The Bully Pulpit
12 February - 14 March 2020
TJ Boulting is delighted to present our first solo show with American artist Haley Morris-Cafiero. Part performer, part
artist, part provocateur, part spectator, for this latest series ‘The Bully Pulpit’ Haley played cyber bullies at their own
game. After being trolled about her appearance when her previous project ‘The Watchers’ went viral, she went about
finding images of some of these online bullies, dressing up like them and incorporating their own words into the image
itself. Using deliberately low-fi props and prosthetics, these comical self-portraits bely the darker level of human nature
in our contemporary online world.
groundbreaking adj An innovative project or a mass so large it breaks the ground below it.
For this exhibition she has produced three new works under the title ‘Groundbreaking’ which address body issues in the art and photography world through the words of a gallerist, a photo editor and a photographer. As Haley explains: “The art world is controlled by people who have the power to share and promote artwork and make sure it is never seen. The power that these people yield allows them to say and do things that are unacceptable and, because of their perceived power, no one corrects them.”
Essay by Emma Lewis, curator, Tate Modern:
Haley Morris-Cafiero can tell you the date in 2013 that Pope Benedict XVI resigned, because that’s when her phone
stopped ringing. For weeks until this point, journalists had been contacting her around the clock to request comments
and soundbites on her series Wait Watchers. In this photography project-cum-social experiment, Morris-Cafiero set up her camera in public places to capture ways in which passersby looked at her – from sideways glances to outright points and stares. The project had received coverage here and there since she began it in 2010, but when it was picked up by Huffpost three years later, it went viral in a matter of hours.
Incubated in the murky cavities that online communities can become, negativity about Morris-Cafiero spread indiscriminately across social media, content forums, and blogs. Some remarks appeared to be for the benefit of fellow commenters: jokes or declaratives typed out with a metaphorical hand-to-mouth and snicker. Others addressed her directly. More surprising, a few felt compelled to email Morris-Cafiero lengthy diatribes spelling out exactly what they thought of her. Fat. Ugly. An embarrassment to her profession. An embarrassment to herself. The first time a message like this landed in Morris-Cafiero’s inbox, she laughed out loud. Naturally, she never replied.
For the next few years, Morris-Cafiero collected this ‘feedback’: screengrab after screengrab until she was 1000 images deep in inherently cowardly, depressingly 21st century expressions of vitriol. Among the things that struck her was the ways in which people shape-shift online: ‘virtue signalling’ to friends and followers; spitting out bile in places those same people likely won’t see. Just as it was clear that these cyberbullies don’t care for actual dialogue with Morris-Cafiero, it was also clear that these spaces made them feel empowered. The online forum as their pulpit: a place that promised they would be seen and heard.
What Morris-Cafiero wanted these cyberbullies to hear, in turn, was that attention of this kind is not opt-in only. The internet has a long memory, and she wanted to hold them to account. ‘I see you,’ her images say, ‘and guess what? You’re not immune’.
It wasn’t difficult for Morris-Cafiero to access the bullies’ online profiles and their portraits, most often selfies, presumably chosen to convey their desirability, politics, or social status. It was easy enough, too, to find the clothes and props that would allow her to create successful parodies of these images. The inability to divorce their profile pictures from their words was crucial to the idea of accountability. So, across their clothing, in the place where slogans would usually appear, she plastered their comments to her in bold type – like branding of a different kind.
In many ways, The Bully Pulpit is a project about visibility: Morris-Cafiero’s visibility on the street, her then visibility online, the desire for her bullies to be seen, and the act of her exposé. The technique of masquerade is a continuation of this idea: Morris-Cafiero literally throws these individuals into the spotlight their images suggest they desire, but at the same time her costumes are deliberately absurd, her prosthetics intentionally crude. It’s classic burlesque. Probably the most infuriating thing of all for her bullies is that she looks like she’s having a really good time.