Binary Code: Two Shows on Gender and Technology

Vienna, Zurich

Shana Moulton: My Personal Measurements, 2019, three-channel video projection and various objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy Galerie Staiger, Zurich.


Technology was supposed to be our big gender ender, at least according to Donna Haraway’s influential 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway imagined that machines might obviate biological reproduction and the gender binary along with it. But engineers trained artificial intelligence to reinforce their sexist views. They developed overtly feminine assistants like Alexa and Siri to be permanently available and completely subservient. In 2015, women made up only 25% percent of the American computing workforce. This is a total inversion of the situation prior to the 1980s: women ruled computers when programming was considered the menial fulfillment of commands rather than the shaping of our world.

Haraway’s manifesto laid the ground for cyberfeminism, a predominantly technopositivist movement of women who hoped technology—particularly the anonymity afforded by online communication—could liberate people from the constraints of gendered stereotypes. In 1991, the Australian collective VNX Matrix distributed their Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Centuryonline and in meatspace, buying ad space on billboards and handing out Xeroxes. It’s full of quips like “the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.” One poster rendition of the manifesto was on view this past spring in “Producing Futures: An Exhibition on Post-Cyber-Feminisms” at the Migros Museum in Zurich. The manifesto was the point of departure for an exhibition of fifteen artists and collectives that explored the relationship between gender, technology, and art in the present, a time when positing technology as a savior is no longer viable.

A few works at the Migros Museum humorously illustrated the simultaneous danger and absurdity of algorithms ingesting and regurgitating gender norms. Anna Uddenburg’s three sculptures—Disconnect (Airplane Mode), Focus (mixed emotions), and Focus #2 (pussy padding), all 2018—are outlandish, mixed-media works of faceless women integrated into furniture. Their fake blonde hair and perfectly rounded breasts render the unrealistic three-dimensional and life-size. Uddenburg’s uncanny sculptures remind us of the absurd ways that beauty standards derived from fake images have been inscribed onto real bodies through plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Shana Moulton’s video installation My Personal Measurements (2019) included an animation with instructions for synchronized breathing exercises, installed as if part of a shrine, projected over a plinth that supported an eclectic array of small votive-like sculptures of body parts. It reflected the ways in which ads targeted at women are designed to make us feel imperfect and want to buy more.

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“Hysterical Mining,” another group show about gender and technology, is on view at Kunsthalle Vienna through October 6. The exhibition of sixteen artists reclaims the gendered pathologizing of hysteria popularized by Sigmund Freud, whose influence looms large in Vienna. The curators cast this wacky affect as an appropriate response to the frenzy-inducing omnipresence of technology. The contemporary hysterical sensibility is best captured by Trisha Baga’s video installation. The Voice (2017) boasts an absurdist narrative delivered through an equally bizarre use of consumer-grade digital video tricks: a woman protagonist wears a green-screen unitard in order to blend into the background, becoming almost invisible; several small 3D-modeled wads of chewing gum are unconvincingly superimposed on the camera’s lens. The nonlinear narrative is based loosely on the disembodied woman’s voice and references The Little Mermaid and Siri alike, capturing the frenetic feeling of being online by presenting viewers with lots of cheap, digital tricks but to no singular end. Shown alongside a series of quotidian technologies sculpted in ceramic—like Hamilton Beach(2016), a toaster marked with fingerprints—Baga pushes back against conceptions of technology as that which smooths out, eschewing seamless special effects and glossy surfaces.

Curators Anne Faucheret and Vanessa Joan Müller of Kunsthalle Vienna write that their show “maps and provides new tools for the fight against sexism and other forms of discrimination in post-industrial societies.” They “acknowledge the gendering, ethnicizing, and racializing biases inscribed and embedded in technologies generally taken as ‘neutral.’” But many works resisted this kind of technopositivist solutionism: they did not provide tools. For instance, Miao Ying produced her stunning paintings “Blind Spots”(2019) by painstakingly typing every word from a 1,869-page Mandarin dictionary into the now-defunct Whenever a word was blocked on Google, she masked it out on her dictionary’s pages with white tape, creating the artwork Blind Spot (2007), which is not on view. In the paintings, censored terms like “politics,” “people,” and “love” are shown on canvas, partially effaced by draped plastic with images drawn on. As with Uddenburg’s and Moulton’s works, Miao’s revels in the absurdity and feelings of powerlessness than can accompany networked agency, rather than providing tools or solutions. Art’s role, after all, is not to solve problems, and when technology tries to solve them, it usually ends up producing new ones.

Moreover, Miao’s paintings had nothing to do with gender. Did the curators mean to suggest that to make as a woman is a feminist act? Did they regurgitate the trope that cis men are neutral and everyone else is gendered? Or did they reinforce the Freudian notion that hysterical, meticulous acts like Miao’s are, indeed, feminized?

Heike Munder of the Migros Museum claimed that the works in her show consider how “new freedoms opened up by the World Wide Web have gone hand in hand with the entrenchment of existing hierarchies and power structures,” while turning “the spotlight on the tension between the body and technology and on discriminatory gender norms.”

The Migros show included Wu Tsang’s video A Day in the Life of Bliss (2014), a two-channel video installation featuring stunning dances by the performance artist Boychild: one in a public space, after which Boychild is arrested; another in a safer, domestic environment. But in Tsang’s video, technology was simply an apparatus: the lighting and camera exist in harmony, rather than tension, with Boychild’s dance. In this case, as with other pieces in both shows, “technology” described physical aspects of art on view (shiny things that light up), rather than any object of critique. Tsang’s apparent ambivalence is an important view that no doubt embodies much of the zeitgeist. It should not be conflated with a critical address of digital power structures, though it is just as valid a position.

The curators of both exhibitions agree that the internet didn’t liberate us from misogyny, and in fact has been used as a tool to exacerbate it: an important if obvious note that comes at the expense of a sensitive reading of the art. Both shows offered manifesto-like curatorial statements that often stifled the varied ambitions of the bodies of work presented. At the same time, work addressing porn (like Ann Hirsch’s) which does indeed fulfill the curators’ calls, was conspicuously absent, even though porn fuels both the internet and feminist debates alike.

While both exhibitions presented a rich and varied selection of work, their heavy-handed framings missed the chance to add some nuance to this theoretical trend, and seemed a step behind the artists, many of whom offered not activism or criticism but inconclusive ambivalence and absurdity.