Intuitive: The Adaptive Interface
REPRESENTING THE BODY IN CYBERFEMINIST ART
REPRESENTING THE BODY IN CYBERFEMINIST ART
Assistant Professor of Communication
REPRESENTING THE BODY IN CYBERFEMINIST ART
In some respects, the term “cyberfeminist artist” might seem to be an inherently contradictory term—considering, for example, the Internet’s inception at the Department of Defense, its development through programming languages largely developed by men, its potential as a tool for globalization and corporatization, the proliferation of Internet pornography and e-commerce, and the implied exchange of embodied experience for a life of conceptual abstraction (i.e., a life in “cyberspace”). Yet, many feminists have appropriated interactive media, creatively engaging with cyber technologies in ways that may be no less intuitive and exciting than a painter’s interaction with her canvas and brushes. In some respects, interactive media artists have faced many of the same issues of representation that other artists have. For example, we might ask ourselves whether specific imagery is promoting stereotypes of women or showing us alternatives. These are fundamental issues that we assume become part of an artist’s responsibility as a cultural producer. But there is also the sense in which the medium becomes part of the message (as Marshall McLuhan is so famous for suggesting), and interactive media per se can uniquely problematize representation.
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
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.
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.
While some writers, such as Turkle, have suggested that cyberspace might be a place where we actually explore subjectivity through other identities (e.g., through gender-swapping) or transcend limitations of the body, Eryk Salvaggio’s research, articulated in an online Rhizome Digest article entitled “Gender in Online Communities” (2003) might be considered a counter to this argument, as it cites a study of 400 online participants that found the top reason for gender-switching “was not curiosity over gender differences, but merely for new approaches to gaming.” Salvaggio concludes that “the internet does not radically alter the nature of men and women, nor does it alter the relationships between men and women when they interact with each other. The dynamic of power between genders remains intact, and it remains to be seen whether technology can spark changes in these structures, or simply serve as another means of facilitating them.”
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.
Over the last decade, many feminist artists have made interactive media central to their art practices, precisely because of their problematic nature. While utilizing some of the unique capabilities of cyberspace (interactivity, digital imaging, animation, time-based action), they have provided cultural critiques of various institutions that can tyrannize the body, including the medium itself. Looking at some specific approaches to body representation (the avatar, the dismembered body, the absent body, the body as text and performance) may help us consider how women are using interactive media in ground-breaking ways, while acknowledging some of the problematic aspects of both representation and medium.
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.
I. VNS MATRIX
Figure 1.Cyberfeminist Manifesto, VNS Matrix, 1991
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.
Rosie Cross, Editor of the widely studied geekgirl.com (the self-proclaimed “world’s first cyberfeminist hyperzine for big-brained grrrls”), believes in the importance of creating an alternative subculture for girls and recognizes the power of tantalizing imagery to communicate to a large audience (the sophisticated graphics of her site present polished if predictable imagery of girls as superheroes or as punk vixens).
Advancing the “grrls” model of rebellion with political and thought-provoking imagery, Marina Zurkow’s avatar “the brain girl” (www.thebraingirl.com) is the less sexually attractive, more theory-based, pre-pubescent, freak-girl alter-ego to geekgirl. The Brain Girl (2000-2005) is a female monster cartoon whose brainy image appears to reference the birth defect anencephaly (in which the brain develops with no skull) and suggests that the smart girl is an image as anomalous to popular consciousness as a birth defect. But her prepubescent anatomy also indicates an inability to develop mature female genitals. No G-Slime here. This is a monster who has somehow avoided gender attributes by filling a cybersuit and getting plugged into a wall. In some respects, the woman as monster seems subversive in its refusal to become traditionally gendered, but it is also stunted, and fundamentally suggests that we must become a spectacle if we dare to represent ourselves at all. In a 2005 project entitled Pets Part 1 and Pets Part 2, Brain Girl goes to the “Pets” store to get a puppy, only to find that the place is really a brothel where her mother works. Looking like a biotech-experiment-gone-awry (with three eyes, no limbs, and a print dress), “Mommy” explains to her “Little Larva” that her memory of Mommy is no longer of any use, and alludes to the fact that Brain Girl is, after all, primarily an electronic being. After crying about this revelation, Brain Girl leaves with her free Dalmatian—suggesting that we have more attachment to our pets and to our consumer culture than to our humanity.
III. NATALIE BOOKCHIN: METAPET
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.
IV. PREMA MURTHY: BINDI GIRL
THE DISMEMBERED BODY: LINDA DEMENT’S CYBERFLESH
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.
THE BODY IN PERFORMANCE
Art practices that include crossovers from cyber experience to live performance (including those of subRosa, Critical Art Ensemble and others) seem to provide a unique look at the "crossover" from screen to real space and the qualitative differences we experience in each space. They suggest that getting at the problems of the aesthetic experience in artistic virtual environments might mean looking beyond issues of representation in terms of perception, cognition, and signification, and grappling with the nature of corporeality and materiality in live interaction--the possibility that what flesh and blood (or bricks and mortar, or paint and canvas) mean to us (sociopolitically and otherwise) might be fundamentally different than what virtual "presence" can mean.
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).
