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<nettime> The Future is Femail
Faith Wilding on Fri, 18 Sep 1998 18:48:30 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> The Future is Femail


Note: This is a considerably shortened version of Verena Kuni's text. For the 
complete version please see the OBN Cyberfeminist Reader,available from 
Cornelia Sollfranck.

The Future is Femail"
Some Thoughts on the Aesthetics and Politics of Cyberfeminism

By Verena Kuni

What intrigues me, is being alternative and completely conformist at the
same time."
k.d. lang

1. Preface
The following text reflects the attempt to reproduce a lecture I gave at
The First Cyberfeminist International in Kassel, in September l997. I have 
since revised and added to this essay based on responses to presenting it to 
different audiences. It is presented in very abbreviated form here.(The 
full-length version of this paper was published in the Cyberfeminist Reader by
OBN, ed. Cornelia Sollfrank).

This essay centers on visual representations of gender, and is especially 
addressed to artists (re-)presenting their work in the visual field of the 
World Wide Web who are concerned with this issue in their everyday practice.

2. Future is Femail!
Now, just to add an ad for Cyberfeminism--let us admit that...
Future is femail. This is a fact most men seem not to be capable of
accepting - except in the case it is called Barbarella and has the body
shape of Jane Fonda. 

One of the issues of Cyberfeminism should be to question how to get even
with old-fashioned fantasies of that kind and to throw a pinch of sand
into the gears of cybernetic bachelor's machines (Junggesellenmaschinen),
how to finish off the damned sexist-machistic colonialisation of
Cyberspace...

(Here I omit a long discussion of the development of the Internet within 
masculinist structures; of Sadie Plants' and Donna Haraway's contributions to 
the discussion of the relationships of women and technology; and a discussion 
of the definition of cyberfeminism.)
 
3. A new subversive cyberfeminist energy takes effect wherever
women artists work consciously with means of replication and simulation
rather than referring to traditional strategies of representation. At
this point, it seems to be near at hand that electronic media - as they
principally support different techniques of replication and simulation
- should match a correspondent artistic practice perfectly.  Sounds like
good news for feminist artists working with new technologies: Is
Cyberfeminism just another name for a new born feminist avant-garde?

At this point it is important to ask ourselves about specific effects of new 
media technologies that might seriously interfere with the break with concepts
of representation (as claimed by Sadie Plant). To answer this question in 
relation to the aesthetics and politics of Cyberfeminism, the World Wide Web 
as an expanding field not only of feminist activities, but also of artistic 
practice seems to be an appropriate area to discuss.

4. Label it! On Netchicks and PopTarts
Similar to the multitude of different notions and concepts of
Cyberfeminism discussed in the field of theory we can find a broad range
of Cyberfeminist presence on the Web: from personal homepages to
ambitious zines, from webrings, jumping stations and networks to artistic
projects there is a growing number of sites provided by women that are
not only dealing with feminist issues, but also associate themselves
explicitly with the label  Cyberfeminist".  But how can we distinguish
between  feminist" and  Cyberfeminist" webwork? As I have already pointed
out, regarding the discussions about the relations between Cyberfeminism
and the so called  Old school feminism" on one hand, and the continuing
disagreements between different feminist and Cyberfeminist positions on
the other hand, it does not make very much sense to define
Cyberfeminism as the sum of feminist activities. I would like to propose 
another definition: Cyberfeminist practice as both a political and aesthetic 
strategy - and, as a strategy working consciously with means of replication 
and simulation rather than referring to traditional strategies of 
representation. But how far does this definition fit into a medium like the 
World Wide Web which is loaded with one of today's most common means of
representation: the image? Well, representation is not only built up on
visuals, and do not forget that basically the WWW is nothing
but a big hypertext. Unfortunately, this doesn't make things better at
all.

Net politics begin with the naming of a domain or a site - and in general
this will be a name that defines not only its geographic or physical
origins, but also the contextual and ideal framework a project is
situated in. According to this, let us look at how feminist and
Cyberfeminist projects deal with this tool.  What can be noticed here
generally is that on the one hand a majority of feminist as well as
Cyberfeminist sites refer to a spectrum of terms more or less explicitly
associated with femininity in respect to the female sex. On the other hand the
way this term is related to the female sex seems to be a first
criterion to distinguish between feminist and cyberfeminst presence on
the Web. At first hand, this can be mentioned as an indication for the
unease of a younger generation against concepts developed by an older one
that worked on a different basis not only considering the historic
situation and the socio-political context, but also considering the media
available to work with - and therefore leading not only to a different
self understanding, but also to different strategies. As RosieX from the
CyberFemZine  GeekGirl" remarks, even the idea of a  movement" itself  is
based on an older style feminist rhetoric which tended to homogenize all
women with the same wants/needs/desires to embrace each other [...]. 

