What’s the deal with cyberfeminism? Kristen Cochrane examines the cyberfem movement, and examines the work of prominent cyberfeminist artist, Signe Pierce.
Tall, blonde, and fond of Barbie pink bodycon dresses, Signe Pierce reminds me of a character from the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, come to life. Her work is experimental in nature, but also very self-reflexive about where reality begins and ends. It’s no coincidence that Pierce calls herself a “reality artist.”
So what’s a reality artist, you ask? Well, in this case, it means that Pierce’s work examines our mediated selves—i.e., how our bodies and personalities are projected through media, rather than in IRL, face-to-face life. In centuries past, we projected our existence through mirrors. In the 20th century onwards, through family photos in the living room. And now, through Instagram, Facebook and Skype (and on a more sinister level, through surveillance cameras that we have only distractedly consented to). This is part of a larger tradition of what has been called cyberfeminism, which had its first incarnation in the 1980s. Scholar Tully Barnett has characterized cyberfeminism as “interest in the intersection of new technologies with notions of gender, sexuality, the body and social equality.” The term cyberfeminism only surfaced in the 1990s, and new media art has embodied these axes.
Dina (left) (2010) and Identity Blend (right) (2014), both by Signe Pierce. Via
As a prominent cyberfeminist artist in our current moment, Pierce’s work combines early-2000s-pastels-and-Miami-Vice-hot-pink aesthetics, philosophical ideas on information and communication technologies, and artistic critiques of patriarchal regulations of female beauty—all of which have garnered her some serious attention in the art world. In April of this year, New York mag art critic Jerry Saltz added Pierce to a roster of “Artists to Watch.”
Most notably was her performance art piece American Reflexxx (2013), where she sauntered along a street in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in a cobalt blue dress and platform heels, wearing a mirrored, Daft Punk-esque mask on her face, while her ex-girlfriend and fellow artist Alli Coates filmed the sequence. The film turns Lynchian shockingly quick, after comments that she is a “man” in a dress are yelled in her direction, eventually resulting in a woman shoving her to the ground. Pierce lays there for an uncomfortably long moment. She isn’t moving.
This 14-minute film has been used to address discrimination and aggression towards people who fall under the LGBTQ* umbrella. When a passersby seemingly decided that the 5’11” Pierce, outfitted in the signifiers of excessive femininity and without a voice, must be a man, harassment and violence ensued.
American Reflexxx (2013)
Still from American Reflexxx (2013), a performance piece by Signe Pierce. Via
Pierce, who moved to Los Angeles in 2014, has said that the city is the ultimate hyperreality. My academic instincts went into a libidinal overdrive at the mention of hyperreality, a term coined by French theorist Jean Baudrillard to describe something that is not just a simulation of reality, but a simulation of a simulation of reality, where we keep copying and repeating something that was never even real or true. Nevermind that Jean has been dead since 2007 (Rest in Power), his writing becomes increasingly relevant in not only the all-encompassing Internet Age. So I asked Pierce, “are you a Jean Baudrillard fan?”
“He’s my boyfriend,” she purred. “His writings are probably one of the biggest influences on my work.” She went on, “I moved to LA partially because LA is the land of hyperreality. It’s the most modern place. This entire city is a simulation of everything that came before it. Los Angeles’s biggest business, and America’s biggest export, is the film industry, which is entrenched in the art of simulation.”
Signe Pierce in New York Magazine’s “Artists to Watch” feature (2016). Via
We can also think about gender in terms of simulation—we keep re-creating and fictionalizing gender as time goes on and as we move between spaces. Depending on where you are, what a “woman” looks like or what a “man” looks like is more complicated than a binary of man/woman. Some people think it’s “womanly” to have curves and blonde hair, for example, or that facial hair on a woman makes her manly, which is not only considered offensive (like, who cares what someone does with their body?!), but doesn’t really make sense, since we’re constantly re-inventing gender.
A large characteristic of the cyberfeminist movement is the possibility of loving many kinds of people. Feminist and technoscience theorist Donna Haraway’s famous 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” which she began writing in 1983, Haraway claims that there is nothing consistent about the term “female” and that it is impossible for women to be linked by such a term. How can we all be the same? And more importantly, how can we be liberated? Haraway’s answer is the cyborg, which is short for “cybernetic organism,” where race, class, sexuality, and gender are erased.
