The Screen is a Structure: Jake Foster on Webcam Aesthetics & New Projects
Updated: May 14, 2021
Jake Foster sat down with Sydney Vize to discuss his artwork in the 2021 Art+Design MFA Thesis Exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum, on view until Saturday, April 24th. Foster's practice utilizes performance, sculpture, drawing, photography, and new media to explore queer desire and digital sex work.
Sydney Vize: First off, congratulations on the show. It looks great, and I thought we could start by talking about the install process and the piece selection, how that shifted over time as you were installing.
Jake Foster: Yeah, it shifted a lot in the beginning. I originally wanted to have a rear projection to show some photography, which didn't work out. I ended up rearranging everything several times, which was a headache. But it was also fun and part of the process.
SV: I would imagine that makes it feel like a bigger deal when it's done – having had to work it out in the space rather than just plopping everything in there and it's done and complete and perfect.
JF: It was great that we had two weeks to install. I could go through the whole process of figuring out what worked and how I could best present the work.
SV: And now that the show is complete and open, your book that is featured in the show is still in the process of being produced and will be done this summer, is that right?
JF: Exactly. I was awarded a $2,000 grant from the School of Art + Design at UIUC for graduate thesis research. With it, I am producing a photo book on my project Webcam Aesthetics, which includes digital screenshots of webcam studios, spaces where sex workers livestream erotic shows via webcam. The rooms in the photos are empty, taken during the models' momentary absence. The book will be self-published in a small edition of 24, all produced locally. The book will be bound by Lincoln Bindery in Urbana, printed by Dixion Graphics in Champaign, and use paper from French Paper in Michigan. I am beyond excited to work with each of these companies. I’ve wanted to turn this project into a photobook since the project began in 2019, but I had to find the right people to work with. Several years ago I tried to make a quick photo book just to see if the format would work.
JF: No, at first I tried to order one online from Walmart. I was ordering it quickly. I just wanted to see a very simple, single copy in a couple days of turnover.
SV: To see their physical life.
JF: Yes. I wanted to feel what it was like flipping through the images instead of going through them in a browser or tab. So I went to Walmart before Hal Fischer came to visit in fall of 2019. And I was about to pick up the book, and I got a call from Walmart, expecting it to be ready. But instead, they told me that my book was obscene, pornographic, and they would not produce it. They already made it, but they would destroy the book.
SV: Too obscene for Walmart?
JF: Yes. And there's no bodies in these images, and it just really blew my mind how images that have no bodies can still be seen as pornographic. These objects, these spaces are so potent because they include fetishized objects with a proximity to pornography.
SV: And a proximity to the body too.
JF: Yes, and so they were still considered obscene.
SV: Did they mention anything specific when they said they were going to destroy your book? Was it the presence of sex toys that were distinguishable in the spaces that made them decide that the whole thing was obscene?
JF: Maybe it was some of that, but I also think it was a conservative viewpoint in general. I have the recording saved that they left me in which they tell me the project is against Walmart's morals and policy.
SV: Wow. I’m wondering what first clued them in. Maybe this is a reductive way to say it, but you know, how R-rated can something be before Walmart kicks it out of their print queue?
JF: Yeah, exactly. And it's a form of censorship too. Even worse, I experienced a period of self-censorship afterwards. I felt infuriated and embarrassed. I didn't want to have another place reject the project.
SV: And that kind of censorship or unavailability has weird ties to money and class too. I did want to ask about how capital functions in your work. It seems to me like capital comes in and out of focus with your processes. It's certainly always a key part of your subject matter, but in the individual pieces, sometimes it's an explicit part of your practice, like with your drawings that are in the Krannert right now. And then other times it seems like money is a bit of a ghost, like in Webcam Aesthetics.
JF: Capitalism is always present in all of my art about digital sex work. My biggest development with this work for the last three years has been learning to talk about sex work well, being able to navigate the conversation. There are the oppression and empowerment paradigms that come up when talking about sex work, and many people feel very strongly one way or the other. I strongly advocate for decriminalization. Scholars, activists, and sex workers themselves tell us the negative affects policing and regulation have on their health and safety. But no matter how much I am drawn to the webcam rooms, and how much I love the technosexual experience of interacting sexually with someone online (whether it's through the webcam, Snapchat, or OnlyFans), all of it still exists within the fraught systems of racism, capitalism, homophobia, etcetera. So it isn't perfect, and all these platforms are made by programmers and people in big tech companies. These people think a certain way and that’s the way that they set up their websites and their apps. These decisions really impact people, and it most often negatively impacts marginal communities including non-White and queer people.
SV: How about how capital functions as part of your practice? As part of your interactions with these models? In the museum, there’s a clear and direct explanation of exchange of capital between you and the models in your drawings in Tracing Desire. And I guess that's the big difference that I see between that and your process for Webcam Aesthetics – in Webcam Aesthetics, it's in this context of exchange of capital but not necessarily with you as part of that process.
