Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Remapping Cyberspace with a Feminist Bent / Virginia Barrett
I would normally use my laptop to hold my notes for a talk, as I do not own a printer. For me, the digital code has become the real, and the paper, a mere hard instant of a changing environment...but my dedication to the digital is more than my contribution to the utopian notion of the paperless society...I am dedicated to the fluidity of digital exchange...my computer is my office, studio, my memory and all my tools...
And this concept of a portable very personal environment is what makes it the perfect tool for liberating creative producers of all kinds from the 'system', enabling alternative undertstandings of very traditional modes of production and distribution, whether the product is a text, an image, or a film.
I work in the various fields of writing, performance and digital expression...which all collide at some point, and feed off one another, creating hybrid works. In this presentation I have described some of the collaborative work I do in the area of gender and technology...or, remapping cyberspace with a feminist bent.
I am engaged in a project, or projects, of empowering women who use, or would like to use, new technologies in a creative way. The project is one of unravelling the masculinist codes which surround the production, marketing and use of computer technologies, debunking myths which suggest that there is some biological determinant which alienates women from computers, and encouraging them to acquire the skills and language necessary to negotiate the field.
I believe that women hijacking the tools which are traditionally used for domination and control can introduce a rupture into a highly systematised culture which diverts the machines from their 'important work', their inherent imperative of world control and domination-linear top-down mastery. People like Professor Donna Harraway, in her 'manifesto for cyborgs' and Dr Sadie Plant in 'cybernetic hookers: women, drugs and intelligent machines' have talked about the machines of technology as self-governing systems, overturning, in unexpected and viral ways, the systems of control and domination,-self-replicating bad codes.
This 'rupture in the system' can take the form of feminist artmaking, exhibited virtually and in the world as we know it, erotic writing posted onto bulletin boards, guerilla girl activism in virtual communities, hypertext environments published on the World Wide Web (WWW), the development of feminist computer games and so on...
Whatever the strategy, the aim is for women and machines to live comfortably together, rather than ignoring an entire culture, anticipating a repetition of the historical story of oppression and inaccessibility to knowledge and technics. Imagining a future which is already female...
My own introduction to technology was trepidatious, and guilty, as if I had no right to be touching such important and mysterious boxes. I had to battle with this feeling, and the fear that I just might ignite a global catastrophe if I hit the wrong button, and just DO IT. This first collision with the machines that decide the fate of the world was unexpected and out of context, like a visitation that I had to decipher, but that was impossible to avoid, coming as it did with the future.
Despite these uncertain beginnings, and my background, which suggests no particular affinity for maths, science, or organised and logical systems of any kind, it became a slow and creeping seduction. My initial foray into computer-aided production started out as a professional relationship when I was engaged as the Director of the Australian Network for Art and Technology. I immediately discovered the joys of creative writing on a computer. Somehow it liberated my creativity, enabling a free, almost telepathic link between my thoughts and the screen. A stream of consciousness. The thought made word. Soon I started to play around outside the office, and commit imagery. I dabbled on the Net and indulged in technobabble, revelling in the joy of playing with a new language. Today I am a dedicated user, a digital activist and artmaker and cyberfeminist evangelist!
In 1991 I began an ongoing collaboration with my colleagues, the VNS Matrix. We self-identified as cyberfeminists, developed a manifesto with a proactive message about using whatever means necessary to seize the site called technology, infiltrate it and adopt the toys of Big Daddy to subvert a masculinist culture. We have often been accused of an impossible and difficult positioning because we use the tools which we critique.
For us, it would have been counter-productive to refuse to use the tools of the patriarchy or to deal with Big Daddy, especially when these tools have the power to change, and have indeed changed, the way we think about concepts such as speed, truth, space, time and very fundamentally, our bodies and our minds.
Keeping in mind the nature of my work, and the need for a critical approach, I have usually found myself, when I am talking about technology, with the precarious task of walking the tightrope between utopian futurism and cynical ambivalence, because my own relationship to technology, its culture and products has been so ambivalent and ambiguous.
Today, and recently, I have felt less ambivalent, and more comfortable with my positioning within the realm of a technological culture, specifically as a woman using new technological devices for the purposes of infiltrating and changing the computer culture.
And the reason for my optimism and lack of cynicism is because, without being utopian, I have witnessed the impact of a feminist hijack of the mainframe, and know that the system has been to some extent feminised. I see myself as part of a culture which I and other women have begun to make.
I was recently listening to tapes from the Coming Out Show on Radio National, to a program called the Electronic Salon about women and cyberculture, produced by Rosie Cross and Fiona Martin. Dale Spender spoke about women and print and how women have become mistresses of print, how they feel comfortable with the medium and in control of it. Traditionally women have been seen as being good at reading and writing as opposed to the sciences, numbers-logic-driven media.
The parallel universe called cyberspace gives a new meaning to text-based creative practice and to publishing and distribution in general. The greatest promise is that you can do it yourself. A computer, a modem and your typing fingers, (provided you have access, and let's face it, not even videos are ubiquitous yet) and you have a take-home writing, self-publishing, home-brew desktop package.