“I’m obsessed with documenting everything. My number one dream is to have a camera implanted into my eye.” – Pierce
The problem with adding the term “cyber” into anything (besides it sounding like the hilarious “let’s cyber” proposal of the late 1990s and early 2000s) is that it can make people think we’re talking about something that isn’t real. But what is “real” or “reality” anyway? According to cyberfeminism scholar Radhika Gajjala, “the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ in the context of cyber living are not mutually exclusive.” To clarify, cyberliving can be anything from your daily selfie uploads to Instagram, to your Second Life account, to your long-distance relationship whose strength relies on nightly FaceTime conversations. As a result, we have to acknowledge that we are living in both a virtual and real world.
That’s where Pierce comes in, with what Gajjala calls “cyberfeminism 2.0.” While there is a rich history of cyberfeminism that predates Internet culture, as Pierce tells me, cyberfeminist art is not clear-cut or adequately studied.
Generally speaking, what distinguishes cyberfeminist art from feminist art and art in general is that cyberfeminist art is made with cyber objects. But cyber objects are not exclusive to the overheating Macbook Air on your bed or your cracked iPhone. The term also includes things like surveilence cameras and software. Pierce told me that as an aspiring-cyborg, she has some cybernetic goals for her body. “I’m obsessed with documenting everything. My number one dream is to have a camera implanted into my eye. I cannot wait until the day it becomes a possibility.”
“Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm)” (2015) from the Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming series by black trans artist Juliana Huxtable. Via
Among Pierce’s contemporaries is Juliana Huxtable, a New York City-based artist, poet, and DJ. Last year, Huxtable authored five different works at the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, called “Surround Audience,” a title that emphasized “the effects of an increasingly connected world both on our identities and our art,” which sounds a lot like Signe Pierce’s art practice.
Then there’s Buenos Aires-born Fannie Sosa, who bridges the academic with the artistic with her activism, teaching, university lectures, and art. Oh, and her PhD is on twerking, so it’s only natural that she would teach twerking, in what are called “twerkshops.”
In an interview with gal-dem, Sosa said that her international twerkshops have become more popular through social media, the ultimate cyberfeminist act. Twerking, for many, could be seen as colluding with the male gaze that looks upon our bodies as objects. Or, it could be seen as an exercise that makes the women who twerk part of a lower class of culture, a criticism that has planted women, and women of color, into particular categories that become fetishized, romanticized, or criticized.
Buenos Aires-born activist and artist Fannie Sosa. Via
Sosa told gal-dem that twerking is an act of counter-discourse. “I twerk to remember. I twerk to resist. I twerk to remember my roots; my foremothers that danced with their ass since the dawn of humanity and mastered their fertility outside of phallic towers of control like the state and the church,” she said. “I twerk to resist the white supremacist male gaze that states that twerking is only there for its consumption. I am not there for that gaze.”
In Signe Pierce’s performance “U R Wut U Eat” (2015) at Art Basel in Miami, Pierce used everyday objects that have an inexorable relationship with capitalism and patriarchal culture. Pierce told Dazed that she used rubbed Muscle Milk on her face “to help tighten your face muscles for when men inevitably tell you to ‘Smile!’’ and put Adderall on her face “for a pop of colo-r on your eyelids to give you energy while working twice as hard to earn less than your male coworkers.” The piece was part of a series curated by Monica Mirabile called The Pharmacy that took place in an abandoned pharmacy
As unlady-like as messiness has historically been perceived, I asked Pierce if she likes making a mess. “I’m inspired by beauty and by the grotesque and am fascinated by the dichotomies that surround good and evil,” she said. “Beauty, the beauty industry, and just beautiful things in general motivate and inspire me, in both dark and light ways.”
“I like exploring the spectrum of beauty, which includes ‘ugliness’, through subversion. Using ‘ugliness’ as a device; making ugly things beautiful, or vice versa.”
Main image of Signe by Marina Fini.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, on Will Rebein’s eerily poignant films about celebrity meltdowns, HERE :)