Interviewer: Jillian York

Emma Shapiro is an American artist, writer, and activist who is based in Valencia, Spain. She is the Editor-At-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign and the founder of the international art project and movement Exposure Therapy. Her work includes the use of video, collage, performance, and photography, while primarily using her own body and image. Through her use of layered video projection, self portraiture, and repeated encounters with her own image, Emma deconstructs and questions the meaning of our bodies, how we know them, and what they could be.

Regular censorship of her artwork online and IRL has driven Emma to dedicate herself to advocacy for freedom of expression. Emma sat down with EFF’s Jillian York to discuss the need for greater protection of artistic expression across platforms, how the adult body is regulated in the digital world, the role of visual artists as defenders of cultural and digital rights, and more.

York: What does free expression mean to you?

Free expression, to me, as primarily an artist—I’ve now also become an arts writer and an advocate for artistry things including censorship and suppression online of those who make art —but, primarily, I’m an artist. So for me free expression is my own ability to make my work and see the artwork of others. That is what is, baseline, the most important thing to me. And whenever I encounter obstacles to those things is when I know I’m facing issues with free expression. Besides that, how free we are to express ourselves is kind of the barometer for what kind of society we’re living in.

York: Can you tell me about an experience that shaped your views on freedom of expression?

The first times I encountered suppression and erasure of my own art work, which is probably the most pivotal moment that I personally had that shaped my views around this in that I became indignant and that led me down a path of meeting other artists and other people who were expressing themselves and facing the exact same problem. Especially in the online space. The way it operates is, if you’re being censored, you’re being suppressed. You’re effectively not being seen. So unless you’re seeking out this conversation – and that’s usually because it’s happened to you – you’re easily not going to encounter this problem. You’re not going to be able to interact with the creators this is happening to.

That was a completely ground-shifting and important experience for me when I first started experiencing this kind of suppression and erasure of my artwork online. I’ve always experienced misunderstanding of my work and I usually chalked that up to a puritan mindset or sexism in that I use my own body in my artwork. Even though I’m not dealing with sexual themes – I’m not even dealing with feminist themes – those topics are unavoidable as soon as you use a body. Especially a female-presenting body in your artwork. As soon as I started posting my artwork online that was when the experience of censorship became absolutely clear to me.

York: Tell me about your project Exposure Therapy. We’ve both done a lot of work around how female-presenting bodies are allowed to exist on social media platforms. I would love to hear your take on this and what brought you to that project.

I’d be happy to talk about Exposure Therapy! Exposure Therapy came out of one of the first major instances of censorship that I experienced. Which was something that happened in real life. It happened at a WalMart in rural Virginia where I couldn’t get my work printed. They threatened me with the police and they destroyed my artwork in front of me. The reason they gave me was that it showed nipples. So I decided to put my nipples everywhere. Because I was like… this is so arbitrary. If I put my nipple on my car is my car now illicit and sexy or whatever you’re accusing me of? So that’s how Exposure Therapy started. It started as a physical offline intervention. And it was just my own body that I was using.

Then when I started an Instagram account to explore it a little further I, of course, faced online censorship of the female-presenting nipple. And so it became a more complex conversation after that. Because the online space and how we judge bodies online was a deep and confusing world. I ended up meeting a lot of other activists online who are dealing with the same topic and incorporating other bodies into the project. Out of that, I’ve grown nearly everything I’ve done since as having to do with online spaces, the censorship of bodies, and particularly censorship of female-presenting bodies. And it’s been an extremely rewarding experience. It’s been very interesting to monitor the temperature shifts over the last few years since I began the project, and to see how some things have remained the same. I mean, even when I go out and discuss the topic of censorship of the female-presenting nipple, the baseline understanding people often have is they think that female nipples are genitalia and they’re embarrassed by them. And that’s a lot of people in the world – even people who would attend a lecture of mine feel that way!

York: If you were to be the CEO of a social media platform tomorrow how would you construct the rules when it comes to the human body?

When it comes to the adult human body. The adult consenting human body. I’m interested more in user choice in online spaces and social media platforms. I like the idea of me, as a user, going into a space with the ability to determine what I don’t want to see or what I do want to see. Instead of the space dictating what’s allowed to be on the space in the first place. And I also am interested in some models that I’ve seen where the artist or the person posting the content is labeling the images themselves, like self-tagging. And those tags end up creating their own sub-tags. And that is very interactive – it could be a much more interactive and user-experience based space rather than the way social media is operating right now which is completely dictated from the top down. There basically is no user choice now. There might be some toggles that you can say that you want to see or that you don’t want to see “sensitive content,” but they’re still the ones labeling what “sensitive content” is. I’m mostly interested in the user choice aspect. Lips social media run by Annie Brown I find to be a fascinating experiment. Something that she is proving is that there is a space that can be created that is LGBTQ and feminist-focused where it does put the user first. It puts the creator first. And there’s a sort of social contract that you’re a part of being in that space.

York: Let me ask you about the Don’t Delete Art Campaign. What prompted that and what’s been a success story from that campaign?

