It takes just a phone call with Montreal-based artist Madelyne Beckles to see she’s a lot like us. She loves the internet, pop culture, reality TV and sometimes gets into screaming arguments about Kanye West.
Eliza: So let’s take it back in time—when did you first get on the internet?
Madelyne: Basically, the way I started to get on the internet was with [photographer] Petra Collins. We went to high school together and we started a really embarrassing fashion blog.
Vicky: What was it called?
M: Oh my gosh, I don’t even want to say. It could still be online…
E: I had a blog in middle school called Cobra Urban Child so there’s no way yours can be worse than that.
M: Okay, it was called Rebelle Zine. That was my first venture to assert myself as a “creative.” But before that, I’d always been into making websites and stuff. I loved this website, Piczo, where we could make our own websites; I think it might have been a Canadian thing. But I was always so into making my own pages on Myspace and stuff.
I’m kind of a shy person and I was very shy as a young person, so that was kind of my way of expressing myself and sharing my thoughts as a young person. It was my way of talking about or asserting my personality in ways that I didn’t think I could in person. So Rebelle Zine was the first time where I felt like I was taking some creative authority and presenting things other than myself.
E: Your work has probably changed a lot since Rebelle Zine. How do you feel like it has evolved?
M: Yeah, it really has. At first I had an alter ego named “Miley Highrus.” I started with this persona because I thought it was more interesting than just presenting my real self. At school, I was a women’s studies student and I realized my work would be more impactful if I said the things I wanted to say and did the things I wanted to do as myself, rather than wrapped in a fake persona that was basically just me anyway. So I guess I’ve become more transparent than I was before.
E: Does it feel different to use your own name?
M: Well, that is one of the things that makes me a little nervous, because I like to explore sexuality and drugs and things you should typically feel ashamed of as a woman. Especially as a black woman who has crazy, fucked-up constructs to adhere to [in order to] be taken seriously.
So yeah, if I have a job interview or something, I wonder if I should change my name for professional reasons, but I’m starting to realize that I don’t even want to be involved with someone who can’t get with what I’m doing. So there is no protective shield; my grandparents can see what I’m doing. I want to be shameless in my practice, so I try to explore that.
E: Yeah, I feel like I grew up in this environment where you were really encouraged to protect yourself online, but then I started encountering more and more people who really share themselves online. What is it like to go out into the world and interact with people who have seen this side of you?
M: Well, I have to say I have very limited professional encounters. Nobody knows. I feel like people are super self-involved and don’t pay much attention to what you are doing.
E: I think it’s really interesting. I want to show people that you can express yourself however you want online, but it is true that there are obstacles like that.
M: I feel like I’ve kind of had to come to terms with the fact that this is what I want to do and what I like doing. So the way for it to not tarnish my future is for me to accept the fact that I’m a creative. I will probably live my life making money at shitty jobs, but still get to do what I like and present myself the way that I want to.
bell hooks actually has a really great quote—well, this is loose—but that if you are doing the work you want to do and you assert yourself politically, you are going to piss people off and you are not going to become a super wealthy person. And that’s fine with me. All those ideas about censoring yourself are totally embedded in capitalist shit which I don’t really have an interest in.
V: I also like that you mentioned that people are too self-absorbed to always notice what other people are doing.
I always get so nervous when some people I know follow me on Instagram, but then I realize that they never, ever notice anything.
M: Yeah! None of my coworkers ever like anything I post. They never have an attachment to what I’m doing in this other world I operate in.
E: I’m always afraid my mom is going to see my stuff.
M: Oh, my grandma got Instagram this summer and I almost cried, but it turns out she never sees anything that I post.
E: So I’m curious about if you see yourself as a digital artist and what that idea means to you?
M: I think the weird thing for me is that most of my work is digitally made with my phone or screenshots. But I think that so many of our peers are digital artists to us because that is the platform that they use to share their work. I don’t know, I feel like that term is somewhat arbitrary because we have to operate digitally as artists nowadays.
E: Yeah I feel like as a “digital artist” now, that is what you are experiencing. It isn’t less, really, the medium just hasn’t existed before.
M: Yeah, totally. We have this crazy new territory where we can manipulate and use ready-made images. Yeah, it is a medium to work digitally, but I also think that the way things are now, you have to participate on the internet if you want to be noticed.
You have to kind of promote your work to be able to create any kind of momentum. So does that mean that they are digital artists because they have to operate on this platform? I’m not really sure. It’s funny, though, I tend to shy away when people are seeking out digital artists, like I don’t feel like my work is “digital” enough. It just seems so intrinsic to me to use screenshots and selfies.
