Monday 21 March 2016

Cyborgs and chat rooms: The feminist undercurrent in "Electronic Superhighway"

Our relationship to the Internet is complex. We live in a fundamentally digital society, flitting between moments of paranoia regarding surveillance and our lack of virtual autonomy, to total apathy, happily relying on ‘clouds’ to be sufficient enough to safely store both our cat memes and our most sensitive information. With iPhones now extensions of our bodies, the seamless integration of technology and the self that will perhaps define this decade, it is unsurprising that these forms of media have become part of artistic practice, both as subject and object.

The Whitechapel Gallery’s current exhibition, Electronic Superhighway: 2016-1966, invites spectators to consider the role of the digital in the trajectory of the history of art. Looking backwards from 2016 to 1966, the curatorial timeline brings together over 100 artworks in order to explore the impact of computer and Internet technologies on artists. The proportion of male and female artists felt more balanced than in other museum group shows.  It was interesting that this type of technology and practice felt democratic and available to either sex. Unlike the male-dominated canon of painting or sculpture, and akin to video, performance art, or other mediums that have been free from complicated patriarchal histories, harnessing technology has provided an unchartered territory for female artists to experiment and express themselves. By exploring the gaps between online and offline, public and private, their practices critique and exploit new media as a way to dissolve and expand constructs of gender, sex and politics. From Ulla Wiggen’s 1967 paintings of electronic circuits and Vera Molnar’s abstract geometrical experimental drawings using computer programs in the 1970s, to Camille Henrot and Hito Steyrl’s use of new-media video in recent years to critique history or politics, there is an intriguing female-driven undercurrent running through Electronic Superhighway.


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Lynn Hershman Leeson, Seduction of a Cyborg, 1994. DVD with sound, still image, 6.48 mins.
ZKM Collection © ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe © Lynn Hershman Leeson


In Gallery 8, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna (1979-82) has been installed. In the first interactive video art disc, indeed the first interactive art installation, users make decisions for Hershman Leeson’s agoraphobic female protagonist, interacting with the piece through the use of a remote control connected to a television set. The installation takes the form of a small room, designed to look like a 1970s apartment. A leopard print jacket hangs on a coat hook, a pair of shoes are left underneath. The experience within the installation feels sinister, quickly moving from the tip-toing voyeur to the user, playing with Lorna’s life. The video is formed from seventeen minutes of moving footage and thirty-six unsequenced chapters, which infinitely shift meanings as they indefinitely appear in different orders with different viewers. Each object in Lorna’s virtual apartment is numbered. By pressing the according number on the remote control, a labyrinth of audio and visual information about her fears and dreams, conflicts and history are revealed. She sits indoors all day, only the television is her window to the outside world. There is a self-reflexive relationship between the gallery visitor and Lorna, the television is the apparatus of interaction for both. A powerful element of the installation is that only one spectator can experience the work at one time. I have ‘played’ Lorna twice, both at Whitechapel and at Hershman Leeson’s retrospective at Modern Art Oxford during the summer of 2015. Being shut off by headphones from the outside gallery noise, with one’s back to the door, replicates her feelings of alienation and paranoia. In his Guardian review, Adrian Searle joked that he found himself concerned that Lorna “might wander in and kill me”. If you get far enough, the three final possibilities to conclude the claustrophobic drama are suicide, escape, or – more sensationally – to shoot the television.


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Jill Magid, Legoland, 2000


The notion of shooting the television, attempting to attack the medium, bears an interesting relationship to the other work of Hershman Leeson’s on show, Seduction of a Cyborg (1994). Exploring the temporality of identity, specifically feminine identities, the video depicts a blind woman who undergoes medical treatment that allows her to see online images. Lost in the overwhelming stream of fragments, she becomes both imprisoned and liberated by her access to the visual realm. In the original 1990s catalogue for this work, Hershman argued that, “the premise of this video is that technology can infect the body through manipulated computer chips and invincibly seduce women into cyborghood”. Much of Hershman Leeson’s work involves these ‘cyborgian gestures’ - where technology infiltrates the body. The evocation of the relationship between humans and machines anticipates the popularity of virtual avatars and online virtual words, such as Second Life (2003-). This sets up a parallel with Judith Barry’s Speed Flesh (1988), a 360-degree video installation, in which the viewer experiences the last five minutes in the lives of five characters who are human and prosthetic composites. The linear narrative is overshadowed by another scene, a woman’s body floating - perhaps drowning - at the bottom of a swimming pool. Like the first hand ‘point of view’ rife in video games, Barry places the spectator in the centre of the space, disorientating them by merging specific details with infographic effects, and then forcing them to inhabit the overwhelming sensory position of an all seeing eye. The spectator is invited to negotiate between what is seen, what is intuited from the narrative, and what the bearing of the gallery space has on the context of the work.

