Primavera De Filippi: Your respective practices take the body as a central focus. How has this led to different artistic expressions and polyvalent meanings?
ORLAN: I am an artist who is not subjected to a material, to an artistic practice, to a manner of speaking, technique, or technology, whether old or new. I try to make important statements about this era by questioning social phenomena from a critical distance.
I work on the body’s status in society, examining all the cultural, traditional, political, and religious pressures imprinted in bodies, especially those of women.
I started my practice with sculpture, drawing, and painting, and subsequently considered the body as one material among many. I am nothing but a body, an entire body, and it is my body that thinks. Everything one is and does is political; the body is political, and the private is political. Many consider me to be a performance artist, but I also use artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented reality, Carrara marble, resin, 3D printing, video, photography, cell cultures, oral, intestinal, and vaginal flora, plastic surgery, and painting. All these materials are my flesh but, above all, I work conceptually, which is the spine of my work.
OONA: My body is my canvas. But without a face, my body loses its “me-ness” and I become a living artwork, a breathing sculpture, a mirror. OONA appears as a masked woman with a hyper-feminine and often hypersexualized body.
I use my body to deconstruct the traditional and contemporary iconography of the female form, and I use identity as a medium to advocate for self-determination and the reappropriation of the image of women in an art world (still) dominated by men.
My artwork goes beyond binaries of gender and power, acknowledging each identity we embody (physical, emotional, sexual, intellectual, spiritual) as critically self-sovereign.
PDF: OONA, your recent performance, Look Touch Own (2023), challenges the conventions of beauty and the commodification of the female body. Doing so seems to fuse Valie Export’s Touch Cinema (1968), Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (2012), and ORLAN’s own Carnal Art. What are your intentions for this work, and how does it channel historical performances?
OO: It is a fallacy that we need to discover something new to generate value.
Seeking what is new is about conquering, being the first, dominating. I am not interested in such a masculine quest for knowledge.
I feel no need to ask “new” questions about this digital art era because we have not reached fulfilling answers to the “first” digital art era when feminist avantgarde was born. I am asking the same questions about women, value, and art because they are still relevant.
PDF: ORLAN, in your earlier works, the concept of the body as a “modified ready-made” incarnated the body as an artistic medium. You’ve also challenged societal norms and perceptions of beauty, which aligns with OONA’s current exploration of unconventional beauty standards. How do you view the evolution of these challenges and the artistic approaches to confronting them across multiple generations?
OR: I have worked hard against stereotypes, and they are still there. Stereotypes are shortcuts, prepackaged popularizations, and a simplistic way of organizing society. Beauty does not exist in itself; whether we find something “beautiful” or not depends on our perception of the environment in which we were born and that we have built for ourselves.
I developed my surgical-operation performances to destabilize the notion of surgery as a means of improvement and rejuvenation, and to perform a surgical operation that does not improve beauty.
The first idea behind these operations was to confront stereotypes — to attack the mask of innateness. I am not against cosmetic surgery but rather what we do with it. Indeed, I like it as a means of inventing oneself. I had solid silicone implants that are normally used to enhance the cheekbones moved either side of my forehead. If you hear me described as a woman with two bumps on her temples, you might imagine me as a monster — abominable and unwanted. I want to show that beauty is a diktat of the dominant ideology derived from a particular geography or historical viewpoint.
PDF: OONA, your performance invites audience members to engage with your scarred breasts and silicone implants, leveraging the blockchain — as well as human touch — in the creation of digital artifacts. How can new technologies alter perceptions of the body through art?
OO: Images of women in Western society have not changed since oil painting. For the most part, the female body is positioned to appear languid and docile, a posture adopted in oil paintings to demarcate ownership. The female body is arranged in a way that is not for her own pleasure but for the pleasure of the collector/owner and their less important proxy, the scroller. Despite all this new tech, women’s bodies and sexualities are still framed rather than included within the frame.
This appropriates John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), in which he compares oil paintings to advertisements. I’ve twisted certain worlds to reflect our contemporary context, but the idea still fits like a glove. I find these portrayals of the female body and women’s sexuality boring and unoriginal. My artwork rejects the passivity of women and the hegemonic consumption of our bodies.
In Look Touch Own, audience members can touch my breasts and the implants that used to be inside them. My body functions like an interface to question the ways in which beauty and consent are programmable.
PDF: ORLAN, your work has often involved body modifications that redefine your own physical appearance, which aligns with OONA’s interest in identity construction through performance. In what ways do digital technologies and digital space involve a renegotiation of identity?
