REPRESENTING THE BODY IN CYBERFEMINIST ART
Thinking about choice of medium as political choice or problematic choice may seem absurd to some artists—especially those who have come to define themselves in relationship to the media they use. For example, those who might see themselves as “painters” or “filmmakers” or “new media artists” might not feel obligated to justify why they paint or make film or create digital interactive work. It has even been argued that technology is not inherently good or bad. However, because media are inextricably linked to culture, they are unavoidably political, whether or not we choose to articulate the issues. For example, Ellen Seiter, in her article “Semiotics and Television” (published in Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 1984), points out that television has adopted “low status as an aesthetic text” (26), and we know it is rarely used as an art medium. Computers—as display screens, authoring tools, communication devices, surveillance technologies, and databases—pose interesting media-specific problems of their own for the artist. This study investigates problems that have been uniquely associated with being a feminist interactive media artist, and especially focuses on body representation, since the body and embodiment have been central to feminist activism and theory. I will begin by articulating some media-specific issues affecting representation of the body in cyber environments, and then relate some of those issues to prominent and historically significant feminist cyberart over the last decade.
DECODING THE BODY: CONFIGURATIVE CODE / INTERPRETIVE CODE
Whether we acknowledge it or not, in interactive media, the configurative language of the computer has become part of the interpretive language of the art form. For example, any representation of the body in cyberspace carries with it the idea that it has been digitized/mechanized by computer code. This idea might be no more or less problematic than the idea of body imagery being rasterized for digital video or photography, if it weren’t for the fact that the Internet and other cybertechnologies have changed how we understand the body itself in relationship to that computer code (and by extension, in terms of semiotic code). Reducing data to ones and zeroes or on/off has ignited much speculation about the reductive nature of representation on the Internet and the mechanization of both the imagery and the user interacting with it. Katherine Hayles, in her article entitled “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers” (1999) argues that the attributes of code actually become instantiated in the body of a person using these technologies and therefore the body is part of the dynamic play of both coding and decoding. She goes so far as to suggest that this instantiation engenders new ways of thinking about materiality/immateriality: “Pattern tends to overwhelm presence, marking a new kind of immateriality which does not depend on spirituality or even consciousness, only on information” (267). In contrast, Brian Massumi’s article entitled “On the Superiority of the Analog” (2002) suggests that computer code (e.g., binary code) is not what the viewer actually interacts with and in fact might be more accurately described as a state of constant inactualization (138). The experience of the computer viewer, according to Massumi, is a sensory experience, analog in nature: e.g., hearing the sound, seeing the interface/text/graphics, interacting with the screen, touching the mouse, sitting in a chair. That analog experience is characterized as “superior,” in Massumi’s estimations, because it is the dominant mode of the viewer experience. In this model, viewers do not interact with code at a phenomenological level.
Nor do some artists interact with code at an authoring level. The availability of WYSIWYGs allow many cyberartists to work with text and imagery without ever “touching” code. In these cases, the relationship of the artist to computer code might be analogous to the relationship between the painter to the molecules in a paint brush handle. Still, many cyberfeminists (VNS Matrix being the earliest collective defining themselves as such) have fervently embraced code as their “brush” of choice in order to claim its power.
Even when an artist is taking control of these tools, there are ethical considerations about creating a digital feedback loop that positions the viewer as a participant in an environment and offers the illusion of control over activities that are, in actuality, predetermined to a large extent, by the computer program itself. In an article entitled “Considerations of the Corporeal: Moving from the Sensorial to the Social Body in Virtual Aesthetic Experience” (Intelligent Agent Magazine, 2005), I explore this issue of the body in such controlled environments, citing research by Simon Penny that implies our social responsibility in creating interactive/immersive experiences (2004, 83). Penny expresses concern about “the fact that bodily behavior is intertwined with the formation of representation. It is the ongoing interaction between these representations and the embodied behavior of the user that makes such images more than images”(83). If images are indeed “more than images” when the body interacts with them, technology is more than just a tool.
A decade of cyborg discourse has seen our interaction with digital media as part of a hybrid existence merging flesh and machine—conjuring, for example, a Foucauldian ordering of the body or a Harawayesque transcendence of binary paradigms—and influencing a wide range of cyborg imagery. In “Cyborgs, Virtual Bodies and Organic Bodies” (1999), Susan Hawthorne’s summation of some of this discourse cites key theories about hybrid embodiment and asks us how much we really want to romanticize body-machine mergings in light of the fact that so much technology seems to present a compromise for the body and even unpleasurable lived experience. At the very least, she claims that hybridity (as expressed through genetic engineering and prosthetics, for example) should not be reified, especially without consideration of whose interests are being served (217-218). Still, in digital media, we often see bodies represented in enhanced/utopian cyborg states, as they are, for example, at www.zeitgenossen.com , where a 3-D body surrounded by electrical twinkles and smoke puffs is waving to us from a computer-generated landscape and directing us to academic essays asking us to rethink our assumptions about the nature of “information.”
Ultimately, mythologies surrounding the properties of the computer environment become part of a social reality that presents special “baggage” for the internet artist making decisions about representation.
