Transcript of a talk by Allucquere Rosanne Stone given at "In Control: Mensch-Interface-Maschine", at the Kunstlerhaus, Graz, Austria, May 1993. Symposium arranged and chaired by Eva Ursprung.
Allucquere Rosanne Stone Department of Radio, TV and Film The University of Texas at Austin
Copyright (c) 1993 by Allucquere Rosanne Stone. This version may be freely distributed electronically, but may not be reproduced in hardcopy form without permission.
The words "Dia" refer to slides being shown.
This is not going to be so much a linear talk that begins in one place and goes somewhere else as much as it's going to be a series of provocations, little interruptions.
I'll start off with a little story about women and technology back at the beginning of technology, i.e. back at the beginning of the machine age. Before machines as we know them were developed, there were little clockwork devices. The ones that looked like humans were called "androids", which is a name that means "human-like". But there weren't only human-like things, there were animal-like things and insect-like things as well. They came to an interesting end, and I'd like to start out with showing you some slides of what they looked like.
Probably the most famous was the mechanical duck created by Vaucanson. We have no pictures of this duck from the time that it was actually in operation, so we only know of its performance through some wonderful stories, which claim that it could actually perform all of the functions of a living duck, including the ability to quack, clean itself, eat and defecate, and apparently its defecating was accompanied by odors which indicated that it was actually doing some kind of digestion.
Dia (Android boy)
And here we have a human one. This little boy was a letter-writing android, life-size. He was able to actually write letters with his hand. In the back view we see the mechanism, the hardware and software. The hardware are the gears and levers that control the motion of the arm. The software is a vertical stack of thin metal cams into which is cut a plan for the motions that the arm can make. The program is transmitted to the arm by means of the levers.
Following upon these early but exquisitely made devices came the steam engine and the machine age as we know it. As I mentioned, these androids were made in equal numbers in the two socially standardized sexes, so there were roughly as many men androids as there were women androids. Then the "true machines" arrived, i.e., machines that didn't look like people but instead expressed their machinic quality in their form and appearance. Once the true machines appeared, the androids began to die out. From having been shown in splendor before the crowned heads of Europe, the androids stopped being popular attractions and ceased being manufactured. As they disappeared from public view, they underwent a strange transmogrification. They reappeared as accounts in newspapers and penny novels; in other words, as text. And when they reappeared as text, an interesting thing had happened to their sex. As real devices, the androids had been made in the forms of men and women in roughly equal numbers. But in the age of the true machines, they had become female. What was the strange association between the arrival of the true machines, the disappearance of the androids, and the predominance of the female? When we look at the content of some of the textual accounts of the androids we get some idea of what that was. First of all, remember that the first machines were extremely mixed blessings. There was an initial air of romance about them, when factory owners sent trainloads of workers to the 1890 Paris Exposition to marvel at the machines that would take their place in the factories. The machines displaced jobs, disrupted families, despoiled the landscape. Beneath the surface of consciousness they were threatening and destructive and dangerous. And, as we see from the way they appeared in texts, female. So putting those things together, the idea of machinery as threatening, destructive, dangerous, and female, gets us to the beginning of a few of the stories that I'm going to tell here.
Dia (Maria the robot and Fredersen the capitalist from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis")
This image from 1922 is emblematic of our predicament at the moment: Fredersen, the captain of industry, about to shake hands with Maria, the robot. The moment when they touch captures that predicament -- they are still near the dawn of the mechanical age, while we are nearing its close; but they express our predicament in the implosion that they signify... the problematic, productive implosion of flesh and machinery, neurology and electricity, musculature and hydraulics, gendered female, that we see there.
Dia (Woman cooking on stove, with nuclear reactor in background)
This happy-looking person is cooking a meal on the first electric stove to be hooked up to that rather large object in the background, a nuclear power generator. The juxtaposition of the heimlich scene in the foreground with the decidedly unheimlich object in the background uses woman as mediator in a story of sin and redemption, turning technology as threat into technology as helper.
