Mujer es Revolución

Faith Wilding

Independent Artist, Scholar, Activist, and core member of Vermont College of Fine Art

Introduction

In the twenty-first century, the ever intensifying global hegemony of corporate biotechnology, and digital information and communications technologies (ICT), presents critical challenges, as well as new opportunities, for research, artistic production and political intervention for feminist scientists, cultural theorists, and visual art practitioners. An eclectic cyberfeminism that engages feminist theory and practices in the digital environment now occupies significant terrain on the Internet. Wired feminists recognize that the instantaneous global circulation of images and texts in the networks of cyberspace have introduced significant new audiences to feminist histories, theories, and art, including feminist critiques of the gender relations and capitalist market ideologies that drive ICT. Many feminist initiatives, often supported by international coalitions, have emerged in Europe, South America, Mexico, Africa, India, and Egypt. In many countries, the relatively low cost of digital production and distribution offers cultural producers and activists working with new media important new avenues of visibility and action. In the last twelve years, cyberfeminist web sites, participatory electronic art projects and electronic networking groups, have increased from a handful in the early nineties to several thousand. Cyberfeminists are making critical and political use of social media including Facebook, Blogs, Twitter, and more. A current example is the “V-Girls One Billion Rising (OBR) to Say No to Violence against Women and Girls” initiative that is organizing women to walk off their jobs and dance in the streets on February 14. The immediate impetus for this attempt to launch a global initiative to end gender violence was instigated by the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, India, which went viral around the world and provoked huge protests in Delhi and other parts of India and the world. V-Girls is targeting girls in a massive attempt to re-educate people globally about patriarchal sexism and its destructive consequences. Relying heavily on the Internet and other social media for publicity and coalition-building, this initiative provokes the question: Is it possible to create meaningful global solidarity and action across vast economic, cultural, and geographic differences, across structural inequality, violence, and exploitation using mostly wired digital communications media? The scale of this initiative promises to be significant. But what will happen after the dancers go home?

The past year (2012) gave us other powerful examples of how the “revolution” cannot happen on the Internet alone, although it can be communicated and supported in part through the Internet’s social networks. The “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements were salient examples of uprisings in which the venerable tactic of physical presence—occupation–was of prime importance.  Both these “movements” were instigated by large numbers of many different bodies in the streets whose presence and voices were flashed around the world instantaneously by cell phone, twitter, Facebook, etc. and garnered huge support and publicity from their on-line audiences. But both these movements, especially Arab Spring, are now embroiled in the difficult embodied and material task of “living the revolution.” Social networking tools are undoubtedly crucial for communications, information, and building solidarity. But when it comes to making satisfying lives, and a live-able world, we also have to create embodied material and affective relations with people, communities, and governments. 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.

Can feminism help us to address such mammoth problems? Could cyberfeminist scientists, ecologists, teachers, artists, chemists, farmers, nurses, community organizers, lawyers, and pharmacologists, take the lead in international research and education about the many different causes of violence against women, including the inequities of sweat-shop labor in factories that produce electronic components, the capitalist expropriation of subsistence farm-land to grow bio-fuels, the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power, the razing of forests and destruction of waterways and wetlands? Those who have the tools of language, writing, artistic skills, and scientific knowledge need to make their work publicly available (without the restrictions of intellectual property or copyright) to  “make the connections of what is happening to the world” and “bring it into the realm of common understanding.” [1]

Bodies on the Line

Arundhati Roy put her own body on the line alongside India’s poorest Dalit people to resist the privatization of India’s power supply by US companies’ damming of the rivers which are their only source of livelihood. She writes: “We need….a new kind of politics. Not the politics of governance but the politics of resistance. The politics of opposition. … The politics of slowing things down. The politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction.” [2]

Along these lines, I’ve been thinking about the crucial subject of the “expropriation of women,” discussed by such authors as Maria Mies, Sylvia Federici, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, and Maria della Costa, who have studied women’s land struggles and subsistence labor worldwide. I’m struck by the way such struggles, while initially concerned with the specific issue of women’s access to cropland for subsistence farming, often expand their scope to form the basis of well-organized community-building, food security, and solidarity movements. Federici cites an example from Paraguay, where the Peasant Women’s Commission (Comission de Mujeres Campesinas) was formed in 1985 (in alliance with the landless Paraguayan Peasants Movement) to demand land re-distribution and cropland of their own. The women organized a model community to collectively farm strips of land they had been granted, thus joining their agricultural plots and maximizing their labor power. One of the organizers observed: “We’re experimenting with communal work to see if it gives us more time for other things. It also gives us a chance to share our experiences and worries. This is a very different way of living for us.” [3]