OR: The body is a playground which deserves to be explored and questioned. This applies especially to my own body, as a woman who has to take revenge on the world of the body. After all, the flesh is disappointing. In life, we don’t only have one body — we have bodies. I decided to use cosmetic surgery to alter these bodies through my series of surgical-operation performances. I determined my own cosmetic surgery because there was no question of submitting myself to beauty standards. Obviously, such performances are much more attractive to the media than when you make a sculpture in Carrara marble.
I am neither a technophile nor a technophobe, but I love living in these times of technological advancement. [...] NFTs are a medium that are not constrained by the limits of their own materiality.
When I was a teenager, in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined that, one day, I would have an android in my pocket that could tell me where I was and how far it was to the museum, to whom I could ask questions the answers to which most of the time adults do not know.
Very early on, I became interested in video and the Minitel ancestry of the internet. Then, later on, I created works in augmented reality, not simply to use technology but because this technology allowed me to say something important. I had my body scanned, articulated, and programmed to perform the acrobatics of the Beijing Opera, where men play the role of women. As a woman, it also seemed important to me to create a robot, a moving sculpture that I named “ORLANOÏDE,” which mixes artificial intelligence with collective and social intelligence. It looks like me and speaks with my voice. At the moment, I take it to conferences and the robot translates everything I say into English. All the texts emerging from the text generator can be printed immediately.
PDF: You have both engaged with the idea of the female body as a commodity. How do NFTs impact how audiences engage with the body as an object and commodity? Can art help us to sustain our agency as physical and data bodies, or is that a false dichotomy?
OO: Because my body is the subject of my artwork, it can only ever have one owner: me. Performance art inherently defies ownership and rejects the simplicity of “art objects.”
In the case of performance art, ownership is a momentary glimpse — documentation of a performance passed — [and] an experience that can never be relived, but an artwork preserved through its integration on-chain.
In Look Touch Own, the performance is free. Anyone can participate (given their willingness to sign the prerequisite forms, etc). The performance can never be owned. Analytical and emotional data from the first 300 touches produce 300 independent and individual artworks. In doing so, I create a visual language which celebrates intuition and champions dionysian femininity.
OR: I have worked on body merchandise several times. Back in 1966, I created a performance that involved selling cropped photographs of my body parts in black and white glued to wood. They were displayed on a cart in a vegetable market like a food product next to stalls of carrots, leeks, and potatoes.
On a sign, I presented the prices of my body parts, asking “DOES MY BODY BELONG TO ME?” together with “GUARANTEED PURE ORLAN WITHOUT COLORING OR PRESERVATIVES.”
The work sought to question how fragmentary representation transforms our relation to reality. [...] It was also a preamble to Baiser de l’Artiste (“Kiss of the Artist”) (1977), where I interrogated the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene — two stereotypes of women from which it is difficult to escape when you are a woman. The work took the form of a large sculpture with my effigy on one side: a life-sized black and white photo of me, disguised and draped as the Madonna. [...] I embodied the saint, the mother, the dignified and respectable woman.
On the other side, there was a life-sized cut-out photograph glued to wood depicting my bust, including a breast flashing with a red light as well as an arrow indicating where to insert your money. For five francs, I gave not a childhood kiss but a real artist’s kiss, a French kiss — then I became the whore, the woman artist who sells her body like a work of art. Art allows you to create both the physical body and the data body.
PDF: OONA, your work often engages the audience in interactive ways. And ORLAN, using the body as an interface can also be seen as a form of audience engagement. What role does the audience play in shaping the meaning and impact of your works?
OO: My performances only go as far as the audience is willing. The artwork is made by audience interaction [and] even presence is an interaction.
I hate it when artists try to be prescriptive over the “meaning” of their work. A strong performance doesn’t have a singular message, instead it allows for audiences to relate to the artwork in multiple ways, usually correlating their personal experiences to the artwork. I saw Milking the Artist (2022) as a commentary on the ways in which the art world extracts from female artists. Some audience members saw it as a commentary on the skyrocketing prices of baby formula in the US. That’s good — audiences are smart enough to make their own meaning. Art is personal.
I debuted the first private preview of Look Touch Own at the Annka Kultys Gallery in London to a group of 20 women. These are a few of their responses:
It was really crazy. I’ve thought about plastic surgery before, but seeing the scars and holding the implants made me so glad that I didn’t go through with it.
Sad, so sad, how much pain women endure and how normalized pain in the pursuit of beauty has become.
