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Proposing a ‘Guerrilla Girls test’

I’m thinking that in the field of techno arts and new media we need a Guerrilla Girls test, formed on the general model of Allison Bechdel’s infamous Bechdel test. Exhibitions, publications, conferences, and other public fora would have to pass the following criteria:

(1) There are more than an obviously token number of women involved. Let’s lowball it and take 25% for now, though obviously the number to shoot for is 50%.

(2) These women are not all chosen from within the organizing group—the editorial team or gallery staff, for instance.

As I write this, I pause to salute the Guerrilla Girls, who started trying to make this problem go away in the mainstream art world three decades ago.

I got to thinking about this because somebody recently pointed me to a newish publication, HOLO, from Creative Applications Network. The CAN website is plugging their first edition of HOLO like crazy:

226 pages, 34 contributors from 8 different countries, 12 months of blood, sweat and tears – the first issue of HOLO magazine, CAN’s exciting print spin-off that is “more a book than a magazine,” is near. And it’s bigger and better than what any of us could have hoped. Kickstarted in late 2012, HOLO set out to go beyond CAN’s daily project feed, step into the artist’s studio and uncover “the things we’re missing from the web: the faces, personalities and anecdotes behind important work”. A year of full-on, globe-spanning production later, we’rewe’re proud to say that HOLO is so much more than that. A unique blend of editorial formats, voices and ideas, HOLO captures what we feel no other print or web publication does: a carefully curated, comprehensive and people-centric snapshot of the creative dynamics at the intersection of art, science, and technology.

Here and on the main magazine page, they name-check 20 of the 34 contributors that make this a “comprehensive” look at “important work”: Philip Beesley, Greg Borenstein, James Bridle, Derivative, Eno Henze, Golan Levin, Wolf Lieser, Tim Maly, Raquel Meyers, NORMALS, David O’Reilly, Chris O’Shea, Ivan Poupyrev, Paul Prudence, Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), Jer Thorp, Mitchell Whitelaw, Will Wiles, and Zimoun. Leaving aside the gender-indeterminate Derivative and NORMALS, 16 of 18 are men and 2 are women, or 11%. Either they’re hiding all the contributors who are women, or they just aren’t there.

This pattern continues elsewhere. Here is the mission statement of CAN itself:

CreativeApplications.Net [CAN] was launched in October 2008 and is one of today’s most authoritative digital art blogs. The site tirelessly beat reports innovation across the field and catalogues projects, tools and platforms relevant to the intersection of art, media and technology. CAN is also known for uncovering and contextualising noteworthy work featured on the festival and gallery circuit, executed within the commercial realm or developed as academic research. Contributions from key artists and theorists such as Casey Reas, Joshua Noble, Jer Thorp, Paul Prudence, Greg J. Smith, Marius Watz, Matt Pearson as well as CAN’s numerous festival involvements and curation engagements are a testament to it’s vital role within the digital arts world today.

Skipping over the grammatical error in the last line, one notices that of 6 people name-checked (presumably due to their importance), 6 are men. Representation of women: 0%.

And here is the masthead of CAN:

Editorial
Filip Visnjic (fvda.co.uk) – Founder, Editor-in-Chief

Contributing Editors
Greg J. Smith (serialconsign.com)
Alexander Scholz (alexanderscholz.com)

Tutorials
Amnon Owed (amnonp5.wordpress.com)
Joshua Noble (thefactoryfactory.com)
Mike Tucker (mike-tucker.com)

Guest Writers
Casey Reas (reas.com)
Paul Prudence (dataisnature.com)
Matt Pearson (zenbullets.com)
Emilio Gomariz (triangulationblog.com)
Andreas Zecher (pixelate.de)
Jer Thorp (blprnt.com)
David Wallin (whitenoiseaudio.com)
Nial Giacomelli (nial.me)
Jason Franzen (formationalliance.com)
Richard Almond (rafolio.co.uk)

Of this list of 16 names, 16 are men. Representation of women: 0%.

