Stephanie Sarley attracted attention and controversy when she shared a video of herself fingering a blood orange. She continues to push boundaries with her new virtual exhibition, I Dream in Digital. Reflecting on the virtual self, she has created an in-game gallery space in which virtual reality and social media come together. Albeit different from the fruit sex videos, this exhibition retains the feminist, absurd and visceral quality that defines her work. 
To begin, could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and what it was like for you growing up? Did you always want to be an artist?
Yes, since I was a little girl I knew art was my calling. It’s partly having come from a family of artists and also, it’s what I excelled in when it came to academics. I would routinely go to the local art museums in the San Francisco Bay Area and draw from the masters in my sketchbooks with my grandpa and family.
“Your work is ineffable. I’m confused and enamoured,” somebody has commented on a recent Instagram post of yours. It is certainly difficult to summarise your work. How would you describe it?
My work is surreal, imaginative, visceral, grotesque, beautiful and exact in detail.
And regarding the “confused and enamoured” part, is this the kind of reaction you hope to inspire from your viewers?
I think that’s just one person’s opinion. I have a large audience. I’m a complex character and I work in several different mediums, so I guess that can lead to some of those thoughts. I also don’t show it all and I use my platforms in a unique manner.
I just have to ask you about your fruit-sex art specifically. It’s weird, it’s sexy, it’s so unique! How does it feel to make something that gets everyone talking?
I love it! It’s very exciting and invigorating for me. It makes me so grateful for my fans and followers! It brings me joy to get reception from the work I put so much love into. The fruit art project for me is primal, visceral and emotional. And it’s wonderful to see others react to it so strongly.
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When I first saw the fruit videos, I instantly found them visually pleasing and entertaining to watch. It was only later that I started to think more about their political, societal significance. Do you think all art should have a deeper meaning?
That’s an interesting and hard question that I’m not sure I have all the answers to as art is so often hard to define and ever-evolving in society. Yet, I do find that art should have something of a purpose either in a practical manner or to make you think, like when painting and sculpture were how people documented things before photography had that purpose. Or to evoke deeper thinking, abstract or not.
Something that motivates me is considering, when it comes to the history of fine arts, the lack of representation and the valuing of women’s art. Where are the women masters! And a lot of the more known women in history knew someone or was the mistress, wife or family member of someone wealthy or of a male artist. I grew up with no women masters. This is part of what drives me, having grown up in such a sexist culture. So I think if there’s a purpose and need for your work to be applied to a deeper meaning, communicating that with art is a great way of expressing yourself.
My favourite fruit to see you play with is probably kiwi. Do you have favourites?
They’re all so fun to work with. I have favourites at different times, recently it’s been the cucumbers. I really just love exploring the textures and wonders of the food medium.
You’ve written that the female gaze provides you with freedom. What does the female gaze mean to you?
What I discussed above about art history and the boys club relates to why my work is so fem-centric. I’m unapologetically feminine. I’m not afraid to paint like a woman or tattoo like a girl (I did tattoo art briefly a decade ago) or chisel like a chick or sculpt like a slut, film like a female, take femtography, etc. – you get the idea. Because women should be able to do whatever they want when it comes to creative expression and not be put down for it.
I know that your first viral piece, the blood orange, came about almost by accident; it was a spontaneous creation, right? What do you think you’d be creating now if that hadn’t happened?
To be exact, the filming aspect of my fruit art is what was spontaneous that day. But in fact, I had been working with food and photography beforehand and during, like my pieces Prick and Cherry. Drawing is still one of my primary mediums today and I have been continuing that tradition on newer projects, as well as working in multiple digital mediums.
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You have spoken out about the issues you’ve had with both copyright and censorship, having your Instagram account removed three times, for example. How does this affect you and how do you overcome it?
I overcame many of my censorship issues a long time ago. Much of social media outlets, especially Instagram, seem to know who I am now and the impact I have had on censorship and art because Instagram responded to the piece The Guardian did on me in 2016. Ever since, I have not experienced very much censorship. The copyright infringement problems are still there but I routinely do takedowns of stolen content with the DMCA, which is a great first line of defence.
In an interview in 2016, you pondered, “When does it go from inspiration to infringement?” Are you any closer to answering this question now?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve learned a lot about the nuances of copyright and imitation.
What is your relationship with social media? Are you careful about how much of yourself you put online?
Oh, yes! You’ve got that right. I am for sure more choosy about what and how much of what I put out there until the time is right for release.
Let’s talk about your new virtual exhibition, I Dream in Digital, which people can visit on your website. What exactly is it?
It’s a project on the virtual self and exploration of dreams and fantasy in this age of the pandemic that has taken a major toll on personal interactions and intimacy. This exhibition touches on subjects such as current affairs, censorship, fetishism and the dichotomy of good and evil. How the lack of moderation, or too much of, can lead to a warped and misrepresented reality which affects your RL experience. It’s a multimedia virtual exhibition hosted as an in-game gallery space that I hand-build showing new works, incorporating my RL artworks, photography and film with virtual sculpture and photography, AR, GIFs, and more. It’s in 3D! I can walk around and build as my avatar, Violet.
Since Second Life is a somewhat vintage software program, it’s been like sifting through a thrift store for gems to re-invent, which I love doing. I originally created Violet in 2014 but it was not until 2020 that I built my own meta-verse.
You mentioned that it’s very meta. How so?
The entire project is self-referential. For instance, I have exhibited a fruit market installation where I made several references to my fruit art and textured the food with my actual works. I absolutely love going through shopping markets and discovering new fruits and finding the ones for me. And since I can no longer do that with the same freedom for now, I build my own market installation.
Another example is my photograph Cherry 2015 on the wall with Cherry 2020 as the 3D sculpture version sits in front mirroring one another. I have also made models of my current RL works like my melon head series to exhibit in digital, as well as showcasing some new Dick Dog characters such as Slug Bunny, which hangs above my fruit installation.
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I Dream in Digital makes comparisons between virtual reality and social media. As you say, “An avatar, like your profile picture is often curated to represent the personification of your best or exaggerated self.” Do you find this to be a positive or negative reflection on social media?
Most definitely both because this project comes from the perspective that most things operate on balance and duel nature, so there is room to feel both ways. Social media and virtual reality are both swirling pools for our collective consciousness. And both come along with complicated topics that affect our real life.
You project your online persona while staying true to yourself, but that can accompany curation that’s unavoidable when you post to the public. That’s what I mean by personifying your best or exaggerated self. And in comparing VR to social media, I find that there’s more alike than different, and it leads me to think that social media is somewhat of a 2D meta-verse. And that VR is just as valid of a platform to utilize like any other social media site or medium.
You’ve also mentioned that you actually dream in digital. What’s that like?
It’s very surreal. I work in the digital medium so often that I dream in digital sometimes, like I’m just drawing in photoshop or building in 3D. These dreams are generally less vivid than my other ones because they are repetitious.
Speaking of dreaming, if you could take a bath in anything (literally/figuratively), what would you pick?
Cherry juice, like a bloodbath of fruits!
Finally, what can we expect from the future? Are there any more projects you’re currently working on?
Yes, but I’ll be announcing it on my social media. Also, one of my showings is at the Oakland Museum but it was postponed due to Covid-19, so I’ll be announcing when that’s happening again.