Last week, A.I.R. was delighted to host a temporary exhibition, presentation, and roundtable discussion about contemporary cyberfeminism curated by Gabriella Shypula and featuring artists Daria Dorosh, Bang Geul Han, Amelia Marzec and Marie Tomanová. Each of these artists has turned to technology and the Internet as artistic medium in a unique and provocative way and they discussed these practices, as well as the complexities and difficulties they are faced with as online artists, before an eager audience.
Over the course of the evening, the artists and audience covered a wide variety of topics that somehow fall under this blanket term, ‘cyberfeminism’. The word itself seems to have lost some of its meaning or, rather, undergone a huge shift since its conception in the 1990s. What started as a somewhat niche group of women writing manifestos online and proclaiming the promise of the Internet as a new space that was not yet tainted by the patriarchy has become something much larger, much more spread out, and, above all, much more ambiguous. As we attempted to navigate this ambiguity throughout the evening, there seemed to be a general sentiment among both the artists and audience, being that the Internet is no longer something outside of our selves, something that you casually surf on for an hour or two and then shut off and forget; it requires more and more engagement, physical and mental, political and social.
It is not just our attention that is demanded, but our identification (self and imposed by others), from drop-down menus requesting name, title, gender, race, and financial status to personalized home pages, profile pictures, and online groups/forums. The perception of the Internet as some objective, external tool is but a distant memory; everyone has their own Internet now. Not only that, but our existences on these personalized and filtered Internet feeds can no longer be viewed separately from our existences in “real life”. Every time we go to the park, have lunch with friends, or see a great concert, we consider (both consciously and subconsciously) how our experiences will translate into our online lives. And vice versa.
Whether you’re posting an opinionated status or perusing online stores for new clothing, every road and path we take on the web is done with some level of consciousness that it will have real-life reverberations, that people will see that status and feel compelled to respond, or that the new shirt your ordered off Etsy will get a nod of approval from a passerby on the street. The Internet is no longer a separate space, in which one can run wild through codes and calculations; we are now engaged in a continuous feedback loop with our “networks”, judging and being judged, viewing and being viewed, portraying and being portrayed. It is this simultaneous individuality and collectivity on the web that Dorosh, Han, Marzec and Tomanová delved into at Performing Digital-Disruption: Cyberfeminist Bodies as Art, Action and Activism in the Digital Space.
Czech artist Marie Tomanová explores this duality mainly through self-portraiture, photographing herself in solitude and in unconventional spaces, positions, and settings. In an interview with Alt Citizen, Tomanová described the liberating feeling of creating artwork in isolation, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, while also making the deliberately political choice to share her self-portraits online through social media platforms, namely Instagram. Fed up with the rampant sexism within her art school in the Czech Republic, Tomanová moved to the United States in hopes of a free space to express herself and with very few friends in New York to begin with, her entire network has been formed through her social media presence. Tomanová not only accredits these platforms as sources of immense love and support, but views her social media as her very own gallery, of sorts, in which she can manifest and curate her artwork however she so pleases- within the designated boundaries of censorship, of course. It is a place where she can find and be found, and we can see those oppositional forces at play through her portraits, which are at once wholly personal, created for her own self-expression and freedom, and intended for the public’s eyes.
Tomanova has drawn inspiration from a number of women artists and photographers, making distinct connections to the works of Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, Nan Goldin, and the like. The thing that unifies all of these artists is the tension between their personal, hidden, psychological lives and the decision to capture, document, photograph those moments/lives and share them with the public. In viewing their portraits, the viewer cannot help but feel just the slightest tinge of voyeurism, as if accidentally seeing a girl changing in her room or overhearing a conversation that you weren’t meant to hear. As opposed to the ever-present male gaze in essentially all aspects of women’s lives, artists like Tomanová have turned to the Internet as a space reserved for themselves, where they can reclaim their bodies and their artistic practices and portray themselves how they want to be portrayed.
That being said, however, Amelia Marzec made a vital point at the round table discussion about the limitations of using the Internet as medium. The so-called “democracy” of the internet has been in question for years now; how “free” is it exactly, how controlled, filtered, surveyed is the information we acquire and distribute, and how much of it is simply a product of big companies’, like Google’s, monopolization of the online space? While we may make choices online that feel as though they are of our own volition, Marzec stresses the fact that these choices are, in fact, heavily curated and tailored to us within a capitalist schema. Does this mean that cyberfeminism has lost a certain level of its activist potential?
An artist’s audience, especially on the web, cannot be tracked, limited, or anticipated in its entirety these days. Tomanová’s Instagram account holds very personal value to her and she is careful to keep her work within the platform’s bounds so as not to be banned or censored, but she also acknowledges the artistic limitations that lie therein. “The space is limited in terms of censorship”, Tomanová admitted, “ Instagram telling you that you can’t show your vagina is, in many ways, the same as owning your vagina”. Instagram’s censorship regulations have been a huge target for artists and feminists online and while there are ways to push those limits, it is important to recognize how much more infinite the internet is, how many more possibilities there are, than the social media platforms we have grown accustomed to.