Dia (Control panel of textile mill)
This is one of the first interfaces. We know the word "interface" from its use in more technological circumstances, but this is an interface too -- a place where human agency changes form, in this case from the muscular to the mechanical through the medium of those levers, and then into the guts of the machine in ways that are harder to follow. In fact, this device is covered with things that the psychologist J. J. Gibson called "affordances", which for our purposes we can call handles -- places where agency changes form. Over the years between the invention of this device, which is the front end of an early twentieth century textile mill, and the development of computer keyboards and mice, the purpose and theory of the interface hasn't changed much, but the interface itself has changed a lot -- it's compressed, shrunk, become invisible. It's easy to see levers and wheels, but here at the close of the mechanical age the entire locus where human agency changes to machinic agency has become so small that we only think of it in terms of metaphors. At the close of the mechanical age interface becomes an icon of agency, and in becoming an icon it allows a whole bunch of other things to climb into the machine along with the mechanics: emotions, gender, political power, all get inside this tiny device.
Dia (CommuniTree genealogical chart)
Let's look at some of the earliest electronic virtual communities. This kinship chart shows the origins of the first computer bulletin boards (BBSs) that supported social interaction. Prior to this moment, BBSs messages were organized by alphabetical order, or by date. BBSs were metaphors for physical bulletin boards... objects for the exchange of simple messages, not conversations. Now, in 1978 a group of people in Northern California designed a BBS that used message attachment protocols that facilitated conversations. As a metaphor for this structure they used a tree, firstly because it was based on a principle of computer science called binary tree protocol, and secondly because Northern California near Silicon Valley was a land of hot tubs, Eastern mysticism, and computer hackers, and the organicity that the word "tree" suggested was important to those hackers' worldview.
The story of the life and death of the first CommuniTree tells us how and why the later virtual community systems were designed. The original CommuniTree was designed with the idea that the community it facilitated would be completely free. Anyone could enter any sort of message. In fact, censorship was completely prohibited at the level of the code, of the Tree's program. It worked this way: First, the system operator was prevented from reading messages as they arrived. Second, messages were hard to remove once they were entered. Third, anything could be entered into the system, including so-called control characters, which are not part of the standard alphanumeric set and which can be used to control the operation of the host computer. Lastly, to make sure that no system operator could tamper with the system, the code was written in language called Forth, and not documented. Now Forth is a religion unto itself, and if you know anything about Forth you recognize that this makes the system a total black box -- it's impossible to know anything about how the code works.
CommuniTree went online in 1978. The kinds of conversations they had in there were of a high intellectual and spiritual character. They talked about new philosophies and new religions for post-Enlightenment humanity, the first time such conversations had taken place online.
Now, at the same moment Apple Computer had reached an agreement with the U. S. Government that in return for a tax break, Apple put computers into primary and secondary schools in the U.S., and some of those computers had modems. This meant that quite suddenly a lot of kids could get online. At first both boys and girls had access, but the boys quickly elbowed the girls out of the way -- high tech was men's work. The boys quickly found out CommuniTree's phone number and logged on. They were clearly unimpressed with the high intellectual level of the discourse on CommuniTree, and they expressed their dissatisfaction in ways that were appropriate to their age and linguistic abilities. Now, the hardware of the Tree was the best that Apple had to offer in 1978, it had two floppy disk drives with a combined total of 300 kilobytes of storage. At the time, the folks who designed the Tree said "300K -- we can go on forever. We'll never fill this up." A common BBS today would have at least 100 megabytes of storage, many orders of magnitude greater than the Tree. So it didn't take long for the kids to fill every byte of disk space with every word they could think of that meant shitting or fucking, and then they'd add control characters on top of that, characters that could mess with the program or stop the floppy drives. The sysops couldn't see the messages arriving and couldn't remove them afterward. The Tree was doomed.
