You’ve probably never heard of Leah Schrager before. Up until now, she’s tried very hard to keep it that way. Under the persona Sarah White, she’s been a counsellor-cum-cam-girl through her site Naked Therapy, a project that put New York’s art world in a brief tizzy two years ago after it was accepted and then rejected from the West Chelsea Artists Open Studios for allegedly being too commercial. In addition to Naked Therapy, Schrager has several other pseudonymous net art performances that interrogate the hazy line between art and porn. Now, after years of revealing her full body online, she’s ready to share her full body of work.
Art Sexy Studio is Schrager’s newest project, a metaperformance of an art school girl named Blush who shares her sexy art through a site with a paywall model she launched in March. Blush is a somewhat fictionalized version of Schrager—they’re both MFA candidates at New York art schools. Especially because it blurs the line between the real and performed selves, the project’s reminiscent of Ann Hirsch’s Scandalishious. While Hirsch was going to grad school in Syracuse, she created the persona Caroline, a self-professed camwhore and hipster, going to school in upstate New York who danced around for her webcam and vlogged on a Youtube channel. Schrager fits into a coven of artists that includes Hirsch, Petra Cortright, Kate Durbin, Mary Bond, and Alexandra Marzella to name a few, who intentionally attention-whore to feminist ends. But when Schrager first started Naked Therapy, she wasn’t trying to make ontrend feminist net art. She had no idea that world even really existed.
Back in the fall of 2010, Schrager was living in New York going to dance auditions and supporting herself with the typical mix of oddjobs: catering, editing photos for a porn site, and building web sites for clients. Schrager was having tech problems with one of these sites. “I was sitting there thinking, Wouldn’t it be great if there was just a really sweet nice pretty girl who was helping me figure this out?” She decided to be that girl. The first incarnation of Sarah White was the naked coder. “Sarah White would build your web site and talk to you about what you wanted, how you wanted to present yourself online, the goals of your business, all the while potentially naked,” Schrager explained. “I ended up getting people emailing me saying they didn’t want a web site but they wanted to talk.” So Sarah White became the naked therapist instead. Today, Schrager still supports herself and pays for grad school from camming with naked therapy clients.
Sometime between her first tech troubles and submitting to the West Chelsea Open Studios, Schrager started to think of what she was doing as art. When I asked her exactly when that was, she said, “I don’t necessarily have an answer.” Later she added, “When I first started, I was quite nervous naked on cam, so I just thought of it as a performance.” And when she first told her parents about Naked Therapy, she started the email referencing Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic. Getting kicked out of West Chelsea Open Studios, though, indirectly gave Schrager more context for what exactly she was. Initially, Schrager was totally devastated when she heard she was kicked out. When I asked her about it, she “choked up a little just thinking about it.” But her expulsion created a bit of media storm, and outlets like Blouin Art Info and Culture Bot attempted to tackle the question of whether what she was doing was art or not. The way that they were contextualizing Naked Therapy, Schrager explains, “I was introduced to the world of social practice as an art field and the world of net art, which I wasn’t super familiar with before.”
Even before the Open Studios hubbub, Schrager was no stranger to press. The woman who could get men to bare their souls by baring her body was a story that got picked up by morning shows and late night TV, and publications from Gawker to German Playboy. The first press blitz in 2011 raised Schrager’s concerns over her privacy. “There were articles all over the place. I was getting lots and lots of emails and what seemed like pretty serious death threats. That was scary,” Schrager explained. “And at the time, I was running a performance space in my home, so my address was public. I was nervous of the idea of people being able to easily to find me.” She’s been vigilant about keeping Sarah White divorced from Leah Schrager. “I have been super careful about not documenting any connection between us…until now.”
Schrager went about removing photos of herself that would come up when you googled “Leah Schrager.” But there was one comment on a Youtube video of Sarah White that said “this is leah schrager.” She had no idea who had posted it and couldn’t ask them to take it down. “That prompted me to think that removal of an identity is impossible but multiplication is the way to evade surveillance,” Schrager explained. Her anxieties prompted an art project, and she launched a website thisisleahschrager.com and flooded the internet with false leads to who she was and what art she was making. She commented below random content “this is leah schrager” and asked others to do the same.
The same culture of misogyny that provoked Schrager to worry about her safety (something too many women on the Internet face, read: Amanda Hess) and subsequently hide her identity, has unfortunately followed her to the institutional art world. At art school, she’s had condescending reactions. “I had a studio visit and after the girl in the studio next to me came over and said ‘Oh my God, I wanted to punch that woman in the face. She was being so rude to you,’” Schrager said adding, “I guess I had been used to being talked to down to.” She has already experienced dismissive reactions to Naked Therapy.
The West Chelsea Artists Open Studio’s expulsion smacked of the same prejudices. Jeremy Barker suggested, “The gallery’s gross dismissal of the project as a ‘commercial venture’ certainly carries the stigma that White is really nothing but a prostitute.” Schrager felt like it was unfair that she got kicked out. “But if you can get to the point where it’s unfair, you can start asking why is it unfair?,” she suggested, “and hopefully enter into a broader conversation.” It’s a conversation we’ve been having since performance artists like Hannah Wilke were dismissed in the sixties and seventies on the grounds of the alleged narcissism of their work. Unfortunately, women using their bodies still get a lot of the same reactions today.
Net art is expanding the audience that is being provoked by this kind of work. Schrager wants her work to reach beyond the art world. “My audience for these works is very much people who would come across it online,” she explains. She’s not alone. The Internet’s ability to democratize is working a few different ways. Some artists are trolling nonart spaces to do a sort of temperature reading of reactions to women. Mary Bond’s posted nudes in 4chan. Angela Washko’s provoked conversations of feminism in World of Warcraft. These are artists doing research in nonart spaces and coming back with findings that are still easy to categorize as art, but the parameters of art and artist are also being complicated. When artists and nonartist are both vlogging or posting selfies on Instagram, is the difference in the intention or the price tag of the MFA program? And where do internet itgirls like Molly Soda and Labanna Babylon fit in on the spectrum?
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Schrager and nonartist Miriam Weeks, AKA Belle Knox, the porn actress and Duke women studies major. Art Sexy Studio is selfaware in its fetishization of the same intersection of privilege and sex work that made Weeks’s narrative capture the nation’s imagination. Schrager also related to Weeks’s struggles with anonymity and pseudonymity. “I identified with the identity issues, that she wanted to keep the two separate,” Schrager explained. “Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe her coming out inspired me.”
Schrager is “coming out,” but she still isn’t abandoning working under personas like Sarah White and Blush. She’s coined the term ‘ona,’ short for persona but with several other meanings, to describe these characters she’s making art as. “This is is the way I see how our generation is representing ourselves online and engaging in online realities,” she explains. But she’s done being anonymous, “That phase has run its time for me. I’m ready to talk about my work with other artists.”