Does not pass the Guerrilla Girls test. Not even close.

 

 

 

 

Minimal machines and status differentials

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with letterpress extension.

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with (in foreground) letterpress extension.

Recently I was up at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (of which I am a longtime Associate), where I discovered that the ICI has acquired one of the tabletop die-cutters that have become popular in the last few years. This particular model comes with an insert that turns the die-cutter into a small letterpress printer. As one can tell both from the machines themselves—usually plastic and often cast in ‘feminine’ colors like pink and aqua—and the blogs where one finds information about their use (Not Another Craft Blog, Paper Pile Kitten), they are associated almost entirely with those activities that are currently designated as crafting. That is to say, the unimportant, largely unpaid leisure activities of women; the modern descendants of Victorian flower-pressing and hair jewelry. As Lilly observed in an earlier post on DIY, crafting is often cast as the opposite of design, and it’s also often cast as the opposite of technology and skilled work generally (never mind the facts).

What I wanted to talk about here, though, is not so much the problematic social status of crafting itself, but two specific aspects of the circulation of these kinds of small machines. The first might be thought of as a variation on the network effect. Traditionally, letterpress printing and die-cutting have been highly skilled occupations, and their products—hand-printed wedding invitations, small-run artist’s books, high-end PR materials with elaborate cutouts—have largely been luxuries for the well-to-do. The limited market has, in turn, helped to keep the industry small and operating under an almost guildlike mentality. So what happens when thousands of these machines get into the hands of untrained or semi-skilled individuals? Quality of output will initially go down in many cases—at least until the process of education-by-internet takes off—but public appreciation of letterpress printing and die-cutting goes way, way up. Two niche trades rather suddenly become part of a much larger arsenal of broadly practiced design-and-making techniques such as papermaking, woodworking, photography. And as Julia Lupton pointed out in a dialogue with Lilly, you never know what can come of “having access to tools that will help you shape your outlook in dialogue with other people, in ways that might not be predicted.” As with other downsized or simplified technologies—small cameras, for example—it is easy to view these small machines primarily as technological downgrades. But when I think of all those people out there experimenting with their tabletop presses and diecutters, what I see is a field of cultural potentials.

The second aspect of these machines that strikes me is how clearly they reflect the strict partitioning of the larger internet conversations about ‘new’ technology. The sites most associated with geekery, like boingboing or slashdot (not to mention all those ad-supported geek blogger-reviewers), are quick to parse every tiny iteration of the iPhone operating system or the latest inkjet printers. Many of these changes are really minuscule in their practical effects on users and form part of a larger pattern of hyping anything in the computational sphere. DIY technologies get some mention, but almost exclusively in their male-centric forms (think robots and 3D printing of nerdish objects). The development of small, hand-cranked die-cutter/presses whose early adopters include a lot of scrapbookers? Not interested.

 

 

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With Boobies

I originally thought I would title this post: “Does Anyone at the New Yorker Actually Know How to Read?” but decided that was slightly too inflammatory. But I’m still baffled at this 2009 post, which I recently stumbled on over there:

 

It’s not the article itself that’s the problem—that at least is a readable and informed look back at the British physician Alex Comfort and his landmark 1972 book The Joy of Sex. The pretext for this article is the release of a new edition of The Joy of Sex, and there’s a good deal of ‘then and now’ stuff in it, leading up to the predictable conclusion that The Joy of Sex has been largely supplanted both by its own success as an educational manual (“What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now”) and by the internet, our collective library of erotica and porn past and present.

Along the way, author Ariel Levy rightly criticizes The Joy of Sex for its—how do I put this without using words like heteronormative or phallocentric?—well, for what she flags as “the feel of a penis propaganda pamphlet.” She goes on to mention the “feminist alternative” to Joy of Sex, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was published a year before The Joy of Sex. Together and separately, these two books changed the terms of debate about sexuality in America by directly attacking the culture of misinformation surrounding it.

