Bodies of violence

•February 26, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Screen shot 2013-03-03 at 20.29.12‘Feminist art of the 1970s sometimes has a reputation for being combative and crass’ says Artlyst’s review of ‘Body I Am’ with Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke and Birgit Jürgenssen. Combative and crass it bloody well was, to the image of the violent and crass socio-political climate of the time to which it directly responded. Combative and crass as opposed to the gentle and elegant reputation attached to a certain feminine art practice until then. The late Helen Frankenthaler comes to mind as one of the few women artists who dared working in the macho Abstract Expressionist genre in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, many critics saw her watercolour-based expressionist paintings as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in colour and too ‘poetic’. Women’s art has always been judged as ‘too’, always compared negatively to men’s work. Combative and crass is just the other face of the same coin.

1970’s feminist art is indeed violent and crude, both in its form and content, radically departing from the orthodox, institutional art practices, displacing art from the gallery to the streets and from the object to the messy, political subject ‘I’ and its body. Performance art was one of the most potent art forms harnessed by feminists to expose the everyday violence against women, both in the art world and society. Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965) subverted Pollock’s macho action painting by crouching on the floor and squirting paint from a brush attached to her waist. In a more urgent vein, following the rape and murder of a student at the university of Iowa in 1973, Ana Mendieta smeared herself with blood, tied herself to a table in her flat and invited an audience in to bear witness to the atrocity through its re-enactment. In Untitled (Self-portrait with Blood) (1973), a series of six photographs showing her face covered in blood, the victim she portrays becomes an undesirable object – assaulted, catalogued and put away in a police or medical archive.

Screen shot 2013-03-03 at 20.35.01The blunt representation of violence by women is not restricted to the feminist art revolution of the late 60’s. A few hundreds years earlier, Artemisia Gentileschi responded to the subject of sexual assault in a personal and particularly visceral way, subverting traditional painting and the masculine gaze with off-the-wall techniques and composition. In Suzanna and the Elders (1610), she directs the conspiratorial glance of one of the Elder towards the viewer, by which they become witness and potential accomplice. As one of the two most important Carravagisti of the period[1], she rejected idealisation in favour of naturalistic details and contemporary settings, and painted with vivid colours and powerful chiaroscuro that emphasized the three-dimensional form. The ferocious energy and sustained violence of Judith Decapitating Holofernes (c.1618) is often read in connection to her own personal experience as a rape victim. Although she shared some of the lurid details, styles and the theme of female heroines with that of other painters of the 17th century, her celebration of female physicality and energy, expressed without frills or seduction and in direct rather than arrested action, was found to be ‘profoundly alien to the prevailing artistic temper’[2] of the period.

The purpose of this rather loose connection (between a 17th century female painter and 70’s feminist artists) is twofold: to show that they share a degree of unrestrained anger and brutal, obscene gestures, but also a great deal of subversion and wit; and that these cultural notions are relative to the socio-political circumstances and the artistic practice and discourse in which the work was produced. It would be as misleading to take Gentileschi’s bloody heroines outside the context of 17th century painting, as it is to separate militant feminist art practice from the context of the multitude of radical movements of the late 1960s and label it as ‘combative and crass’. Not only feminist but Fluxus artists, extreme video collectives, performance artists and a plethora of socio-political activists fought for all kinds of social changes through their art by entangling their own life with it and creating a messy, explosive multimedia landscape that still resonates strongly with us today – as an intelligent whole. Carolee Schneemann slowly extracting a scroll from her vagina from which she reads, is no crasser than Vito Acconci masturbating under a fake gallery floor, and no more combative than Ant Farm video artists driving a car at high-speed into a wall of burning TV sets.

After 40 years of social and gender activism, the forms and discourses of the feminist artistic landscape have evolved in ways that may seem less urgent and infinitely more complex within our increasingly globalised and mediatised world.

Last week Cuntemporary curated an evening of films, talk and performances, Bodies of Silence (no3), to coincide with One Billion Rising: A Global Movement to end Violence against Women and Girls. The work on show explored the ethical and political implications of silence as a by-product of traumatic crime. Mostly explicit in their political activism, the films and performances played with language and gesture, visual, aural and bodily (dis)connections, intimacy and sport, personal narrative, trauma and (loss of) memory, voyeurism and the politics of silencing from the streets to the deepest confine of the self. The best work was the films of Regina Jose Galindo, whose often short and brutal staging of her own body under physical attack or abuse expose racial and gender discriminations and wider social injustices. Screen shot 2013-03-04 at 01.04.56In Perra/Bitch (2000) she carves the name ‘bitch’ on her leg by using a sharpened knife, reminding of Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664) by Elisabetta Sirani, a contemporary of Gentileschi. The painting portrays Brutus’ wife stabbing herself in her leg as an act of bravery to prove her virtue and be recognised as a man. Interestingly, as the volubility of women was often used as a metaphor for their uncontrolled desires, this sexual gesture is also an act of (self-)silencing within dominant, male society, as Portia tries to remove herself from the world of women (who spin and gossip in another room) in order to prove her political worth and gain a public status. In both women’s work, the act of silencing, as that of penetration, operate perniciously as a form of self-inflicted pain towards the dangerous, disorderly female body.

Another noticeable performance was the humorous, and a little wacky, re-enactement of two synchronished swimmers’ choregraphy by Beatrice Bonafini and Cicilia Granara. Trotting about on stage, holding their breath and giggling, they revealed the strength and complicity of the female athletes, undermining perhaps the derogatory connotations attached to this hyper-feminine sport.

