ELECTRONIC BLOOD AND GUTS IN HYPERSPACE

presented in Les Femmes Br@nchées salon, by Laura McGough.

Hello, I'm Laura and I'll be your tour guide through tonight's fleshy hypermedia journey . I think the metaphor of travel is apt one, because hypermedia projects - Web sites, CD-ROMs, hypertext webs - are about movement, from space to space, page to page, layer to layer, via the click of a mouse. With its ability to combine text, sound, still and moving images, hypermedia offers a rich and imaginative terrain for artists to map the aesthetic, political and theoretical of implications of new media technologies.

The tour I'm about to take you on is very specific. We'll be visiting locations produced by an unaffiliated group of women artists who I'm claiming occupy the same aesthetic territory within the growing landscape of hyperspace. My interest in their work is part of an on-going research project into feminist art production and new technology that I've engaged in over the past five years.

Before we begin our journey, I want to offer a few travel tips that will help you to recognize certain signposts that we'll encounter along the virtual landscape:

1. The projects we will be looking at this evening go against the grain of current trends or ways of conceptualizing technology and cyberspace. They reject the cyberpunk model that posits cyberspace as "bodiless exaltation," a place of the mind where the body is obsolete. Instead of leaving their bodies behind, these artists are dragging their bodies along with them into hyperspace, sometimes almost literally as in the case of Linda Dement who digitized her own flesh and various body parts of other women for her most recent CD-ROM, CyberFlesh GirlMonster.

The result of these artists' insistence on inserting the (female) body into cyberspace makes for some very fleshy and messy work. There is a lot of electronic blood, guts and fluid flowing through the spaces they create. Skin is incised and laid open; there are numerous references to medicine, biomedicine and surgery. Real blood and guts sort of issues - rape, drug use, sexual abuse, sex and death are also introduced and grappled with.

2. The spaces we are about to visit are also what I would call highly performative: the artists are spinning narratives, weaving all sorts of scenarios, creating characters and often asking the audience to play along and participate in these fictions by creating their own characters. There seems to be an almost strategic return to narrative operating here.

3. Some of the work you will see tonight is aggressive, even violent. It is not a new phenomenon for women to deal with anger and rage in their artwork, but it is interesting to see such a strong presence of violence in hypermedia projects. What is it about the medium that encourages or allows for this practice?

4. The work may be aggressive, but it is also extremely humorous. This is a dark and deliciously wicked humor which is sometimes at the expense of men in general and patriarchy in specific, but there is still a certain playfulness and sophisticated parody operating here.
 

VNS Matrix

VNS Matrix
Any blood and guts tour of cyberfeminist sites must begin with VNS Matrix. VNS Matrix is an Australian-based artist collective that was formed in 1991 in Sydney, Australia. According to the members of the collective, "the impetus of the group is to investigate and decipher the narratives of domination and control which surround high technological culture and explore the construction of social space, identity and sexuality in cyberspace" (VNS Matrix Web site) VNS Matrix was as much an activist based collective as an art collective -- a sort of guerrilla girls of the Web. One of the questions VNS Matrix addressed in their work was how to incorporate feminist language and the female body into technology -- is how to use and subvert technology for their own means and purposes.

MANIFESTO
They accomplished this in part by aggressively subverting language. One of their first actions was to disseminate their Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st century. The manifesto was posted on numerous listservs as well as the VNS Matrix Web site.

It begins:
WE ARE THE MODERN CUNT POSITIVE AND ANTI-REASON UNBOUNDED, UNLEASHED, UNFORGIVING

What is interesting to me about this manifesto is how aggressively it inserts the female body into the Web. VNS Matrix's use of language, their style of appropriating and reclaiming words usually used to insult or demean women, and adopting these words as part of their personas -- calling themselves cunts -- quickly became a characteristic of cyberfeminist work. As we go on tonight we will meet a series of technowhores, ambitious bitches and girlmonsters who can trace their lineage back to VNS Matrix.

Technowhores
Just to demonstrate how influential VNS Matrix's brand of techno-terrorism was we'll now make a brief stop at the Whorehouse, a site maintained by the UK-based artist collective, The Technowhores. Like VNS Matrix the Technowhores were concerned with deconstructing the conventions and the cliches of cyberpunk fiction, fighting against the impulse to characterize the Web as bodiless exaltation:

Welcome to the Whore House

Did you come to work or play?
A techno-whore, a cyber rent-boy, or maybe just a john?
The Internet is not a place beyond the body...yet.
Are you here to engage in the nameless pleasure of sexed information?
(from the TechnoWhore website)
 

Linda Dement
Our next stop along the tour lands us in the visceral realm of Australian artist Linda Dement. Trained as a video artist and photographer, Dement has produced two CD-ROMs since 1992. Dement deals with very gritty, flesh and blood issues in a way which is very different from both traditional feminist takes on technology and the cyberpunk and corporate line about cyberspace being a disembodied zone. The first CD-ROM we will look at by Dement was produced in 1992. Entitled Typhoid Mary, the CD-ROM tells the story of a night club stripper who wants to contact typhoid and die. The piece shifts between erotic writing concerning violence, pleasure and death to quotations borrowed from feminist theorists, to information culled from medical journals, and, finally, to montaged visual landscapes that include gunshot wounds, surgical images and oddly reconstructed human organs and body parts. In Typhoid Mary, flesh is incised, stitched and pierced.

You'll notice that Dement is primarily working with collages of still images or what amounts to a flat 2-Dimensional screen in Typhoid Mary. Every once and a while you'll see subtle pulsating movements within a collage, but this piece is not full of the typical zooms and movements that mark commercial CD-ROMs or video games.