One of the participants in the Tree discourse said "Well, the barbarian hordes mowed us down." And the people who were on the Tree ran away, just like the population of a village during a sack. It was a kind of scattering of the tribes. Some of those people went off and designed BBSs of their own that had built into them the elements of control and surveillance that appeared to be necessary to ensure the BBS's survival in a real world that included roaming barbarians. That kind of surveillance and control continues to the present day, built right into the software; we don't think about it much any more. And that's how, back at the beginning of virtual time, the first virtual community left the Magic Garden and entered the "real" virtual world in which good had to find ways to coexist with evil.
Dia (Virtual Reality suit)
Let's jump very quickly to the latest moment in technological evolution: Virtual Reality. Here we see the obligatory goggles and gloves that provide access to the virtual world. For those of you who haven't yet encountered VR, those goggles have inside them two television screens that are connected to the computer. So are the gloves. When the wearer turns her head, the computer senses the motion and rotates the image in her goggles in the opposite direction. That gives her the impression that she is looking around in an environment that stands still. So she is immersed in an artificially constructed three-dimensional world. She's holding up her hands in that way because she's holding a virtual object that we can't see -- but she can.
Dia (Man and monitor screen showing virtual office)
Here we have Eric pointing at a monitor that shows a virtual office. This was the first... The challenge was to find some sort of object that would be known to the most people, various audiences...So they chose an office, because that is sort of the lowest denominator. Everyone knows what an office looks like. So they made a virtual office that people could walk around in. This was a way to start out. On the back of Eric's glove you will see a little cube, which is a position sensing device, the other end is up on that music stand. That way the computer knows where his hand is in the 3-dimensional space. That's also how the computer knows in which direction he's looking. He has a very serious expression on his face, and the reason for this is he's competing in a market which is going to be worth billions of dollars very soon. He's a little worried and he has every reason to be. Now one of the side effects of this technology in the near future is the existence of virtual communities, communities of people who can see each other, hear each other, type to each other on the keyboard. But we don't have to wait for these virtual reality devices to come along in order to have that kind of virtual community. So now I'm going to switch for a moment and talk about virtual community. The first kinds of virtual communities were the bulletin boards. The second kinds of virtual communities were the online chat systems in which people could talk to each other by means of their keyboard and screen in real time, so that a number of people could be logged on from different parts of the world, talking to each other at the same time on their screens. Now, we've gone one step beyond that, to two-dimensional graphic virtual realities, artificially constructed virtual communities in which people can see each other as small cartoonlike figures. And I'm going to show you some of those now.
Dia (Habitat map)
The first one was designed by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer for Lucasfilm Cooperation in the US, and was called "Habitat". Habitat was designed to run on a Commodore 64 Computer. Commodore convinced Lucasfilm that there were more Commodore computers in the hands of computer users than any other computer in the world. And in fact at the time Habitat was designed that was true. There were a lot of Commodore computers out there. What Commodore didn't tell Lucasfilm was that within a year or so most of them would be used as door stops or boat anchors or as something other than as computers. So Lucasfilm built this thing for a market that evaporated while the program was being written...things change fast in the computer business. Habitat was shortly thereafter bought by Fuijitsu, moved to Tokyo and set up there as Habitat 2.1. Now Fuijitsu ran it on a much better computer, the Fujitsu FM Towns computer. The FM Towns accepts CD-ROMs, which means the software can be much larger and more complex. Its screen also has much higher resolution. Habitat is in operation right now. When you buy your little share in the Habitat community you get a package in the mail that includes the software and this map. Fuijitsu tried to include a little bit of every part of human culture they could think of. So, in one corner you find a Cancun-like resort, over here there are some farms and some sheep in a meadow, and back there are some Easter Island statues, and over there are some Turkish mound buildings, and then the Pyramids, and a Magic Castle, American Indian tipis, little bit of the Wild West over there, and then some penguins, and there an English country village and a sort of generic European village in the middle. So Habitat has almost everything. There is still a lot missing from Habitat, which we'll get to in a minute. Each one of these areas is almost infinitely expandable, once you are inside the simulation. So in fact there's a lot of room in there. A lot more room than you might think. Habitat is a for-pay-thing. Fuijitsu makes money on this. One of the ways that they make money is by allowing you to teleport inside the simulation, and charging for it. Teleportation is a way of travelling from one place to another in zero time without having to walk. If you don't have the money for teleportation then you get to walk, and since distances in Habitat can be arbitrarily large you can spend a lot of time walking. Most people don't like to do that.