JF: There’s been a huge shift in how I've seen my own complicity. I have a background as a webcam model, but when I began Webcam Aesthetics I assumed a detached, anthropological, documentarian point of view. Now I've been reframing my conversation to talk about how my own desire is an integral part of my work. It's not strictly an anthropological or documentarian process.
SV: Sure, not everything that crosses your desk gets documented. It's your curation, your tracking. To me it seems like what you're drawn to, surely it relates - being drawn to a person, desire for a person, and interest in their surroundings. That connection seems to me to be a big part of what that project means, what those images can hold.
JF: That's also another reason why this project is a “counter-archive” or “queer archive”. It's not strictly an archival project with very clear decisions, it’s idiosyncratic. Even the way it's made - the fact that the images are screenshots. I realized how my own desire plays a part in that, but an exchange of capital wasn’t involved with the screenshots. I have about a thousand images now. And waiting for the models’ momentary absence takes time.
SV: That step in your process involves the models taking a moment to exit naturally? You don’t ask “oh hey, can you leave for a second?”
JF: I tried that! Sometimes language barriers would present an issue. But I also found that it's very rude to ask someone to leave while the camera is on. Even if you try to explain to them that you're doing a photographic art project, it is still a bizarre request.
SV: I would imagine that in that situation being asked to do something that's very much out of the ordinary might clock differently. Or that someone might have set parameters of what they will and won't do, and leaving the room is not on the will-do list.
JF: Exactly. Webcam models are always on the watch for people who try to take advantage of them or record their shows. Though I do capture a part of their show, it's functioning in a way that the model didn't intend that also protects their identity. In graduate Art History seminars with Erin Reitz and Terri Weissman, I read Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019), and began thinking about how the act of taking a photo of someone in an anthropological context is violent. So I'm trying to do this in a way that is as respectful to the people involved as possible.
SV: Even if an element of invasion still exists in the project, it makes sense that you've set the hard rule of limiting that invasion in terms of not capturing a person or their likeness and only capturing the space. It does seem like questions of invasion probably aren’t going to go away. The person isn't there, but they become part of the process, part of the set of rules that you have for this project.
JF: Yes. And when I began the drawing project, I felt just how different the act of drawing is than photographing.
SV: And with the drawings money is involved.
JF: Yes. With Tracing Desire, I talk with the models one-on-one, they know I’m drawing them, and sometimes I send them the drawings afterwards. There are several models who I showed my work to and have talked to quite a bit. They know of the thesis show and have seen pictures of it installed in the museum. They're all excited that they are a part of it. It’s all very different from Webcam Aesthetics.
SV: The differences in context for the two modes of capturing is palpably different, especially when the two series are right next to each other like they are in the museum.
JF: I've been doing a lot of thinking about how abstraction is a mode of communicating things that might get censored. Especially when these are very sexual images. Some of the earliest drawings I did were very sexual and pornographic– they weren't traced, they were just done from observation. And they were beautiful.
SV: Then what prompted the switch to tracing?
JF: After the observational drawings, I had the idea that I could trace the models live as they moved. I love figurative abstraction, especially figurative abstraction that suggests movement, but sometimes it can seem contrived to me. I needed a conceptual backing for the process, and I found it.
SV: And there’s a possibility within abstraction to conceal, or to maybe slip something through the cracks, or have a kind of plausible deniability. Like how abstract does something need to be to get past the Walmart censors and be printed without being destroyed?
JF: It's also scary doing these drawings because since I'm drawing on a semi-transparent piece of plastic over my screen, I can't see what the drawing looks like while I'm doing it!
SV: That must also mean that you can’t really see the screen clearly while you draw either. You have to just kind of exist in that intermediary space and follow what you can see.
JF: I love the way you described that. I think these drawings are in part about the screen relationship, the physical realness of the screen.
SV: What that tactile thing is, what closeness can be.
JF: Yes. And sometimes it gets so dense that I have to start drawing with my eraser. Tracing Desire is also very expensive, because I pay the models. And I try to pay them generously but don't have a lot of money. I spent over $300 on this project but only got 8 drawings that I could use.
SV: Interesting, having the exchange add to this pressure I would imagine you felt not being able to totally see what you're doing, and just saying "oh god I hope this is good."
JF: It’s funny because, knowing what it's like on the other side of the webcam, I know that there is a pressure to perform. And now that I am in the role of a viewer who is also drawing, there's a pressure to perform on both sides! Especially when the model asks to view the drawing afterwards... sometimes they just don’t like it.
SV: That's interesting. Even if then the power relationship is of course still not entirely equal, it makes the exchange more complicated. In terms of longevity of both of these projects, are these processes that you think you're going to continue? Is Webcam Aesthetics concluded with the book, or is it something that you think will move past the book and into the future?
JF: I'm thinking about it, but I'm not sure. I think that completing the book will be an end to a chapter of the project at least. I do like how the project spans over a year before the pandemic and a year after the start of it.