One criticism goes to the Q&A session between director of Cuntemporary Giulia Casalini with artist Şükran Moral. If the main goal of feminism is to challenge the status-quo and to re-invent a socio-political reality that gives women and minorities a voice out of the dominant order, then feminist organisations should stay well clear of rigid, institutionalised models of talks and presentations à la Tate which re-instate the very system they want to get rid off. The cracks that are created by trying to fit, rather than subvert, existing ruling systems reveal the inadequacy of such systems for moving forward. I wish they had played instead on the possibilities created by the surrounding intimacy of the place and the loose, slow evening time, I wish they had experimented with the unorthodox crowd that had gathered in support of One Billion Rising, I wish there had not been a Q&A session at all, but instead, the performance of one, where failure and dumbness and silencing were intentionally staged and truly subversive of our expectations. A lost opportunity for Cuntemporary to deepen and refine the discourse it had started with Bodies of Silence and ask about feminism’s failures, legacies and possibilities, to show that failure is deep within the cracks and that our strategies should focus there, whatever the means, in the in-between of cultural practices, negotiation and production that cannot – yet – be spoken of.

Body I am, Jacques Alison Gallery
Bodies of Silence no3 – when words are made flesh,

[1] Ward Bissell identified her as one of the two most important Caravaggisti to reach maturity between 1610 and 1620

[2] Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art and Society, Thames and Hudson, 1996


The Butcher of Common Sense

•October 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

‘Imagine a ramp that takes you through a building-book. As you enter the lobby you get a glimpse of the structure of the work. You see the layers of the different floors/chapters and can peek at the development of the edifice, sighting what is possibly housed there.’ Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion.

Three years ago, the 9 Norwich artists behind the The Butcher of Common Sense project travelled to Berlin and spent 10 days in an old Berlin broadcasting studio, the Funkhaus Nalepestrasse. In the space of one hour, most of the ideas, feelings and creative material they would draw for the project had emerged.

Black-and-white cut-ups, twisted words of hope and shadows, sensual graphics and ominous beasts drip from the walls of the Horse Hospital, the old stable for sick horses chosen to showcase the final work – a book that contains the Funkaus’ space, its layered structure, its mosaic of shared feelings assembled in a surround wall collage – a building-book. This, and the sharp tongue of The Neutrinos’ hypnotic singer Karen Reilly, and the band’s rousing blend of guitar, bass and drums, and the audience and I, all fuse in a Gesamtkunstwerk vibrancy. Whatever happened there, in the recording halls, long corridors and dark corners of this old GDR building echoes in the cavernous, humid space of the HH. The sound hits the pillars, the intimate room’s recesses, ricochets on the drums and cymbals, the bellies of bodies that throb and buzz and long to get free. The performers don’t just play on stage, they break the circle, moving between us to play an acoustic number before returning to their pulsating, sexy, punk-rock energy.

The pulse is everywhere, in the work, on paper, through the lenses of projectors and stereo viewers hanging from the ceiling, in the hot rum punch that circulates around. A photocopier has been used and abused to generate, to repeat and transform, to deform and produce montruosities; a scrumptious velvety blackness covers the walls; a woman in the book morphs into doubles of herself, exaggerated, enhanced. Eavesdropping through the other side (of the room, of the page, of herself), she has grown into a spread of sensings, absorbing the walls, the ink, cutting herself into print. Glimpses of ideological leanings here and there. There’s a manifesto on the back wall. What one gets is a glorious sense of priority, of feeling before passing judgement, of doubt and failure, of setting the new by twisting the rules, models and norms. As I move through the book, I caress a soft, transparent, gelatinous page, empty of words, empty of sense. Raw sensations, and the entanglement of desire with space, touch and sound, all act as wake-up calls.

being conscious is key

I think it’s fine to think I’m no one I think it’s fine to think I’m no one I think it’s fine to think I’m no one I think it’s fine to think I’m no one; but I’m not saying it’s the only way

Hurt help blame bore end yourself

What we encountered was layers, layers, layers, layers.

The Butcher of Common Sense is at the Horse Hospital till 1st November. Earshot performance on 24 and Click Dot and Silence final performance event on 1st November.

Her Noise

•May 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

We might celebrate, in a few decades from now, the event that ushered in the revolutionary era of the Feminine Sonic Sensibility. Her Noise exhibition at the South London Gallery (2005) dared the ‘dangerous combination’ of the two most unwanted concepts of the art world then, namely ‘sound’ and ‘feminism’. Acting on a passing remark by Kim Gordon about the lack of documentation regarding women in experimental music, Lina Dzuverovic and Anne Hilde Neset started the Her Noise project with the aim to investigate sound art and music in relation to gender and build up a long-lasting archive of the area. In 2005, they invited women artists who ‘use sounds to investigate social relations, inspire action or uncover hidden soundscapes’ to participate in a group show. This included Kim Gordon, Jutta Koether, Christina Kubisch, Emma Hedditch, Kaffe Matthews, Hayley Newman and Marina Rosenfeld. Interestingly, Lina Dzuverovic said that, while it took the best project management skills and determination to convince a gallery to host the show, funding it had been a piece of cake. Today, they would probably have to face the reversed problematic.