DISEMBODIED IDENTITY AND MARGINALIZATION
Representation of the body becomes, of course, even more problematic because the capabilities of people to create new identities on the Internet and represent themselves in interaction with others introduces additional and unprecedented issues of body representation. On one hand, the Internet suggests that “you are who you pretend to be” in cyberspace, as Sherry Turkle has explored in her article “Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality” (1996, 359), and the possibilities of transcending gender, race, age, disability, and other discriminatory physical features are alluring. On the other hand, what hope of social change do we have if our stereotypes and prejudices are dragged en masse into this new medium while we have no obligation to deal with the bodies we have?
In some cases, cyber-engineering of identity can be likened to genetic engineering or plastic surgery or biotech eugenics: instead of learning to live with our differences, we seek to “fix” them with the aid of technology, and without recognizing the sexism/racism of institutions that determine the “solutions” (e.g., corporate, educational, religious, governmental). So, for example, we might create an identity or an avatar, or we exchange emails that seem to have no body attributes represented at all, but unless the sender says, “Hi, I’m black and 75, and I have a message for you,” the viewer might just as easily “see” the writer as someone young, beautiful, and white. In an article entitled “Cyberfeminism, Racism and Embodiment” (in Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices, 2002), Maria Fernandez points out that “racism is, in large part, a complex of embodied practices sometimes quite separate from ideological positions” (30). The same can undoubtedly be said for other forms of marginalization. The legitimizing of marginalized perspectives, knowledges, and histories will undoubtedly rely on the legitimizing of the marginalized body.
THE INTERNET IN FEMINIST ART
If we have reasons to question cyberspace as a legitimate art environment, we also have cause to see it as a feminist tool. Donna Haraway points out that the Internet is really an “illegitimate offspring of militarism,” and “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins” (1991, 151). The medium has actually become modeled after many attributes that we associate with traditionally feminine culture: for example, rhizomatic networks of communication. In Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique, Creativity (1999), Scarlet Pollock’s and Jo Sutton’s article entitled “WomenClick: Feminism and the Internet” documents ways in which feminists have used the Internet, claiming that it “offers the possibility of working in ways feminists have often aspired to, but have sometimes had difficulty achieving: those of inclusion, diversity, and transparency in an open process which can lead to action and change” (33). It also represents unprecedented access to art audiences. Feminists who are concerned (and understandably so) with the disenfranchisement of people who can’t afford to own computers might consider that there are perhaps even more who cannot afford the bus or air fare to the nearest city with an art gallery or museum. The Internet provides unprecedented access to both reproduction of work that might only otherwise be seen in galleries and museums and access to work designed specifically for interactive environments, and computer access is available in many libraries and schools. Moreover, digital interactive works that are exhibited in galleries (especially those accompanied by installation and interactive live performance) can present extraordinary, body-engaging experiences that contrast with the typical experience of two-dimensional art that is admired from a distance and not to be touched.
The avatar becomes an important foundation for discussion of body representation in cyberspace, since the “avatar” is, by definition, an embodiment of ideology, mythology, or religious beliefs--an archetype of sorts, according to the online American Heritage Dictionary--and it has been used by artists to represent complex political issues. Historically, prominent avatars seem to represent key developments in cyberfeminist identity.
At the same time that VNS Matrix was writing their Cyberfeminist manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway was sharing with us her vision of the cyborg, a figure both mythical and “real” that helped us rethink our bodies in relationship to technology and simultaneously rethink paradigms that had been based on binary opposites (organism/machine, man/woman, culture/nature, etc.)—181. Since then, the image of the cyborg has, for some artists, come to represent an empowering hybridity, while others see it falling short of initial expectations.
One potential problem with such covert and sophisticated avatars may be that, in order to be effective, they require a thinking and self-reflexive player, and they run a risk of “just being fun” for those players unlikely to engage critically in their game-playing.
We begin with Bindi’s bio, which rather directly states the philosophies of the site through Bindi’s questions about life (in a “VERY private moment”): “At first I thought
In contrast to the avatar, which can risk embodying utopian ideals or stereotypes, or even enticing viewers into pleasurable vicarious experiences, the dismembered body may risk shocking viewers so much that they may not “want to play.” Nevertheless, work such as Linda Dement’s CD-ROM art Typhoid Mary (1991), Cyberflesh GirlMonster (1995), and In My Gash (1999) brings us bodies fragmented, incised, pierced, and recombined, as it may be argued that all bodies are in cyberspace (as part of nonlinear interfaces / narratives; asynchronous communication; disembodied identities) and as they are part of a society that sees violence as implicit in patriarchal order. Dement is clearly critiquing as she mimics this order. The narrative text of Cyberflesh GirlMonster, for example, is as fractured as the body parts linked to it. At times the narrative is an obsessive look at the body (in one case bleeding out during a suicide), and at other times it is a dissociative experience (a prostitute on heroin while being raped and beaten, thinking how glad she is that she’s high). Furthermore, the narrative itself shifts perspectives: for example, from the dying woman bleeding out to the woman who comes in and copulates with the body.