SV: The way that it's tracking desire and sex with evolving modes of connection, it seems like the project could map a lot of different types of changes. It already did map this big global change when the pandemic hit, but longer term could also track how sex and sex work evolve alongside changes in technology, or changes in interior design trends, or whatever else.
JF: When I first started, there were a lot of cams still presenting in a different aspect ratio, and now they've all uniformly moved to the newer aspect ratio. And most of them were, 720 pixels and now they're up to 1080 and more. It also does document trends in interior design, like how Gen Z is curating bedrooms to be able to show TikTok dances well. TikTok rooms really are kind of like webcam spaces in a different way. Or even how professors are curating their offices to be able to present a Zoom lecture, so Webcam Aesthetics is like all those other spaces, but to another degree.
SV: Different sets of things are at stake. You mentioned this earlier - you use the term technosexual in connection with a lot of your projects. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JF: I’m using “technosexual” in the same context which Nicholas Korody uses the term in an essay on e-flux about webcam rooms called Intimate Distance: The Technosexual Architecture of Camming. I think it's a perfect term to talk about this merging of digital technologies and sexuality. The term communicates how digital technologies are allowing us to have a new kind of sex with one another. This digital interaction that we're having isn't the same as pornography, it's actual sex that we're having across a thousand miles. Angela Jones, the author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry (2020) writes that “mutual masturbation online does not cease to be a sex act because it occurred in cyberspace.” I also look to Angela Jones’ work because she is adamant that that this type of work is sex, and though it can be beautiful and a safer form of sex work, it is also fraught with complications.
SV: I don't want to leave your upholstery project out of our conversation – you said that you started learning that process relatively recently, right? What did you first start making?
JF: I was interested in upholstery because I realized that webcam models are fabricating their own webcam studios. In many cases, many of the objects in the rooms are from DIY interior design tutorials. There are whole blogs dedicated to making your own webcam studio and how to make your own cheap headboards. I started watching the same YouTube tutorials that the webcam models and webcam studio managers watch. And then I started doing them myself because I was interested in using upholstery as a sculptural material. I was interested in how certain materials are very sexually loaded and fetishized, and have some kind of power in a way. The black leather one was the first one I worked on.
SV: I'm sure that becomes something in this survey of spaces too, that some motifs are jumping out at you all the time. Animal print, black leather, red velvet, things like that.
JF: Latex, red suede, glitter, gold...
SV: This idea of what’s lush, what's sexy can be shared. So then was Strip Tease the first headboard that you made, or was that a different black leather piece?
JF: Yeah, it was the first. In its first iteration, it was a different piece which I titled Intimate Distance which had a video embedded in it. Then I wanted to change it up, so I stripped it to reveal the pegboard underneath. Making a DIY headboard is very easy to do with a pegboard backing, because you already have the holes ready and measured for the buttons to be sewn through. But I loved using the pegboard as a sculptural object that I can move objects around on. I went to the museum when it was closed, and I put a whole bunch of different objects on it. I love the possibility for it to do that.
SV: It having come to its current state through an iterative process, and then to be so explicitly open to further iterations is exciting.
JF: Yeah, exactly. I’m not as interested in sculpture that’s static. I like it to be interactive or kinetic in some way. It has a life to it.
SV: Are you still writing your thesis? Is the text in the Webcam Aesthetics book a sampling from your thesis?
JF: Yes, it's going to be the thesis.
SV: In its entirety?
JF: Correct. And while the thesis is just about Webcam Aesthetics, there will be an afterword about where that project has led me. This project is visible in my performance art, in my drawings, and my sculptures. It's been an opening for me. But yes, the written thesis is what's next, and that will be self-published in the book in May/June. It’s going to have an ISBN and everything. But I think it's those types of other projects that will come next.
SV: Yeah, that's going to be interesting to follow those paths.
JF: And I’m thinking about ways to bring these projects into applications for residences, exhibitions, and other opportunities. Many of my plans for future work have to do with having a synthesis of my modes of making that involves videos of performance within sculpture.
SV: Well, it seems like a lot of your sculptures tend to come out of the screen. Like how the upholstery came from this online observation of space and then moved into three-dimensional “reality,” right? And similarly too with your drawings, which aren't three-dimensional in the same way, but they take up space differently than the screen and come off of the screen directly too.
JF: Yes! Which is the same reason why I present the performance Sacrament for a Pandemic on a deconstructed screen: so the digital is visible as a structure. The screen is a structure and an architecture that we see the world through. Sometimes we just think of it as a window, but it has a physical presence. That mode of seeing transforms everything in a way that I think we need to be aware of.
Jake Foster (he, him, his) earned a BA in Art at Rutgers University-Camden in 2017 and will receive a MFA in Studio Art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2021. Foster’s work has been selected by curators such as Harry Cooper (Head of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Art) and Michael Blackson (Director of Exhibitions, Tyler Contemporary). He has had solo exhibitions at the Noyes Museum of Art at Stockton University and at The Delaware Contemporary in Wilmington, Delaware.
Sydney Vize (she, her) is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her BA in Studio Art and Literary Studies in 2015 from Beloit College.