Whereas feminist projects tend to relate to terms like  woman" or
femina" or to go back to names grasped from the pool of history and
mythology like  Ariadne",  Elektra" or  Sappho" - thereby following
similar concepts to many projects during the first and second wave of
feminist movement that tried to point out the need for consciousness
about a  female identity",  herstory" and so on - looking at projects
associating themselves with the concept of Cyberfeminism we can find a
remarkable predilection for the use of a special slang I would like to
describe as an ironic play with the so called toys for boys, recognizing
traditional notions of  female identity" as already prestructured by the
male perceptions of  the female". For example, there are quite a lot of
names using and sometimes also fusing the world of computer technology
with phrases normally used as vulgars for women, for female sexuality or
for ugly feminist, as in Clara Sinclairs  Netchicks Homepage", Akke
Wagenaars  RadicalPlaygirls", Crystal Tiles  Feminist Pop Tarts", the
german  Cyberweiber" - and yes, we can even put the notion of
Cyberfeminism" into this category. Another major part of the projects
refer in a similar way to the word  girl" changing it into  grrl" and
thereby citing the Riotgrrl movement that emerged from the music scene
during the eighties and transferring it into cybersphere, as it is the
case in site-names like  PlanetGrrl",  GeekGrrl" and so on. Similar to
the Riotgrrl movement in music (or the Bad Grrls in contemporary fine
arts), this is also about the need to be part of a scene and at the same
time keep one's distance to the gender politics it is ruled by. As
Chrystal Tiles from the  Feminist Pop Tarts" puts it:  A very practical
reason grrrls/geeks/nerds use these codewords in titles or our site is to
make it clear that we're not naked and waiting for a hot chat with you! I
mean, just do an infoseek search using the keyword 'girl' or 'woman' and
see what you find. Cybergirl.som (not to be confused with Cybergrrl!) s a
nekkid-chick.gif site or something [...] Ever heard about the cliche
'It's not a man's world, it's a boy's world'? Well, I think of girl,
geek, grrl, etc. as words women of whatever age can use to signify that
we refuse to play the circumscribed, no-win,
lady/cutie/muffin/angel/whore/bitch game, and a way to fight back against
the boys will be boys and old boys stuff that is so subtle, yet so
powerful in our society."

Following this, it seems that within the  Name Space"  of the World Wide
Web Cyberfeminist Grrlism is not only a means to create and to claim
free spaces" for women in the net, but a strategy of masquerade as a tool
to undermine dominating gender politics that keep control over the
female data set" (i. e. visual or linguistic objectifications of that
which male netusers regard as  female") as well.
Furthermore this strategy is not only important for the
naming, but also for the visual design of Cyberfeminist web projects, as
I will try to demonstrate in my sketch of an  iconology of Cyberfeminist
webdesign" following below. By trying to find categories and common
grounds I do not intend to return to the problematic issue of a  female",
feminine" or  feminist aesthetic". Rather, my purpose here is to describe
Cyberfeminism by the means of its aesthetical and political strategies -
and thereby to develop perspectives on the representation of gender in
the visual field of World Word Web.

5. Masquerades of the Cyborg
Regarding the Web as a visual field and stating that Cyberfeminist
politics include the screendesign, we will have to take a closer look at
the constituting elements like the construction of a site, the use of
logos and frames as well as colours, background textures and so on.
At first let us ask what a Cyberfeminist website could look like. Is
there a possibility for an imaginary with a Cyberfeminist bent? For quite a 
lot of theorists in the field of Cyberfeminism the use of new technologies is
more or less closely associated with the desire to erect a new symbolic
order in cyberspace that allows not only for imagining notions of
identity and sexuality beyond the binary code, but to incorporate them as 
well.In this context, the figuration of the Cyborg as outlined by Donna
Haraway plays an important role as a synthetic techno-flesh being that in
itself already dissolves the gendered knot beween body and cultural
identity.