Dzuverovic was talking at the Her noise: feminisms and the sonic symposium, the third part of a three-day event held at Tate Modern on Saturday 5 May. Building on the initial Her Noise project, the aim of the event was to ‘investigate feminist discourses in sound and music through a programme of talks, performances, discussions and film screenings.’

The opening night was a talk and performance by the formidable composer and performer Pauline Oliveros, the proponent of the Deep Listening practice. In her improvisation piece, she played the ‘Roland V’ re-tuned accordion, which incorporates two different systems of just intonation, in addition to electronics, altering the sound of the instrument and allowing her to explore the sonic characteristics of the room. After a few ‘inspirations’ (which, she pointed out, is French for ‘intakes of breath’) from the bellows, she abruptly let a cacophony of notes flee across the auditorium. They reached the audience like a slap in the face. A medley of dissonant sampled voices violently discharged their ire. Among them, a hysterical male voice resembling the wails of Robert Wyatt meddling with the organ in Alifib, and some monstruous shrieks that seemed to be sampled from her own Wolf/Loba composition. Oliveros’ quick, assertive fingering and intense stares infused an incredible energy to the piece. At times, she caressed the keys, teasing the beast that growled and puffed. At other times she beat the notes out, venting her spleen. Throughout Listening for Life/Death Energies, moments of calming, meditative drones alternated with dark, ominous soundscapes. Oliveros commented that titles were important for providing a focus to her improvised performance.

It is certainly not coincidental that she chose the accordion as her instrument of choice. Appearing as an extension of her body, it adds a deeply personal touch to her rousing performance. In an earlier interview, she confessed that ‘it’s an old friend, comfortable and expressive. Symbolically it is aligned with *the people* – working people. It is also a challenge to play an instrument that grew up after the period of classical music.’ Invented in the early 1800s, the accordion is tied to the history of folk music, and has consequently been shunned by classical composers. It was, however, a woman, Miss Louise Reisner, who wrote the very first concert piece for the accordion, Thème varié très brillant pour accordéon méthode Reisner (1836). This fact undoubtedly gives the accordion its particular appeal to a female sound artist, especially when coupled with electronics. Indeed, advances in technology in the post-war period opened up the field of experimental sonic exploration, and contributed to free female artists from structure and hierarchy. In her talk, Oliveros reminded us of the role played by the first computers in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but she emphasized the creative potential of technology over its destructive aspects. This is exemplified by her Roland-V, but also by the use she makes of internet and its networking possibilities. In recent years, she has developed a close-knit community of creative listeners, requiring her students to post all of their work to a public website and encouraging them to manipulate the sounds made by others.  Ultimately, she fruitfully harnesses technology to enhance the philosophy and practice of Deep Listening, which seeks ‘to cultivate an appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one’s environment (…) and performance with others’. The mesmerising rendering of her piece To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation (1970) by an ensemble of female performers (including a captivating theremin player) in the Turbine Hall, perceptively enacted, and literally embodied, her powerful and emotional poetics.

The second night of the event focused on the voice as exploratory practice for women artists, with a film screening about the queer and extravagant vocal performance art of Meredith Monk. The celebration of these two influential female pioneers set the scene for the all-day symposium’s programme of festivities, which focused around four areas: Situating Her Noise looked at the issues around mapping and archiving sound art produced by female artists, followed by Affinities, Network and Heroines, which highlighted the DIY ethics, the support networks and the personal at the heart of female sonic practices; Vocal Folds presented the work of women centred around the voice, which may provide women a way to find their own path in the dominant cultural practices; and Dissonant Future explored the gendering of sound technology and its subversive potential in the hand of female artists.

The great variety of roles, personalities and styles among the participants made for an exciting, if challenging, kaleidoscopic discourse. The ultimate message was that there are as many feminist perspectives, directions and possibilities within the emergent sound art practice as they are women working within this vast, interdisciplinary field. By bringing them together, Her Noise symposium revealed a subtle net of interdependences and connections. Juxtaposed with vocalist Maggie Nicols’ energetic humanitarian speech (she run workshops at the Occupy Movement), the lecture by Nina Power on the use of the ‘techno-neutral female voice’ in our public services and its possible re-appropriations by women had a particularly vocal resonance on the gender and power debate. The possible uses and disruptions of the embodied/disembodied voice is just one of the potentially disquieting strategies offered by the emergent sonic field onto the dominant socio-cultural and political sphere.

One of the characteristics of deep listening is that it makes us re-think our relationship to power. Pauline Oliveros once claimed there was an affinity between sound art and women’s art for they are both marginalised. Women’s work in this area may thus contribute to the development of an emerging auditory culture that draws attention to the dominant structures of power.

Her Noise : feminisms and the sonic, 3 – 5 May 2012, Tate Modern

Hair of the woman

•March 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Last week I had a hair cut. Like flower buds in the trees, springy curls danced around my face, shining in the midday sun. Cleared of its dark, entangled matters, my mind was set free for the day. I felt like a whole new woman. I let my hair down that night, and danced till the early hours. I went back home looking like a dishevelled dog.