I see women seizing this opportunity to take control of their own work, and test-driving the promises of this brave new, damn-the-system, world (and at a critical moment, when the overlords of the Net are vying for control of the Internet in various ways, and for control of the information which is distributed). Content is relatively uncensored at the moment, but this will not be the case for long. On a quick cruise of the WWW, sites created by women are everywhere. With names like cybergirl, geekgirl or X's home page, they cover everything from cultural studies to journals, and if you have trouble finding sites created by women, there are search engines with listings specific to women's work.
One of the projects which I am currently engaged in, with Dr Zoe Sofoulis from Nepean University, is the production of a publication entitled Double Agents, focusing on women artists who use new technologies in their creative production. As part of the research we are conducting interviews with artists.
In an interview with Mahalya Middlemist, a local Sydney film maker, she spoke positively about technology allowing her the opportunity to take control of her own production, rather than having to translate her ideas to a sound expert, a choreographer or any other crew member. This aspect of having complete creative control over the product-to be the writer, director, editor, set designer-could just as easily be applied to the work of women writers. In the case of writing, distribution becomes another process one can control from the home-computer-office-world!
I spend a lot of time navigating the text-based virtual communities dotted across the globe, exploring the multiple morphing spaces, objects, genders and characters created from words which inhabit these spaces. Spectral bodies dressed in text. Each user 'speaking' an idiosyncratic language and imaging vocabulary. In these environments, one can move through an extraordinary number of scripted or programmed environments in which the only limitation is the users' or creators' imagination, and their ability to transgress their own social and cultural programs.
It is here that the presence of women writers is most obvious (and it is well known that in these virtual domains, it is text that is sexy, not the flesh). You see them mobilising in groups named virtual sisterhood, electronic witches, women not to be messed with, cyberchix, cybersluts even. There are girls who have taken on the ethos of the rock phenomenon of riotgrrl-ness. Many females identify as grrl-net grrl, jetgrrl, rainbowgrrl, cybergrrl, signifying autonomy and solidarity.
In these environments writing is the world, and people are entirely engaged in deciphering the meaning of text. Many thousands of people may 'read' you over a small period of time. Here I have had the most vigorous response to my writing, having posted work on public mailing lists, which give readers the opportunity to respond, engage and debate issues which the work has ignited.
I'd just like to read you a couple of descriptions of women's characters and spaces from a community.
A collector of stones, her skin sparkles with a thin transparent layer of
living crystal. As you gaze into her deep grey eyes you are drawn by ancient
memories of mines and caverns down below the flesh of the earth, far
underground, where walls glint with shining minerals and subterranean rivers
speed towards a distant light. She smiles, and you are suddenly gathered up and
compressed into a single tiny jewel sharpened by points of ecstasy.'
'The Repository of Memory
Please donate your childhood memories here, where they will be stored anonymously for others to enjoy, commiserate with, and learn from. When you have finished writing your memory you will be officially cleansed and free to <submit> yourself to The Net of Desire. *IMPORTANT!* Please remember to begin each new paragraph with a speechmark. Thank you for your donation: To access a saved memory, eg Memory 1, type <look 1>'
You see Memory 1, Memory 2, Memory 3, and Memory 4 here.
The dining table in my grandmother's house was covered first by a heavy oilcloth and then by a stiff brown velvet on top of that. The velvet reached down to the floor, and it had silken light brown tassels all around it. I used to sit underneath the table, fingering the soft tassels in the warm darkness, savouring the aroma of cinnamon biscuits and fresh coffee, and listening to the adults conversing in Dutch, a language I have never learned.'
I remember that when i was 8 years old, we had a party at our old house, with what seemed like hundreds of people. My uncle & grandad decided to lift me off the ground & tickle me, because i was screaming and laughing at the same time, they thought i was enjoying it...i gradually realised that i HAD to get away, i'd laughed so much that i wanted to cry, they wouldn't let me go, and so...i ended up weeing my pants in front of all those people...i'm glad i was too young to be embarrassed! *cringe*'
Early one sunny Sunday morning, my parents, myself and my sister were about to get into the family car to go to Church. Whilst my mother was locking the door of the house, my sister and I decided to go back into the back garden, where we had a climbing frame... my sister started doing handstands whilst I played on the climbing frame. And then, a horrible thing happened... my sister did a handstand and caught the top of the big tall sunflower that my dad had planted for me, which was next to my sister's sunflower. I will always remember the sight of my sister's foot cutting the sunflower's head off... and it plopping down onto the floor... To this day I reckon she did it on purpose, 'cos mine was bigger than hers.'
When I was small, I was playing out on the green with two friends. As I stood up I accidentally fell into a bike, so I decided to get onto it so I didn't look totally stupid. As I was climbing on, it started rolling down the hill. I couldn't find the brakes as it wasn't my bike. I was screaming and most of my street came out and started chasing the bike. Luckily, my Dad caught up and stopped me before I got to the road. The whole street still laughs about it, and I feel so embarrassed!'
slides over your tongue and down your throat
slow and dark
viscid and vicious
precious and poisoned
oh baby baby baby honey baby'
is the tension between beauty and filth...banality and the extraordinary...confusion and absolute clarity. This entity (dis)embodies ambivalence and ambiguity. It can never be without doubt.
Blinded by solar flare
Glancing off a retina
Frozen in a moment of sublime hypnogogic beauty
between opposing velocities
The ruptured earth and the blazing heavens
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