At the beginning of the twenty-first
century, the advancing global hegemonies of corporate biotechnology and digital
information and communication technologies (ICT) present radically new
challenges for feminist cultural theorists and visual art practitioners. An
eclectic emergent cyberfeminism that engages feminist theory and practices in
the digital environment has opened the territory of the Internet as a strategic
field of artistic production and political intervention. Wired feminists
recognize that the instantaneous global circulation of images and texts in the
networks of cyberspace is introducing large new audiences to both new feminist
representations, and to feminist critiques of the gender relations and
capitalist market ideologies that drive ICT.
Feminist initiatives supported by
international electronic networks have already emerged in some African
countries, in India, and other developing countries. In developed countries,
the relatively low cost of digital production and distribution offers younger
women artists working with new media important new avenues of visibility and
action. In the last ten years, cyberfeminist web sites, participatory
electronic art projects, and electronic networking groups have increased from a
handful in the early nineties to over two thousand in 2001. Cyberfeminism has adopted many of the tactics of earlier
avant-garde feminisms, including strategic separatism (women-only lists,
self-help groups, chat groups, networks, and technological training); feminist
cultural and social theory relating to women and technology; creation of new
images of women to counter rampant sexist stereotyping (feminist avatars,
cyborgs, trans- or non-gendered figures); and feminist Internet critique.
The question of how to
negotiate the link of cyberfeminism to other feminisms is crucial to
understanding the often-contradictory contemporary positions of women working
with the new technologies. (1) Cyberfeminism began with strong techno-utopian
expectations that the new electronic media would offer women a fresh start to
create new languages, programs, platforms, images, fluid identities and even
subjectivities in cyberspace and that women could re-code, redesign, and
reprogram information technology to help change the female condition. (2) In
much the same way as 1970s and 1980s feminist artists appropriated
non-traditional media, technologies, and forms--such as performance,
installation, video, and media interventions, in order to present a new
feminist content in art, wired women––while often ambivalent about their
relationship to early feminisms––are now beginning to appropriate digital
technologies that do not yet have an established aesthetic history. This is an
exciting moment in which to re-invent a radical feminist visual culture.
Distinctions can be
made between two overlapping waves of cyberfeminism: an initial wave (roughly
1990-95) celebrated a cyborg consciousness and the innate affinities of women
and machines. A second wave (1997-present) critiques the (relatively)
a-political stance of previous theorists and practitioners and advocates the
development of an embodied and politically engaged cyberfeminism. (3) Current
debates among “new” cyberfeminists are beginning to emphasize the crucial
importance of differences within feminism, and of postcolonial discourses and
representations to an engaged feminist Internet theory, politics, and practice.
In this regard, the central issue of the invisibility of embodied difference in
the virtual or “post-corporeal” media remains primary.
Cyberfeminist artists with the
technological skills and access must join with other feminists to strategize a
visible resistance to authoritarian ICT and biotech industries. Drawing on
feminist cultural and post-colonial theory and strategies from past activist
practices, they can initiate models for direct action, subversion, and
coalition building among different groups of women. Effective tactics for such
visual culture projects will: 1) employ collective production and performative
action in a specific social context; 2) combine feminist critiques of
technology as it relates to differences of gender, race, and class; and 3)
engage in cross-disciplinary research in biotechnology, biopolitics, feminist
and post-colonial art and theory.
1. The relationship between theory and
practice in feminist visual culture needs rethinking. Past feminist art
practices—such as those formulated by the Feminist Art Programs in California
in the 1970s—sprang up in the context of an international political feminist
movement. They employed activist strategies and tactics synthesized from
avant-garde movements, feminist theory, and practices of everyday life.
Insights gained from consciousness-raising were put to use in generating
activist performances and public visual work. Political conditions have
changed, however; today there is no cohesive, collective feminist movement to
provide a context in which artists, students, and cultural workers can
formulate and situate their practices. Most feminist artists work alone, and
most prominent women artists have gained recognition as individual art stars in
much the same manner as the prominent men.
The blatant sexism and racism of many of
the Internet and biotech art works exhibited at major electronic media venues point
to a pressing need for critical feminist interventions in the representational
domains of electronic media and biotech. (4) Art projects that seek to create
critical discourses around biotech and ICT call for collective or collaborative
interventions based on interdisciplinary research, shared expertise, and
participatory performative practices. Transnational electronic networking can
also be immensely productive for such projects.
