Molly Soda talks about digital performance art, intimate labor, and Detroit

Molly Soda talks about digital performance art, intimate labor, and Detroit

Who is Molly Soda? The 26-year-old artist—easily recognizable for her prominent eyebrows, nose ring, rodent sidekicks, and sparkly GIF accessories—has lived many different lives and has had small eruptions of fame for everything from dancing with Grimes to having her photography pulled out of a Dumpster and displayed in a gallery by another artist.

She was one of the first artists to sell the sort of DIY digital art that’s typically given away for free. She’s been called a “YouTube star” and a “Tumblr sensation.” Rolling Stone listed her as one of “50 Things That Millennials Know That Gen-Xers Don’t,” and whether or not you trust Rolling Stone as your authority on 20-something tastes, Molly Soda’s work epitomizes a powerful strain of the multimedia, curated, animated, interactive zeitgeist of the 2010s.

It’s not just the gallery scene that’s starting to embrace Molly Soda and the Net-centric group of artists with whom she shares her practice: in a list posted to BuzzFeed’s Community section, a user points out how Molly Soda’s self-exploratory, unapologetic, sometimes anarchic yet deeply sincere modus operandi has been the direction in which Miley Cyrus’s compass has been pointing during her Bangerz-era transformation from polished pop star to free citizen of the Internet.

I called Molly Soda at her home base in Detroit, and we talked about her college-town upbringing, her art-but-not-art-school education, and her busy schedule of present and future projects.

Molly Soda Rat

Let’s start from the beginning. I read that you grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and your parents were both professors. What did they teach? Do they still live there?

Yes, and they’re still in Bloomington. They’ve been there for a long time. My dad’s a Spanish professor, and my mom’s in the Department of Speech and Hearing. Specifically, she’s in speech pathology.

How was it, growing up in Bloomington?

It was cool—pretty suburban. There’s a nice mix there. It’s a college town, and a liberal kind of place, which is cool because I had a lot of access to music and interesting things to do. When people think of Indiana, they think it must feel like the middle of nowhere, which it doesn’t.

And then you went to NYU. How did you decide to go there?

I wanted to get a degree in photography. When I was in high school, I didn’t even think I wanted to go into art at all, until I took a photography class at Indiana University, super randomly, and I became obsessed. I decided I wanted to do photography, and I started looking at schools that have photography programs but aren’t art schools. I didn’t want a program with a foundations year or anything like that. Once I was at NYU, I realized I didn’t only want to do photography—I started doing video work, Web design, and other stuff. When you’re 17 and trying to figure out what to do with your life, it’s overwhelming; I wasn’t open to other forms of art until I went to school and realized I can’t just think in pictures.

But you graduated with a degree in photography.

Yes, in 2011. My thesis project was Tween Dreams.

Then you moved to Chicago?

Yeah. I’d just graduated, and I didn’t want to stay in New York—I like to move around quite a bit. I wanted to move somewhere new, to live in a different city and see how it was. I knew some people in Chicago, so I moved there. I enjoyed it; I was there for two years.

And you moved to Detroit, in fall 2013. How did that happen?

It was the most impulsive move I’ve ever made. I didn’t plan on moving here. I had just quit my retail job in summer 2013, and I decided I wanted to support myself full-time as an artist. I was working at a vintage store, and I sort of realized I wasn’t making as much work and I wasn’t as happy with it. I decided I’d rather make what I like and be broke. My lease had ended and I’d just broken up with a serious boyfriend, so all things were pointing for me to move. I’d been to Detroit once, super randomly, in February 2013—I went to a monster truck rally. I met some people and I went back to visit, and I enjoyed Detroit so much that I decided to say.

Has it been good, living in Detroit?

Oh yeah, 100%. Everything fell beautifully into place when I moved here. I was super broke and living out of a duffel bag for a while, but then I started putting more work out and people were receptive—I started getting more of a response.

Is there a strong artists’ community there?

Detroit’s pretty amazing. It’s super small-town vibes, in a way. Everyone’s great, very receptive and supportive. Not all of my friends are artists, but everyone’s super genuine and sincere. It’s an easy place to make friends: there’s no air of pretension, no social climbing, no exclusivity or VIP parties. You don’t feel like people are always sizing you up—I always felt that in New York. There are good vibes here, good energy. Everyone’s very positive, willing to help—willing to be a friend.

Is the community of artists growing?

I think so. As an artist, I live here cheap. It’s low-key. I travel a lot, so it’s nice to have this be my home base. People aren’t as ready to move here, though, because the city itself has such poor infrastructure and there’s not a lot of opportunity. There’s no public transit, no high-paying jobs. It’s not a high-density city, and that’s less inviting to some people.


You’re known as a photographer, a blogger, a GIF maker, a YouTube star…the list goes on. How would you describe yourself now?

I think I’m a bit of a performance artist. The work that I do, the way I interact with people on the Internet, is very performative. When you think of “performance,” you think of things that aren’t sincere, but what I do isn’t fake. I’m super stoked with the reception I get online. I feed off people seeing my work; I feed off my social media interactions. It’s positive reinforcement, and even when it’s not positive, it’s a push to keep me going.