At their base, many of the land struggles worldwide arise in response to the devastating effects of pan-capitalist globalization with its attendant “structural adjustments” that often involve a corporate agribusiness take-over of traditionally peasant-farmed croplands crucial to local food security, and the traditional subsistence lives of peasant and indigenous people. In the past decade or so, the corporate land-grab has intensified because of the new Western demand for ethanol, a bio-fuel derived from such traditional food crops as sugarcane, maize, or sorghum. The land struggles in Paraguay are by no means over: In December 2012, Paraguay’s Campesinos Sin Tierra (landless peasants, 70% are women) who have traditionally squatted on the land-holdings of the big landlords for whom they work, are being violently attacked for their protests against big agribusiness growers who are increasingly using former croplands to raise monoculture crops such as sugarcane and maize for ethanol and biofuel production.  Fierce struggles against the expropriation of peasant and indigenous peoples from their lands and territories are currently going on all over the world in similar ways. For example, in Central America peasant families are increasingly finding that farmland they used to rent in order to grow their subsistence food crops, is being bought up by international big Agro corporations for sugarcane ethanol production. Related land movements initiated and led by women – the principal food-producers worldwide – include the “Green Belt” reforestation movement initiated by Wangari Maathai in Africa, and the organized struggles against oil production which is threatening the mangrove swamps in the Niger Delta. Federici also points to the example of the NY City “Green Guerrillas” who started cleaning up vacant lots to make urban gardens in New York’s lower East side in the 1980s.  These projects are often quashed or destroyed by authorities and local governments because they are autonomous and community-building, and present obstacles to the relentless capitalist monetizing, patenting, and control of all public resources – including land and water –that have traditionally been held in common.

Meanwhile, in Canada the Elders and First Nations peoples of the “Idle No More” initiative are using every socially networked media and embodied tactics – such as hunger-strikes, marches, and occupations – to further their cause. What is at issue is nothing less than indigenous ways of knowing and living that have for centuries struggled to protect and conserve the fertility and balance of ecosystems, land and water use, and the survival of indigenous communities. While this movement has immediate demands in regard to the Canadian governments move to revoke some sovereign treaty rights, native peoples are creating coalitions with many related struggles around urgent issues of environmental threat in North America: Tar sands oil extraction, natural gas fracking, transcontinental pipe-lines, and converting cropland for ethanol production. As the Occupy movement discovered in 2011, all you have to do is to give the problem a name – and a tactic – and they will come! Authorities hate autonomous movements of any kind, because they lead to community organizing, housing coalitions, food co-ops, rent-strikes, reclaiming the streets, cleaning up the environments, farming the land, and the addictive pleasures of conviviality and mutual care. Anyone who has been to Detroit lately can see an interesting American experiment in this regard in full bloom.

What is to be done?

What will the world we want look like? How do we work towards it? What tools do we have, and how are we using them? Who is our community? On what scale do we need to work? I am thinking about the ways in which the Feminist Health movement in the US was first organized and disseminated in the 70s; and how the well-coordinated national resistance to the anti-abortion (so-called pro-life) forces used pre-Internet phone trees, fax zaps, leafleting, media performances, boycotts, and clinic defense occupations very successfully. In fact, the feminist movement has always excelled in inventive and daring resistance and refusal tactics – the long-honed tools of the weak. But we need to go beyond resistance to create the world we want. Cyberfeminists can’t do this alone, thus building coalitions and alliances in all imaginable ways is a crucial step that has already begun.

  1. Eco-feminist action: Feminists of every profession and life-experience have the tools and knowledge to counter the imperialist environmental depredations of pan-capitalism. For more than fifty years, leading feminist scientists, scholars, and activists, including Evelyn Fox Keller, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, and others, have interrogated the disciplines of science from a feminist perspective. They have made crucial incursions into the practices, methods, and philosophies of life-science, biotechnology, genetics, bio-politics, and bio-ethics. Concurrently, feminist artists, theorists, and historians have profoundly challenged how art is made, taught, and interpreted; and feminist art has strongly influenced and changed the mainstream art world. Feminist artists have activated new art practices that often employ research and production in non-art fields such as sociology, anthropology, biology, sexuality, medicine, and gender studies. Feminist bio-artists such as subRosa, Beatriz da Costa, Claire Pentecost and others have introduced new subject matter, methods and content including interrogations of emerging biogenetic-sciences, genetically engineered life, new reproductive technologies, genetically modified crops, and environmental and animal studies; and pioneered cultural forms and methods including participatory, relational, and social art practices, media art, and pedagogical public performance. Vandana Shiva’s “Grandmother’s University” in which traditional knowledges are passed on to younger generations could be an inspiring model here.  How about trying “Eco-feminist Saturday Schools?”

  2. Cyberfeminists must intensify local and international education and action on the intersecting causes of violence against women, including the inequities of sweat-shop labor in electronic component factories; the capitalist expropriation of subsistence farm-land to grow bio-fuels; the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power; the razing of forests and destruction of waterways and wetlands. Those of us who have the tools of language, writing, access to media, artistic skills, and scientific knowledge, need to make our work publicly available without the restrictions of intellectual property or copyright.