Hair has long been tied to women’s appearance, attractiveness and femininity. In Victorian times, as neck and shoulders were covered up in daytime, hair was the only exposed, visible and distinctively feminine part of a woman’s body. So much so, in fact, that hair became a focus of sexual interest. The Pre-Raphaelites are notorious in their preoccupation with feminine sexual power in the form of strangling, ensnaring hair. From the late 19th century, the iconography of woman’s hair increasingly prefigured Freud’s famous interpretation of the ancient meaning and power of Medusa, linking it with masculine neurosis. From Redon’s hairy spider representing his fear of the femme fatale, to Degas’ animal-like prostitutes detangling their hair in bathtubs and Magritte’s eroticised female head with floating hair in The Rape, the representation of woman’s hair embodies the male fascination for (a certain form of) female beauty as well as the more sinister side of women’s seductive power. As women artists became active in the 20th century, hair became imbued with self-reflexive meanings, making it a potent site in the symbolisation of gender. If Surrealist women’s self-representations exhibit the instinctive and wild, destructive power of femininity, artists such as Frida Kahlo, Meret Openheimer and Dorothea Tanning also threaded into their fur and locks other significances such as loss, metamorphosis and emancipation. In the 1970’s minimalist artist Eva Hesse stuffed boxes with hairy projections, and more recently, Millie Wilson’s series of wigs from The Museum of Lesbian Dreams and Dorothy Cross’s subversive boots covered with cow skin concealing nipple-like spurs reveal the rich and powerful contribution of women artists using hair as a medium and symbolic vessel for the contemporary psyche.

The all-female exhibition Braided Together brings together an impressive collection of works, giving a snapshot of the practice in the 21st century. Stuck away from the West and East end artistic hubs, Basket House Village Universe (BHVU) is a small and friendly artist-led gallery suitably located on the edge of town/cultural practice.

The artwork that motivated the show was Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, which she painted shortly after her divorce with Diego Rivera. Her once flowing hair lays dry on the floor, showing her renunciation of Rivera, her loss and suffering as a woman in love. Rebecca Baillie, BHVU co-founder and curator of the show, drew connections with Elina Brotherus’ diptych photograph Wedding Portrait – Das Mädchen Sprach von Liebe, in which her severed hair lays in the hand of her new husband, speaking of love as sacrifice and loss as renunciation of her sexual freedom. Samantha Sweeting’s Separation, a perspex box containing two cut-off pony tails and a pair of scissors, also pertains to the rites of love, encapsulating love’s eternal and transient nature and preserving its memory in a clinical, modern-day sepulchre.

In Hair Play I – IV, Wen Wu sneaks behind women’s backs and smears their hair with thin licks of paint, forming intricate chignons and pulled-up coiffures from which ears and eyes protrude, making uncanny portraits of an otherwise subdued femininity. Their washed-up, somber colours remind of old, quaint houses populated with departed souls and hidden secrets. The transfiguration operates as we glimpse at their inviting necks and erotic coifs, and leaves us with the creepy feeling of being watched in return.

Hairpurse by Tabitha Moses is a Surrealist object by excellence: the silver clasp of a purse firmly holds a long, sinuous ponytail of neatly combed, silky black hair. While the soft but dead hair both attracts and repulses, its power of seduction is curtailed through its association with money, security, control and restraint. Feminist anthropologist Mary Douglas saw hair as symbolising social control and deviance as well as desire. The shorter the hair, the most constrained the body is by social rules. Wearing long hair, on the other hand, signifies a person who stands outside the rules, but also symbolises our wild, intuitive nature. Mary Dunkin’s Women with Long Hair series of photographs show the incredibly long and sumptuous hair of women lying on floors, getting out of the pool, playing the piano. The hair’s natural waves ripple down their backs and onto the trembling surface of the water, or mesh with the geometry of the wooden floor. So deep is her communion with nature that a woman at the piano seems to float above the keyboard, in a disembodied state, in tune with the otherworldly.

A number of works depict women’s bodily hair in an effort to appropriate a sign that has been kept aside from cultural discourse. Indeed, while the hair on top of women’s head is valued and admired as one of the ultimate signs of femininity, body hair is described as unfeminine and remains an area unspoken about except by the medical and cosmetic industry. Denied the possibility of meaning, cultural critic Karín Lesnik-Oberstein suggests that it has the potential of becoming a language on the very edge of meaninglessness – and thus can be used as a subversive strategy for women artists. Marcelle Hanselaar’s Hairy Beauty is a compelling painting of a seated nude woman whose belly, chest and back are covered with brown hair. The woman’s piercing tiger’s eyes and menacing look intensify her animal, instinctive nature. Her short haircut contrasts with her visible body hair, which challenges the boundaries of gender in ways that, in the words of Lesnik-Oberstein, might ‘reveal femininity as that which hides within itself the potentially masculine’. Hanselaar is a Paula Rego for the 21st century, depicting ambiguous narratives and psycho-sexual intrigues in a raw, physical style verging on the obscene. Her two dark and powerful etchings The Foreigner and Evermore allude to the sexual dimension of hair and the female body, exploring the queer and more sinister side of the female primal instinct.  The Foreigner depicts a woman with facial and body hair up to her shaven sex and legs, sitting provocatively on a wooden stool, her legs on pointy shoes shape-shifting into a pair of goat’s feet. Evermore has the mysterious bird of Poe perched on the naked shoulder of a woman tied up with her own hair, suggesting auto-erotisation, self-inflicting pleasure and pain, and the ambiguous interlocking of sex, love and death.

Jessica Laguna’s Preoccupation (Grey Hair) leads me to more prosaic concerns, the effects of ageing and the pointless attempts at covering my grey roots, increasingly visible on the top of my head. For two minutes that feels like an hour, Laguna filmed herself methodically pulling out the coarse white hair from her soft scalp. She never entirely manages, which renders this tedious and painful process all the more absurd, and exposes us as the vain and unwitting agents of our own subjection to socio-cultural norms of an ideal feminine.