I’m not a founding member of Don’t Delete Art. My fellow co-curators, Spencer Tunick and Savannah Spirit, were there in the very beginning when this was created with NCAC (National Coalition Against Censorship) and Freemuse and ARC (Artists at Risk Connection), and there were also some others involved at the beginning. But now it is those three organizations and three of us artists/ activists. Since its inception in 2020, I believe, or the end of 2019, we had seen a shift in the way that certain things were happening at Meta. We mostly are dealing with Meta platforms because they’re mostly image-based. Of course there are things that happen on other social media platforms, but visual artists are usually using these visual platforms. So most of our work has had to do with Meta platforms, previously Facebook platforms.

And since the inception of Don’t Delete Art we actually have seen shifts in the way that they deal with the appeals processes and the way that there might be more nuance in how lens-based work is assessed. We can’t necessarily claim those as victories because no one has told us, “This is thanks to you, Don’t Delete Art, that we made this change!” Of course, they’re never going to do that. But we’re pretty confident that our input – our contact with them, the data that we gathered to give them – helps them hear a little more of our artistic perspectives and integrate that into their content moderation design. So that’s a win.

For me personally, since I came on board – and I’m the Editor at Large of Don’t Delete Art – I have been very pleased with our interaction with artists and other groups including digital rights groups and free expression groups who really value what we do. And that we are able to collaborate with them, take part in events that they’re doing, and spread the message of Don’t Delete Art. And just let artists know that when this happens to them – this suppression or censorship – they’re not alone. Because it’s an extremely isolating situation. People feel ashamed. It’s hard to know you’re now inaugurated into a community when this happens to you. So I feel like that’s a win. The more I can educate my own community, the artist community, on this issue and advance the conversation and advance the cause.

York: What would you say to someone who says nudity isn’t one of the most important topics in the discussion around content moderation?

That is something that I encounter a lot. And basically it’s that there’s a lot of aspects to being an artist online—and then especially an artist who uses the body online—that faces suppression and censorship that people tend to think our concerns are frivolous. This also goes hand in hand with  the “free the nipple” movement and body equality. People tend to look upon those conversations—especially when they’re online—as being frivolous secondary concerns. And what I have to say to that is… my body is your body. If my body is not considered equal for any reason at all and not given the respect it deserves then no body is equal. It doesn’t matter what context it’s in. It doesn’t matter if I’m using my body or using the topic of female nipples or me as an artist. The fact that art using the body is so suppressed online means that there’s a whole set of artists who just aren’t being seen, who are unable to access the same kinds of tools as other artists who choose a different medium. And the medium that we choose to express ourselves with shouldn’t be subject to those kinds of restrictions. It shouldn’t be the case that artists have to change their entire practice just to get access to the same tools that other artists have. Which has happened.

Many artists, myself included, [and] Savannah Spirit, especially, speak to this: people have changed their entire practice or they don’t show entire bodies of work or they even stop creating because they’re facing suppression and censorship and even harassment online. And that extends to the offline space. If a gallery is showing an artist who faces censorship online, they would be less likely to include that artist’s work in their promotional material where they might have otherwise. Or, if they do host that artist’s work and the gallery faces suppression and censorship of their presence online because of that artist’s work, then in the future they might choose not to work with an artist who works with the body. Then we’re losing an entire field of art in which people are discussing body politics and identity and ancestry and everything that has to do with the body. I mean there’s a reason artists are working with the body. It’s important commentary, an important tool, and important visibility.

York: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work that I haven’t asked you about?

I do want to have the opportunity to say that—and it relates to the way people might not take some artists seriously or take this issue seriously—and I think that extends to the digital rights conversation and artists. I think it’s a conversation that isn’t being had in art communities. But it’s something that affects visual artists completely. Visual artists aren’t necessarily—well, it’s hard to group us as a community because we don’t have unions for ourselves, it’s a pretty individualistic practice, obviously—but artists don’t tend to realize that they are cultural rights defenders. And that they need to step in and occupy their digital rights space. Digital rights conversations very rarely include the topic of visual art. For example, the Santa Clara Principles is a very important document that doesn’t mention visual art at all. And that’s a both sides problem. That artists don’t recognize the importance of digital art in their practice, and digital rights groups don’t realize that they should be inviting visual artists to the table. So in my work, especially in the writing I do for arts journals, I have very specifically focused on and tried to call this out. That artists need to step into the digital rights space and realize this is a conversation that needs to be had in our own community.

York: That is a fantastic call to action to have in this interview, thank you. Now my final question- who, if anyone, is your free expression hero?

I feel somewhat embarrassed by it because it comes from a very naive place, but when I was a young kid I saw Ragtime on Broadway and Emma Goldman became my icon as a very young child. And of course I was drawn to her probably because we have the same name! Just her character in the show, and then learning about her life, became very influential to me. I just loved the idea of a strong woman spending her life and her energy advocating for people, activating people, motivating people to fight for their rights and make sure the world is a more equal place. And that has always been a sort of model in my mind and it’s never really gone away. I feel like I backed into what I’m doing now and ended up being where I want to be. Because I, of course, pursued art and I didn’t anticipate that I would be encountering this issue. I didn’t anticipate that I’d become part of the Don’t Delete Campaign, I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t set out for that. I just always had Emma Goldman in the back of my mind as this strong female figure whose life was dedicated to free speech and equality. So that’s my biggest icon. But it also is one that I had as a very young kid who didn’t know much about the world.

York: Those are the icons that shape us! Thank you so much for this interview.