The subtle movement within each collage or screen image also demands some patience from the user. It defeats the sort of "click and move" on mentality that I think has developed around hypermedia -- the demand for instant gratification, quick loading web sites, etc. Instead, Dement is demanding users to spend time with the piece, to understand the narrative, to explore the many layers and to digest the information she's providing.

CyberFlesh GirlMonsterCyberFlesh GirlMonster
a more recent CD-ROM by Dement is technically much more sophisticated than Typhoid Mary. There are lots of Quicktime movies, animations and sounds lurking within its code, but Dement covers some of the same territory exploring themes of medicine, sexuality and patriarchy. To create this work, Dement asked women to donate a scanned portion of their body and a fragment of voice or sound. She then combined these fragments into a series of little monsters that are actually conglomerate bodies. When a viewer activates a monster by clicking on it, the words attached to that body part may be seen or heard, another monster may appear, a digital video or animation may play, or medical information may be displayed. The monsters affirm that women are capable of violence, passion and rage, pointing to the various attributes of patriarchy that spawn such monstrous responses.

Like Typhoid Mary, CyberFlesh GirlMonster demands a certain patience from the user. Dragging the mouse over the screen, rather than clicking, may activate sounds or animate movements.

Unlike Typhoid Mary, Cyberflesh GirlMonster operates on a more sophisticated a grid system. You begin your journey by selecting a monster. Within the various layers, three lips serve as navigating buttons that help users maneuver within the space the monster inhabits and also tempt the user by bidding her to "touch here" or "press here."
 

Ambitious Bitch
Next on our tour we enter the world of Ambitious Bitch, a multimedia project by Finnish digital artist Marita Liulia. I say multimedia because the project has witnessed multiple developments. As an installation, Ambitious Bitch has been part of exhibitions in museums throughout Europe. There is also a CD-ROM version of the project as well as this Web site development.

Ambitious Bitch -- a persona developed by Liulia -- is a take-off on Madonna's Ambitious Blonde character. As you can see, the Web site is incredibly slick and technosavvy -- quite a bit more than other sites we have seen, -- but content-wise Ambitious Bitch is just as subversive in its wit and humor as other cyberfeminist projects.

Liulia somewhat shamelessly describes the project as " a new way to approach women through self-irony, randy wit and quirky brilliance" (geekgirl issue 6). I think there is some truth to this statement. Liulia subverts language by celebrating the traits of bitchiness and ambition and embracing them as a persona.

Liulia frames the project as an adventure into the world of women, exploring how gender, language and power are connected and constructed through various topics such as: body and the art of existence; female perversion; sex or gender; erotic tales; waves of feminism; ambitious blonde.

Liulia expands her conversation on gender and sexuality with a new project entitled The Son of the Bitch which explores issues of homophobia. This site features an extensive quiz visitors can take to measure their homophobia as well as a "male of the month" desktop pattern that can be downloaded and used on your computer.
 

check out: 
http://www.medeia.com/medeia
 
 

Women with BeardsWomen with Beards
Women with Beards is another project that inserts both humor and the female body into the Web. Another example of collective work, Women with Beards is a project by three Dutch artists Jetty Verhoeff, Ine Poppe and Agnes de Ruijter.

The artists see this site as a metaphor for "a new way of looking at ambitions, sex, love and reproduction" (Anita de Waard, "Gender Tweaking"), but the calendar is also a parody or send-up of on-line sites like babe.com that offer more traditional pin-ups calendars to (mostly) male visitors. At Women with Beards, a new bearded babe is presented each month. Anyone searching the Web using keywords like "babe" or "calendar" could easily stumble upon this site, which makes for an interesting subversion.

While the choice of the bearded ladies is varied -- there are young women as well as some senior babes -- my favorite remains the very first bearded lady -- Ms January 1997, writer Natasha Gerson, who comes complete with a beard and nursing her baby Sophie. The site serves as much as a way to promote work by women as a parody. Natasha's entry comes complete with a link to her new book and a listing of her likes/dislikes (or turn-ons/turn-offs). Other babes featured include a member of Dutch parliament, a musician, a physicist and a newspaper editor.

The Women with Beards is an incredibly user friendly site. Visitors can download a high-resolution calendar to their hard drive or get monthly email announcements alerting them that a new babe is being featured.
 

ANSWERS
(open Web site)
With Answers by Juliet Martin we enter a new territory in cyberfeminist hypermedia while simultaneously returning full circle back to VNS Matrix. Martin's site is quite visually lush, but it is does not require anything other than a basic Web browser and, therefore basic memory requirements, for viewing. Answers is a hypertext story about love, death and a woman's relationship to her computer. As you'll see, the story drips with all sorts of fluid -- blood, saliva and tears flow throughout this site.

As we click through the site, I'll read a bit of the story from a section entitled Blood:
Ortho-Man, can you align my byte? Should my jaw be wired? These are questions for the trip chip to know and the computer girl to answer. A guilty-sweet saliva girl wells in the pocket between my gum and lips. She just loves it there. Maybe she will clean my teeth and align my byte. As I lick my bloody chips, I realize I soon must die in the hand of my envy (that would be me) for I have loved and blood is the shadow of my indulgence. My tendril pleasures are visible through my transparent skin.Silicon chips replace silicone implants.You can pierce me like a tender bulb of flesh, read through my skin. Cotton fills my cheeks like acid dries my mind. Bits eat each joy morsel and carve caverns and patterns. Please, cotton and wire, bring me closer to the fool I need to be, closer to the food I need to eat--food which won't fill my arms without rotting my teeth first. Can my teeth stay white and my belly full?

Laura McGough is an independant media art curator, artist,
and co-founder of NOMADS in Washington D.C.
 
 

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