MESH
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 human.

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 challenging'.2

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 first'.

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.

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. 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 and society.

'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? 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? 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?

* 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.

References

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 March 1996.

5 Wajcman, J., Feminism Confronts Technology, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991, p. 163.

6 URL:http://www.next.com.au/spyfood/
geekgirl/001stick/vns/vns.html

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.

women@art.technology.au supplement has been financially assisted by the Australian Film Commission

MESH film/video/multimedia/art #10,MESH is published by Experimenta Media Arts