Vasilisa Forbes' latest project, WAXCHICK, is a brilliant, thought-provoking look at the way women are perceived with modern media. A talented London based visionary, Vasilisa subversively breaks down public perceptions of women with bold imagery and evocative film. The public art campaign and short film mainly features images of herself, and takes on the negative stereotypes attached to women and their sexuality. Vasilisa's work is in reference to her inspiration Linda Benglis, an artist who spoke out on the under-representation of women within the artistic community. She is known for her controversial Artforum advertisement (which featured Benglis naked with a latex dildo and a pair of sunglasses.) WAXCHICK uses pop-art and hyper-sexualised visuals displayed on public billboards, to change perceptions and empower women. We caught up with Vasilisa recently to get to get to know the artist behind the project, check it out below.
CM: Hey Vasilisa, thanks for talking with us! Could you start by telling us what you do and where you’re from?
Vasilisa: Hey! Great to talk with you. I'm originally from Russia but grew up in London and have been here since around 1996 which has seen its ups and downs. Now I'm rather keen to escape London just as most other people.
I am a film maker, photographer and visual artist and am working on an outdoor public art campaign called WAXCHICK which looks at the representation of women in pop media and consumer culture. I also just set up a production company called First Films and have been working in film, photo editing and the arts. Waxchick is my biggest focus atm and will be expanding into outdoor media, sculpture and performance.
CM: What gear do you use to shoot your images/film?
V: I sometimes work with others or alone but have been working with a team for Waxchick. I tend to use Canon gear and on the first part of the series we worked with canon 5D mark II or III to create both stills and film. This time we used both the Canon 5D but also the Phase One which is a pretty incredible piece of kit and retails at 20,000 pounds. Nuts. That was thanks to our photographer friend Dom Romney who usually spends his time shooting cars for Landrover, but agreed to help out on the Waxchick part II series with filmmaker Rory Mckellar.
CM: How long have you been creating for? What made you start?
V: I think for most creatives its usually something you are always interested in and probably from childhood, for me its similar. I was drawing from an early age (as all kids are) but was also encouraged into the arts by my mother who was very interested in all things creative. My first area of focus was dance and painting. I also did music so it was a very much all-rounder introduction and those skills continued into adulthood- so until focusing entirely on visual arts I was performing wtih music and acting, I was drawing and painting etc. I chose filmmaking and visual as it felt most powerful and in tune with my skills but also as in film you can merge performance, music and visual in one.
CM: SO How would you describe yourself? Are you a visual artist? Filmmaker? Photographer? All or neither?
V: I think it doesn't matter really, those labels are for people who want an answer but I'm basically someone that was brought up learning skills in all those areas and who enjoys all those areas. Jack of all trades master of none perhaps but I don't believe it. I love the richness of enjoyment and activity that comes from variety. I love variety so I couldn't settle for one option. But visual artists encompass most of those other visual practices.
CM: What would you say defines an artist?
V: Maybe the ability to think differently and take risks? Its a life-long, century old debate really but I think perhaps a way of thinking that is truly not forced in its difference - you can of course copy visual imagery and be trained into certain areas of practice but I think theres a certain mindset that is within you that can't be 'trained' or learned. And it isn't necessarily desirable but its just an additional uniqueness that basically means you are slightly mad, or madder, than those around you. You can't be a sane artist its not possible. Then you're more of a craft-ist or have a talent. Maybe artist just means 'mad person with some skills' and a lot of vanity to make them desire that.
CM: You feature a lot within your WAX CHICK series. What’s it like in the studio? Do you work alone?
V: I use myself mainly at the moment because thats the message - the message is about the self, woman-hood. Thats not what the series is about but it is what using myself means. Also I feel that that way the message is more honest - because I know what I want to portray in the posture, gaze etc, so its more authentic, and true to the story of the series.
I actually work with a team on the series, which is great and really helpful, fun and different. On Wax I it was just the two of us, me and photographer. On Wax II I involved a set of people like stylist, hair, studio and so on. So it got bigger. And this was exciting and brilliant to engage others. I also engaged with some graphic designers, retouching studios like Laundry Room, and other photographers who I admire. I love the collaborative process and I want to work with brilliant creatives and bring them in on the projects as it just makes everything so much better, and I really enjoy working with others. Also the opportunity to have their work projected in outdoor environments excites people, and their belief in the empowering women also drives people to work on the project!!