  3. Food Justice: How about feeding people rather than cars? The world food crisis can be directly linked to such practices as agro-fuel production, which deprives women of “marginal” land they use for food production and fuel. Federici and others have compared this practice to the enclosure of the commons in England during medieval times with the concomitant loss of women’s livelihoods. Research has shown that because of their close links to local economies (in much of the developing world women are the economy), women are more affected by climate change, and more ready to devise ways of dealing with it. Women must take the lead in demonstrating the connections between climate change, de-forestation, desertification, and food security. Groups like ETC have pointed out that synthetic biology, or as they call it “extreme genetic engineering” actually threatens the entire ecosystem not just in an embodied way but also because of the profound changes to local landscapes and food-scapes that ensue from such experiments. An example is the replacement of “native” forest trees and vegetation with fast-growing groves of monoculture trees such as Eucalyptus. One can already see the devastation to the landscape this has caused in regions like southern Spain (Galicia).  The cyberfeminist collective subRosa has argued that the so-called biotech revolution represents an unprecedented intervention – at both micro and macro levels–into the reproduction, manipulation, and control of all life forms. [4] As cyberfeminist artists, subRosa situates our own bodies and labor in relation to an inquiry about the “post-human” body that manifests simultaneously as the distributed body, medicalized body, socially networked body, cyborg body, citizen body, virtual body, laboring body, soldier body, animal body, and gestating body. We ask: How do we imagine ourselves as resistant, activist artists in these new global bio-scenarios? Can our work propose feminist ethics for post-human bodies and material life? subRosa has been a leader in bringing new performative, participatory, and relational art practices to bear on a feminist critique of biotechnology, Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), eugenics, genetic engineering and patenting of life materials.

  4. Toward a global Commons: The recent tragic suicide of young Aaron Swartz is only the latest drastic reminder that the violent protection of intellectual and material property rights are at the root of many current struggles from the patenting of indigenous knowledge, to gun rights, Facebook protocols, scientific research and development, and academic intellectual property hoarding – indeed, now that life-forms and their DNA are being patented as “inventions,” and farmers are disempowered from harvesting and saving the seeds of the crops they grow.  Swartz was led to despair by the incredibly harsh sentence meted out to him by Federal authorities for downloading thousands of academic articles from MIT’s JSTOR site, with the intention of making this intellectual treasure-trove publicly available.  Aaron objected to the fact that JSTOR fees don’t go to the authors who produced this knowledge, but to the publishers. The practices of free knowledge sharing through gift economy, anti-copyright and Creative Commons were at the basis of the formation of Internet list-serves such as Nettime and Faces. Personally, I support resistance to a capitalist economy of copyrighting and patenting knowledge that we have all created in common. I encourage cyberfeminists to practice anti-copyright, hospitality, and generous knowledge-sharing.

Conclusion

Looking back over more than a decade of cyberfeminist theorizing and practice, I still want to highlight the feminism in cyberfeminism. Some things have changed: there’s a strong presence of vocal critical feminists on the Net’s so-called social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc) as well as on lists such as Faces. When a case of “face-raping” was recently discussed on Facebook by a Faces list member, an immediate conversation developed that drew comments from (among others) outspoken feminist theorists/artists Martha Rosler and Mira Schor, both of whom (I’m told) have a lively presence on Facebook and blog substantial writing there. Worldwide many feminist voices are commenting on the suppression of women’s voices and the ubiquitous violence against women—I’m thinking about the engaged discussions about Pussy Riot, Nuns on the Bus, the recent brutal gang-rapes and murders of women in India, Africa, and Steubenville, and the strong participation of young women in “democracy” movements worldwide.

Wherever I go in America people are staring into small screens with the entrancement of lovers gazing into each other’s eyes. The Krokers call this being “tethered to mobility” [5], a state that turns people into captive digital subjects of capitalist surveillance and marketing. I have decided to slow down because, mentally, I can’t afford to be more addicted to speed than I already am. Cyberfeminists need to explore the massive impact of digital devices and wired media on the human senses, bodies, and psyches. Are our technologies literally performing our subjectivities, as the Krokers claim? How can we be in solidarity with the “off-grid bodies” of the poor, the emigrants, the illegals, the non-wired? The Internet is immensely useful as a tool of information and “getting in touch” generally, but can it function meaningfully without a “real touch,” a lived politics of hospitality, reciprocity, and embodied solidarity?

References

1. Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001): 32.

2. Roy, Power Politics, 32-33.

3. Silvia Federici, “Women’s Land Struggles and the Valorization of Labor” The Commoner 10 (2007): 224.

4. Hyla Willis and Faith Wilding, subRosa projects and publications, www.cyberfeminism.net; www.refugia.net/.

5. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, “Top Ten,” Artforum 51.5 (2013): 73-74.

Bio

Faith Wilding is an independent scholar, artist, and activist, in addition to being a core member of Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work in feminist performance and media art includes participation in the Womanhouse exhibition in 1972 and extends through several decades of solo and group shows in venues that include the Whitney Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. She has served on the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University. She co-founded and collaborates with subRosa, a cyberfeminist art collective.