The theme of woman as monster or woman as pet, which seems to be prevalent in work such as Braingirl’s Pets, Metapet, CyberFlesh GirlMonster, and other cyberfeminist work, in some respects provokes thought about bodies merging with technology, and on the other hand reinforces established stereotypes about feminine embodiment as monstrous (e.g., as explored in Barbara Creed’s Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis). Such imagery is also enigmatic and seductive drawing us into an environment that otherwise might fail to capture our fleeting attention as we consider other attractions that are a quick click away.
Many powerful interactive media pieces seem to be those that seduce us into seemingly familiar interactive territory (a chat, a game, a room, a trade show, etc.), and then thwart our expectations, causing a shift in viewer perspective.
When we look at progressions of some of cyberfeminist work, however, we see some artists moving away from playful deceptions, clever avatars, and sensationalistic images toward more direct confrontations of sociopolitical issues. .
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.”
In Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices (2002), subRosa situates cyberfeminisms, considers important work to be done (for example, addressing racism in cyberenvironments), and provides information and inspiration for cyberfeminist practices, including a “Manifesto for Becoming Autonomous Zones.” In 2004, seventeen essays addressing the intersection of science and gender studies were published in the book entitled Cyberfeminism: Next Protocols, edited by Claudia Reiche and Verena Kuni, which began as a call posted on email lists by the Old Boys Network (the first cyberfeminist alliance). Writers from media studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and art history—including Prema Murthy, who wrote about Mythic Hybrid--discussed issues of the body in relationship to cybertechnologies and considered cyberfeminist approaches from art, theory, and activism.
Engaging the very technologies that present potential for abuse, cyberfeminist artists and writers have continued to have a voice in sociopolitical issues concerning the somatic and culturally defined body, working to assure that the last decade of cyberfeminist thought will continue to be part of our awareness.
ARTWORK (by title)
agorXchang. 2004. Bookchin, N. and Stevens, J.A. http://www.agoraxchange.net.
All New Gen. 1994-1995. VNS Matrix. CD-ROM.
Bindi Girl. 1999. Prema Murthy. http://www.thing.net/~bindigrl/
The Brain Girl. 2000-2005. Marina Zurkow. http://www.thebraingirl.com.
Critical Art Ensemble. Home site. http://www.critical-art.net
Cyberflesh GirlMonster. 1995. Linda Dement. CD-ROM
Dream Kitchen. 2000. Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski. CD-ROM.
geekgirl. Rosie Cross. http://www.geekgirl.com.au
”Geekgirl Versus the Millennium Bug.” geekgirl.com.
In My Gash. 1999. Linda Dement. CD-ROM.
The Intruder (v1.2). 1999. Natalie Bookchin.
Metapet. 2003. Natalie Bookchin. http://metapet.net/play.html
Mythic Hybrid. 2002. Prema Murthy. Turbulence.
Old Boys Network. Home Site. (first cyberfeminist alliance). www.obn.org
Pets Part 1 and Pets Part 2.” Feb 2005. The Brain Girl. Marina Zurkow.
subRosa. Home Site. www.cyberfeminism.net
Textual Tango. 2003. Jessica Loseby. http://www.rssgallery.com/textualtango.htm
Typhoid Mary. 1991. Linda Dement. CD-ROM.
US Grade AAA Premium Eggs. 2002. subRosa. Bowling Green State University.
“YOU-GEN-A-CHIX.” 2003. YOUGenics2: Exploring the Social Implications of
Zeitgenossen. Home Site. http://www.zeitgenossen.com/binaryartsite/index1.html
TEXTS (by author)
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth
Anonymous. “Natalie Bookchin: AGORA.” Creative Capital Channel.
Bookchin, Natalie. 1999. The Intruder (description). Leonardo Online
Creed, Barbara. 1993. Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge.
Cross, Rosie. Email interview with author. 12 May 2003.
Reiche, Claudia, and Verena Kuni. 2004. Cyberfeminism: Next Protocols.
Dement, Linda. www.lindadement.com (accessed July 30, 2005).
Fernandez, Maria. 2002. “Cyberfeminism, Racism and Embodiment.”
Grosz, Elizabeth. 1995. “Bodies and Knowledges: Feminism and the Crisis of
Haraway, Donna. 1985/1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Social
Hawthorne, Susan. 1999. “Cyborgs, Virtual Bodies and Organic Bodies.”
Hayles, Katherine. 1996. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers”.
Massumi, Brian. 2002. “On The Superiority of the Analog.”
Murthy, Prema. Interview with Prema Murthy on Mythic Hybrid by Diane Ludin 15
Murthy, Prema. A Mini-Monogram on Prema Murthy (Blog #3) by Norell
Penny, Simon. 2004. “Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation.”
Plant, Sadie. 1997. Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New
Schwarz, J. 2000. “Gender Switching on the Internet Isn't as Common as
Salvaggio, Eryk. 2003. “Gender in Online Communities.” Rhizome Digest.
Seiter, Ellen. 1984. “Semiotics and Television.” Channels of Discourse:
Starrs, Josephine. Email Interview with author. 6 April 2003.
Turkle, Sherry. 1996. "Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual
Varela, Francisco J. 1992. “The Reenchantment of the Concrete.”
VNS Matrix. 1991. Cyberfeminist Manifesto.
Center for the Arts, Elon University
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