I was afraid to touch the breasts. It made me wonder if I was prudish about my sexuality because of my cultural background. I’m still wondering why it was so hard for me to touch another woman’s breasts.
The second private preview was with an audience of 20 men. Here are some of their responses:
Choices are essential, and forever, and so terribly human.
Made me reflect on the limitations of explicit consent.
It was about the artificial nature of sexuality for me. I felt way more comfortable touching the fake implant than I did the real breast.
OR: Donatien Grau describes me as “A producer of freedom, who pays the price herself so that we others, members of the public, can benefit from it.” The public has always had an important place in my work. I wanted to take spectators out of their passive position and transform them into actors in the work. I have created many participatory works [...] where the public is asked to make the work evolve and bring it to life.
In my performance, Échangeons, changeons (“Let’s Exchange, Let’s Change”) (1978), I exchanged my clothes with passers-by in the street. The idea was to create a distance from the image you produced with your own clothing, to see how others behaved when they had my appearance. I allowed them to be me, and they allowed me to be them. Another work, Tangible Striptease (en nanosequences) (2016), is a self-portrait in the form of biotechnological performance.
The concept of the work is to demonstrate that, for a woman, striptease is impossible because we cannot strip ourselves of all the images that cloth us — of all the fantasies, standards of beauty, and a priori which cover us and prevent us from being seen.
This is a new public self-portrait in which billions of living beings help me to be alive through symbiosis, without whom I would have no life. I am constantly creating self-portraits, but I feel myself to be unrepresentable, unconfigurable. Every image of myself is pseudo, whether it is a carnal, verbal, medical, scientific, or biological presence. All forms of representation are insufficient, but no representation would be worse — it would be without figure at all.
PDF: This conversation bridges different generations. OONA, how does your work dialogue with ORLAN’s lifelong study of the intersection of the body with technology? How do you imagine posthuman bodies?
OO: My practice is a contemporary expansion of the feminist avant-garde from the 1960s and ’70s. In Sex and Speculation, I ask the same question as Carolee Schneemann: “can a nude female artist be both the image and the image-maker?” and add: “what value does that have?”
In Look Touch Own, the references to Valie Export’s Touch Cinema and Orlan’s Carnal Art are rather obvious: people touch my breasts while subverting the aesthetics of cosmetic surgery and feminine beauty standards. These artworks are impossible to separate from the technological advancements of the time (the ubiquity of cinema and plastic surgery) and cultural attitudes towards women (a woman’s value is linked to her beauty — a woman’s beauty is not for her, but for men — a woman’s body is an object that she does not own). Even now with progressive technology at our fingertips, it is evident that the way we see women, questions regarding agency, ownership, and objectification are still relevant. I am asking the same questions as artists like ORLAN because we have yet to reach the fulfilling depth of their answers.
I am only concerned with a posthuman body so long as it helps to improve the agency of current bodies.
The female body is still a battleground of regulation and boundary violations. I hope my work stands the test of time, like ORLAN’s, proving that in every art movement there are artists rejecting the status quo in pursuit of greater degrees of self-sovereignty.
OONA is an anonymous conceptual artist who’s practice explores the intersections of technology, finance, gender, and identity. Through moving image and performance art, OONA exposes the collision between progressive technologies and socially regressive ideas, offering a critical perspective on the contemporary cultural landscape. OONA was born on November 1, 2021 in the Holy See. She has exhibited her works internationally at prestigious venues, including Art Basel Miami 2022, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Proof of People, London and New York; and Avalanche Summit Barcelona.
ORLAN is a renowned French artist who is not tied to any single material, technology, or artistic practice. She creates sculptures, photographs, performances, videos, and video games, and uses AR, AI, and robotics, deploying biogenetic and medical techniques involving surgery. For ORLAN, these are only media and it is the idea that prevails while materiality pursues. ORLAN makes her own body the medium, the raw material, and the visual support of her work, which takes place as “public debate”. She is a major figure in the history of body art, defining the terms of Carnal Art in her 1989 manifesto. ORLAN is constantly altering data in order to disrupt conventions and “ready-made” thinking. She is opposed to natural, social, and political determinism, as well as all forms of domination, male supremacy, religion, cultural segregation, and racism. ORLAN is a winner of the E-reputation award, designating the most observed and followed artist on the internet.
Primavera De Filippi is a legal scholar, internet activist, and artist, whose work focuses on the blockchain, peer production communities, and copyright law. She is a permanent researcher at the CNRS and Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.