conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 23.05.2023
OONA: QUESTIONING THE VALUE OF WOMEN'S ARTWORK
Performance Art and Feminism
OONA, the anonymous performance artist, is a mirror. Born from the rich history of feminist video and performance art, OONA's work centers on topics all of us know but often are too fearful to broach. She is a rising figure in the NFT space engaging in performances virtually on her Twitter feed and physically in the form of live auctions at museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and art fairs such as Art Basel Miami.
OONA's presence is commanding yet enticing. She exists behind her signature sunglasses and curtain face mask, obscuring any recognizable features that could distract you from her often bare breastplate (a wearable performance in itself) intended to pose a multitude of questions surrounding the financial value of both art and artist, especially in contrast to any who do not identify as white, cisgender men.
In conversation with Margaret Murphy, Head of Community, OONA discusses the blockchain as a medium for performance art, the equity (or inequity) of the new online art world, and existing as a female artist under the male gaze.
Margaret Murphy: OONA, you were born in Vatican City on November 1, 2021. What have you learned in the first year and a half of your life?
OONA: Cryptoart is an addiction: gratifying, demanding, incessant, and relentless.
To be an artist, especially a female artist, is a dedication: ruthless, trying, uncharted, wild, and full of wonder.
In the first nine months, OONA laid the framework for her practice: using carnality to ride the bull. And now OONA is in the Year of the Cow: womxn as animals – utilitarian – reified. (The cow will soon be slaughtered.)
“The more points of inflection, the more intricate the web becomes.”
– OONAVERSE, The Book of Genesis
“Art that too easily bends the knee to the will of the market soon finds itself unable to experiment, fail, and succeed. And worst of all, a bore to create.”
– OONAVERSE, The Book of Genesis
“A weak man is weakest when his bags are full. Teach him the strength of breaking bread.”
– OONAVERSE, The Book of Genesis
MM: Were you born on-chain?
OONA: No. OONA is a key.
MM: Why do you choose to remain anonymous except for the fact that you are a woman?
OONA: This technology is outpacing our ways of seeing.
OONA remains anonymous to uphold the fundamental tenets of cryptocurrency: privacy and recognition of self as sovereign.
OONA’s exposure of gender and sexuality expands these fundamentals beyond mere financial transactions. It is a practice that forces greater recognition of sexuality and gender as equally self-regulated, self-defined, and self-sovereign.
MM: You identify as a performance artist working on the topics of feminism, social and class issues, and financial inequity in the art world. What about the medium of performance art resonates most with your artistic vision?
OONA: Reality is the canvas.
MM: How does your performance art practice relate to your experience as a woman?
OONA: OONA is never subject to the gaze; OONA forces the gaze without asking for consent, making it a near impossibility not to look. How could you do anything but stare at the masked woman wearing dollar bills or the breastless woman shouting in the Metropolitan Museum?
This relationship with objectification and gaze is a powerful position to take, sweetened by the memories of when the artist behind OONA did not have the privilege to reject such an intrusive gaze.
MM: In many of your artworks that feature you, you wear exposed fake breasts while your face is covered. You play with sexuality vs. anonymity, and social media is integral to your practice as an artist. How do you define your role as an artist in the age of social media and NFTs?
OONA: OONA’s practices claw at the same questions asked by performance artists from the 1930s and 1970s like Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, Carolee Schneeman, Hannah Wilke, Anita Steckel, Valie Export, and countless others. All these women use the public arena to have these dialogues. Social media is just part of today’s social landscape.
OONA often gets asked the question, “Are you an influencer?” Which OONA perceives as less damning towards her and more towards the imagined audience, because influence implies that the audience is easily manipulated. OONA isn’t interested in punching down.
Instead, OONA buys her Instagram followers, so the sheep there think she is important.
On Twitter, OONA has more fun. When OONA wanted people to know about the MILKING THE ARTIST performance art wallet wash, she paid artists if their retweets made her laugh or think, subverting influencer culture by positioning the artist as the original influencer. Through this campaign, OONA ended up distributing 0.85 ETH and 95 Tez to artists at the end of January 2023, the beginning of crypto winter.
