Australian women artists & new media technologies
Until recently, the word
'technology' typically conjured up images of industrial machinery and military
hardware, but new computer-based information and communication technologies
have made us realise afresh that technology also has a more insubstantial dimension-one
that includes social relationships and interactionsas well as hardware. In this
context it is important to remember that one of humanity's earliest and most
crucial technologies was that of spoken and written language.
The most recent developments in this lineage of communicative technologies is
the modem-connected computer and the phenomenon of the Internet. Sherry Turkle
describes the computer as the defining technology of our time, an 'object to
think with'.1 The post-industrial information age is a Net-worked era where
people communicate with 'intelligent' machines and, perhaps more importantly,
with each other through these machines. The increasing frequency and intimacy
of our interactions with new technologies are redefining what it means to be
Australian women artists, writers and curators have taken a leading role in
examining the possibilities and challenges that these new technologies present.
Just why the Australian climate has produced such a strong contingent of women
working in the new media arts is open to speculation. Francesca Da Rimini comments:
'I can only surmise that the conditions for replication of the aberrant cyberfeminist
virus were perfect here in Ozit does help having fearless funding agencies and
curators and publishers who are supportive of work which is culturally and politically
It is clear that organisations such as ANAT (Australian Network for Art and
Technology), the AFC (Australian Film Commission) and the Australia Council
(through the now defunct Hybrid Arts Board and the more recent New Media Arts
Fund) have played a crucial role in supporting the training and professional
development of women working with new technologies and in the research and production
of new media works. Without the support of these funding bodies it is likely
that work such as Linda Dement's Cyberflesh Girlmonster and VNS Matrix's
new computer game prototype Bad Code (to name only two) may never have
got beyond the drawing board. One can only hope for the sake of the new media
arts in Australia that funding cuts will not impact too severely on new works
currently in development and on the next wave of emerging artists.
Of course, money is not the only important factor. Access to technology and
like-minded people through tertiary institutions and other networks has also
been an important part of this development. ANAT's annual art and technology
summer schools in particular have inspired and encouraged many women artists
and, perhaps even more importantly, have helped to build up a strong and supportive
network in Australia of women artists working with new technologies.
The work of artists such as Paula Dawson, Linda Dement and the cyberfeminist
collective VNS Matrix, and the high profile that the work of these artists has
achieved internationally, has been an inspirational factor for other women artists
in Australia who are now continuing in this tradition. Comments Moira Corby:
'it is the whole role model mentor thing, as women move into traditional areas
and are visibly successfulthis paves the way for others to feel it's OK for
them to do it'.3
While gender issues are often a focus in the work of women artists, particularly
within the context of all-women exhibitions such as Domestic Disturbances,
it is important that gender is not necessarily seen as the defining quality
of women's work. As Melbourne-based artist Elena Popa comments, 'the work comes
Nevertheless, within the new technology arena women have been at the forefront
in critiquing and challenging some of the assumptions of 'technological progress'.
They have questioned the 'fetishisation' of the technological object that is
evident in many technology magazines and have reminded us of the human side
of the human-technology interaction, acknowledging both the utopian and dystopian
aspects of those technologies.
Patricia Piccinini's The Mutant Genome Project, where audiences can select
various characteristics to make their own LUMP (Lifeform with Unevolved
Mutant Properties) baby, was inspired by the real-world Human Genome Initiative
(HGI). HGI plans to catalogue the entire human genome, so giving scientists
and doctors the knowledge and power to manipulate specific genetic material.
'I find it very hopeful and very frighteningI think gene therapy is going to
be a wonderful thing, it will cure cancersI hope it willbut I also hope it won't
make our society all six foot tall and straightthere's a lot of potential here
but everybody should be part of that decision-making process and not just leave
it up to other people that have incentives behind their decision-making like
money'.4 (Patricia Piccinini)
While it is impossible to deny the often inequitable and oppressive social and
economic forces shaping the production and use of new technologies, it is important
not to succumb to political pessimism and inertia and to look instead to the agency
of individuals and groups to shape and use new technologies for their own purposes
and pleasures and to resist their oppressive uses.