Beyond the rules and conventions that have affected women’s body throughout history, hair has been infused with a myriad of socio-cultural meanings, increasingly formed and complicated by female agency. In the image of Marion Michell’s quaint object My House of Howls made of crocheted hair, Braided Together has knitted together a strong community of women artists exploring hair as a privileged site of the female body, where intimate pleasure and suffering, cultural anxieties and social pressures are all at play in the construction of a female identity.

Braided Together is at BHVU until 18 March.

The Body in Women’s Art now – ReCreation

•February 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

All-women festivals and retrospectives have flourished in the last decade, from the more alternative corners of culture (Her Noise at South London Gallery, Cinenova’s Bodies Assembling, the current Labour : Female Irish Culture at Performance Space) to take centre stage in major institutions (WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the MoCA in LA, Elle@Centre PompidouModern Women at the MoMA, Tracey Emin and Pippilotti Rist at the Hayward in 2011). Whether a hip factor or the effect of the last 40 years of feminist activism, a wind of change is being felt in the curating of galleries and museums, with the Pompidou centre buying 40% of its women’s art since 2005. The recent acquisition by the Whitworth gallery of Lynn Hershmann Leeson’s complete edition of Roberta Breitmore comes as a remarkable achievement in our time of massive budget cuts, which predominantly affect minorities and women’s art as the closing of the 2012 edition of the Bird Eye’s View Film Festival can attest.

Philippa Found of Rollo Contemporary Art is working in the same curatorial vein. Since its first installment in 2009 the all-women travelling exhibition The Body in Women’s Art Now seeks to raise awareness about the representation and status of women in the arts and to contribute in redressing the balance. It enfolds as a trilogy exploring the self and the issues of (dis-, re-) embodiment in our contemporary sensorium. Considering the centrality of the female body in art since time immemorial, the show contributes to furthering the discourse on the body in contemporary art while infusing it with a strong gender perspective.

The first part Embodiment presented the work of women that deal with pressing issues affecting bodies in time of war, mass consumerism and the neo-liberal crisis of consciousness. Focusing on the lived, embodied practice of performance, the show gave an update on both the ‘personal is political’ dimension of body art and the discourse of self-embodiment, which developed from, and criticized, the Foucauldian insights on the power relations at work in the self-disciplinary practice and social normalisation of bodies.

The second installment, Fluxwas a frank and open dialogue on female sexuality, revealing the ambiguity, fluidity and mobility of female subjectivity and the potent, darker side of women’s desire and pleasure. The corporeal transformation from childhood to adolescence, into the body of a mature woman showed the body as much as a source of alienation as the site of controllable pleasure and empowerment.

The current and last installment, ReCreation, sets bodies within the virtual time and space of web 2.0, social networking communities and video games. The advent of Second Life and increasingly sophisticated programming technology has rendered work and play in virtual corpo-reality as second nature for the new generation of artists working in new media. Updating Donna Haraway’s ‘ironic political myth’ of the cyborg body, the four artists in the exhibition deliver a detached view of our contemporary self, not without a sense of derision and criticism.

The show begins with a strong, politically orientated docu-performance video by Anne Marie Schleiner, a gaming artist who intervenes simultaneously in the public space of online games and in the streets. Taking its name from the military term MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) used by numerous military simulation computers games such as America’s Army (AA), Operation Urban Terrain (2004-6) is a criticism of the increasing militarization of society since 9/11 and its pernicious infiltration into civilian life.

Dressed as sexy Lara croft look-alikes and armed with computers and a projector, Schleiner and another female cyberhacker assault the streets of NYC and act out the games with projections on walls, garage doors and shop windows, juxtaposing concrete buildings and bodies on the pixilated playground. The playful interactions with passers-by and children jumping in front of the real projections/virtual shootings add a disquieting dimension to the performance. At a time when the streets are being reclaimed for social and economic justice, Schleiner’s interventions seem all the more relevant to our lives which are increasingly played out on, and controlled by, the screen. Her team’s critical gaming strategies include the creation of paint sprays for covering the walls of virtual cities with graffiti and making their avatars dance instead of shooting each other.

It also contains an explicit feminist critic of the macho world of the military and gaming industry, which perpetuates the image of the hero as typically male and white, while portraying women as highly sexualized and often violently powerful. When she is not a bombshell or a deadly cyborg, the woman depicted in videogames is the mother with child in need of protection. In OUT, the introduction video to the America’s Army game starts with the sweeping view of a Middle Eastern desert town with a suitably westernized, oriental soundtrack in the background. A US military convoy is entering the town. Perched on a tank, a soldier waves to a woman and her baby standing in front of her house. The message, aimed at recruiting the youth of Middle America into ‘The Strongest Force in the World’, illustrates the gendered representations and imaginative geographies that have contributed in legitimizing the War on Terror and other masculine initiatives under the Bush administration. In typical orientalist fashion, women and children embody the weak and the helpless of an ‘Other’ world wrecked by dictators, and binaries such as good/evil or civilised/barbarian are used to entrench further the difference between us and them. Schleiner’s critical strategies reveal the gendered visions of politics by playing on the binary codes of game/society, destabilizing gestures and bodies by performing them live in the street and subverting their gendered imposition.

