Guest Editorial Statement

Stephanie Tripp, Ph.D

Assistant Professor of Communication, The University of Tampa

How do we trace new media feminisms? To do so requires us to hazard definitions impossible at the outset. The slashes in the title of this special issue attest to both the impossibility of the task and our resolve to undertake it nonetheless. What can be more hazardous than to affix what is ‘new’ about media (or mediation), particularly as it pertains to feminism, a movement grounded in struggles over representation? Yet women working in the interstices of art and technology – whether they identify themselves as feminists, cyberfeminists, digital feminists, techno-feminists, e-feminists, “third wave” feminists, cyber-grrls, or something else altogether ­– cannot wait for a consensus to emerge on nomenclature. They have too much work to do.

Indeed, as the World Wide Web begins its third decade and we recognize the many accomplishments that women have made as artists, scholars, critics, and activists in and through information communications technologies, we also are reminded that many problems identified by feminists at the outset persist today and, in some cases, have intensified. In addition, as global networks have connected us in larger numbers and at greater speeds, we have grown more aware of pressing new challenges facing women around the world. The contributors to Tracing New/Media/Feminisms address the work of feminism(s) from multiple physical and theoretical locations. Their artmaking and critical interventions traverse various rhetorical tactics, modes of affect, and intensities of engagement. They share much, but as feminism itself has branched from a single broad-based movement to an array of practices and philosophies, their work also diverges in important ways. Therefore, we offer Tracing New/Media/Feminisms not as a definitive assessment but as a necessary point of departure.

This special issue begins with the words of Faith Wilding, a path-breaking member of the feminist performance art and cyberfeminist movements. Wilding’s contribution returns to several questions concerning the role of feminisms in cyberspace that she addressed as a participant in the First Cyberfeminist International in Kassel, Germany, in 1997. At that time, she insisted on the importance of articulating “cyberfeminism’s political goals and positions” and called on cyberfeminists to “critique utopic and mythic constructions of the Net, and strive to work with other resistant netgroups in activist coalitions.” [1] In “Mujer es Revolución,” she extends and amplifies her earlier exhortation, emphasizing the international scope of contemporary cyberfeminism and the enormity of the challenges confronting it. She states, “In every way, bodies – including humans, animals, and plants – matter more than ever, and are more than ever at the center of global ecological, economic, and subsistence crises.” Then she asks, “Can feminism help us to address such mammoth problems?”

Networking, Laboring, Learning

Possibilities for action are as informed by political and cultural boundaries as they are by transglobal information networks, and incongruities between local and global status often result in vexing paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion. Such is the case of women and new media art in Iran. Morehshin Allahyari and Jennifer Way write of the resolve of women who struggle to establish and maintain careers as new media artists in the wake of recent government prohibitions against women seeking university degrees in the science, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields. Citing interviews with several women artists who have lived in Iran or who live there now, Allahyari and Way explore how these women understand their work as digital artists within that culture and what future they envision for women in their field. The article specifically treats the (very limited) participation of women in the Tehran Annual Digital Art Exhibition (TADAEX). Interviews with artists reveal dismay and frustration, but also occasional optimism, as women look beyond the immediate political horizon and reflect on newly discovered opportunities for experimentation and collaboration within Iran and beyond its borders.

Tech-savvy women artists around the globe are employing inexpensive and ubiquitous networking technologies to share their work and their struggles, extending a movement that began in a handful of wealthier countries to some of the poorest and furthest removed from established enclaves of feminist art. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret an expanding breadth of awareness and participation, however worthy of celebration, as a sign of unrelenting progress. To perceive the peril in such an assumption, we need only look at the well-documented stagnation in the numbers of women working in high-tech fields and the recent decline in undergraduate degrees awarded to women in computer science, engineering, and mathematics in the United States. [2]  In “Feminist Internet Software,” Annina Rüst takes up questions of exclusion and discouragement within universities and tech companies in Western countries and explores three recent feminist interventions. Framing her discussion within a brief history of women working in technology fields and the current workplace conditions of these women, Rüst describes examples of Internet software developed by herself and two other women artists that respond to discrimination and harassment by male colleagues.

Early on, women understood the opportunities and potential barriers that the World Wide Web presented as a space for feminist art and activism. They began collaborating to gain access to tools, exhibition space, and other support that they needed to meet the challenges of working within the emerging media environment. One result of those early collaborations is Montreal-based Studio XX, a center run by feminist artists that sponsors artist residencies, festivals, commissions, workshops, and the online journal .dpi. In an interview with Media-N, one of the founders of Studio XX, Kim Sawchuk, reflects on the organization’s evolution from informal meetings of a few artists and scholars discussing common interests to an established, self-sustaining resource for feminist new media art. Sawchuk, a feminist media scholar at Concordia University, also addresses issues relevant to women working at the intersection of art and technology within and outside the academy. Groups such as Studio XX have proved critical, providing support structures not only for new work but also for preserving and curating existing work. The Matricules archive project, which Studio XX launched in 2008, constitutes a crucial political as well as cultural role in feminist new media art, for, as Jacques Derrida notes, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.” [3] Media-N interviews Stephanie Lagueux, director of Matricules, about the extensive archiving project, which encompasses all of the work produced through Studio XX during its seventeen-year history, and does so in a manner that eschews the traditional archive’s patriarchal underpinnings.