MM: What are some assumptions people make about you as an artist, and how do you respond to them?
OONA: OONA is a mirror. People show OONA what they think of gender and sexuality through their interactions. If OONA had to categorize: 1) sexism: covert and overt, 2) intellectual insecurity, 3) transphobia, 4) internalized misogyny 5) empowered intelligence and amusement.
Covert: OONA has just met an industry professional (male) at the (INSERT TOKEN) Conference. Another industry professional (male) joins the conversation. OONA introduces the two. The two men exchange business cards, but neither thinks to give OONA their card.
Overt: OONA meets a curator. They talk for three minutes, and OONA asks him for his Twitter. OONA sends him a DM "I would love to learn more about your curatorial practices." He replies at 22:00 "Let me know if you would like to meet up professionally or romantically."
Almost every time OONA performs, she gets the 'compliment' of "you’re actually smart." It’s shocking how people would consider that a compliment, but alas. These people tend to perceive OONA as an 'influencer' immediately negating any artistry in the performance and failing, because of their own intellectual insecurity, to see the use of identity, sexuality, and gender as mediums of artistic expression—performance art of the now.
Exhibit A) OONA was at an NFTNow x Christie's party dressed as MIAMI PLASTIC SUPER FANTASTIC, wearing a nude bodysuit clamored with plastic and plastic surgery markings. She is talking to a man. Another man interrupts, "Don’t talk to her. It’s actually a man."
Exhibit B) OONA is at an afterparty, ordering a drink from the bar. A man approaches.
The man: "But are you a real woman?"
OONA: "As opposed to a fake woman?"
The man: "In Miami a lot of women are fake, and then there are fake fake women"
OONA: “Congratulations! You are the first transphobic person I have met tonight!"
OONA introduces herself to a female founder. They do not want to continue the conversation because they think OONA makes them look bad.
Empowered Intelligence and Amusement
These are, of course, OONA’s favorite people to play with: those who stand in their own power and therefore are not threatened by OONA standing on her own. These types of people usually get to the layered bits of OONA and engage in conversations around the anthropology of the self, the ways in which OONA’s performance art is apropos to our social climate, and the ways in which humor and subversion are the best tools to defrag our cultural programming.
MM: When people think of NFTs, they typically think of traditional visual art mediums like digital art, photography, and painting, as the nature of NFT technology is suited for 2D art. How does your performance art translate into NFTs?
OONA: OONA thinks of NFTs as receipts; occasionally the receipt alone is the work, or it is a totem of a performance that took place, or it is a reference to a piece of video art.
Blockchain technology has unlocked a new layer of financial potential for performance artists that OONA exploits, enjoys, and disseminates.
MM: What was your first experience with NFTs?
OONA: Minting Kitty Wants To Walk Away just days after my birth at NFT.NYC.
MM: Much of your work addresses the darker sides of the NFT space–gender inequality, “wallet washing” (the act of an artwork being purchased by the same person who created it in an effort to create the illusion of sales), and treating the artist as a product. What inspired you to start creating work about these topics?
OONA: Smell $hit, Say $hit.
MM: I was privileged to watch one of your live auctions at the Proof of People conference at NFT.NYC this year. During this performance, the work sold for 333 ETH but in reality, the sale was for 3.33 ETH. Can you speak about the significance of the value of ETH as a performance?
OONA: It works on sheep.
If people only think OONA’s work is valuable because of the price tag associated with it, they are missing the central premise. Money makes people look. And there is a public ledger, which they can always DYOR.
Questioning the value of women’s artwork is integral to OONA’s practice.
It is always funny to receive more opportunities after these sales because the quality of OONA’s practice has not fundamentally changed. The only thing that's changed is the public's willingness for OONA’s practice to be seen as valuable.
PS: It was OONA’s privilege to have you in the audience.
MM: Your art performances have received a lot of press coverage, taking place at Art Basel Miami in 2022 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2023. What kind of reactions are you met with from onlookers during and after these performances?
OONA: A mixed bag, really. Sometimes OONA’s performances rely on the audience for success. Other times, OONA’s performances purposefully fuck with them.
