood meaning, and as a way to take away the power censorship holds over our discourse.

ACC: Share you feelings about the nature of exploitation in art. For instance, when something like the Venus of Hohle Fels was created in roughly 37,000 B.C., its depiction of the female sex organs had perhaps different intentions than, say, Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings...and in between there were nude statues of Adphrodite, da Vinci's anatomical drawings, Gustave Courbet's "The Origin of the World", Gustav Klimt's work, Judy Chicago... What makes the female body exploited, versus admired or simply...depicted? In today's culture, could a female nude ever be a neutral image?

MB: I think what you describe is a general movement forward and back through the ages as our perspectives on sex, women, etc. has evolved, devolved or stagnated. I can't really say what is exploitation versus admiration versus depiction. I do think it is a travesty that today, in this country, people will call an image of a naked woman pornography. We were born with these bodies, we should celebrate them. In all their diversity and beauty. I think we need to get past that first.

So are male/female nudes...I don't like differentiating between men and women here, I think the standard should be the same...neutral images? I think that depends on who you ask. For some (the religious right) the answer is no. It will always be pornography. I do think younger generations are beginning to change to that. I remember when Vanessa Williams, Miss America, was stripped of her crown because semi-erotic photos were published of her in Penthouse. Today, more people would applaud her for being a part of an artistic effort. We just don't have enough people who would yet though. 

Heather: Without beating the drum against patriarchy too loudly, art has been historically male-dominated like so many other aspects of our society. The female body has been depicted, admired and exploited, sometimes all in the same work. However I feel it's the context in which the view is presented. It's my hope in the work I put forth that the female body can be respected and empowered. I don't know if the feminine form will ever be neutral. If Georgia O'Keeffe was alive and painting today, perhaps her subjects would be colorful, spread-eagle vaginas.

ACC: Do you think the 'male gaze' still dominates erotic artwork?

MB: First let me take issue with "male gaze" as a term. I think whatever art we do that features something we find sexually attractive has the potential to be erotic. If we are male or female we can be attracted to things that we would not normally think is something we want as part of sexual "experience." So it would be perfectly normal for a male to view images of other males and get aroused. It happened to me at an art exhibit in New York that I attended on gay-male illustrations of the '60's and '70's. The drawings were very explicit and had a sexual energy that I found fascinating with their unreal-sized penises. I was very aroused by it. At the time, sex with another man was not part of my sexual desires, yet I was very aroused by it. So the same holds true for any person consuming this type of art. We shouldn't feel any sense of shame or "labeling" as a result of the fact that the subject matter is sexual in nature.

As to the question does 'desire'...using this to replace your term "male gaze"...dominate art of a sexual nature. Yes. I think it does. And I think it should. Art has the power to move us in many ways. Sexual-themed art has the power to inspire, open or repulse us when it comes to sex. I think the fact that desire is inherent in this type of work is natural and normal.

Heather: I think Malcolm captures it pretty well here. I would add that we need to acknowledge the realities of sex, attraction and desire in modern society. I think the more important point is that we learn how to process those feelings and teach others there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct yourself when you have those feelings. Just because one person conducts themselves in a way that makes them feel sexy, let's use dressing as an example, doesn't mean they are inviting the world to be inappropriate to them.

I think people should look and appreciate or have feelings about the art, that's what we as artists hope for. But it doesn't mean people have an open invitation to behave in a way that's out of bounds. I could go on...bottom line: I think people need to be more comfortable with sex and sexuality in their everyday lives.

ACC: There are obvious sexual themes in much of your work. Beyond exploring the 'power of sex', what specific things do you hope to accomplish - seeds you hope to plant in people's minds - with your visuals? Especially, say, on social media, which has a direct-engagement element to it as well as predetermined 'boundaries' regarding appropriate content?

MB: In the end, I am a story teller. I want to tell stories that engage people and get them to think about things differently. At the moment I am not as active on Social Media given the difficulty of posting sex-themed materials on all social media outlets. I will let Heather talk about that.

Heather: My work is a bit more multifaceted to answer your question easily. Each project has different objectives and goals. I think, at times, I am trying to drive the conversation forward. In addition to the project on Instagram I talked about earlier, I am working on other projects that can help me get my points across. Social Media is an interesting venue because you get instant access to a huge audience. But it also can emphasize the problems when corporations get involved in free speech and artistic expression. This is a brave new world in a way and could get scary if we are not careful.

Grab by The Femme Project
ACC: Speaking of boundaries, how personal can we get?

MB: We do this to open the dialogue about sex and sexuality. So please get personal!

Heather: That depends...

ACC: Does your work have an impact on your own romantic lives? Does creating art together affect your relationship and if so, how?

MB: I think so. I think it helps us to gain greater fulfillment. Look if a couple takes a video of themselves having sex, they are bonded in a way by that experience, no matter how it turns out. I would encourage more couples to celebrate their sexuality and to take intimate photos of each other and their body parts. It is cathartic. As part of the art we have also tried to explore other sexual lifestyles to see what they are about. Doing this together enables us to have open dialogue about what we like and what we want. We also learn about each other. We have both found that our sexual tastes change over time. At points in my life I have been into certain things that I am not into now. And that's HEALTHY!

So this helps us to explore things together and talk about it. We have found that most couples don't talk about sex much. They are afraid to share their desires, fantasies, wants, etc. This leads to society telling us what is "normal." That's wrong. There is no normal. If you want to fantasize about having safe, consenting sex with other adults, no matter what form that might be, then you are normal. Part of what I am trying to do is to show that people can have these desires and it is ok.

A whole lot of people out there have no idea that their partner is fantasizing about when they orgasm. My guess is most would be shocked if their partner told them the truth. We need to talk about these things so we don't come into those conversations with pre-conceived notions of what is normal or not. Dialogue about that is good.

Heather: Yes, it does. We are trying to engage and try new things as a result of the art we do. It is very important to each of us that we be authentic in our work. So understanding sexual expression and enjoyment, our bodies, what it is to be a woman (for me) are all very important parts of our art and our relationship. I would say the art has helped the partnership in all of its forms progress and grow stronger. We just have to be careful to make sure it doesn't become a 24-7 thing. That can wear you out. It is good to walk away from it for a while and do stuff together that is not art get outside, go for a hike, see the sunlight!

10 by Malcolm Bolivar

: Is there a question you've always wanted to be asked?

MB: Perhaps what do you hope happens in the future?

Heather: That's a hard one...maybe how long do I plan to do this?

ACC: What are your answers?

MB: I hope that the younger generations throw out the concepts of labeling and conservative views on sex and sexuality. I hope they help society celebrate what is one of the most natural and fundamental aspects of our human nature. But most like that will never happen. Unfortunately.

Heather: Till I die. I think being a woman is a lifelong thing, you know? Just because we get older doesn't mean we are not sexual, alive and active beings. I would like to be exploring these issues when I am in my 60's and 70's if I live that long!

(Jameson Freeman interviewed Heather M. and Malcolm Bolivar on behalf of the Arts Community Connection)

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