Pics or It Didn’t Happen is a book of images banned from Instagram edited and curated by artists Molly Soda (@bloatedandalone4evr1993) and Arvida Byström (@arvidabystrom). That many Instagram users are routinely engaged in a posting and re-posting tug-of-war with the app comes as no surprise to those of us intimately familiar with the policing of “deviant” bodies. The kinds of images taken down by Instagram in the name of the euphemistically-titled Community Guidelines – notoriously, a period stain, or a tuft of pubic hair – mostly feature somewhere along a spectrum of nonconformity, of reality in “excess”. Pics is a glossy, baby-pink ode to such banned content – to the so-deemed unacceptable excesses of the digital realm.
Throughout our three-way Skype session, L.A.-based Arvida makes breakfast, clanging pots and pans, and New York-based Molly sits in front of a sparkly purple and pink curtain – a surreal and fitting stage for our discussion of Internet performativity and visible/invisible histories.
In her foreword to Pics or It Didn’t Happen, writer and critic Chris Kraus writes that the book “began as a graveyard, a ceremony for the lost photos.” The curation inherent in archival processes can work to kill histories, bury them, or resurrect them. If they hadn’t made the book, Molly says, the censored images “would just have been buried.” Arvida suggests that “putting something in a book is almost like killing it.” Historicizing the images is an act of entombment, a way to say, in Arvida’s words: “these photos were dead, they weren’t allowed, they have now entered history.” However, Pics or It Didn’t Happen seeks to fill some of the holes left gaping by dominant history – an act that enshrines its texts into a living history. Pics, Molly says, hopes to broaden the discourse surrounding “things that are deleted from our memories online.” The title of the book speaks to this in its clever nod to the importance of the visible (and the potency of that which is no longer visible) in the digital age.
In their introduction, Molly and Arvida write that when an image is banned from Instagram, it “burns a hole in our feeds.” Their decision to combat digital censorship with a more archaic archival form – the book – speaks to a broader association of the digital realm with evanescence. Molly believes “people still prize physical objects more than digital objects,” and thus, in the face of censorship, the book form “elevates all of that imagery.” She goes on: “We were like, if you’re gonna completely remove [these images] then we’re gonna put them in a book that’s going to outlast your platform.” Arvida echoes this, noting that creating a book “is a way to give [the images] importance,” and to also place them within an art historical context.
In addition to contacting artists they knew whose images had been censored, Molly and Arvida reached out to their tens of thousands of Instagram followers for submissions to Pics. In their introduction to the book, they write: “A common theme among the photographs submitted to us is the types of bodies pictured: primarily white-passing, thin, cisgender. This leads us to wonder: who feels more entitled to post these kinds of images?” This is echoed in critic Merray Gerges’ essay for the book. Gerges notes: “The nonchalance with which these users are able to post in the first place is a privilege.” That taking a nude selfie is not an inherently empowering act – and that it has different stakes for different people – is something the editors are adamant about. “There’s a certain white girl body that is seen to have agency,” Arvida says, whereas “people of color are seen as not having any agency.” Molly nods, adding that white women taking provocative selfies are perceived by society as “more “empowered”” (she does sarcastic air quotes) than their POC counterparts. “It is really interesting to see who feels comfortable posting what.”
This manufactured divide between “safe” or “acceptable” bodies, and “dangerous” or “unacceptable” bodies is addressed several times throughout the book’s essays. Arvida calls Instagram’s relationship to bodies “pretty Catholic.” Like Catholicism, Instagram “[shames] bodies and sexuality, especially when it comes to female and femme-y bodies.” Unsurprisingly, the kinds of images censored by Instagram feature “anything that’s a bit deviant from something we’re used to seeing, and anything that can be sexualized,” says Molly. She adds: “And I do feel like certain bodies are more sexualized than others.”
I ask them about their respective relationships to social media and the Internet, given that much of the work they do is either online or in reference to the Internet as a medium. Arvida says that she “grew up” and “kind of came of age” online, and that the Internet was really important for her when she was younger, “being a teen and depressed.” Molly notes that Instagram “has a very palpable way of making people feel bad,” but that it’s a “necessary evil.” They both agree that the app is problematic, however as a freelancer it’s potentially “more important than a website” as a brand or artistic showcase.
In her introductory essay to Pics or It Didn’t Happen, UCLA Information Studies scholar Sarah T. Roberts writes that Instagram “is not a gallery, or a living room, or a shared private space among friends – despite masquerading as such.” I note how strange it is that digital space can feel private even in cases where it’s very much public. Arvida acknowledges that Internet surveillance makes it feel “as if people were allowed to storm into your house.” Molly adds that there’s a pervasive element of performance, a tension between “interacting with [platforms like Instagram] privately, but [dealing] with it as if it were very public space in a lot of ways.”
The Internet, says Molly, “is just a reflection of the real world.” adding: “originally there was this idea of escapism allotted to the Internet, like, you can be whoever you wanna be…” Arvida suggests that “even though the Internet now is so commercialized and corporatized, that could still be true,” but that it’s harder to have aliases now because “brands want to keep track of you and see you as a coherent being.” Molly notes: “I think it’s just how anything goes, everything gets privatized and more corporate and more capitalist, so I think originally the internet maybe had better intentions or we were a little bit more idealistic because we were like, this isn’t real, this isn’t a reflection of our reality.”