Open Dialogue, Feminism and New Media Art: Hot or Not?

FALL 2011: V.07 N.02: CAA Conference Edition 2011

Silvia Ruzanka
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Katherine Behar
Assistant Professor
Department of Fine and Performing Arts Baruch College, CUNY

This paper summarizes an open dialogue held at the 2011 New Media Caucus Symposium.  Co-chairs Silvia Ruzanka and Katherine Behar invited participants Terry Berkowitz, Jillian Hernandez, Diane Ludin, Prema Murthy, Stephanie Rothenberg, and Kathleen Ruiz, to join in an open, moderated discussion of the role of feminism in recent new media art.  Framed as an open dialogue rather than a panel, the content of the event was shaped equally by the chairs, invited participants, and by contributions from members of the audience.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the main focus for feminist scholarship, art and commentary was the issue of identity and representation in the context of a cultural hegemony.  The male-dominated field of technology encapsulated this hegemony, providing a perfect arena for feminist critique. In contemporary art, such concerns motivated identity politics art and institutional critique. These ideas were adapted and expanded on by cyberfeminists working with technology in the emerging field of new media art, particularly with network technologies that permitted new configurations and morphologies for identity and representation. In part, the value of early network technoculture was that it existed outside existing institutional structures, and allowed the creation of new forms.  As both cultural workers and early adopters of technology, new media artists helped to envision, shape and execute technoculture as a non-monolithic, distributed entity.

Now, twenty years later, the newest new media technologies are instantly mainstream, and global hegemonies have adopted the distributed characteristics that once epitomized networked radicalism.  Feminism has fallen from vogue in contemporary art, and all but disappeared from new media art and its discourses.  This open dialog explores feminism in the context of contemporary new media and technoculture.  How have the goals and challenges evolved? Is the term still relevant? Is there a need for a specifically feminist approach in contemporary new media? Is new media’s feminism Hot or Not? Or else, did data visualization kill the cyberfeminist star?

Discussion Summary
The discussion began with the role of feminism within New Media and the art world at large.  Some expressed a reluctance to describe their work as explicitly feminist, out of concern that it would overwhelm other interpretations – as one panelist put it,  “I’m a multidimensional person, and there are many things I want to explore…my interests range from porn to physics.”  This sentiment seemed to reflect a general trend among younger artists, who might have a strong interest in feminist issues but choose not mobilize the term directly.  Another view, however, was that if the term has become too constrained, then it is time to change the definition – “who owns this word, anyway?”

During an active discussion period, numerous questions and comments focused on the contributions of feminism in a specific medium: gaming.  The comments and questions reflected several feminist concerns in relation to gaming: women as producers of games, women as consumers/users of games, and the depiction of women and/or social roles in games.  Issues pertaining to girls and gaming were discussed in light of each of these concerns.  What would a feminist or female player-oriented kind of game design look like?  Ideas included an emphasis on gestural and body-based interfaces, the importance of social play, alternatives to violent and aggressive games, and the possibility of other kinds of “first person” games beyond “first person shooters.”  The current state of “games for girls” in the industry, however, seemed heavily focused on themes like hair, makeup, and cooking, with pink color themes.  Panelists pointed out the risk of essentialism and over-generalization, and that girls need outlets for aggression too.  While games seemed to be at the very early stages of engagement with any of these issues, virtual environments in general presented greater opportunities, such as the role of Second Life as a space for trans-gendered identities.

From games and simulations, the conversation moved to broader questions of technology and empowerment: what is true power in our society?  What opportunities for empowerment do we already have with current media technology?  Examples included the use of social media for organizing political action, such as the use of Facebook and Twitter by activist women in Egypt.  The wealth of new electronic communication technologies, from web-based social media to mobile phone texting, provides powerful new ways to distribute information, build communities and solidarity, and have real impact “in the street.”  Everyday digital practices such as YouTube mashups were cited as another form of empowerment, opening new ways to be media creators rather than just consumers.

The final question for the panel asked whether new media practitioners regarded technology as primarily a tool, or if it provides an inherent material satisfaction.  Some regarded technologies like video as a means to an end, and were more interested in the effect of their work in the world.  Others spoke to the pleasure of the unexpected, the joys of breaking technologies, a motivation to use technology in order to get over a fear of it, and the desire to work with “something that was part of our current age.”

Over the course of the conversation, several trends emerged: the opportunities created by wider access to digital tools and media distribution; the importance of active engagement as producers in emerging media, such as games; and the powerful impact that Internet and communication technology can have in helping to affect real-world change.  While “using technology” has sometimes been viewed as an esoteric and solitary activity, communities of learning and skill-sharing have also grown around technical fields such as programming and electronics.

Toward the end of the dialog, someone posed the question, why had the discussion turned to address the particular subject of games in such depth?  There is no clear-cut answer to this question (previous sessions during the day had also focused on gaming.) The co-chairs believe that it is symptomatic of a general rise of digital games in culture – digital games have become a major communications medium comparable to the commercial Internet or television in prior decades.  Many issues around feminism and new media are heightened in digital games and this is particularly active territory for their exploration.

At the end of the day it was clear that feminist issues are still as relevant as ever, particularly in a global context; new media has undergone tremendous change, with the rise of social media, gaming, and mobile technologies.  The strategic questions of motivating change through art or through more direct action are the same as in any medium, but are heightened because the same new media technologies form a fluid continuum between art and everyday life.  In this roundtable, we began to sketch out these and other current issues, as a foundation for further dialogue.

Event proceedings from Feminism and New Media: Hot or Not? February 2011. © Paul Catanese.

Event proceedings from Feminism and New Media: Hot or Not? February 2011. © Paul Catanese.