Looking, Uttering, Moving

As feminist new media art continues to proliferate and conversations about its genealogies and influences continue to multiply, women are updating, reevaluating, or reaffirming their orientations toward foundational texts of feminist criticism. Concurrently, an ever-expanding array of digital art-making tools – social media networks, mobile computing, locative technologies, and augmented reality, to name but a few – compels them to reboot, reconfigure, rescale, or restructure existing ways of thinking about their work. Yet always in the new we find traces of the old, as women artists from various critical standpoints pursue new approaches to enduring questions of representation, identity, subjectivity, epistemology, and embodiment.

Meighan Ellis, a New Zealand-based photographer and video artist, examines the turn of the gendered gaze toward beautiful males within a new media ecology of sharing and fandom in “Beauty, Beauty, Look at You.” Exploring visual fascination along an axis that stretches from crushing school girl to detached lepidopterist, Ellis writes of the scopophilic pleasures encountered as she records a series of video portraits of young men entitled behold, be still. Depicted in the manner of twenty-first-century daguerreotypes, the posing subjects are affixed and displayed in short looping videos on Ellis’s website. From there, the images are circulated and annotated through social media networks, and, thus, the private gaze is multiplied. The article addresses screen gazing, especially via the intimate scale of contemporary tablet and smart phone devices, within the critical context of desire, gender, and visual pleasure, and within the historical tradition of the daguerreotype and its common role as a treasured romantic memento.

In exploring the affordances of new media, women continue to graft new spaces of expression onto existing conventions and genres, re-mixing and re-populating them according to their own design. Colleen Keough, a US-based multimedia artist, extracts from a stock of Gesamtkunstwerk the base for a contemporary media spectacle that is flavored with feminine mojo. Keough describes Ether and the Voice: an Electronic Media Opera (2010) as “an exploration of the female voice, technology, and identity.” In it, she sunders traditional opera’s unified vision with refractory play of voice and image, signal and noise. As large-screen projections play against live performance, characters emerge, mutate, and reappear in an inchoate stream of sound and image, or, as the character Ether intones, “the images change as they mix with my blood, i am no longer who i was a moment ago. the images, i am wearing them. you can see layer upon layer, living, moving, shifting.” In Keough’s work, the female voice is not that of the venerated opera diva, or the muse of the male genius, but a signal subject to modulation and interruption.

Early feminist artists embraced movement and performance as ways of exploring subjectivities that refused passivity and control. [4] Since that time, various artists have continued to approach subjectivity through movement, be they gendered or non-gendered subjects, human or non-human. Eleanor Dare, a London-based scholar and artist, pushes limits of subjectivity to include collaboration between software agents and human actors in Blood-Sugar Roulette (2012), a work that she describes as “an augmented reality body art performance” that took place in Sydenham Hill Wood in South London. To prepare for the performance, which was partially documented through video, Dare used bio data, including that from blood sugar levels and menstrual cycles, to devise an algorithm that would determine patterns of movement by a female performer. In “Blood-Sugar Roulette: A Case Study of Biogeometric Body Art,” Dare states that the project’s aim is to determine “whether a human performance defined by software can be framed as a type of uncanny robot performance, . . . and whether, conversely, a computer can be a meaningful agent within a body art performance.” By seeking to incorporate the “radical lessons of twentieth-century performance” into the human-computer interaction (HCI) of Blood-Sugar Roulette, Dare positions her work within a certain tradition of feminist performance, even though her articulations of subjectivity and embodiment diverge from it in many ways.

We conclude the special issue with the words of another artist whose work is rooted in early feminist art and continues to address issues crucial to women today: Lynn Hershman. Interviewed by Laura Gemini and Federica Timeto, Hershman remarks on her critical engagement with identity, the body, and performance throughout a career spanning four decades. From film and video images depicting cyborgian fantasies to an archived re-mix of earlier projects created in the virtual world of Second Life, Hershman’s work challenges boundaries between real and virtual, body and prosthesis. As she explains to Gemini and Timeto, “Technology is alive, and therefore always shifting, hybrid and undefinable. The more alive it is, the more difficult to capture or embody it is, and that is what is fascinatingly intriguing about it. I would say that technology is everything that performs your body.” Throughout a rich conversation that touches on, among other things, performativity, gender, technology, virtuality, and social networking, Hershman provides incisive comments on the role of new media in contemporary art practices and in her own work.

References

1. Faith Wilding, “Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?,” on Faith Wilding’s website, January 20, 1998, accessed March 21, 2013, http://faithwilding.refugia.net/wherefem.html.

2. David Beede, Tiffany Julian, David Langdon, George McKittrick, Beethika Khan, and Mark Doms, “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, 2011, http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/reports/documents/womeninstemagaptoinnovation8311.pdf.

3. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4n.

4. Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 87-95.

Bio

Stephanie Tripp is a digital media scholar and artist, and an assistant professor of communication at The University of Tampa. Her work investigates the specificity of place and its role in community identity, collective memory, and knowledge legitimation, as well as emerging technologies and participatory media practices.

http://stephanietripp.org