Far East Movement’s party bus anthem “Like a G6” plays in the headphones of Ava Campana’s video art piece, Times Square Annihilation, displaying an iTunes playlist of familiar hits from the 2010’s: “Take It Off” by Kesha, “Judas” by Lady Gaga, “If U Seek Amy” by Britney Spears. On the computer desktop are two QuickTime videos pulled up and streaming Campana in an “I Love NY” tee, lip-synching the lyrics and twirling her laptop around New York’s tourist trap in gothic makeup and Demonia platforms. “When we drink, we do it right gettin' slizzard...”
Although 22-year-old Campana is featured within the work, the girl we see is not reflective of the artist’s true identity. For the past four years, she’s been developing characters and performing them in a series of self-portraits, both still and moving, that pull inspiration from internet culture and the false promise of The American Dream. What’s fake is informed by what’s real, as Campana builds a theatrical narrative — set, hair, makeup, styling, props, poses — that exaggerate cultural tropes running wild across the US today.
She’s transformed herself into a suited lawyer with overly arched and plucked eyebrows, a creepy clown who claims they were “born to raise hell” and an anti-establishment cigarette-smoking rebel who loathes politics. Through it all, Campana weaves in just enough humor and self-aware absurdity, while leaving space for some necessary cultural criticism regarding our fast-paced, overstimulated world. And while the line between fact and fiction might seem blurred, her work is fitting for a time when nothing feels entirely real, anyway.
Below, PAPER dives into the many faces of Ava Campana to better understand who she really is underneath all the characters. Her work is currently on display at the School of Visual Arts' Chelsea Gallery through March 27 as part of their Mentors student exhibit.
Times Square Annihilation
How has your Florida upbringing impacted the way you approach art-making?
I was born and raised in West Palm Beach, South Florida in a middle class suburban neighborhood and started to get interested in photography around freshman year of high school. This was also around the time of the explosive 2016 election. I lived in a place where Donald Trump’s vacation home, Mar-a-Lago, was close by, so that combined with the already politically unapologetic population propelled me into the harsh reality and absurdity of American politics. Growing up in a state with almost non-existent gun laws where school shootings were a very serious reality for my friends and I also propelled me into examining what America truly looks like at its core. On top of this, I grew up in the early days of social media when YouTube didn't have any ads, and when Instagram was only for putting filters on your photos and sharing them with your friends. Seeing technology and internet culture drastically transform and intertwine with politics in the past 10 years has really made an impact on my work.
At what point did you get interested in self-portraits? What about that process excited you, as opposed to putting characters onto someone else?
I focused my entire practice towards self portraits in the fall of 2019 during my sophomore year of college. I had just moved to New York City, and felt so isolated and disconnected even though I was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people in the city every day. I was really stuck in a creative hole and was taking pictures of like, stepped on and spilt food on the sidewalks of the NYC street. I didn't feel comfortable asking friends to do photoshoots in fear of having to direct someone, so I just decided to use myself as the subject. One of my first self-portraits I did was dressed as a clown, and I did it because I honestly just wanted to laugh at myself and laugh at a piece of artwork. It was exciting to perform for the camera, and even more exciting to have full control of the creative direction and makeup. The clown makeup wasn't even that good, but it felt transformative to slather my face in paint and be alone in the studio.
"Seeing technology and internet culture drastically transform and intertwine with politics in the past 10 years has really made an impact on my work"
How do you develop the characters you become for these self-portraits? Is there a research process or is it more fluid?
I've found that the more research I do and the more compiling of stories or tidbits of information makes these characters more believable, which is ultimately the goal of the work. For example, I was scouring thrifts in Florida one summer and found a t-shirt that said "Puck Folitics" on it and I laughed and thought to myself, Who would wear that? So that t-shirt shaped an entire character, named Katie. But there's also times when dialogue and conversation with my fellow artists and friends birthed ideas for characters. And most of the time it's the conversations not centered around art when these ideas pop into my head. Like hearing a story about a summer camp that my friend went to every summer of their youth inspired me to create one of my most favorite characters, Georgia Anne. I grew up on the Jonas Brothers and Camp Rock, and thought that was the idyllic summer experience for a kid, so what starts as a conversation turns into a spiral of obsession until I feel like I can totally embody the character.
Four years into making these characters, do you see any through-line or cultural arc across everything?
I don’t think they are meant to be connected because each of the characters come from a very different place. They are all fictional, but based in some sort of separate reality where I, Ava the photographer, is making work about them. There is something fundamental about me — a 22-year-old, internet-raised American — in all of them, but then in the same breath they are not a direct reflection of me, rather sketches of a polarized country and media overload.
