Slava Mogutin’s very queer, very NSFW response to online censorship

The Russian refugee opens his archive of banned images for an online exhibition with Tom of Finland.

In 1995, Siberia-born artist Slava Mogutin became the first person granted political asylum in the United States for homophobic persecution in Russia. Now based in New York, Mogutin has redoubled his commitment to cementing candid, unapologetic queer visibility as a political imperative. To that end, Slava Mogutin: XXX files, an ongoing digital exhibition presented by Tom of Finland, surveys two decades of Mogutin’s work within the context of social media censorship. The show features a selection of never-before-seen works as well as images deleted or banned from various social media platforms: from a portrait of acclaimed writer Edmund White to images of young go-go dancers and occasional hustlers in Berlin and London. Following the opening of the show, the artist spoke with Document about the inadvertent timeliness of the exhibition, the importance of cross-generational queer representation, and community-oriented alternatives to the current social media landscape.

Clara Malley—How did the concept for displaying your work within the context of social media censorship come about?

Slava Mogutin—Well this is something I’ve been working on for quite some time. Tom of Finland approached me a few months ago and offered a chance to share images that were either banned or taken down on social media. Censorship is a very sensitive issue for me because I was exiled from Russia because of censorship and lately it’s been this troubling trend on social media. This was kind of the perfect chance to showcase the work that was impossible on many other platforms. [Coincidently,] the show was launched on December 18—the day after Tumblr deleted all adult content from their platform.

Clara—I was curious about your take on the Tumblr ban and what do you think is motivating the broader wave of censorship policies that Craigslist, Instagram, and others have instituted. Do you see solutions for artists, especially queer artists?

Slava—I must say it wasn’t a big surprise to me. In my view, it reflects the general cultural and political climate in the country—where US-based corporations become the Big Brothers. Looking back on the early use of internet, you remember this kind of lawless time when there was creative freedom online. On the other hand, [explicit material] was also accessible to minors. So I understand the concerns. I feel like there should be constructive dialogue about the ways to approach these issues. For artists like myself who work with the human form and human body—independent, kind of transgressive artists—I feel like there must be some kind of distinction. When Tumblr announced it was going to take down the content, it was kind of a wakeup call for people. It signals the need for an alternative. I feel like we’re way overdue.

Slava Mogutin’s very queer, very NSFW response to online censorship
Slava Mogutin’s very queer, very NSFW response to online censorship

Left: Slava Mogutin, Ass Train, NYC, 1999. Right: Slava Mogutin, June Boysroom, NYC, 2006.

Clara—I completely agree. I think my frustration is with the hypocrisy of sites censoring user-generated material while claiming they are platforms not publications, so can’t police all content. Obviously that all came to a head after the 2016 election.

Slava—Definitely. Exactly. That’s the irony of it. This censorship goes hand-in-hand with the fact that Facebook has complete control over our personal data, which they use and sell as they choose. It’s just part of the same problem, in my view, because there’s no arbitrary mechanism for people to have control and monitor what’s happening with their personal data, but also there’s no way for people to make any kind of appeals to these decisions. Honestly, we spent most of the last century fighting for our rights and acceptance only to find out now, in the 21st century, we’re being bullied and censored by trolls and robots. I think it’s a shame [social media companies] spend so much effort and so many resources on this useless process. It basically substitutes the real content with this sterile, castrated version that has been sold to us as the only acceptable moral norm.

Clara—Where do you think your exhibition departs from the representations of queer life typically viable online?

Slava—For me [the exhibition] was kind of an attempt to present different generations—from queer youth to people like Edmund White. I tried to present as diverse a selection as possible in terms of the geography of places but also in terms of [age]. The youngest of the subjects is 18 and the oldest is 78, so there’s a 60 year generational arc that I cover in the series. I’m particularly proud of it.

I find that a lot of imagery related to queer culture is so heavily youth-focused. I was trying to kind of present a little more diverse selection because I really enjoy working with mature people because they don’t give a fuck [Laughs]. It’s very refreshing because, funny enough, they’re not the most obvious subjects of portraiture or nudes. But I really find it important to engage that audience. People like them were the pioneers of queer culture, and I really feel we have so much to learn from them because they are the most dismissive of social media. They don’t care about social media.

Slava Mogutin’s very queer, very NSFW response to online censorship
Slava Mogutin’s very queer, very NSFW response to online censorship

Left: Slava Mogutin, Andre and Tobias Piss, Berlin, 2000. Right: Slava Mogutin, Andre and Tobias Spit, Berlin, 2000.

Clara—Absolutely. I was wondering what it was like for you to revisit works of yours created before the rise of social media. Do you think the experience shifted your perspective on social media’s impact on creative practice?

Slava—I do think there are some aspects of social media that are very constructive. I did discover a lot of great artists that I wouldn’t know otherwise if not for Facebook, Instagram, or Tumblr for that matter. But when it comes to the creative process, I don’t think of any particular audience or any particular outlet. I’ve been making art years before social media. I would never calculate any images or work to satisfy the so-called community guidelines.

I really consider myself fortunate that, unlike most queer artists, I can exhibit in a physical space, but I’m well aware that the large majority of queer artists don’t have that luxury. Social media is basically the only tool available for showing their work. I feel like it forces users into this really kind of robotic, dehumanizing direction. Everything human, everything sensual and sexual, is being banned.

In the meantime, the platform the Tom of Finland store is trying to create is really the future. Our community right now is so fragmented because of this situation. Many artists I know have had their profiles deleted and lost the work they were posting for large periods of time. We need to come up with something a little more practical—not this mechanism that concerns itself entirely with what the corporation needs from the users, but the other way around. Art should be created by the community for the community.

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