RE-IGNITE THE FUTURE CUNT
AN ESSAY BY EMILY RUTH WATERS
“we are the virus of the new world disorder
rupturing the symbolic from within
saboteurs of big daddy mainframe
infiltrating disrupting disseminating
corrupting the discourse
we are the future cunt” (VNS Matrix, 1991)
It is hard to distil the feeling of possibility the embryonic stages of the Internet brought to a single sentence. The excitement I felt whilst waiting for four hours for a single song to download on Napster is a distant memory, but work by artist collective VNS Matrix encapsulates some essence of it. Working in the early 90’s, VNS Matrix used new technologies such as the Internet, Computer Games and CD-ROMs to disseminate their subversive texts and images. They postulated the Internet as a place where men and women could exist beyond the boundaries of their sex, a place to communicate through your virtual body and leave behind the one that struggled through the gendered power dynamics of the real world. They boldly stated this in their ‘All New Gen’ computer game that began with the question ‘What is your gender? Male, Female, Neither.’ (Neither being the only option that granted you access to the game). Today, in a time where the virtual has seeped out of the computer body into every crack in our day-to-day existence, this separation of body and gender through electronic means, seem like a utopian impossibility. But what is left in the digital html rubble of the CyberFeminist ideologies? What can we learn?
(VNS Matrix, 1990)
VNS Matrix member Francesca da Rimini was an employee at the Australian Network for Art and Technology. Da Rimini had unprecedented access to networked technologies that were, at the time, only available to workers within the male dominated world of computing and yet to become the simple machines things we use today. This gave VNS Matrix a unique opportunity to create work with such new technologies.
Jumping forward 20 years, 84% of homes in the U.K now have Internet access. Yet, unfortunately, this opportunity for a group of women to be at the forefront of new computer technologies is still something of an anomaly. Women make up only 26% of the current computing workforce, and more worryingly just 18% of undergraduates in computer science (Field, 2014). The patriarchal dominance within the computer sciences is reflected in the black mirror of Internet comment sections and the many high profile cases of online vitriol directed at women through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. In August 2013 a photograph of a woman performing oral sex in public at an Eminem concert to a man with his arms in the air giving a thumbs up went viral with the hash tag SlaneSlut. The misogyny is open, accepted and obvious, with the man involved being branded, not a slut, but a hero. Unfortunately, despite VNS Matrix’s initial work, women online are still objects for male desire and face gender stereotyping, preventing them from being able to participate in a tech space free from gender considerations (Gajjala & Yeon, 2012).
CyberFeminist theories were conceived in a Web 1.0 environment when the ‘WWW focused on the user’s ability to be either anonymous or free to craft his or her online identity’ (Langlois 2014, 30). The birth of Web 2.0 (participatory sites that feature user generated content) saw a shift to Internet users being discouraged from acting anonymously and increasingly having to identify themselves. The social media and blogging sites of Web 2.0, are not producing content but hosting content. This gives the illusion of a neutral platform that merely facilitates what the user wishes to upload, but this is far from the case.
Petra Collins is an artist and blogger who uses media platforms to disseminate her work. She is a great example of the way in which feminists can generate a far-reaching audience by building large profiles and garnering followers on the WWW. This means her art, which contests current online female representation, reaches right into the heart of popular culture, often going viral, opening up her ideas to a large audience and generating dialogue in the public sphere.
Promotion and censorship illustrates that the Internet has not grown into the genderless utopia the CyberFeminists hoped for. But my initial question was not, what went wrong, but what we can learn from this? Despite the feeling that our online lives seem to be almost more rigorously gendered than our real ones, there is a positive message to be taken from the history of the CyberFeminists. Whilst we continue to move further into a world where the virtual and the real overlap, the potential of the Internet as a space for real subversion and change only increases. Flusser postulates…
“In our contemporary society, the new media are currently geared toward making images into models of behaviour and people into objects. However, they can be connected differently. The new media can turn images into carriers of meaning and transform people into designers of meaning in a participatory moment.” (Flusser 2002, 74)
Flusser captures the approach I think is necessary when speculating new modes of subversion online. New technologies equip us with unique tools for insurrectionary artistic practices. The number of Internet users in the world has reached 3 billion, a potential audience that would have been unfathomable pre-Internet (Internet Live Stats, 2015). And whilst I have laid out ways in which such information is mediated by male-dominated commercial technology platforms, there is still definite room for manoeuvring within the WWW. Search optimisation on Web 2.0 is of massive importance to commercial enterprise, and there are hundreds of webpages dedicated to teaching the ways to optimise your content. Imagine being an artist at the birth of TV and having all the instructions to make your work fill the channel 1 Saturday night prime time slot – this is exactly the potential we have, through learning how to be at the top of a YouTube search. This is only one example of ways to utilise the WWW but the possibilities are countless. We need to take advantage of access to such information and use it to disrupt the normal flow of discourse on the Internet. The worst fears of the CyberFeminists of VNS Matrix may have been realised but despite this the Internet has provided us with a space of infinite learning. We have unlimited access to all the tools to empower ourselves travelling in the 0+1’s on the network.
We need to fight back against our fetishised subordinate online representations.
We need to learn how to code.
We need to hack into Big Daddy Mainframe and re-ignite the future cunt.
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VNS Matrix 1991. Adelaide & Sydney, Australia.