How would you say your work has changed over the years?

It’s just become more all-encompassing. Before, when I was in school, I was doing things for school. I took a video art class, and a Web design class…my mind was blown by websites that existed purely as pieces of art, like 90s Net art. I was super interested in the idea that you could have a picture that wasn’t a painting or a photograph: something that just existed for the Internet. None of the work I’ve made recently, apart from zines, has been physical. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, though there are images involved in my work: I’m not shooting on a nice camera, I’m not making prints.

Do you think the art world is catching up with your style of work?

It’s come a long way. I think that before, I would never have understood how or why anyone would want to buy digital work. I’ve sold a decent amount of my work, so people are more receptive—but it’s not commonplace. A lot of digital artists still incorporate physical media: a lot of artists will still do paintings, but digitally. Paintings, prints, things they can sell…which is smart, and I’m not against that in any way. I don’t mind things being physical, but what enticed me about digital art was access. Because you have these tools readily available to you, and you don’t have to go buy expensive equipment, it’s lowbrow in a way that’s important and special.

I can make work and anyone can see it, which is really important to me. There are artists who make more physical pieces that I enjoy, but being in a gallery is its own thing—a bit stuffy. There’s something intimate about being on a computer watching a video—it’s more private, and more comfortable. I’m reaching people in a different way.

What’s something someone’s said about your work that made you think, “They don’t get it,” and, on the other hand, something that’s been said that you agree with?

The interesting thing is that when people are negative about me, they’re mostly negative about me as a person—not so much about the work, because the work is so much tied in to me. My YouTube page has like 300 videos of me doing whatever—and it’s me, so people feel like they know me, and that’s fine, I don’t mind. It’s hard to explain, but most people who are negative are commenting more about what I’m doing personally than what my work is saying to them.

In terms of positive reactions, one of the most interesting things that’s been said was in an interview, when someone described the work as “emotional labor” or “intimate labor.” I’d never thought of that, but I researched the phrase and it’s about people who do work that is personal in a way that’s comforting…just someone existing in a way that’s very personal. This idea of intimate labor just seems interesting—I feel like it’s my job to be someone that’s there to help people, in a way. I feel it’s almost my responsibility to be sincere, honest, open with people. It sparks a nice chain reaction of sincerity, love, and openness. If I’m talking about something that makes me insecure, that sparks a chain reaction—people say thank you for putting into words what I’ve been feeling.

You’ve been at the center of some interesting debates about image and ownership on the Internet, but your philosophy seems to be “make something first, figure the money part out later.” Does that sound right?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve always been like, yeah, this is what I’m going to do and I hope people will want to buy it. My approach has been money-later, but I’ve been lucky.

What artists do you most admire? Who influenced you?

A lot of people. Ryan Trecartin’s videos inspired me to pursue making video-based work. They’re consistently good, they’re perfect. Other people who have inspired me are other female artists who are online doing their own things. Petra Cortwright is someone who made me realize it’s possible to make money from being a digital artist. I’m just constantly into other people I want to collaborate with. I like the Internet because it allows access to so many artists—I don’t shy away from that.

So what gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you enjoy most?

I get excited about everything. I get excited about making work in general, so I start a lot of new projects and that can cause me to spread myself thin: I’ll start working on a project, and then haphazardly forget about it. The biggest thing, for me, is to just keep a good living situation. I’m not going to make work if I’m depressed. I get excited by my interactions online—reading e-mails, just silly stuff—but I like interacting with people IRL too.

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on curating a show with my friend Vivian Fu, who’s a photographer living in California, and another artist named Arvida Bystrom. The three of us are working on getting a show together, but we’re just in the beginning stages—the show is hopefully happening in the fall. I’m also getting ready to go to SXSW, where I’m going to be on a panel called “Making Art While Entertaining the Internet.” I’m planning a bunch of other stuff to do while I’m there. I’m working with New Hive to curate a show that’s going to happen in a hotel room—it will be an all-day thing, like a lounge situation.

I’m working on more video pieces…I’m working on a series of videos where I follow YouTube tutorial videos. I’m doing a bunch of “natural” makeup videos: no-makeup makeup videos. I’m interested by the idea of pretending to be natural, of faking naturalness, of trying to blend in, of faking intimacy—the idea of working at something that should come naturally. The videos have been a financial investment too, since I’m buying all the products to see how much it costs to “be natural.” That’s ongoing, and next Tuesday they’ll all officially go live on New Hive. That’s been kind of fun—just an idea that popped into my head that’s been cool. My perspective on the videos has changed a bit. At first, I thought they were funny, but I like how much love and care each girl puts into her face—which is beautiful. I’ll put the same care in, but I look and feel different. I’m interested in different ideas of what makes different women feel comfortable and natural.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I hope I’ll be doing something similar, but maybe a bit more established. I don’t know…in ten years, I would like to be owning my own house. Being comfortable, warm and fuzzy. I can’t say. Even two years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be who I am today. Mentally, I feel like my life has changed so much, even my work has evolved a lot, so I don’t even know where I’ll be in ten years: that’s an overwhelming question. I feel really comfortable with where I am now, and hopefully in ten years I’ll feel even better.

Jay Gabler