CM: Thats awesome! You also DJ and do a load of other cool stuff, tell us more about you outside of photography.
V: I just enjoy being proactive but I've allowed Waxchick to take over my time. I still enjoy acting actually however sad that is, so I appear in random short films occasionally. I feel like I've got a lot I want to say at the moment in regards to making women more powerful and I feel video is a great way to do it.
CM: Talk to me about WAXCHICK. What was your message with this piece of work? Seems pretty badass.
V: Waxchick is really about empowering women through placing provocative and perhaps controversial images of women across outdoor public billboards in the hope of two things - initially, subversive works which raise questions from the public and make them query the way we present women, and also 'empowering' or provocative works which raise questions in women and men of the boundaries women can push in these areas and playfully depicts how women can use their bodies in the way they want to. The next billboard that comes out end of march will be showing this playful freedom which I won't reveal yet but should be rather funny to see!
The video that came with the outdoor series, exposed the misogyny in pop culture by pairing real song lyrics from varied genres of pop music including female artists like Madonna (songs that perhaps weren't written by her at all) against images of sexualised, vulnerable and suggestive female movements and dance performance. The combination was a bomb of provocations - and the reaction was brilliant. I was glad to see the message really filtered through and lots of people claimed how uncomfortable they felt, men claimed they felt guilty watching it, others noted how the lyrics were words they'd heard before in real life or in watching porn. Others claimed they were really moved by it and some women noted how they had felt it related to the way they'd been treated, and to how they had felt in life - it moved them to recall occasions in their own life when they had been treated as such.
The only people that didn't understand the video were two feminists from a strong feminist group and this took me aback - they claimed it simply looked like porn but that was exactly the area I was challenging therefore of course- it would need to be relevant...
Their views on it were upsetting, and I was worried by their narrow-minded views on what they called 'feminism' and how it could be presented. I also found that some women had called-out the outdoor bus stop (titled 'shoot') as 'vulgar'. This again was interesting to find, as it was women who were slating it most. This reminded me of the Lynda Benglis' story.
CM: Wow, that is disappointing- Do you think there’s still a disparity in females within the creative industries?
V: I think this carries on from Lynda Benglis' argument which is partly a huge inspiration / reference to my own work. This is when back in 1970's Lynda placed an advert of herself naked holding a giant dildo in the high-profile ArtForum magazine to protest against a male-dominted industry. Her partner Robert Morris also placed an ad of himself in S&M gear a few pages after. Her advert recieved the most backlash and critiscm both from feminists and others.
I found that suprising and amazing - that sometimes we have to challenge hard-core feminists the most as opposed to others, in order to empower women. That is suprising. And the backlash to her advert was particularly suprising too. Surely its both comical, clever and interesting - if a little bit shocking? Hardly something to get angry about...
I'm not so much worried about the creative industries or the disparity there as women's power is growing, but I am worried about the more global issue of third world countries persecuting women, and our western countries not allowing women to be both powerful and sexy - free and outspoken also. Its bigger than creative industries, but advertising was the channel I wanted to target - and to use subversive tools to challenge how women are perceived, to try and allow them to have better body confidence, freedom with their bodies and ability to be sexy in a way that they choose and still be feminists - I think a proper definition without stigma of what feminism is - its clouded - and really women should be free to define feminism as they wish; not simply in a hairy armpit way but something beyond that and more refined.
CM: And finally, where can we find you when you’re not creating? Where do you spend your time?
V: Probably behind a computer either way. Or maybe doing some shoots for instagram because I'm lame and late on the insta game but still a massive fan of it.
CM: What can we expect next from you?
Keeping Waxchick going, looking for funding to make the series bigger and popping images across the city scape in guerilla and non-guerilla methods!! You'll hopefully see Waxchick all over the streets soon!
FOLLOW THE WAXCHICK SERIES AT WAXCHICK.COM
VIEW MORE OF VASILISA'S AMAZING WORK HERE AND KEEP UP WITH HER ON TWITTER OR IG @vasilisaforbes