Dia (Boy avatar)
When you log on in Habitat you acquire a cartoonlike character which is called an "avatar". Here's our representative avatar. This is a boy avatar in his home. There's a great fascination on the part of the Fuijitsu people who designed this with things Western, and consequently the little Habitat guy looks somewhat Western. He's introducing himself, in Japanese, and showing you his house -- you get a house as part of your deal. This is all animated in real time, so your character can walk around in your house, change clothes, put things on shelves, and go outside and meet other Habitat avatars. Since I can't show you this in real time animation, we'll have to settle for a series of slides. You move your avatar around by means of the mouse. There's also a menu at the right side of the screen with icons that you can click on. At the moment he's walked to the door and he's opening the door and going out into public space. Then he'll go downtown. He wants to go where the action is, and most of the action in Habitat is downtown. He takes some Habitat yen -- money -- and drops it into the teleportation device and then he gets inside...and he comes out some place else.
Dia (Avatar at vending machine)
Habitat is an economic structure. In Habitat everything costs money. So Habitat has a lot of economies that grow and shrink very quickly. Habitat has vending machines that sell you all sorts of things, and it also has anti-vending machines that buy things back from you. So you can buy things and you can sell things from machines as well as people. Our little friend here is in the process of buying an object from a vending machine, which has a video screen so he can see what's for sale. If you are semiotically inclined, what's on the vending machine's screen is two levels down into the simulation. That is, the avatar sees an object which he cannot touch. It's a representation for him, and for us it's a representation within a representation. He puts in his money, when he does so the object drops out of a slot at the bottom of the vending machine.
Parenthetically, in the early days of Habitat there were bugs in the software. One day Chip and Randy found that there was one vending machine that bought things for more than the other vending machines sold them for. So it was possible to make money just by buying something from one machine, walking across town, and dropping it into the other machine. This was discovered very quickly. There was a huge traffic going back and forth between them.
Dia (Avatar with gangster friends)
Here he is with his friends of the Yakuza, which is the Japanese gangland structure somewhat similar to the American mafia, and they are plotting some sort of mischief, which we'll leave them to do. You'll notice, though, before we'll leave them, that each one of these people is wearing a different outfit and a different head. In Habitat there are several different classes of body parts and they have different registers, different cultural significance, in the Habitat environment. For example, if you want to change the color of your outfit, you go to the spray shop, and you have different colors sprayed on your body. If you want a different head you go to a headshop and you can buy a different head. You can also change sex in Habitat. Now, first of all, sex and gender in an environment like this are programs, the're texts, they are written out, and what you see are the representations of those texts. Now, the representation could be anything that you wrote it to be. As a matter of fact, Chip and Randy were very aware of the problems of the binary system of gender within which we live. So when Fuijitsu bought the program, Chip and Randy said: "Why don't we have more than two genders? Let's have a broad spectrum. Let's make it possible to occupy more than two positions in the spectrum of gender." And Fuijitsu said: "Well...we don't really want to take that kind of risk in a business situation." So, consequently we only have two genders in Habitat. So far you've seen one of them, the man. In a little while you'll see the women and you'll see what I mean by a binary gendered situation. Anyway, while having the color of your body changed is called going to the spray shop, and changing you head is called going to the head shop, changing your sex is called going to the sex change clinic. So, the Fuijitsu people think about sex and gender in a different way than they think about body parts and heads and body color. Even though none of this exists outside of a bunch of numbers in the computer. Let's go on and see something of the Habitat social environment.