V: It really does seem more and more that digital isn’t a separate world anymore, it’s just a part of our lives.
M: Yeah, totally, but it’s such a generational thing. I spoke on a panel about cyberfeminism and I was the youngest person on the panel by 15 or 20 years, even! That generation totally sees the internet and technology as a whole separate thing. The whole time I was trying to say, “no, I don’t think about posting things on Instagram.” It’s not like an action I’m making a decision to do, it’s just something that I have been socialized to do. I don’t separate that from what I do IRL, really.
E: What are some ideas that are really important to you in your work?
M: Well, I wrote an artist statement about a year ago and I’ve recently been grappling with if I still agree with it. I want to talk about things that are inherent in womanhood like shame, guilt and consumption, but also to deconstruct it by using my black body to problematize constructions of blackness, femininity and womanhood. I like to also mix forms of low culture with higher forms of class privilege. Essentially, I want to deconstruct womanhood.
There are a lot of popular artists right now who are feminists and I think that is really cool and I never want to rain on anyone’s parade, but we are getting this singular view of what it means to be feminist. It is very aesthetic; it’s very markers and stickers and pink. And as much I like that stuff, there can be a little bit more mundane realness in the abject. Like things that are considered “other” and not supposed to be spoken about.
E: I love that, because as we’ve been making this, we are realizing that making the soft stuff does express something about feminism, but there are so many other ways to represent it.
M: I think that is what art is about in general, but I think in my work I strive to be a little bit more conceptual. And maybe my aesthetics are little bit more… jank. [laughs]
When I started to get on the internet, I never saw people like me and I’m not a fucking sob story. I have some class privilege. I was raised by a white family, pretty much, but I still didn’t see anything that was resonating with me or looked like me. So I also hope to make it okay for girls to just post whatever they want and not feel weird about it. And not feel like they’re not fitting in with a certain standard of aesthetics.
E: One of the other things I love about your work is how you shamelessly like pop culture. I’m just bored of hearing people talk about how I’m not supposed to care about Kanye West, because I can’t not care about it.
M: I’ve gotten into screaming arguments with my family about him.
E: About what specifically?
M: Well I got into this weird argument with my stepdad about how Kanye West is an asshole, egotistical and compared himself to Michelangelo. And I was like, “why does that infuriate you? Why does it make you mad that this man is comparing himself to Michelangelo? Because he’s not a white, traditional painter?” Kanye’s a huge cultural producer who has such a crazy effect on the shit we wear and the things we listen to. The way he’s kinda brought in the black bourgeoisie…I think that pop culture is a total mirror for what’s also happening in the world. I can find out more about the state of people’s ideology from watching reality TV than watching the news. You can see fucked-up, sexist dynamics; you can see racism, you can see classism. TV and celebrity culture to me is the most truthful about where we are as a Western society.
E: Ok, I’ll talk about pop culture for like 45 minutes, but I also want to talk to you about building communities online. We’ve seen the work you and Petra [Collins] do, like the Fuck Boi Funeral [an art show where they said goodbye to fuckboys] in Miami. What was that like?
M: For the Miami thing, I wasn’t even there. We did the whole curating process and printed everything online. Petra was there and helped guide them to set it up. But most people there I have only ever talked to online. It’s the only way that I’ve ever gotten any opportunity. It’s insanely difficult to make a connection IRL in the art world because it’s so male-dominated and money-based. I think it’s so important to form those communities online. It doesn’t even have to be striking up a conversation with them. You can just follow them and then one day you might think of them for a project and you ask them and they are usually down. You don’t even have to really know them on a personal basis. They’re all real young people. We’re all just kinda broke and want to do stuff. You see their personas online and you kinda feel like you know them.
V: Last question: Do you have a dream project you want to work on?
M: Right now I’m working on something that’s kind of become like a dream because I’m really fixated on it. I’m working on a feature-length film (quote unquote, because it will not be feature-length at all).
I’m taking sound bites and clips from existing shows to show black women policing each other’s behavior. I’m drawing from notions like the “rap shit” and the “diva” and how they kinda subvert ways of normalizing black women’s bodies within a discourse of white femininity and proper behavior. It will be a lot of clips from Bad Girls Club, Flavor of Love and The Real Housewives. I’m going to try to create my own narrative and drama.
E: Hell yeah, that sounds really cool.
M: So I’m getting started on watching a lot of fucking TV for the next couple months. It’s not the worst job in the world.