And this is why I’m still scratching my head. Here is an article written at a moment when women in America are having to refight many of the very same issues of the 1970s that prompted these two books—control over one’s own body, right to abortion, freedom from reflexive victim-blaming in rape cases, normalization of plastic surgery, to name just a few. And even as the author clearly respects The Joy of Sex as a mass education project, she also calls out Comfort for his various blind spots (homosexuality, for one). So what is the thumbnail image that accompanies this essay? In case you skipped right over it as one so often does with this kind of graphical window dressing:

Yep. In close-up. You might almost say, objectified.

I recognize the style: it’s either a Tom Wesselmann painting or a pastiche of one. I’d guess it’s the latter since reverse-image look-up doesn’t lead to any other versions of this image on the web other than those leading back to the New Yorker. And even more because the image itself is both uncredited and unlinked.

Wesselmann made his name as a Pop artist in the 1960s with a series called “The Great American Nude.” Here is a Wesselmann painting from that era that give a sense of his signature style:

Tom Wesselmann, “Bedroom Painting 2″, 1968

Feminists have long had a problem with Wesselmann’s work—the eyeless, supine naked women, the fixation on erogenous zones and detached body parts. At the very least this thumbnail is a puzzling choice to accompany an article about two books whose goals included, among other things, helping women to stop seeing themselves as a bunch of body parts intended solely for male pleasure. Way to undercut your own essay, guys. (Unless I’m missing some kind of twee irony here, which I certainly hope is not the case.)

So this is how I found myself wondering about the reading comprehension of the website’s art designer—or perhaps, this being the New Yorker, there is actually an entire Department of Thumbnail Iconography that makes these decisions at weekly closed-door meetings. Whoever it was, I suspect they may have leapt on this one sentence as the key to picking an accompanying image:

The Joy of Sex redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies.”

With boobies, indeed.

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Cartoon We

In an idle moment the other day (yeah, I really shouldn’t admit to having those in academia), I loaded into my Firefox an add-on I found on Facebook called MyWebFace that promised to let me make a cartoon image of myself.

An aside: I might add that I found this app only because I was searching the Facebook ad board looking for an ad that I would be willing to  ‘thumbs up’ to appear alongside my page. Not only did I find no such thing, I discovered that Facebook now does not allow users to ‘thumbs down’ an ad. Possibly this is my fault, since I relentlessly thumbs-downed (down-thumbed?) dozens of ads in my first weeks on Facebook, hoping to help skew the ad pool toward public service ads and away from shopaholic ads (the bulk). It always gives you a good feeling as an adult citizen of a republic when your options are: you may approve of this, or you may approve of this.

cartoon-meBack to MyWebFace. It’s set up as a kind of simple Identi-Kit, allowing you to construct your face from mostly predictable parts: noses, eyebrows, lips, etc., all of various shapes. Size, color, and placement of most objects can be adjusted. After I was finished, I ended up with what you see here. Anyone who knows me will see that this is not a good cartoon of me; the reason for this lies in the kinds of choices the software gives—and just as importantly, withholds. Eyebrows, eyes, and mouths come in a fair range of shapes (not enough noses, though). Skin color is wide open– a matter of picking from a palette of millions of shades.

For face shape, however, you appear to be stuck with a default upper half of the face and a modifiable chin. Result for me: entirely wrong face shape. (Oddly, you can choose various kinds of ‘blush’ for your cheeks, as if that is more important than basic face shape.) In addition, the general body type is  too skinny for me and not modifiable (this head shot is a detail of a full-length image). Hair style: no options match my admittedly idiosyncratic style. Accessories: no glasses frames match the ones I wear. Hair accessories and hats: nothing matches what I wear; the earphones were the best option because I use them when playing online games. Clothing: nothing really matched in the limited choices, largely because almost all the clothing styles skewed at least a decade younger than I am. In general, registering aging was not an option. You can make your hair all blond/red/brown/black, or all gray, and nothing in between—no one in MyWebFace’s world is grizzled. There is one pane for wrinkles, but they’re so lightly drawn and weirdly thought out that they don’t make the face look older so much as scribbled on. Basically, you can’t make yourself look older than about 25 with this software (or to be fair, much younger either; no kids need apply). Can you say target demographics?