Dia (Male and female avatars)
Here is the boy avatar meeting his girlfriend avatar, the figure with the large breasts. Now, first of all, let me mention that when Habitat first opened, all it was was code, no people, because nobody had signed on yet. And consequently people looking at this with an idea towards what sort of social interactions were going to occur, thought to themselves: "Wow, this is wonderful. We have a completely untrammeled social scene, a new social world in which no social interactions have occured. What's going to happen? What kinds of social structures are going to emerge?" Well, in fact, when people began to log on to Habitat for the first time, the first social structure to emerge was a gang of thieves. They stole body parts. In fact they stole heads, which were the most valuable body part. And they had worked out a great way to do it. When a new person signs on (new persons are called newbies or sometimes virgins) when they come into this space, one of the thieves would walk up to them and say: "HULLO, welcome to Habitat, it's good to see you. You really look wonderful, you got a terrific body.... But you know, that head, it's old. It's very boring. Now, I've got a really interesting looking head here. Would you like to try it on?" And the other person would say: "Yes, sure." So they'd take off their head and put it on the ground, whereupon the other person would pick it up and run away. That left the other person headless until they could raise enough money to buy a head at the headshop. So you always knew who the newbies were, because they were the ones running around without heads. When Habitat started out in the first experimental version in the U.S., there were only about 150 people in the simulation. In the version that runs on the mainframe in Tokyo there are currently 1.5 million people. Now, we have some interesting statistics about them. The ratio of men to women is about 4 : 1. That's the ratio of men to women on paper that we can document. I.e. when you sign up to have an account on Habitat, you either use your creditcard or you fill out a form, so we have some kind of hard data, presumably, on who these people are. So the demographics of this are: men to women 4 to 1. That's the physical people who are logging on. But inside the Habitat simulation the ratio of men to women is 3 to 1. So, what this data tells us is, at any given time aproximately 150,000 men are cross-dressing as women. Now, apparently in the Habitat simulation not too many women cross-dress as men. Those of you who have been on the networks understand why this is true. The attention paid to people on the networks is quite different with regard to gender. Women, as they log on to conferences, get far more attention than men do. Partly because there are a lot more men, partly because of the way gendering works. As a matter of fact, men frequently crossdress on the networks as a way of getting attention. There was one particularly notorious case of a man who created a completely believable female persona on a network in New York in the 1980s, to the extent that his female persona began to take him over. And it became very complex...
Dia (Habitat wedding)
This is a wedding. And those things on the ground are presents and these people are wearing their festive heads. You'll see in the upper left hand corner there's a little thing which looks like a a ghost. That's a ghost icon: that tells you that there are more people present than are shown on the screen. You can become invisible in Habitat, you can select this little icon here, and that makes you invisible. There's also another reason why there could be a ghost icon and that's because the software will only handle six avatars at a time. So, if there are a several thousand people present, as there happened to be at this wedding, the only way that you can know that they are there is by the ghost icon. But the ghost icon serves a purpose of international law as well, because this is not just a social environment, it's also electronic communication, and from a legal standpoint if you overhear an electronic communication when you yourself are invisible that's known as espionage. Consequently Fuijitsu was worried about the legal problems that might arise. So they developed that little icon as a way of preventing that.
Dia (Street theater)
This is street theater. These people are dressed up in costumes, performing theater. Over their heads you'll notice little cartoonlike speech balloons. That's how avatars talk to each other. If you want to communicate with other avatars, you type on your keyboard, and whatever you type appears in that speech ballon and anyone else with you on the screen can see it. There was a virus in the early days of this environment, which was called the "happy face virus". If you were unlucky enough to catch it your head turned into a happy face and your speech balloon was only capable of saying "have a nice day".
Dia (Cherry blossoms)
There is a ceremony in Habitat known as "Ohanami". In the "real world" in Japan, Ohanami means viewing the cherry blossoms, and in February and March the cherry blossoms in Habitat bloom as well, and people take their families and their lunches out and sit under the cherry trees and admire them and that's what they're doing here.
