Molly Steele

Carina Fushimi, Molly Steele

PHOTOS: Molly Steele

The change in perspective has helped shed light on the connections amongst tactile practices. I’m now seeing how my politics, desires, emotions, aesthetics, etc. all culminate in the bundle of art that calls for no boundary, instead of seeing it simply as a task with which I pass my time. -Molly Steele

Between now and the time that I reached out to Molly Steele, Molly has made her way from LA, where she is based, and North Dakota, where she plans to show solidarity with the mounting protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline through the winter. By now, she is in the thick of it. I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when I came across something that actually struck a chord. It was Molly’s rant that she was “sick of listening to people who aren’t fighting for anything EVER and yet who make critiques about how others choose to ACT on their unrest.” It was an angsty, full-blown rant grappling with huge issues that silently affect our world. In this case, the Dakota Access Pipeline highlights an uncomfortable intersection of many of those issues. And yet, not everyone is willing to see it all, let alone connect them, and digest what exactly this means for us and how we live our lives. Molly’s rant was not self-congratulatory, but fearlessly vulnerable and explicitly political from someone willing to be messy, raw, uncertain, conflicted: willing to be wrong, admit it, learn from it and correct it. She is self-aware of the tensions between her lifestyle and the values she’d like to embody: writing about all these questions “while I sip my freelancer latte.” I see a kindred heart, who, tired of keeping her politics out of her public realm, unleashed it and knew she couldn’t go back. From then on, all she could do was let her intuition be her compass.
Once we got the initial introductions out the way, we dove straight in. And she opened up behind the easily digestible, wild and pretty photographer image that many are drawn to her for.

I saw someone call you out for being hypocritical and telling you to reflect on your life and behavior. It seems there’s this assumption that you have to live a life that is perfectly in line with your morals, when there are lots of things that are out of your control. When we blame individuals, it’s counterproductive. Why can’t you talk about racial equality, which are matters of justice, or critique the commodification of nature, and simultaneously acknowledge that you benefit from it?
How did you become politicised about racial issues?
I grew up feeling confused about some things I was hearing about black people. My town had one small strip where the only people of color lived, as did some of the neighboring towns. My first high school, which went from grade 7 through 12, had fewer people of color than I have fingers on just one of my hands. My second high school, in a city further away, was almost the opposite and I found myself in the minority. I mention these things to paint a picture of the racial disparity I saw growing up. I heard words and phrases that made me sick to my stomach, but people made fun of me for voicing that these things made me uncomfortable. It has been a long process to identify and dismantle some of the stereotypes I was conditioned to believe; I am forever changed. What politicized and mobilized me to speak up against racism was participating in a protest against a pro-White rally in Atlanta. It was in that environment that I was able to build deep connections with people who reminded me of the absolute importance of identifying and disabling the many vessels through which racism operates. It is through these new relationships that I’ve begun to discover the lengths of my desire to support and learn how to show solidarity for others in that struggle.

Could you talk about the conflict between art and profit?
I’d first like to say, I’m very new to considering what I do as “art.” And by what I do, I’m talking about my photography, my writing, and my way of being in and of the world. I say this because it’s only from this personal connection to art that I’m considering how it functions, or doesn’t function, with profit. Many friends of mine have found great opportunities with funding that supports their art, and I see the value in that. When you are operating in a particular arena, it seems that outlets like Nowness are interested in funding projects without expecting to also brand them. If these were the kinds of relationships on the table for me, I might have a different feeling toward art and profit. However, I feel like I’m in a position where brands are looking to integrate their products into what I’m doing, and expect that the nature of the work will remain the same despite this, which is not possible. It seems as though the moment profit comes into the picture, the art no longer belongs to the artist. The art has been adulterated by capital, or an array of external forces. I don’t mean to claim that all work impressed upon by something external is anything less than it was before, or necessarily tainted. For me, I just have a hard time experiencing harmony with what I do when I’ve tried to integrate the desires of others into it, or some sort of agenda that is not wholly my own.

