Artist Outside by Jessie Ngaio
I’m a visual and performance artist with a focus on sexuality, identity, alienation and deviance. I’ve done the official art school thing; in my early twenties I spent a silly amount of time and money acquiring a Masters in Fine Art. University gave me a look into the “official” art world and a deep understanding that as a queer female artist, I had chosen a very difficult career path. From the outside, the contemporary art world may seem to be incredibly progressive, but with women in art earning a shocking 50 percent less than their male counterparts, this is clearly not the case.
The hyper-masculine sensibilities left behind by the legacy of the modern art movement, as well as my own natural dislike of elitism, academia and social hierarchies, bred in me an interest in underground and alternative forms of creative expression. I explored comic art, worked as a video editor and performer in porn, and formed a comedy group creating sex-positive, surreal and sublimely stupid theatre and YouTube videos.
As a child, I was chronically ill and was isolated from the world for many years as a result, which cultivated my deep sense of being an outsider. As an adult, I have battled with disability from thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that causes chronic arm pain. This inhibits my ability to work a regular job, and has held back my artistic output over the years. I am also a queer cis-gendered woman who has experience in pornography and sex work. I currently live with my two partners, one I have been with for 12 years and married in my mid-twenties, the other, a partner of 2 years I am in a fulltime D/s relationship with, myself as the submissive. The accumulation of my life experiences has given me a deep sense of connection with people who do not feel they fit in; outsiders, deviants and weirdos are my people, and their art connects with me the most deeply.
As an often-lonely weirdo, the internet has regularly served as a lifeline for me. It has connected me to my partners, to friends I would not otherwise have met, and to people who have understood the nuances of the specific sorts of sorrows that life has thrown my way. The internet has also broadened my horizons by introducing me to concepts of sex-positive feminism, polyamory, body positivity, indigenous rights, intersectionality and so on. I grew up alongside the internet and saw it as an incredible force of human progression, allowing for the voices of the marginalised, dispossessed and isolated to speak up, find community and find power. As the internet and I grew up, I thought that together we would change the world for the better. Now I’m not so sure.
A few years ago, I was in a dark place within my own head. My disability was at its worst and my mental health was failing as I felt isolated and alone. During this time, I started to use Instagram and discovered artists like Brownwyn Lorelei, Spunk Rock Star, Aiisling, Bonnie Bakeneko and a great multitude of others. I also discovered incredible accounts for disability rights, sex positivity, mental health and so on. Through following these accounts, I was able to turn my Instagram feed into a custom designed mental health treatment, art inspiration and community all in one. It was thrilling and, admittedly, addictive. I no longer felt like such an outsider, I could see people like me who were thriving.
Over time, I found effective treatment for my disability and was able to get it under more control. As this happened, I started to produce more visual art than I had for many years; paintings, photos, weird little videos and writing, writing, writing. I was exploring what it meant to express my sexuality in an artistic and public way, I was starting to find my voice – albeit, within the confines of Instagram’s murky community content guidelines. I started to find a small but enthusiastic audience for my work and slowly I started to believe that perhaps I could use this platform to build myself a humble career as an artist.
Then FOSTA-SESTA happened, a bill ostensibly intended to prevent online sex trafficking but which has instead taken away the ability for sex workers to do their jobs safely and also dramatically inhibited the freedoms of all of us online. My sex worker friends had been fighting this discriminatory and dangerous bill because they knew it was going to dramatically affect their ability to safely make a living. Much has already been written about this by many, including my dear friend Gala Vanting, but suffice to say that those of us who have experience in sex work know the truth – that when they come after the rights of sex workers, it is a slippery slope towards the loss of everyone’s rights.
“…it is a slippery slope towards the loss of everyone’s rights.”
I believe this to my core; sex-worker rights are human rights and without sex worker rights, we will never be free.
Then my work on Instagram started getting deleted. Then I started receiving shadowbans. Then I started getting warnings that my account was at risk of deletion. Then the accounts I followed started getting deleted out of the blue. I watched so many people – mostly women, sex workers, women of size, queer people, and people of colour – scrambling to adhere to unclear guidelines and despairing when suddenly their accounts and therefore livelihoods were snatched away from them. I saw my favourite artists panicking as they lost their source of income. I saw others losing the drive to keep creating, becoming depressed and afraid to draw and paint their truth, lest it get their account deleted.
The Instagram that exists today is not the Instagram I fell in love with. Though I still get the most wonderful private messages from followers on a daily basis, my ability to reach new audiences has become a slow and frustrating trickle and I live in constant fear of losing my account, which I have poured so much of my heart and passion into over the last couple of years. The only time in recent history when I wasn’t shadowbanned was when I changed my gender to “male” and my ban lifted overnight, and stayed that way until I had yet another post reported and deleted. People sometimes tell me that it’s only one online platform and sure, this is true. But to me, Instagram once represented a place where an alternative female artist might actually stand a chance of making a living, and now it has become just as biased as the rest of the world, with female-bodied people bearing the brunt of censorship. I’ve lost hope that we will even free the nipple, that these social media platforms will ever stand up for the rights of women. They are, after all, simply another part of our toxic capitalist culture; mega-corporations as devoid of ethics as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and BP.
And so, a platform that was once a brave new world where it felt as if revolutions might take place, has started to feel like just another shopping mall, just another homogenised space where we are not allowed autonomy over our own bodies and representation of self. These days, social media looks much less like a space of inclusivity and diversity and much more like the magazine section of a supermarket
I have no loyalty whatsoever to Instagram, and the moment a better platform rises from the ashes of the fire FOSTA-SESTA has created (perhaps a platform not restricted by puritanical, patriarchal, conservative America mores), I will be jumping ship. When Tumblr stopped hosting porn, they lost millions overnight. After all, social media was made to serve us in our expressions of selfhood and this is how it should be.
The revolution will not be televised, nor will it be livestreamed on Facebook. Superpowers inevitably crumble under their own corruption. I look forward to seeing the demise of Facebook/Instagram, and hope for the rise of something better, something where women are allowed to own their representation, bodies and voices, something besides algorithmically enforced fascism. Somewhere we can all be outsiders together.
Words and art by Jessie Ngaio