Dia (Sex change machine)
This is the sex change machine. We're now inside the sex change clinic, and our little boy has his Habitat yen in his hand and he puts it into the machine and gets inside and then comes out as a little woman. This is something which confounds the stability of gender as we normally experience it in everyday life. The things that go on inside the simulation are meant for entertainment and they're fun. And they do in fact entertain a lot of people. At 8 1/2 cents a minute there are people on line in the Habitat simulation for hours and hours and hours -- because it's a very gripping social world. And the fact that it's a social world, that people meet other people, as people do in the network chat systems, solves certain social problems that have not at the moment been solved in other ways. And one of them is our evolution through time towards not only individuality but even to isolation -- not necessarily everywhere, but certainly in very many places.
We ourselves have gone very far along that road towards isolation, and we can trace it through our history: the evolution in furniture from benches to chairs over many hundreds of years; the gradual development of interior spaces inside houses which were originally one large room; the development of narratives of interiority like diaries and the novel, the increasing availability of mirrors and family portraits, the development of the child as a stage in the evolution of the self. All of those things are ways of articulating the way in which we have changed from a society in which the concept of the individual didn't exist to the way in which we understand it now - to a time in which the individual has taken on almost the very meaning of isolation. What we find with many hackers is that they've achieved both the ultimate isolation and the ultimate solution. They sit at terminals, completely alone, nothing but them and the keyboard, and yet they have broken through into a virtual community inside that imaginal space of the computer, a space that we call the Net, in which there are thousands, millions of other people; in which bodies like this can be changed at will, in which gender and sex mean something a little bit different, because they can be thrown away when they become tiresome; and in which, if you don't like the person you're talking to, or if you've gotten yourself into a conversational bind, you can just log out.
This solves some problems and creates others. The part I would like to pay most attention to today is the questions that it raises in regard to gender. In daily life we don't have the privilege of logging out, although sometimes I think it would be nice if we did. And because we can't log out, we have to face the problem of being embedded in a particular structure of power that tends to fix us in place with regard to our gender, our ethnicity, our class, certain other structures that are more or less visible, and which tend to be invisible to us. When we talk about changing the structure of society in order to provide more rights for women, in order to give women equal time in the computer networks and equal skills with operating the computers, we're taking one step beyond where the vampire is. And so I want to stop for a moment and talk about where the vampire is and what the vampire saw.
Anne Rice, an American author, has written a series of books about a character which she calls Lestat. Lestat is a vampire. He's a very unusual vampire -- he's a rather friendly and engaging character for someone who drinks blood. Lestat thinks and feels and hurts in ways that other vampires in vampire stories have not. When Lestat observes human beings he sees them in a particular predicament. Of course, what he sees first is their blood. And he hears it and he smells it. He has a tremenduously good sense for blood. And he describes it in wonderful terms. Blood for him is a very sensual thing. But humanity for him is a very sensual thing, too; partly, I think, because he doesn't participate in humanity in the same ways that humans do. He never dies, and he cannot experience things like taste and feel in the same way that humans do. And sometimes he longs for that, longs for the ability to be a human, to be transfixed by the arrow of time, to be carried along, to change To become older; to sense what those differences are, what it means to become older. What it means to have one's ability to taste and smell and feel evolve and change, which his never do. He's always the same.