2. Far from being obsolete, feminist
political philosophy and gender theory have crucial bearing on the new working
and living conditions (for women) created by the global deployment of ICT.
Worldwide, women’s lives are being profoundly altered––particularly in the
areas of production and reproduction––in ways that often lead to extreme
physical and mental health problems. This is as true for highly educated
professional women (including artists) in academia, the sciences, and the
medical and computer industries, as it is for women clerical and factory
workers in the just-in-time telecommunications and home-work industries, and
for rural and urban women working in electronic chip factories and in assembly
sweat-shops. A crucial concern for cyberfeminist artists is to address and
counter the increased economic and political stratification and exclusion
reinforced by global capital and ICT.
Since most women still work a “double
shift” of production and reproduction of labor, the demands and pressures of
the high-speed consumer economy affect us differently from (most) men.
Increasing levels of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, depression, and stress disorders
among professional women (the most documented group), not to mention the myriad
social and personal stresses faced by pink and blue-collar women workers,
attest to the high human costs of late capitalist economies of production. In
strategizing cyberfeminist projects relating to women’s productive and
reproductive labor, we must contest the unquestioned value placed on speed and
efficiency and the concomitant failure to heed the limits and needs of the
theorists have shown how the new biotech reproductive order colonizes the
female body as a pre-eminent laboratory and tissue mine for a lucrative
medical/pharmaceutical industry. (5) Moving beyond the strictures of
conventional academic feminist theory, cyberfeminist artists must develop
activist practices that educate and engage a wide public directly, and
instigate informed debate about the far-reaching repercussions of these
technologies in women’s lives. Disturbing developments in bio/genetic
technologies such as Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), transgenics, and
genetic modification of plants are profoundly affecting human genetic futures
and the environment worldwide. Cultural critiques of corporate biotech
industries should therefore be a major focus of feminist action and artistic
Organic bodies and
bodily processes––particularly those of women and fetuses––are being invaded at
the molecular level and re-engineered to meet the cyborgian and eugenic
requirements of a rationalized global work force and consumer market. Feminists
working with these technologies--scientists, researchers and technicians, as
well as non-specialist but informed activist artists––are in a critical position
to work together to devise interventions into these increasingly naturalized
technological discourses and practices. As informed amateurs, artists can often
operate in a wider field of discursive debate and engage in more radical
projects than is possible for most professionals. Cyberfeminist artists can
combine visual media and scientific research in performative projects that
raise consciousness, educate audiences, and model interventionist tactics.
Critical practices can expose the profit motives and neo-colonial ideologies
driving many of the new flesh, reproductive, and genetic industries, helping
audiences to assess their political, economic, social and eugenic implications.
In conclusion, it is time to call on
cyberfeminist artists to create a radical new visual culture that critiques and
resists the patriarchal and authoritarian ideologies driving corporate biotech
and ICT; and to produce critical art works and cultural theory based on an
informed analysis of the risks as well as the benefits of digital technologies.
With such tools in cyberfeminist hands, it might be possible to create a new
international feminist front!
Acknowledgements: I thank María Fernández
for her permission to adapt portions of this essay from our article “Situating Cyberfeminisms”
(see Note 3).
1. See Faith Wilding, “Where is the
Feminism in Cyberfeminism?” n.paradoxa 2 (1998) 6-12; and Critical Art
Ensemble and Faith Wilding, “Notes toward the Political Condition of
Cyberfeminism,” Art Journal 57, n. 2 (Summer 1998), 47-59.
2. See VNS Matrix WEB pages <<
María Fernández and Faith Wilding, “Situating Cyberfeminisms,”Domain
Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices, an anthology edited by the subRosa
collective forthcoming from Autonomedia Books (2002).
4. For example: ARS Electronica’s “Next
Sex,” (September 2000), Exit Art’s “Paradise Now,”(November 2000), and ISEA’s
“Beyond the Screen” (December 2000). Enthralled by the promissory spectacle of
biogenetic technologies, many artists are unthinkingly producing projects that
promote corporate interests and eugenic ideology.
5. For a bibliography on feminism and
biotech see <www.cyberfeminism.net>.
Biography: Faith Wilding is a cultural
producer working with the cyberfeminist subrosa collective to explore and
critique the intersections of the new information and biotechnologies in
women’s bodies, lives, and work.. She is a Fellow at the STUDIO for Creative
Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University, and Graduate Faculty in the MFA Visual
Arts program, Vermont College.