'The designers and promoters of a technology cannot completely predict and control
its final uses. There are always unintended consequences and unanticipated possibilities'.5
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau celebrates the creative
uses that the 'weak' make of the systems of the 'strong' through infiltration
and subversion, misappropriating and re-using the 'machinery of oppression' for
creative, libertarian purposes. The Internet itself is a case in point: originally
created by the U.S. military as a tool to integrate communications in military
manoeuvres in the event of war, the Internet is now used by a growing number of
organisations and individuals for private purposes and it supports an astonishing
variety of social interactions. The de-centred nature of the Internet is an ideal
breeding ground for anarchy and experimentation as it is difficult to police.
De Certeau reminds us that the 'art of the weak' is that of the tactic and guerilla
'warfare', an approach that is also a strategy in the work of cyberfeminists,
who suggest a variety of subversive and creative uses and abuses of new technologies
and the active engagement of women in this process.
Australian-based VNS Matrix, one of the first groups to use the term 'cyberfeminist'
in its 1991 manifesto6, play just such a destabilising role, challenging gender
stereotypes and ideologies by infiltrating and subverting the largely male dominated
(still) technologies of computer games and the Internet. VNS Matrix has helped
to re-code and negotiate new meanings and possibilities, creating more pleasurable
and empowering readings for female users. In its new prototype version of Bad
Code, a futuristic quest game with a bent, the aim of the quest is to destroy
the data banks of the 'Big Daddy Mainframe'.
A similar line is taken by cyberfeminist theorist Sadie Plant, who positions women
in alliance with new technologies in the cracks and crevices of an unwieldy and
disintegrating patriarchy. As Plant puts it, 'Cyberfeminism is simply the acknowledgment
that patriarchy is doomed'.7 While some more traditional feminists may see such
cyberfeminist slogans as misguided or even irresponsible, perhaps an 'irresponsible
feminism' is exactly what is needed to encourage women to experiment and engage
with new technologies in new and productive ways, thus challenging the old assumptions
that women and technology don't mix.
'It takes an irresponsible feminism-which may not be a feminism at all-to trace
the inhuman paths on which woman begins to assemble herself as the cracks and
crazes now emerging across the once smooth surfaces of patriarhal orderCyberpunk
and chaos culture are peppered with wild women and bad girls'8
Certainly, the anarchic energy and refusal to play by the rules evident in cyberfeminism
makes it an empowering and productive discourse, one that allows for a strategic
optimism as well as providing the basis for a contemporary critique of technology
'Feminism does really need to adapt and change to contemporary thought, and cyberfeminism
has put issues which are important to women on the techno-agenda. Many women find
it a useful tool to engage with and critique technology. Cyberfeminists are not
anti-technology; on the contrary, they are technophiles and geeks who can't get
enough of their machines.'9
In a future that shows every sign of becoming increasingly populated by information
technologies interfacing ever more intimately with their human participants, it
is important to see women artists and writers in Australia taking an active part
in negotiating and shaping the form, possibilities and uses of those technologies.
This is not an academic issue, for what we do now is creating the kind of future
we will live in.
What is the appeal for women artists in working with new technologies?
'I am a screen junkie this habit is cheaper than any previous drug habit. As
I am a cyberslut, I don't need to buy my own machines, I am happy to whore on
anyone's gearand I live to communicate, to re-create myself-the Net is the perfect
environment for me.' (Francesca Da Rimini)
'I am a non-singular, multi-disciplined artist; computers enable my freedom
of expression. It's a revolutionary tool and medium in that I can mix sound,
image, moving footage with easeI think also it is exciting for women to realise
they can control a piece of complex technology and utilise it to express whatever
they want to. The main thing about new media technology is precisely that it
is new, that women are demanding use of it and there is no traditional structure
to say we can't.' (Moira Corby)
'Perhaps the reason why new media technologies appeal to women is that they
allow for a new field of expression for them to explore. Because the area is
relatively new it allows for many possibilities in terms of a new form of self
expression. Media such as the Internet offer an anonymous identity. The Net
allows you to be whoever and whatever you want to be.'
'in a way, computers seem to be more suitable for women than men, as traditionally
women are accustomed to using cottage industry technologies such as the typewriter
or sewing machine, where you can work in isolation and not have to rely on outside
facilitiesalso, because of the wider interest in new technologies, suddenly
there is an opportunity to have a voice that extends over and above the frustrating
insular world of gallery-based exhibition.' (Martine Corompt)
To what extent do gender issues inform your work, if at all? Is gender a redundant
concept, should we be talking about a multiplicity of genders?
