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a modest proposal

I’m new here on Difference Engines—you can think of me as a 12th century physician of Constantinople, if you like— so first I’d like to say hello to everyone before plunging in.

I’ve been increasingly horrorified at all that is being done to persecute women of child-bearing age in the United States, and I’m just sick  of reading stories like this one. Reducing access to contraception, chipping away at the right to abortion: the list goes on and on, a relentless rollback of women’s rights. I will leave aside questions of the soul or the viability of a fetus;  I consider these red herrings. Whether the discussion pertains to fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, the arguments around limiting women’s choices ultimately turn on a single point: the devaluation of the actual woman in favor of her potential offspring. I do not see a sound ethical argument for such a position. A woman may choose to risk herself for a potential child, but such a sacrifice should not be forced on her.

The risks of child-bearing vary from person to person but in all cases there is at least some chance of long-term disability or death for the woman.§ To refuse a woman full autonomy in deciding, with her physician, whether to carry forward a pregnancy and how to terminate an unwanted or problematic pregnancy is to force her to undergo this risk (as well as the risk of serious complications). I do not think it is right for 40% of all U.S. citizens‡ to be legally required to risk death in quite this way, through denial of simple, relatively inexpensive options that we know can greatly reduce her health risks.

For these and other reasons, I believe we must make a stand against all forms of reproductive coercion enshrined in law, and to this end I make the following proposal. It is time for women of child-bearing age to go out on strike. Literally. Together, we should refuse to bear any more children until all the laws standing between us and our child-bearing decisions are struck down. We should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we do not get pregnant. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t be pretty, but we could collectively crash the national birth rate overnight if we put our minds to it. True, it would be an enormous sacrifice for an entire generation of women to give up children altogether. But between the frustrations it will create at the family level and the likely economic consequences at the national level, it may be the surest way to get results. (Remember Lysistrata?) There are many people who urgently need to be reminded that there are no children without the bodies and labor of women, and that women are citizens, not chattel. We cannot continue to allow real women to be trumped by phantom children in the framing of our laws. A strike by today’s potential child-bearers would be in line with a long American tradition of organizing in the name of fair treatment, from the labor strikes of the early 20th century through the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights era.

Women of child-bearing age, withhold your labor. Both kinds.

 


§ The U.S. maternal mortality rate, at 12.7 per 100,000 births in 2010, is double what it was a quarter-century ago and puts the U.S. in a disgraceful 50th position among all countries.

‡Women make up just over half the U.S. population, and about 80% of women now bear children, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

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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.

 

 

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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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.