Going deeper into the rabbit hole of gaming technology, Gazira Babeli and Mira Segal explore the parallel Internet universe of Second Life in all its trappings and possibilities. Contending that ‘for me is like the wild Middle Ages of the Internet… Second Life seems to offer a Renaissance Perspective’, Babeli (or ‘Gaz’ as she is known online) performs directly in Second Life, taking unsuspecting avatars by surprise and upsetting the normal course of events staged there with her ‘unauthorised performances’, code-hacking ‘grey goo’ and earthquakes.

In Anna Magnani/Take 2 (2007), she manipulates the code to make her avatar perform, in quick sequence and random order, all the facial expressions available on the application. In jerky, robotic fashion that precludes the infinite subtleties of human features, her face turns from scary frown to ecstatic grimace, and her upper body moves back-and-forth in gestures that recall the trope of the hysterical woman. Dressed in a military jacket that reveals her bazooka breasts, she appears as an aggressive crank, a misfit cyberpunk whose identity search is set on splitting the code, double-crossing the self, subverting the gender conservatisms that persist behind and beyond the screen. This, ultimately, led to self-destruction. In 2010, her avatar died, an appropriate dada-esque exit of code-performance.

In the documentary film BRB (2007), Mira Segal also slipped into a second skin made of exotic virtual landscapes and various masks (including a Google search page printed on her face) and video-ed her experience in Second Life. We follow her and her assistant Iris, as they rummage around a Gothic palace overlooking a green ocean at sunrise, staring awkwardly at people and bumping into pixilated walls – nostalgic remnant images of my Tomb Raider past. The then-popular game provided my first virtual, ‘out-of-body’ experience. Early VR theorist Anne Balsamo explains that ‘a user experiences virtual reality through a disembodied gaze – a floating moving perspective that mimes the movement of a disembodied camera ‘eye’’. In the early 1990s, she viewed virtual environments as a ‘new arena for the staging of the body’ and suggested that VR would bring about a re-examination of the human body’s limitations as much as its extensions.

Segal is interested by ‘the question whether an image can touch you’. In BRB, she employs various animation techniques and equips the viewer with multiple perspectives, allowing us to follow her avatar’s adventures both intimately and as distant voyeur. When passing through a public orgy, for instance, she films Iris’s avatar, Roga, having sex with a boy. During intercourse Roga asks the boy ‘are you touching yourself in real life?’ at which point he disappears, leaving us with an uncanny impression of la petite mort. Or, depending on one’s point of view, a lame performance of virtual man’s post-coitus withdrawal from reality. Is the possibility of getting out of undesirable situations at will and seemingly ‘untouched’ an expression of enhanced freedom? Second Life, as all our networking platforms that wire bodies to circuits of communication, isn’t a realm of limitless fantasy but an alternative space mixing fancy flights of imagination and participatory actions that have real impacts on social life, emotions and the self. In this new perceptual realm in which we can simultaneously project and live our personal dramas, the question is not so much how far our bodies can extend as how responsible, feeling bodies can, and should, operate.

Segal’s avatar spends interminable time hanging there, thinking alone or discussing the meaning of virtual life around fires with bodies that ‘type’ their words into the void instead of speaking them out. The faint, finger-tapping chit-chat on Second Life makes us acutely aware of our wired, noisy world riddled with pedestrians talking to ghosts via their portable technologies. Our bodies have already vanished, taking the small psycho-geographical step from the streets to Wonderland and lucidly-dreaming new ways of going about our evolution, relationships, sexuality, politics, and identity. In this process, our self is ‘an image, a mental model… a dream body’ as one of the jerky chimera of Waking Life points out. Segal’s film reminds of the dreamlike visions of Linklater’s animated film whose characters are drawn on top of real actors and thus perfectly mimick and exagerate human bodily gestures and facial expressions. Their sketchy re-embodiment gives them a distant, spectral aura. Their philosophical musings on existentialism and our bio-technological evolution are revealed to us as if drawn from our collective unconscious. The distant viewpoint and dreamy soundscapes in Segal’s work achieves a similar, contemplative, disembodied quality. Bodies are stiff, however, their gestures aren’t fluid and easy as in a reverie and the glitches and frozen frames take us regularly back to the digital/genetic code and our technological/biologic dimension. Contemporary embodiment provokes and twists the jolting and splitting of interactive technology in our sensory system. This creatively self-dissociating and re-fashioning process is now proliferating as an aesthetic in its own right – the virtual glitches and possibilities within our biological existence work with social and cultural forces to produce a perpetually becoming state-of-body.

Helen Carmel Beningson’s techno-pop fantasies illustrate the creative self-fashioning of our contemporary moment. Her works are a repertory of signs picked from pop culture, TV reality, music and online games where girls are playing an increasingly active role. In the spirit of the girl culture/power of the 1990’s, she infuses her mix of performance, video, print, sculpture and installations with a hyper-feminine sensitivity saturated with brash, pink colors, acidulated flavours and assertive and sardonic statements. The video Why You Shouldn’t Date A Soldier (2011) feels like a daydream juxtaposing her net incursions into a Poker game forum where she wins a few hands, and a parallel narrative where her avatar, Princess, is being ‘rescued’ by a bunch of soldiers coming straight from the video game Call of Duty. Her favourite things such as sushi and palm trees float around. Meanwhile the soldiers, which we see as a first-person account, holding our gun, make a detour to YouPorn to interrogate ‘prison babe’ – a shot of the YouPorn clip is on full view – we have switched from male hero to voyeur. When the soldiers arrive at the forum’s threshold, she sends them off with a texto-poem: ‘boys. i didn’t want to be rescued. i am in control of my own destiny and my own fantasy’ and she transports us far away from there, in a safe, pink world of her own. Asserting her agency over her life and sexuality while poking fun at boys’ one-track mind and in-your-face fantasies, Beningson doesn’t so much subvert the girl culture she represents than rejoices in it, playing with its codes and confusing the viewer as to whom exactly she thinks she is.