What does the vampire mean for us, in a context of virtual worlds, in the context of people who live in environments which are created by keyboard strokes, by lines of text on a screen, by computer codes, by drawings like this, by glasses that you can put on, in which 3-dimensional worlds appear, in which you can see other people who talk to you, who reach out to you, who make love to you? There is sex in Habitat. There will be sex in the virtual worlds. How do you have sex in an environment where theoretically people can't touch each other? Well, they do, they worked out interesting ways in which to do it. And apparently it works. Not only is there sex in Habitat, but because Habitat is a real economy, there are sex workers in Habitat. One of the first communities that I studied when I started my work on virtual communities was a group of sex workers, because I wanted to understand how they took information about the human body and boiled it down to as set of very small tokens and transmitted those through a wire, and then the person on the other end added hot water, so to speak, and reconstituted a very elaborate complex image of the body. Now, we learn two things from watching phone sex workers: One is, data compression works very well in constructing desire and erotics. And the other one is, that there's always a body involved, somewhere. You can't have erotics without a body, even if it's an imaginal body. In Habitat avatars are body representatives, and they talk to each other through their speech ballons, and their characters do sexlike things to each other, while each one of the people at their computer terminals masturbates. Now, that's one way to solve a social problem. It is very safe. It's desease free. Of course your computer can catch a virus. But you can't -- not yet, anyway. And so this solves problems, and it raises problems. What does the vampire Lestat have to say about that? This is a simulation, but gender is not constructed here (physically) in the same way as it is constructed there (virtually). That is, we can also change our bodies, but when it comes time to do the changing, again, we don't change equally with regard to our genders. Some genders change more than other genders, because some genders are under more pressure to change than other genders. So we see a fair amount of this sort of thing
Dia (Now you can have the body you always wanted)
Breast augmentation, wrinkle removing, now you can have the body you've always wanted. It has a different meaning in Habitat, but it also exists in this world. And women do change their bodies according to the agendas and the demands of a power structure that operates differentially, unequally across the genders. So what do we do to try to disrupt some of that? In representational form you may have seen some of these before... First of all, if we want to take a structure like Habitat or any representational structure and see if we can't disrupt it and bring about some change in it, the first thing we learned is that reversal doesn't work. And here's a reversal: the old master painting at the bottom, and a photograph taken by one of my students, at the top. Somehow they're not the same. So simple reversal may not be the right answer to this particular problem. Is ambiguity an answer? Well, ambiguity has a long and interesting history. What ambiguity means in this sense is women adopting more masculine attire and more masculine manners. We don't have very much history of men adopting more feminine manners within the latter part of the 20th century. But this also hasn't achieved anything in terms of intervention that we know of. How about androgyny? Androgyny has been pretty useless, pretty much of a failure.
Cross-dressing doesn't seem to have any value either. These men, who are Taiwanese, don't disrupt anybody's gender structures with this kind of performance, even when it's decontextualized like that.
Dia (Fakir Musafar hanging by ropes through slits in his pectorals)
But this - perhaps there's some kind potential in this kind of thing.
Dias (Distorted bodies)
When I show images like these to my students who are not sophisticated in the ways of art, I find that frequently they gasp. Their gasping tells me that a process has happened inside, some internal disruption. Something has interfered with their normal, seamless way of viewing the world, in a similar way that Concha's installation is designed to interfere with a particular way of viewing the world. And in that moment of interruption, when for just an instant the fabric of normality is ripped open a little bit, and they can see the nuts and bolts of the way reality is put together -- if that moment can be encouraged and that rip teased further open, not just for them but for all of us, then perhaps we can get a handle on the nuts and bolts of reality and find ways to unscrew some of them. That's what the art projects connected with this series of exhibits, I think, are about.
These slides demonstrate aspects of the human form that we don't ordinarily see. Things that don't fit our accustomed structures of visual knowledge, our ways of perceiving shape or gender. When we think about the way that we normally see humans in the age of electronic communication, i.e. through some representational medium, they're being represented to us in terms of text, as strings of numbers or words turned into images. That is, they are not only visible, but legible, in the same way that texts are legible. And for that reason I refer to these kinds of disruptive images as being nearly legible, but not quite. There are different degrees of the legibility of the human body, and it's the boundary status of these images -- shapes and genders that inhabit the boundaries between the accustomed and the utterly strange, the territory of the near-legibile -- that gives them their disruptive power. And the power of disruption is the power of change, the opportunity to see with new vision.
So I'm going to pause on this slide for a moment and talk about the vampire Lestat again. Lestat went back to the university and got a degree in anthropology. So now in his travels he observes communities of humans with some academic skills. And in his new form as an anthropologist he doesn't only see humans transfixed by the arrow of time, he also sees them transfixed by the arrow of subject position, i.e. as time moves so does gender move. He sees people trapped, stuck in their particular gender positions, in their particular subjectivities, not able to make the jump to seeing subject position as a boat that's momentaily at anchor, but that can actually move through a sea of possible subject positions. The vampire would like to be able to make that more visible. He talks about it in terms of the Dark Gift that turns one into a vampire. He would like to see more people being vampires, but he hasn't figured out how to bring that about yet.