"They are not a direct reflection of me, rather sketches of a polarized country and media overload"
In a world of selfies, what makes your self-portraits disruptive? Is there even a difference between selfie and self-portrait?
I like to push the person in the picture to satirical extremes and really highlight the absurdity of modern-day American culture. For example, I wanted to make a character that really personified the idea of American sleep-away camps and the "sexy older camp counselor." S'mores and canoeing and friendship bracelets and having a crush on someone for three weeks in the wilderness was never an experience that I had, but was easy to recreate because I was constantly fed this trope as a kid through TV and movies.
From all these generalized experiences I formed the character, Georgia Anne. In the summer heat, but somehow cold at the same time, she wields a stereotypical red ax in one hand and grabs her breast with her other. She's got her hair in one long french braid and wears a tight shirt that has a different camp on it than the one advertised on her belt. The contradicting camp clothing allows her to not be tied down to one specific location and narrative. I think these characteristics of Georgia Anne disrupt the typical self-portrait landscape by allowing viewers to not only connect and relate to this character, but to also laugh at her which is so important in my work. Laughter can act as a disruption just as any other emotion can and I think humor is something a lot of people forget to consider in making artwork.
It seems like a selfie and self-portrait should be opposites, but they are honestly so similar. The selfie really exploded into mainstream culture because Apple designed a front facing camera, making it more accessible to photograph yourself, and the self-portrait has been around throughout the course of photographic history and has been used as a tool of documentation. But both the selfie and self-portrait are intentional creations, made by a person to show themselves to the world. I think back to my really terrible selfies from 2013 that I took on my iPod touch with weird graphic borders and way too heavy of a color filter, and realize that those photos are just as much of a performance as the work I am doing today.
Is there a certain character you’ve connected to or identified with, especially?
There are pieces of me in all of them and I try not to get too attached to just one. And at the end of the day, I don’t really consider any of these characters as me; they kind of exist in my mind as separate people not only from each other, but more importantly from me. The inspiration for these pieces come from so many different sources that have nothing to do with me, but during the process of making them into a reality, I've found that performing as really unapologetic female characters has given me a refurbished confidence and a more fearless approach in making my work.
"I've found that performing as really unapologetic female characters has given me a refurbished confidence"
Talk through the process of becoming a character behind your camera, from set build to fashion and expression.
I usually start with an idea for a character and let it live in my brain for a few weeks before I actually write it down on paper. It’s always a really clear idea in my mind of what that photo will look like aesthetically, so then it's just a matter of moving that image from my brain into the real world. I’ll go thrifting to find articles of clothing that match what I’ve got going on in my head, and haphazardly put together an outfit, accessories and any props that I think are pivotal to the image. It's a super DIY process that I’ve learned from artists like Alex Bag and the club kids. How do you make a production feel extraordinary when you're in college and got about 25 bucks to spend, you know?
I’ll figure out a loose idea of hair and makeup from source images based on who that character is and bring everything to the studio. Then it's just a matter of setting up the seamless, lights, tripod and, most importantly, the self-timer remote so I can trigger the camera while I'm in front of it. Once the technical stuff is all sorted out and the set is done up how I like it, I’ll take about an hour and a half to put on my face, outfit and do my hair which is always the hardest part. I’ve noticed that all this preparation for the image takes way longer than the actual photographing. Once I’m transformed into this person who previously lived only in my head, I really want to do them justice by making the photograph as believable as possible. So to get more into character I’ll listen to music that I think this person likes or talk (to myself) about things that this character is concerned with while I'm simultaneously taking photographs. Things like expression, body language, eye contact or lack thereof, are all things I'm thinking about when I'm in character and performing for the camera. After the shoot I’ll break down the set, take off the look and go home to edit the photographs.
There’s a level of humor in the work you create. How important is comedy in your art and where do you strike the balance without it leaning too far into the world of parody? Does that even concern you?
Comedy in art is unbelievably underrated. I think that in my work it is important to laugh at myself and also to make other people laugh. At the end of the day, I think life is funny and absurd and I mirror that with these characters, so it makes sense that they feel relatable. My work is more about an idea of how America influences individuals through mass media, consumer culture and internet culture, rather than pinpointing one specific type of person. Although these characters have been made to feel individual, they really are just an abstraction of American culture through the eyes of satirical extremes.
"Although these characters have been made to feel individual, they really are just an abstraction of American culture through the eyes of satirical extremes"
Photos courtesy of Ava Campana