Back in 1998, Rosi Braidotti said that ‘cyberfeminism needs to cultivate a culture of joy and affirmation…Nowadays, women have to undertake the dance through cyberspace, if only to make sure that the joy-sticks of cyberspace cowboys will not reproduce univocal phallicity under the mask of multiplicity’. Revealing subtle issues of gender representation online or explicitly negotiating strategies of genderfusion and hybridity to combat stereotyping, the women artists in ReCreation have successfully translated into practice some of the political aspirations of cyberfeminism. Anne Marie Schleiner’s engaged feminist politics on the net deals more broadly with the question of the embodied state, and contributes to the, often neglected, debate on the body politics’ salience for understanding state-community relations, political sovereignty and social equality.

The curator, Philippa Found, believes that women have a very unique relationship to the body in art and has presented their works as part of the art historical discourse of the body – which experienced a renaissance following the feminist art movement of the 1970s. This theoretical framing is, arguably, what had been missing to create a visible women’s body of art in the digital age. Faith Wilding’s invitation to imagine ‘cyberfeminist theorists teaming up with brash and cunning grrl net artists to visualize new female representations of bodies, languages, and subjectivities in cyberspace’ has finally become real.

The Body in Women’s Art Now Part 3 – ReCreation is at Rollo Contemporary Art gallery, W1, until 2 March 2012

White Noise

•October 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A ratty day in racy London can be a tremendous sensual experience. Just stand at the exit of Oxford Circus underground and let passengers pass you by, elbowing their way out while treading on your feet. Smell the stifling air in the narrow “Piss alley” between Market Place and Margaret street. Or venture onto Euston road and listen to the formidable roar made by tourist buses and trucks mixing with the sirens of ambulances and police cars. Even Bill Fontana’s White Noise – An Urban Seascape, conveyed by a dozen loudspeakers dotted outside the Welcome Collection building, cannot drown it out.  A recording of the sea at Chesil Beach is being transmitted live onto the pavement, drawing attention to the droning traffic by juxtaposing it with the rolling sound of the seashore. Few passers-by notice the trick, however. They look up, slightly puzzled, above the entrance of the Welcome Trust and walk by. I stand under the shower of noise, pebbles rattle in the water, waves hit the ground in guttural fracas, beeping taxis overtake each other. I let my eyes and ears shuffle back and forth, from the natural soundscape to the polluted road. The pink and orange hues of the evening act like a filter to the vibrating soundscape, which has become more palpable than ever. A remake of Sound Island in Paris, over 15 years ago. Another variation of Fontana’s classic ‘sound sculptures’ with water as its core element.

White Noise – An Urban Seascape, Welcome Collection.

Hand Made Tales – an in-sight into domestic art

•April 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In recent years there has been an increasing number of exhibitions devoted to craft objects in art galleries and museums, blurring the traditional distinctions between fine art and craft. Last year’s V&A’s ‘Quilts: 1700 – 2010’ exhibition unveiled magical stories behind the craft of quilt-making – the Rajah quilt was one of the highlights, made in 1841 by women convicts aboard the HMS Rajah as they were being transported to Tasmania. The current exhibition at the Women’s Library looks at domestic craft made in Britain in the last century or so and brings some hidden personal gems into the cultural limelight. After 40 years of feminism and the deliberate revival of needlework and watercolour in popular culture and contemporary art, dress-making and gardening are still viewed as having no or little cultural value. Why have homemakers been denied socio-cultural agency? Their activities throughout history have been an essential part of maintaining survival and enabling production. Why, then, is their work rarely valued or appreciated? What is the role of domestic creativity? The Women’s Library’s exhibition puts these questions on the kitchen table.

Hand Made Tales – a take on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, starts with a selection of books displaying the esoteric culture of craft and housewifery, from The Happy Home Good Housekeeping Institute (1955) to Amy Spencer’s The Crafter Culture Handbook (2007). Housewife by Ann Oakley (1974) is credited for having taken women out of their obscurity and revealed the full extent of their vacuous and unhappy existence in a patriarchal system. Recognising that ‘femininity can be a pseudonym for many forms of chronic insecurity’ and stating that ‘housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualization’, the book is still relevant today for professional women reaching the glass ceiling, the debates around the remuneration of domestic work or the search for home/work life balance. At the other end of the spectrum is The Gentle Art of Domesticity (2007) by Jane Brocket. Described as ‘an eccentric delight’ by the Evening Standard, Brocket’s middle-class home is the hyper-feminine equivalent of the garden of Facteur Cheval.