Dia (Cartoon of hacker wired up and floating off the ground)
This is an image from the first international conference on cyberspace, which was stormed by a group of cyberspace hackers. The conference had no T-shirts of its own, so the hackers came in with T-Shirts that they had printed. And this is a hacker, in typical hacker-form, jacked in, plugged in, and out in the network. He has a physical body, but he's left it behind. The image on the T-shirt codes this sense of leaving the body behind by showing a hacker floating in space. What the image says is that for all intents and purposes his body doesn't exist. He's left his body, and he's out somewhere in the network, by means of his goggles, and his electrodes, and his gloves. He exists in an imaginal community, a virtual community somewhere, where he can negotiate his identity at will, where sex and gender don't mean what they mean to us -- for better or worse -- where his body shape is changeable at will, and where if he doesn't like the person he's talking to, he can switch over, change channels, or log out. This is a mode of existence that's coming down the road here for all of us -- if we chose it. It has advantages, and some very big limitations. However, this person is not primarily the person that I'm interested in, though, although he's part of the groups that I study.
Dia (Child and computer)
This is primarily the person that I'm interested in, because this is my daughter. The light of the computer screen shines on her face, her face becomes suffused with its electronic glow, and it looks as though her face is beginning to glow on its own. We can see her beginning to take on that kind of generous permeability that characterizes all of us at the close of the mechanical age, the same kind of permeability that her machine has -- we see that the space between them is beginning to collapse, and they're beginning to implode quite suddenly into each other. I'm worried about her, because these spaces of interaction that I've shown you suggest certain things about where we're headed. They suggest that what happens inside these virtual communities is a performance. It's a performance the same way that subject position is a performance. Except that we don't ordinarily see it that way -- in the way that subject position is a performance, in the way that gender is a also performance, and the theatre for that performance is the body. And not just a body or some body, but very specific bodies like this one, and [she points at individual women in the audience] like yours, and like yours, in which these things are played out. And in those bodies, this wonderful and completely unstructured social interaction doesn't take place. Our bodies are embedded in a structure of power, in which the controlling thing is pain. There's pleasure, too, but the controlling factor in a situation of imbalanced power is the use of pain and restriction as a means of control. Going back and forth between these images, between the virtual communities and this world, between these communities, in which pleasure and pain mean different things, and this community, in which pain means something quite specific, in which power structures act to constrain us within specific controllable identities, is a problem -- a problem that we have yet to work out. Before we step over the threshold into these virtual worlds we need to understand how those structures work here in the physical world. Before we are free in these wonderful networks we need to pay attention to what's happening here: with the way that pain operates in our individual selves, with the way that power structures hold us physically in particular places, and not just physically, psychologically, socially as well. Power is most powerful when it's invisible, and in the new social spaces of communication technology power is as yet quite invisible.
Dia ("New Research Proves There Are No Answers")
So at this moment all I can say about where we go from here is that new research proves there are no answers. I've made a series of provocations in which I've suggested some things, but I don't have any solutions. I've heard people grappling at this conference for solutions, and I know that there'll be a lot more grappling for solutions. And I think that that's the common thing that brings us together -- ways to try to solve the immediate problems that we have of dealing with gender and power structures at the close of the mechanical age, when the tools that we use for art are going to have new and different modes of use and new and different arenas of experience in which they can be played out. They provide us new possibilities, but they don't take away the difficulties of the old ones. And we have to negotiate the transition to the virtual world very carefully. I don't know how it will work out, but I expect that as it develops I will meet you all in the networks as you sign on and sign off. Perhaps we'll recognize each other, and perhaps not. But whatever body you choose, and whatever subject position you have managed to occupy, we will meet again in that space. So I'll see you in cyberspace. Work there, play there, love there, but if you have sex there, be sure to use a modem. Thank you very much.