Evocations of voyeurism and the convergence of the female body with technology appear in Jill Magid’s Legoland (2000) video. As part of her master’s degree thesis project at MIT, Magid created a ‘surveillance shoe’, made from high heels, an IR surveillance camera, a battery pack, and a wireless transmitter in shoe’s sole. Legoland is composed from footage shot by the shoe while Magid took a walk around the city at night. The result from the upwards perspective of the camera is reminiscent of voyeuristic ‘up skirt’ videos, common in pornography. However, Magid was not critiquing these systems of imagery, but rather working within them. The video footage can be perceived as setting the scene for Magid’s later artistic practice, forming fetishised relationships with systems of power, such as the police, the secret service and forensics departments. In 2004, she asked England’s largest video surveillance system, Liverpool’s City Watch, to follow her through public surveillance cameras in the city centre for 31 days. Wearing a bright red trench coat she would call the police on duty with details of where she was and ask them to film her in particular poses or places. For access to this footage, Magid had to submit Subject Access Request Forms - the legal document necessary to outline to the police details of how and when an 'incident' occurred. Magid chose to complete these forms as though they were letters to a lover. However, Magid’s early surveillance shoe used the technology as an extension of her own personal bodily system, rather than relying on a public one. She explained in a 2008 interview with Miriam Perier,“after displacing the surveillance eye from its cool, fixed position, I turn it in on myself. I bestow an intimacy onto the role of the camera that was previously absent.”

Relinquished of its 360-degree autonomy, it is tied to the identity of the individual wearing the equipment. Interested in exploiting feelings of intimacy, Magid’s desire was to be the subject rather than object of its gaze; “I realised that by moving my leg around I could carry space and the city with me, that I could control the building - they became mobilised - attached to my body - through the camera”.

Celia Hempton’s Chat Random paintings, ongoing since 2014, embody a similar desire to introduce raw human connection, intimacy and sexuality into situations that are usually depersonalised. Hempton connects with men on, a global webcam chat room, and asks if she can paint them. The time she has to paint is reliant on how long they bother to hang around. Her oil paintings imbue the pixelated anonymity of the men with a fleshy physicality, heightened by the fact the majority of men tend to appear naked, usually masturbating into the camera. The paint is thick, applied by Hempton with generous fast brush strokes. The canvases are miniature, giving the impression of looking through a peephole, honing in on a certain aspect of the body – a penis, someone’s chest, their shoulder. Chat Random explores self-representation through the medium of the Internet, negotiating the intersections between performance, sexuality and social interaction.


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Celia Hempton, Aldo and Jesi, Albania, 16th August 2014, 2014. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Southard Reid, London © Celia Hempton


In a 2012 Furtherfield interview, Hershman Leeson was asked what Lorna would be doing if she were created today. Hershman Leeson replied, “blogging and all forms of social media… She would probably not really be agoraphobic either. She would, however, probably be paranoid. She would use a webcam.” The chat room and other online social spaces, such as blogs or websites, act as spaces where teenagers can interact with others. Ann Hirsch and Martine Neddam’s browser-based artworks in Gallery 9 explore the vulnerability of teenage identity and the mediation of burgeoning adolescent desire through primary social media platforms.


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Martine Neddam,, 1996


Neddam anonymously created the interactive website in 1996. Designed to appear like an amateur personal website of a pre-pubescent female, Amsterdam based artist, who was ‘nearly thirteen’. ‘Mouchette’ is based on the character from the 1937 novel of the same name by Georges Bernados; a girl who commits suicide after her mother dies and who is raped and abused by her alcoholic father. The site guides users through a narrative network of different pages of artwork where darker themes start to slowly emerge. The website sparked intense controversy, particularly due to the focus on death, suicide and violence, one of the pages asked ‘what is the best way to kill yourself when you’re under 13’. Image and text were used to exemplify these suggestive themes, including references to dead animals or songs such as the ‘lullaby for dead fly’. Fears of paedophilia were exacerbated by the enlarged photography of feminine body parts, such as an ear, hair, or parted lips. Neddam seduced her audience through initiating questionnaires, encouraging user interaction and contribution, which was then maintained by through flirtatious emails, discussions, or jokes. These conversations then fed back into the artwork. Ann Hirsch’s Twelve (2013) can be perceived as having a direct relationship to the minimal policing of online communities. In 1998, when Hirsch was twelve years old, she frequented an AOL chat room called ‘Twelve’ and started a long-distance romance with a twenty-seven year old man. Working with an app designer, Hirsch created an experimental digital autobiography that emulated the 90’s AOL interface. Slowly, the reader begins to recognise different handles and follow their interactions and relationships, as they chat. Initially sold on the iTunes App Store, Apple deemed the work inappropriate due to the explicit language, and removed Twelve from the store. In the gallery, in order to read in situ, an iPad is set up at the desk of a stereotypically ‘feminine’ teenager, complete with a pink swivel chair and a pot of fluffy biros.


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Ann Hirsch, Twelve, 2013


Akin to the use of video by feminist artists in the 1960s and 70s, digital media has been harnessed to explore personal politics, such as sexuality, subjectivity and desire, in an intimate, direct, and often confessional manner. This is not to say that the work is solely fixated on personal experiences, as it also requires a high level of skill and technical mastery. Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996) hypertext narrative has been appropriated countless times and is so historically significant it appears on three different college syllabuses. In their 2006 Taschen publication New Media Art, Mark Tibe and Reena Jana explain, “[the technology produces] the kind of compelling and emotionally powerful experience that we have come to expect from older, more established media, particularly film”. The narrative binding this selection of work is one of exploration, considering what it means to have a multifaceted ‘female’ perspective or to articulate contradictory identities, as chat room cipher or cyborg.

Philomena Epps

Philomena is a writer and editor of Orlando magazine.

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