'as long as there are social inequities based on gender discrimination, we can't
afford to drop gender from these discourses. The memes of cyberfeminism and
gender terrorism infect each other continuallythe gender fucking that occurs
in virtual communities such as lambdaMOO where gashgirl lives is excitinganarcho
gender terrorism is necessary in the war against the patriarchy.' (gashgirl)*
'How can gender ever be redundant?'
'There is definitely a trend towards a pluralising of genders and positions.
It has been led by women and by those men who have been marginalised (gay men,
non-white men)you can communicate on the Net with a non-gender specific entity
or adopt any identity you wish'. (Moira Corby)
'In many ways I am against reductionist arguments which divide men and women
into separate campsthere are many men doing really interesting work who contribute
enormously to a sophisticated and intelligent discourse on emergent techno-culture.'
'I don't find it useful in any sense to discuss gender as a singular affecting
issue. We are all multiply affected by, to name a few, socio-economic, cultural,
educational, national and ruling government factors.' (Ann Morrison)
'In my personal technotopia, gender differences in all aspects of life are acknowledged
but do not privilege any one of the <many> genders operating' (Francesca
'I am totally inefficient and careless about gender issues if I see something
which is going to move my guts it's great, it's alivemost of the things which
shrink my guts are made by women: full and vicious circle, it's a lot of fun
trying to avoid stereotypes except that they are often true.' (Isabelle Delmotte)
Is there a difference in the way men and women interact with and use new media
technologies or in the content and type of work they produce? What about collaborations
and areas of common interest?
'Women take a more personal approach to technology, often focusing on the body
and reproductive processes. Women show more of themselves in technology, rather
than showing the technology itself. Men try to master technology for the sake
of it, as they are generally more competitive, whereas women are more interested
in exploring what the computer can do for them.' (Elena Popa)
'Possibly women ooze more and draw out the inherent abject relations of technology
but boyz like Dale Nason <ex cyberdada> have had their wicked ways with
machines too.' (Francesca Da Rimini)
'I have this great illusion that things are changing and that people are spending
more time trying to surprise themselves or let themselves be surprised by the
'machines'. Maybe it's just an illusion, but I think that the way women used
interfaces a few years ago (spending much more time and adapting the tools to
their needs and dreams and physical sensations) has been a "precursor".'
'It is interesting that with Josephine Starrs' and my collaboration on The
User Unfriendly, people have assumed that because I am the bloke therefore
I am the programmer. In fact I have been referred to as Josephine's 'tame programmer',
which is an insult not only to both of us but, considering my lingo scripting
skills, any self-respecting programmer as well.' (Leon Cmielewski)
'Men tend to like the pristine 3D shiny computer graphics, objects that have
the same aesthetics as a shiny new car. Women are generally more into the organic,
and making computer graphics not look like computer graphics.' (Elena Popa)
'I think there is a general tendency for male artists to approach new technologies
as a way of colonising/pioneering or creating a new utopian world, whereas women
seem to be more interested in deconstructing and re-evaluating the one that
already exists.' (Martine Corompt)
* These comments are from VNS Matrix's catalogue essay for Ars Electronica 1996.
NB. All other comments are from a variety of fax/e-mail communications with the
writer in October 1996.
© Kathy Cleland 1996
Kathy Cleland is a Sydney-based writer and curator.
1 Turkle, S., Life on the Screen, Allen & Unwin, 1996.
2 From an e-mail communication with the author, September 1996.
3 From an e-mail communication with the author, September 1996.
4 From an artist talk for Cyber Cultures at The Performance Space, Sydney, 23
5 Wajcman, J., Feminism Confronts Technology, Pennsylvania State University
Press, 1991, p. 163.
7 Plant, S., 'Beyond the Screens: Film, Cyberpunk and Cyberfeminism'. A version
of this paper was presented at the Eighth Birmingham International Film and
Television Festival, October 1992.
8 Plant, S., 'Cybernetic Hookers', a paper delivered at the Adelaide Writers
Festival and at Sydney's Artspace, 1994.
9 Pierce, J., in 'Nothing is Certain [Flesh, the Postbody and Cyberfeminism]',
VNS Matrix's Ars Electronica 1996 catalogue essay.
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MESH film/video/multimedia/art #10,MESH is published by Experimenta Media