In Milking the Artist, audience participation was what took that performance to new levels. Within 60 seconds, OONA & Lori Baldwin amassed a crowd of 300+ people. In an art fair that was so sterile, this performance inserted life and gave the attendees something to talk about and think about. The audience was as much a part of the art.
OONA’s favorite video is one shot immediately after OONA & Lori Baldwin were forcefully removed from the premises. In this video, you can hear two people discussing:
“What was that?”
“I don't know, but that was definitely art.”
“What was she selling?”
“Her breast milk.”
“That's the best art I’ve seen all day.”
A HEIST, A NUDE, & BUTTER was much different. The crowd was smaller, and the performance didn’t ask for audience participation. Quite the opposite, when OONA & Lori Baldwin were escorted out, the audience engagement began. The duo dropped cash inside the Met and watched people scramble for dollar bills. It was inserting capital, with a hyper-feminist agenda, into an institutional powerhouse.
MM: As a feminist artist, how do you see the blockchain as a medium for your creative motivations?
OONA: There are countless examples of non-male artists' works being forgotten, erased, or misattributed. As a public ledger, blockchain is a permanent solution.
OONA enjoys using it as its own medium to ask questions about the value of women’s artwork, gender, and its relationship to speculation.
MM: Lynn Hershman Leeson, the American multimedia artist and filmmaker, is one of your inspirations. How has Leeson’s work influenced your own art?
OONA: Her video diaries were some of the first instances in which OONA saw a woman’s vulnerability as art. One can only imagine how hard she had to fight and the tenacity it took for her contemporaries to see it as such.
MM: Much of your work centers around food—butter, milk, bread—as a metaphor for consuming the artist, such as SPREAD, MILKING THE ARTIST, and LIQUID HARMONY. What is the significance of these themes in your work?
OONA: They are symbols of domesticity, byproducts of women’s labor. This is OONA’s Year of the Cow. It involves questions such as:
ARE THE BREASTS SEXUAL OR UTILITARIAN?
IS IDENTITY IN THE ANIMAL BODY OR THE FEMALE BODY?
IS IDENTITY IN THE PHYSICAL OR THE DIGITAL?
DOES A WOMAN HAVE TO BE DEAD FOR HER ART TO BE VALUABLE?
DO BREASTS NEED TO BE IN PAINTINGS, PHOTOGRAPHS, OR SCULPTURES TO BE CONSIDERED ART?
ARE FEMALE ARTISTS, LIKE BUTTER, ACCESSORIES TO THE MAIN DISHES, ART MADE BY MEN?
ARE TWO LEGS BETTER THAN FOUR?
There were three live auctions about these symbols of domesticity:
Milk – MILKING THE ARTIST made by OONA x Lori Baldwin at Art Basel Miami 2022.
Butter – I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT MADE BY A MAN made by OONA x Lori Baldwin at Proof of People NYC.
Bread – BIT.BREAD made by OONA at Bitcoin Conference Miami.
There will be no further auctions of these symbols.
They will live on through video art, specifically with the LIQUID HARMONY series, where OONA reinforces the relationship of artist and maker, woman and product, breast and milk.
MM: What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse?
OONA: Human nature is OONA’s primary focus, in both the physical and the cybernetic. There is no need for the digital world to replicate or mimic our natural world. It is its own terrain, and perhaps if we could see it as such, we would take greater care for the physical landscapes around us. And see both places as arenas for greater introspection and a deeper questioning of our own nature.
MM: Do you believe that the NFT art world is a more equitable place than the traditional art world? Why or why not?
OONA: No, it is unequivocally not more equitable than the art world.
Saying that, it depends on where you place the center. If the center is where the most money, media, and men congregate, then we need to look no further than SPREAD to understand that the NFT art world is replicating the worst of what the art world already offers.
If OONA places the center around the people she has engaged with personally and collaborated with, then the NFT art world seems far more accessible.
MM: How can the NFT space be improved to better support female, non-binary and queer artists?
OONA: Buy Milk. Spread Butter. Break Bread.