Molly Soda (Amalia Soto to those who know better) is currently preparing for her next major October showing in London. Right now, she’s regular Molly - she’s got roommates, and she sometimes worries she doesn’t get out of the house enough. Come October, she’ll be hailed by fans as the original queen of art on Tumblr and one of the platform’s first digital art stars to burst onto the fine art scene in a meaningful way. Exhibitions like the one approaching bring Soda’s .gif and digital art into the tangible sphere.
If you’re not familiar with Soda’s work, give yourself a crash course on her site. Her career, much like many online phenoms, started almost unintentionally: Soda would post her projects and thoughts on her Tumblr recreationally in the late 2000s, like any college student might. But her voice, alternating between satirical and intensely sincere, resonated with the art culture building on the site. She rapidly became a huge name in a hyper-dedicated community.
So what does Molly Soda, an artist who never intended for her Tumblr URL to become her professional name, create? As the more formal gallery art folks are slowly learning, her work is a brilliant blend of the corny mid-2000s internet culture that teenagers Soda’s age grew up with: the stuff that spawned My Chemical Romance away messages and glittering gifs, all crafted and presented with very raw, sometimes irrational, motivating emotions. She’s not afraid to look at the more embarrassing parts of us all, and whether it means recording fictionalized confessional blogs, leaking her own nudes or building a crystallized teenage girl’s bedroom in the middle of an art gallery, she knows exactly what she’s doing.
You started going by Molly Soda in college, before you knew that it was going to become your professional name. Are you still on board with Molly Soda? Do you ever want to change it?
I picked it went I was 20 or 21 because my real name’s Amalia Soto, so I thought it was just a snappy username, and then it became my name because it was my Tumblr name. I didn’t think it would catch on the way that it did - I couldn’t predict that my life would go the way that it did, and now it’s just what people call me. Molly Soda, it’s such a Myspace name, its so outdated. But that’s why I love it, because my work is very Myspace-y in a lot of ways, so it makes sense that my name kind of sounds like an avatar.
You moved to Detroit after going to NYU, and doing a stint in Chicago. What brought you to Detroit?
I would never do this now but I left all my stuff at someone’s house and packed up a bag and got on a bus and went to Detroit. Like, ‘I have 50 dollars, this’ll be fine! I don’t have a place, I don’t know what I’m doing! I came here to visit, but I didn’t really know anyone…I ended up staying here because I liked it and it was the perfect place to focus on my work.
How do you separate your art persona and your everyday self?
It’s sort of like I live two lives. I work and live in Detroit, my physical reality is here and I have my friends and roommates and house. And then I have the internet and that’s where I share my work. People can know me [in Detroit] and know nothing about what I actually do, if that makes sense.
Has your family’s reaction to what you do changed over the years?
I think they were a little concerned when I decided to go to art school with a major in photography. Any parent would be stressed out about their kid going to art school or getting a degree that doesn’t immediately make sense. Parents just want to make sure you’re going to be okay and not worry too much. And I’m not at a place where I’m rolling in money, I don’t own a house or anything like that, but I think its fine as long as I’m happy.
But I’m lucky, my parents have always been super supportive of what I want to do. I don’t know how much they look into what I’m doing, it’s not like I tell them about specific pieces, but they could find it on their own if they wanted to. I don’t know how much they know. But they’re supportive, and I’m grateful for that.
Do you remember any of your older screen names from junior high and high school?
I used to go by “Llama” in middle school, and I think my first Xanga username was “LlamaOnAVolvo, like the car, because I really loved Volvos and I wanted one. I don’t know why. And then there was another screen name that was “Llamalicious,” and all the others were lyrics from songs, like obscure lyrics from Joanna Newsom songs you love when you’re sixteen.
What bores you?
Oh, I’m bored of a lot of things. I’m bored of brands ripping off artists and totally stealing their style. I’m tired of brands not paying artists, and people in general not paying artists for their work. There’s all these people that say, “This will give you exposure!” and that’s very, very shady. People constantly want things from you and want to give nothing in return, and its shitty.
I never knew that being a digital artist could be lucrative in any way, and so I’m still figuring out how to navigate that and demand what I deserve because you still want people to like you. There needs to be more conversations about this between artists…like a collective manifesto where we stand up for ourselves, and its really hard. Most people see art as, “Well, you chose to do this, you’re supposed to be starving, blah blah blah.”
What’s a project or a medium you want to work in and just haven’t had the time to buckle down and try?
There’s so much I wanna try. I really wanna learn 3D animation and I really wanna learn anything involving virtual reality, even 3D .gifs and stuff like that. And just making physical work - but that’s a lot of money, and you need space to make it, and how do you get your foot in the door?
Right now I’m working with resins and little sculptures for the show I have coming up, and its taking me a really long time to perfect them.
Is there anything about you that people take too seriously, or not seriously enough?
Oh my God, there’s so much! There’s definitely a large focus on my body. There’s a big cyber-feminist movement and I think that’s great in a lot of ways and it’s really great to talk about, but it’s sort of turned into this very polished, sellable thing. Like, “take these thin white women and say they’re body-positive.” Of course I’m body positive! But not everyone’s body looks like my body, and not everyone’s going to see pictures of me and say, “Wow, I feel great!”
It’s kind of stupid to portray me and some other people that I know as that. It’s like when companies use ‘real models,’ but they’re still just…models. I don’t really know what ‘real’ means, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Until you go to the mall in Boise, Idaho and pick out some random-ass people, I’m not gonna believe you’re any more socially conscious or progressive.
That’s how I feel about a lot of stuff talked about in the digital feminist movement. Like, of course I’m a feminist, of course I’m body positive, but I don’t want to be the face of that because I’m not representative of so many people. A lot of my work involves me, and using myself, and my body is obviously attached to me. I’m never going to be able to get everyone to look at my work the way I want them to look at my work, and I also don’t know how I want people to look at my work. And I shouldn’t have to.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you can remember that you’re willing to share?
I feel like I haven’t been embarrassed in a while, which is cool! I think I stop myself from being embarrassed by putting everything out there, so I can’t possibly be embarrassed. You know when you feel weird about something - let’s say you trip in front of a bunch of people - and then you start to joke about it to diffuse the situation? I think I’m constantly doing that with my online presence, I’m literally embarrassed of everything and when I post about it I’m not embarrassed anymore.
You can just purge it that way.
Exactly. And its made my life a lot easier.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.