In some ways, Dement’s work reminds us of early in-your-face feminist body art or “cunt art,” as if the new medium itself requires an establishment of a woman’s right to be present in the domain.
THE BODY AS ADAPTED TEXT: THE INTRUDER
While the dismembered and/or mutilated body as interface in the above examples comes to be associated with personal narratives of pain and fragmentation, Natalie Bookchin’s The Intruder (1999, http://www.calarts.edu/~bookchin/intruder/ ) and Jessica Loseby’s Textual Tango (2003, http://www.rssgallery.com/textualtango.htm) are examples of the body represented as adapted text.
Based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story by the same name, Bookchin’s project The Intruder has been described as an experimental adaptation of the text “told in a hybrid form that exists on the border of computer and video arcade games and literature” (Leonardo Online Gallery). In Borges’ story, two brothers who are “in love” use a woman as a homosocial/homosexual conduit, then sell her to a whore house and kill her when they can no longer stand to share her. Bookchin sets up her game in the form of a Pong competition, so in one scene, for example, the icon of a woman is being hit back and forth as narrative about the sharing of the woman is read by a female voiceover and printed on screen. In another, two cowboy figures shoot at each other. Instead of being rewarded by points, players are rewarded by receiving more story text, which stops and starts based on whether the player misses or hits. So the engagement with text becomes much like an engagement in the sex act itself. The game suggests that the traditional male culture of confrontation, war, and domination of property are tied to notions of sexual conquest, objectification of women, and unresolved/unrealized homosocial/homosexual needs. The player, of course, becomes implemented in this culture merely by entering into the game environment itself.
THE ABSENT BODY: DREAM KITCHEN
One of the most interesting ways to present the body in interactive media may be to present its absence. This approach, of course, is in dramatic juxtaposition to Linda Dement’s work, for example, which gives us blood and guts. The absent body can be equally eerie and in some ways even more intriguing, as if it has been removed with surgical precision that is as clean as the space that’s left. Where is the family who lives in the house with the “Dream Kitchen,” we wonder, as we navigate through a CD by the same name, created by Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs (former member of VNS Matrix) in 2000? We begin by navigating a clean and empty 3D kitchen and clicking on items such as the phone, the refrigerator, the stove. These clicks take us inside the walls of the kitchen, into electrical wiring or vermin-infested areas; under the refrigerator where forgotten pencils and pens come to life; behind the phone, into surveillance monitors of what appear to be images of a family in the kitchen, showing images of domestic violence and bondage. When we return to the kitchen each time, it is progressively more dingy (so hard to keep the “surfaces” clean, both literally and metaphorically), and still empty. Overall, the absent body seems to be particularly effective in showing identity in relationship to domestic space.
Figure 10. Dream Kitchen, CD-ROM,
Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, 2000
Faith Wilding, a pioneer of the women’s art movement and member of subRosa, reports that some students have became so upset by the group’s presence of the “trade show representatives” at these performances that they have complained to university administrators, only to find that the very issues that are upsetting them are the issues the group is trying to illuminate—namely, corporate commodification of the body, without accountability to the public. subRosa follows up with critical engagement about biotech issues—for example, by holding convocations with the students or providing literature.
It is perhaps no coincidence that many pieces in this collection of cyberfeminist art represent the body in a transgressive and/or violated state, with movement through/across borders that can communicate both transcendence and violence. We are left to suspect that hybridity is not always a lofty ideal. While Linda Dement’s work is probably most notable for its violent imagery, even the Brain Girl, a relatively clean vector animation, shows bodies that are subjects of genetic/cyber violence. The theme of violation is often represented as sexual violation (as in Dement’s work, for example) and technological violation (as in the body being harvested for biotech purposes or disciplined and punished by repetitive work).
For example, in a current project, Natalie Bookchin is working with political theorist Jacqueline Stevens to create a “ massive multi-player global politics game challenging the violence and inequality of our present political system.” AgoraXchange (2004-2005, http://www.agoraxchange.net/index.php?page=279#279) is the site where the public has been providing input into the development of the aesthetics and rules of a game that will re-imagine current world order (tag line: “Make the Game. Change the World.”).
Prema Murthy’s activist art moves from Bindi Girl, the avatar who has been prostituted in the process of technosociality, to Mythic Hybrid (2002, http://www.turbulence.org/Works/mythichybrid/index.html#) which involves video documentation of real Indian women whose bodies are violated by global mechanization. In Mythic Hybrid—a title alluding to a term from Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto—Murthy went to India to videotape a group of women working in micro-electronics factories, and then created a web site that allows us to access images and excerpts from interviews, which indicate, for instance, the women’s extreme exhaustion and their need to be with the newborn children they have sent back to their villages to be raised.
While Haraway’s manifesto was radical for its time and has inspired much of Murthy’s work, the artist reflected in an interview for Nettime (2003): “In retrospect, the concept of the mythic hybrid seems to lack a realistic consideration of the difficulties involved with hybridization and takes a very ‘optimistic’ approach to contestation through creativity and the imagination.”
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