"The cyborg as imaginary figure and lived experience changes the notion of 
what at the end of the twentieth century is being understood as the experience
of women".

Another notion to discuss is the concept of hybridity, founded on the idea of 
difference rather than of identity. Donna Horaway characterized her cyborg as 
"an ardent adherent of partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversion." Following
that, we may conclude that the potential of a cyberfeminist figuration--any 
public image, be it a logo, a corporate identity, or a screendesign--could be 
based on a strategy of difference and hybridity. Or if we speak in terms of 
visual representation (as Judith Halberstam proposes it in reference to Judith
Butler) as a strategy of masquerade that may be the only option to outline 
different images and different visions of possible alliances of women and 
technology.

Coming back to our reflections about possible strategies for visual artists 
working on and with the World Wide Web: Is it possible to understand 
masquerade as a strategy of representation beyond representation, let's say: a
representation that at the same moment undermines traditional concepts of 
representation by using techniques of replication and simulation, irony and 
parody? 

I would like to finish by looking at that what we could call
the current reality of Cyberfeminist practice on the World Wide Web,
thereby trying to condense the results of my investigations in this field
into a short summary of what I call an iconological reflection" of the 
aesthetics and politics of Cyberfeminism. In so doing,I am proceeding from the
assumption of the World Wide Web as a kind of graphic interface that can be 
understood as an arena of visual representation where aesthetics and politics 
are woven together inseparably.

6. Blue Stockings and Tupperware Aesthetics
Looking at the majority of websites devoted to feminist issues, in the
first instance we will find a lot of them following what I already
described as the traditional practices of first and second wave feminist
movement. However plain and unpretentious the design of a site, there
will be at least the good old Venus' Mirror as a sign to show the
project's orientation, others will use the colour purple to design their
letters, some even do not hesitate to use a floral patterns for their
backgrounds and frames. And of course there is the traditional way of
labeling, by calling the projects after  big names" from  women's
history", be it mythological as  Artemis",  Ariadne",  Electra", be it
historic like the zine  Blue Stockings" refering to suffragette's
movement or just simply by  naming the public":  WWWomen",  lesbian.org"
and so on. No doubt this politics of definition makes sense in a world
wide business center, where you want to place and distribute your offers
by using a clear concept for sales promotion - but thinking of
Cyberfeminist strategies as mentioned before we will still look for
something different. Given the fact that there are lots of projects
calling themselves not  only" feminist, but  Cyberfeminist", this group
will be our field of research.

Indeed, browsing through the variety of Cyberfeminist activities from
personal homepages to those run by groups and associations, from e-zines
to artistic projects,there's no question that the range of webdesigns is
being broadened significantly - but yet the impression will remain that in sum
there are common features as well, allowing us to continue our
reflections about how Cyberfeminist aesthetics and Cyberfeminist politics
might correlate. And of course, we will also have to ask in this context,
how far the practice correlates with the strategies projected and
claimed in Cyberfeminist theory. For example, regarding the fact that
representations of femininity on the web are widely dominated by the male
gaze (be it to sell pornography, be it to sell technology as toys for
boys) it is no wonder this is also an issue for Cyberfeminist activities
longing for a practice of difference. But at the same time, we will have
to bear in mind that working on this issue means to get into the complex
of representation, body and gender politics where difference is always in
danger of being confused with and mistaken as  the other", a perspective
from which any visual notion of  women" will be an image mirroring
traditional points of view.

First of all, a really remarkable part of Cyberfeminist iconography
refers to an already existing pool of images of  strong" and  liberated"
women, i. e. the cross-dressing vamps of the  roaring twenties", the
super-women known from comic strips like  Superwoman",  Spiderwoman" or
Hellcat", the sexy biker bitches and supervixen pin ups invented by the
sixties, up to the angry grrls of nowadays rriot grrl movement - in short
: in the majority stereotypes of liberated women that still bear a lot
of sex appeal as well. And regarding the webdesign itself, it is also
remarkable that quite a lot of them - if not addicted to the current
fashion of techno-pop imagery with brilliant colours and psychedelic
background patterns - tend to prefer pastels to create a new  tupperware
aesthetics". Even if the Cyberfeminist housewife no longer deals with
household technology only, the GeekGirl operator girl is no longer
surrounded with phones and wires, but with motherboards and chips, even
if some of the SuperGrrls wear intellectual glasses and even if the  All
men must die!"-homepage threatens the surfers with blood red weapons of
all kind: In the end, all these images refer to a repertoire of one
dimensional images of femininity - and we will have to consult them
carefully again and again to ask in what way the intended shifts and
breaks support a different notion of female identity and are appropriate
to undermine rather than to confirm the traditional stereotypes of
gender.