Filippa HamiltonCoincidentally, as I was halfway through writing this, I stumbled on the image below over on boingboing.net, in a post rejoicing in the wonderful  title “Ralph Lauren opens new outlet store in the Uncanny Valley.” They credited a favorite site of mine, Photoshop Disasters, where the image has since been made to disappear by a DMCA-wielding Ralph Lauren; see this Huffington Post entry for a similar threat against boingboing. Ralph Lauren has admitted to their “poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body.” Yet model Filippa Hamilton was fired by Ralph Lauren last April; she says they told her she was overweight. So fashion logic has finally created the inevitable impasse for itself, in which the cartoonized emaciation of this image is “very distorted” but a 5’10″ model weighing 120 lbs is “overweight” (although one might want to take models’ claims about their height-to-weight ratio with a grain of salt; given the constraints of their job, they have every incentive to modify this figure to gain professional advantage.) In other words, at ground zero of the American female body image, the concept of “just right” has at last shrunk to a complete null set.

My reason for making this post, though, has less to do with the general problem of body image than with the propagation of this cartoonization through software—through Photoshop, which allows it (but does not require it; you can just as easily make yourself fatter and older in Photoshop), and MyWebFace, which actually requires it. What has previously been reinforced through consumption of media created by others, we are now made complicit in reinforcing through the software we ourselves use and the objects we ourselves make.

Summer Encounters with Art / Technology

The Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga has an exhibit called Enjoy Your Time by UCI artist Connie Samaras. Connie cites a range of influences, including science fiction, urban political economy, and the history of art as historical/archival/ political practice. The exhibit makes these connections come alive in disturbing, dystopian, but tentatively hopeful, critical ways. Here are some thoughts on the work: more »

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where women aren’t

An interesting discussion has been taking place on the ‘faces’ listserv of women in media and communication arts concerning the continuing underrepresentation of women artists in galleries and other exhibition venues. Artist Deborah Kelly started the discussion off with a post entitled “Are there any women artists in France? At all?,” writing:

“I just received the regular newsletter from the Palais de Tokyo, which has a very active program which seems to show male artists exclusively. Not that the curators ever feel the need to mention or notice or highlight (OR EXCUSE) such a thing….

Women are ‘mysteriously’ vanishing from public life and art— perhaps partly because we stopped counting and calling to account.”

In the deluge of responses, many different aspects of this frustration were articulated: that when the issue is raised in public forums, men don’t see a problem or a need to participate in the ensuing discussion; that women curators don’t show enough women artists; that the need for Guerrilla Girls style activism never seems to abate. The writers are calling the situation bad everywhere, and some participants voiced concern that the situation is actually getting worse (and I would guess that it is likely to continue doing so, given that the poor state of the world economy will tend to make people behave more conservatively in general).

From artist Anne-Sarah Le Meur:

“I began to boycott exhibitions with 100% [male] participants. In France, if you have 10% women, you should be happy.”

From artist and writer Martha Rosler:

“In 2005 or 2006 a young male German curator working in England told me that a young male French curator had proposed a show for the English institution, and the curator says he exclaimed in shock, ‘But there are no women!’ The French guy stared at him and replied, ‘We don’t have to think about that any more!’….

Guerrilla Girls are still working hard here in the US because things are slipping back back back… And women artists are still disrespected by most critics.”

From artist Perry Bard:

“I just came back from Beijing where I’m in a show with 10 male Chinese artists and 10 artists from US male and female. When I asked the curator why no women he said they weren’t ready yet.”

Not to pick on China, but—over half a billion women and none of them are ready?

For a look at some recent statistics for Australia, check out the CoUNTess blog (“women count in the artworld”), which features a spreadsheet summarizing the poor situation on that continent.