“People think they are being innovative and disruptive by creating an app or something”, Marzec asserted during the discussion, “but we are still working within the bounds of these corporations, like Facebook or Google; you’re working within Apple’s parameters, you’re fighting for a very small fraction of cyber real estate. And that is something we have to be aware of”. While social media is undeniably an increasingly accessible and (somewhat) liberal means of circulating information, opinions, and artwork, it still exists within these overarching economic structures. So what is the alternative? “I think we can do better”, Marzec stated, but what exactly would that mean? It seems next to impossible to imagine social, political, and artistic platforms that wouldnot adhere to existing technological and economic structures, as we tend to view the internet as some sort of omnipotent, all-seeing, and all-knowing space that just ‘came to be’ and was not necessarily programmed or created by any one person or group in particular. Artist Bang Geul Han does quite a good job of pinpointing the inconsistencies within these dominant structures/ideologies through her work.
“I didn’t know about Cyberfeminism until 2005”, Han admitted at the start of the discussion, “so I didn’t know when it was happening…but people are talking about it again, especially through the scope of technology”. Han takes a somewhat playful approach with her work, incorporating things like online “makeover” software, visuals of spinning objects, and facial recognition, but the underlying statements of each of these piece are overtly political. “As an artist, I try to add diversity to the technological aesthetics. Apple controls how this button or that button is made. There’s a monopoly on those aesthetics”, and we can see Han’s attempt to defy that monopoly in her artwork. In Taaz, for example, the artist created a large collage, or “wallpaper installation”, of self-portraits using Taaz.com’s makeover software that lets users try out different hairstyles and “looks”, while for Referential Gaze, Han used facial expression detection services to erase and quantify the faces of various individuals, reducing them to adjectives and emotions and “asking viewers to read, guess and fill-in the blank of the gaze you are facing at this moment”. She commented on the fact that no matter what expression she gave of herself, the software returned the same output, the emotion of sadness.
“Maybe I was feeling sad that day, who knows”, Han laughed, “but the reason the software gave that output is because I am an Asian woman and it is programmed for a Western audience”. Han thus uses these mainstream, even trivial, programs to her advantage, using technology as an alternate language and means of empowerment. Coming from South Korea with not much knowledge of English, she explained, “I got here and the first thing I had to read was Roland Barthes. And it took me like 12 hours. All I wanted to do was crawl into a little hole. So when I started to program and I felt a similar barrier, it motivated me to want that power”. Especially in a field as heavily dominated by men as science and technology, artists like Bang Geul Han and Amelia Marzec use their practice as a way to fight back and defy societal norms and expectations, while still harkening back to the amateurism that cyberfeminism has always reveled in.
“I don’t want to be an expert”, Han emphasized, “I want to be an amateur all the time”. Reclaiming cyber space, making use of its programs, social platforms, and software in a critical way, and doing so on their own terms is where cyberfeminists hold their power. And that is the beauty of the web: even the amateurs carry the potential for activism. “I think that we’re becoming experts at being users”, Amelia said, “And historically, that’s something that women need to get over, that technology isn’t a space for them. We need to get our hands on these tools”. With the line separating the “real” from the “virtual” becoming increasingly blurred, cyberfeminism has gained a considerable amount of traction recently, taking on new forms and making it all the more imperative for women to engage with technology and online activism.
What we have to keep in mind, though, is that with this increased engagement comes responsibility, Bang explained, “Our online personas and “real life” selves are intertwined. Now there’s an etiquette surrounding it, like whether you tag someone in a photo or not. In the 90s I think the web was a lot wilder. But these days I need to make up my mind about my narrative. My Facebook, my Twitter, my Instagram…it needs to all work seamlessly, and that doesn’t stop in the real life. We shift contexts, but we never get out of it”. Perhaps when the Internet was still getting started, there was promise of a space separate from the patriarchy, free of the male gaze, a cyber world for feminism, but things have changed. The web moves so quickly, it is so fleeting, so based in trend and short attention spans, that we can hardly distinguish between activism or “clicktivism” anymore.
Just as Marzec warned, the seemingly free systems of the Internet have, in large part, been monopolized, with dominant voices, articles, images, and newsfeeds taking center stage. So while social media and creating art within the online realm may be part of it, social and political activism requires a whole lot more. “If you know what it’s like to be marginalized”, Daria Dorosh urged in a final statement, “then you should have empathy and compassion for anyone else that’s marginalized. And that’s what this group is”. While, of course, it is important for women to infiltrate and reclaim spaces that they have been largely excluded from, it is all the more important to maintain an awareness of the ways in which these spaces have been formed and how we exist in relation to them. “It doesn’t matter where you fight that battle, on the Internet or in real life. Being marginalized is a strength”, Dorosh said, and that strength was a delight to witness and be a part of at the event.
Article by Nora Kovacs, intern at A.I.R. Gallery, Nov. 2015