What shaped the shift in defining your work as “art”?
I like that you used the word ”defining,” because it was not the content itself that changed, but my way of relating it. At a certain point, I accepted that this was no longer a hobby. By understanding it as art, I’ve been able to further abstract my relationship with what I’m doing. The change in perspective has helped shed light on the connections amongst tactile practices. I’m now seeing how my politics, desires, emotions, aesthetics, etc. all culminate in the bundle of art that calls for no boundary, instead of seeing it simply as a task with which I pass my time.
I saw you briefly mentioned a decision you made (maybe a sponsorship deal) that you regret. What kind of tension did it cause that made you regret it? How have you processed this?
How has it impacted the way you see your work?
Earlier this year I licensed some photos to a company and agreed to do a couple of posts on Instagram to share the photos in conjunction with the release of the product. I figured it was a fine setup because as a part of my terms, I was able to caption the photo as I pleased, and only had to tag the brand. At the time, it seemed like a non-intrusive way to meet the needs of the brand without turning my account into some sort of low-key advertising system. The second I even started brainstorming the copy, I felt awful, not to mention how awful I felt (and still feel) after posting it. It had nothing to do with the brand, as the people behind the product were all really easy to work with. It was more that I felt like I was cheating all the people who follow my account knowing that it’s a safe place free of advertising. When it came time to make the second post, a series of more rigid-requests for copy came through from the creative team and I felt like I wasn’t able to be myself and meet their needs without compromising what I was doing. I often operate in a “no compromises” headspace when it comes to integrity, so this poses a potentially unreconcilable conflict for me moving forward.
Why is it important for you personally to create an account that is free of advertising?
Social media seems to have started as a way to share our lives in common with others beyond the boundaries of time and space. Over the years, as we further experience the reception of who we are, returned by our “audience” or “network,” I see internet presence increasingly curated. This is not a new topic of conversation…I don’t need to expand on how FOMO works, or about how lives appear more beautiful and exciting on the internet than they may be in actuality. But what I’m getting at is that I want to put a cap on how far I let myself fall into that trap, with my account. No longer are my posts as personal and carefree as they once were. I think opening it up to advertising would be full abandonment of it being an extension of myself, if that’s how we are still viewing social media, that is. Honestly, I just don’t have the carrying capacity to invest more in that world. Admittedly, though, advertising can mean many things. I do advertise the sales of my own prints and art shows, and occasionally tag a friend if a picture I’m posting happens to contain something they made. These things are personal to me, which is what I can and will make space for.
What does your “audience” expect from you?
How do you feel this pressure? How does it manifest?
I think my “audience” has come to expect that I will be someone who shares snapshots and sentiment from my life and travels, and that’s fair. But I may not always be consistent in taking or sharing a picture-perfect landscape, or a witty story. Sometimes I want to talk about politics, or friendship. Hell, sometimes I want to be able to say I just ate a really good sandwich or won 4 rounds of Uno, or read an article that really touched me. The internet can be painfully unforgiving and trolling is real. Anytime I’ve increased the intensity of rhetoric on my Instagram, for example, I’ve received texts or messages from people telling me that maybe I should not share those kinds of things on this account. I just want to broaden the complexities of my relationship with the world beyond aesthetics, and think for me personally, that it’s really important I continue to do so.
When did you realize you wanted to live off your passions?
I’m not sure that there was ever a turning point for me. Both of my parents are self-employed, so this is how I grew up relating to the world. There was, however, a time when I realized that, like my parents, following my passions was not going to be a lucrative path. That is a realization that’s been on my mind for the past several years as I watch my peers buy homes and reach different versions of success that I don’t see myself working towards.

What do you think of the idealisation of self-employment / freelancing?
I almost feel like the image of this has been quasi-commodified and gets fed to the rest of us.
The image and identity of the freelancer has definitely approached quasi-commodification in the age of the “millennial” as it were. I guess I feel like it’s been a gift for me to be able to be my own boss and support myself, though the idea of being my boss only earns so much money. At a certain point, as an artist, I either have to produce constantly to reach fine art success, or through the process of letting other people become my boss, reach commercial success. But just on the subject of being self-employed, I can’t really imagine life as an adult any other way.
When you mention receiving texts or messages telling you that you should reconsider sharing things on your account, do you think they are trying to protect you from trolling or do they not think that is the right space to talk about the issues or is it something else?
It never feels like anyone is trying to protect me. When I get comments like that, it’s generally from people who don’t think social media is the right space to talk about the issues. I find this to be outdated, and also a pretty funny attack to come at someone with on their personal Instagram. Social media has increasingly become a place for views to be shared alongside personal material, getting the word out about events, and for fostering the potential for revolution and social movements. It’s a platform where people can connect over issues with others that they may not be in spacial proximity to, or to expose some in your “audience” to issues that they may not have already heard about. Take the current and ongoing movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline that’s taking place right now in North Dakota. For many, their first introduction to this issue was through social media because mainstream media is refusing to acknowledge it, despite its extreme humanitarian, environmental, political, and cultural importance. For those that think my Instagram should remain the display of environmental beauty without also discussing the ecological and political struggles that threaten it, I say they’re asking for me to be hollow and merely aesthetic, which I cannot do. What of the Arab Spring if not for the influence of social media in collective activism?

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