A full wall of the exhibition is reserved to the craft of dress-making, lace-making, crochet and quilting by non-professional women throughout the 20th century. One of the beautiful garments on display is the hand-woven linen dress made by Edith Dawson for her daughter in 1917. As well as being a homemaker, Dawson was a water-colourist, writer and Art & Craft enamellist. Also made for her daughter c.1945 is a stunning viscose coat dress by Irma Cocco, the wife of a shoe repairer. Education and inspiration for a younger generation of women was high on homemakers’ book. One of the objects I found most interesting is a manual entitled Constructive and Decorative Stitchery (1923) by Glasier Foster, who aimed to inspire learners of the stitchery craft at school and at home. Showing knowledge of the Art & Craft movement and other early 20th century artistic developments, Glaser wanted to place stitchery as a ‘distinct and distinguished branch of the arts’. She writes that ‘all really and true beautiful work expresses the worker’s delight in what he [sic] is trying to express in Nature’. Art historian Alois Riegl attempted to valorise design in 1900’s Vienna arguing that geometric design is part of a whole aesthetic feeling about one’s relationship to nature and that forms and styles make explicit the inner value of one’s time and society. Glaser extends Riegl’s ‘will to create’ to the private sphere – placing the domestic worker’s self-expression on a par with that of the professional artist.

There is a great display of homemaker’s tools, one of ‘the areas less scrutinised in the craft tradition’. Framed in polished wood cabinets the rakes, spades and clippers and the preserving pans gain a hint of the distant aura of the art object but never lose their sense of purpose. If the earlier pieces of crochet, quilt and dress already belong to a distant past, taking on the status of cabinet curiosities, there is a homely, uncanny presence around the displays of pots and tools. My mother had an immense flower and vegetable garden and my summer days were filled with the sounds of her watering and pottering around. Although I complained about the chores of collecting greens or writing the labels on the preserve jars, there was a wonderful sense of serenity floating in the house at gardening time. My mother used to imitate the calls of birds so well that I would often stop in my tracks and listen to her talking to them. Such moments of intimacy came flooding at the view of an old pair of rusty secateurs. There is a note by Alice Walker above one of the displays that says: ‘I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.’ There is little more fundamentally creative than tending flowers and fruits – the connection with nature, the caring of plants and trees, the collecting and distributing around friends and family, the gift of health and beauty, the joy of homemade cooking. Priceless work, yet denied value in our modern socio-economic reality. Instead we re-invent creativity to suit our contemporary souls and market logic, craving recognition as ‘creative types’ in the media industry and rushing into flower arrangement or printmaking classes to lift up the weight of alienation and find a channel to express our true selves. If the primary function of art is to induce and inspire the viewer/reader/listener into a reflection upon the self and society, then the professional and domestic crafts have much to offer in this area.

The last part of the exhibition is dedicated to what professor Lou Taylor calls the ‘secret expressions of self’ – the making of items towards a social or political cause that is closely related to the maker and privately consumed. The grave of Taylor’s great grandmother, a Polish and Jewish woman, was destroyed by the nazi in 1942, the year Taylor was born in England. In her honour, she made a colourful, poignant embroidery with tree branches over her grave intertwining with the words ‘Let her soul be tied to the knot of life’. Other pieces on display are an embroidered collar by Emmeline Pankhurst, made for a women’s demonstration around 1909, and a witty piece of crochet saying ‘good girl’ by Katy Deepwell, the editor of the contemporary feminist art journal n.paradoxa, subverting the domestic-as-docile dimension of craft. Those powerful expressions of self cross the line of what has been traditionally viewed as the role of domestic craft – to help make ends meet or as useful distraction for the enjoyment of the whole family.

From its early days, the feminist art movement started questioning the strict division between fine art and craft and the effects that it had exerted over female creativity. Feminist artists such as Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro and Harmony Hammond, incorporated craft materials such as fiber and cloth into their work invoking domestic and feminine associations, calling attention to the long-overlooked labour of women in art traditions that are no less worthy of attention than the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Exhibitions such as ‘Deliberate Entanglements’ in the Los Angeles Gallery in 1971 or ‘Ten Approaches to the Decorative’, the first show of the Pattern and Decoration Movement in 1976 in New York, established a context for feminism to challenge the way art history honoured certain materials and processes instead of others. More recently the domestic crafts such as knitting gained popularity among feminist activists, partly influenced by third-wave feminism’s DIY and networking practices and by the success of such books as Debbie Stoller Stitch’n Bitch: The Knitters Handbook (2003). Stoller values the craft of knitting as a feminist act in itself believing that the denigration of knitting correlates directly with that of a traditionally women-centred activity. This type of reclamation, known as ‘craftivism’, has faced scrutiny from those who argue that the celebration of the domestic arts is neither politically effective nor feminist, and it is all but a trend that supports individualistic, apolitical consumerism ignoring the realities and history of domestic labour. More generally, critics have questioned appropriations that are a-historical and transcultural and thus standardise a practice without regards to its specific origins and meanings. Some feminists also believe that the valorising of craft risks perpetuating it as an alternative ‘woman’s tradition’ and undermines the wider, encompassing purpose of feminism and feminist values.

The curators of Hand Made Tales made it clear that they were aware of the critiques towards such revival practice. Perhaps as a result, the show seems less about reclaiming the domestic arts than reconsidering the role of craft and the values it created for women. The finely crafted objects, books and photographs displayed in the exhibition unthreads personal stories and personalities – not the public face of personalities, nor the private life of known artists or celebrities, but our mother’s and grandmother’s intimate thoughts, hopes and desires crocheted in a shirt or a journal’s quote. It uncovers homely routines, personal struggles and successes. It activates memories and lost connections, causing people to look at domestic life and work differently and to reflect upon the depths of daily rituals.