Appendix: A Cyberfeminist iconology in short

1  the colour purple: old fashioned confessions?
Venus' mirror and the colour purple as we know them from the history of
feminist movement, name spaces with reference to godesses and heroines:
constituting elements for the feminist rather than the Cyberfeminist
design...
- Godesses wear the colour purple:  Electra" and  Ariadne"
http://www.electrapages.com/
http://www.onb.ac.at/ben/ariadfr.htm
- Venus' mirrors all over: From  WOWWOmen" to  Lesbian.Org"
http://www.wowwomen.com/
http://www.womenz.net.au/
http://www.ceiberweiber.com/home.htm
 http://www.lesbian.org/index.html
- Images from the  roaring twenties":  Isle of Lesbos" and  Webgrrls
Deutschland"
http://www.sappho.com/
 http://www.webgrrls.de/

2. Here comes the next generation: gurls 'n' grrls...
- Suzie Pop goes Techno:  gURL" and  GeekGirl"
http://www.gurl.com/
 http://206.251.6.116/index.html
http://206.251.6.116/geekgirl/010con/backish.html
- picturebook Grrlisms:  Grll!"
http://www.grrl.com/Home.html or
http://www.grrl.com/
- Masks and masquerades:  Womyn & grrls"
http://exo.com/~emily/feminist.html

3. Superwomen and the Like
- CyberGrrl Classics: The Universe of  Planet Cybergrrl"
http://www.cybergrrl.com/
http://www.cybergrrl.com/planet/
http://www.webgrrls.com/
- SuperGrrl with glasses:  GeekDashGirl"
http://www.geek-girl.com/
- Manga Pop:  Spidergirl"
http://www.yo.rim.or.jp/~ari/

4. Tupperware Aesthetics
- Pin ups in pastel:  RiotGrrls"
http://www.riotgrrl.com/
- Happy housewifes:  Die Hausfrauenseite"
http://www.hausfrauenseite.de/
- Tupperware techno: Friendly Girls Guide
http://www.youth.nsw.gov.au/rob.upload/friendly/index.html

5. Tech Babes
- Tech babes from  Metropolis": f-e-mail
http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/f-e-mail/
- Do the Cyborg: Victoria Vesnas  Bodies inc."
http://arts.ucsb.edu/~vesna/
http://arts.ucsb.edu/bodiesinc/
- Rather temperate: the real  Techbabes"
http://www.techbabes.com/

6. Superfemmes
- Belle Silhouette:  Amazon.City"
http://www.amazoncity.com/
- LipstickFemmes:  SassyFemme"  
http://www.txdirect.net/~sassyfem/mainpage.html

7. Wombs und Vaginae Dentatae
- Entrance to the female space:  yOni Gateway"
http://www.yoni.com/
- Heavy Metal Vagina Dentata:  Womb"
http://womb.wwdc.com/

8. Men haters und Bad Bitches
- Hot hearts cold as ice:  Heartless Bitches"
http://www.heartless-bitches.com/
- Even more bloody:  All Men Must Die!"
http://www.kfs.org/~kashka/ammd.html

9. Ambitious bitches and disgusting girls
- Marita Liaula:  Ambitious Bitch"
http://www.edita.fi/kustannus/bitch/index.html
http://www.edita.fi/kustannus/bitch/destdive.html
- Mare Tralla:  Disgusting Girl"
http://www.artun.ee/homepages/mare/kmm.html
http://www.wmin.ac.uk/~ghmlc/mina.htm

10. Cyberfeminist Spaces and Bodily Architectures
- Cyberfeminist Universe:  VNS Matrix"
http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns/
http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns/manifesto.html
http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns/spiral.html
http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns/themepark.html
http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns/game.html
http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns/gashgirl/
http://sysx.apana.org.au/~gashgirl/doll/dollyoko.html
http://sysx.apana.org.au/~gashgirl/doll/yukiko.htm
- Enter via Hymen:  Womenhouse"
http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/womenhouse/
http://www.c



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