In new media, digital media, computer art, techno-art, and related “hot” areas, a number of observers (myself included) have noted a closing down just in the last decade or so. That is, in the early 1990s, when the web was new and hardly anyone knew what “new media art” or “internet art” or “interactive art” or any of those other neologisms might be, women were much more visible and exhibitions were more inclusive than they are now. (It would be interesting to see some research nailing down this anecdotal evidence.)

One question this raises is the degree to which the problem in the techno-arts is not just one of inadequate curating, but might also have to do with women leaving the field in discouragement (or not entering it in the first place). Speaking from my own limited experience as a curator in the United States, I would venture that both are at work. In 2000, I co-curated a show on computer games and art (SHIFT-CTRL) that included roughly 40% women (the numbers are difficult to count precisely since several companies and large collectives were included). Four years later, when I co-curated a sequel exhibition on independent and alternative games (ALT+CTRL), the proportion of women artists was much lower despite energetic efforts by all three curators to recruit women for the show—no more than 15%, a percentage that reflected the tiny proportion of women who responded to the show’s open call and to our recruitment efforts. If I had this latter exhibition to do over, I would handle it quite differently; I feel that we missed a real opportunity to take issue with the culturally embedded notion that games are a male domain.

The question, as always, is: what is to be done? Several listserv participants noted that some women artists, perhaps especially younger artists, don’t want to be included (or made to feel they’re being included) in shows as part of a quota of women. But as artist and writer Faith Wilding noted in her response:

“Maybe tactics of solidarity have to be invoked again—if you are the only, or one of the only women artists invited to an exhibition, conference, etc. then tell them you won’t participate unless they change the list (also make them think about needing to include differences in general).”

And Martha Rosler likewise noted that it is critical that women own the fight and not succumb to that maddening sense that it should have been won by now.

She added:

“In 2003 a young female French curator held a panel in Paris about this very problem and the audience was packed with young women. One asked, in anguish, ‘Why did we fail?’ I could only answer that history is not yet over…”

And this is really why the problem has to be addressed vigorously. Exclusion from exhibitions is only the first stage in a vicious spiral. If you’re not in the exhibitions, you don’t get bought by collectors, who later pass their collections on to museums, who draw on those collections for future shows. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t get included in the books that periodically emerge summarizing the state of a field. You are literally written out of history. (And don’t count on the rewrite—it’ll have its own inaccuracies).

If this sounds like a call to arms, it is. And I’m not just talking to you (whoever ‘you’ are). It’s myself I need to remind, as much as anyone.

What is the haiku author? Adventures with Mechanical Turk

I’ve been making some excursions into the land of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where many thousands of anonymous workers with IDs like A30K1ZD4E07JX do cognitive piecework (“Human Intelligence Tasks”) for several cents a “HIT,” making what amounts to a dollar or two an hour. Mechanical Turk once instance of crowdsourcing, getting things done by employing the often low-paid enthusiasms of large crowds.

I’ll write more about the labor politics of Mechanical Turk later. I’m still exploring that. But one of my explorations in qualitative engagement with people I can’t meet has been documented on a blog I created Haiku Turk. I put up calls for a penny, ten cents, and fifty cents and asked people for a haiku. I wanted a parsimonious, fun way to make a human connection through the anonymizing web interface. In the last batch, I decided to intervene in the anonymity by offering people the opportunity to list their IDs and pick a nom d’plume.

Some of the strangely delightful haikus submitted include:

McCain picked Palin
Palin is not good for us
McCain, do not die [permalink]

graveyard shift provides
rare opportunities for
paid masturbation [permalink]

To learn more about the conditions of working in Mechanical Turk, you can check out my other engagement, Turk Work: Bills of Rights. It’s not very synthesized, but it’s there to wander through to hear different workers’ ambivalences. Unscrupulous work requesters who won’t pay up are a huge complaint, as is the very low pay. But some also value the flexibility of at-home, variable time labor they can do as a form of play or extra cash whenever they have the time.

I am plotting an intervention. More news on that later.