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An Interview with Sadie Plant and Linda Dement

Linda Dement about Digital Art and her work 'Cyberflesh Girlmonster'. Sadie Plant about the relationship between women and computers in particular and technology in general; interviewed by Miss M. at the occasion of Virtual Futures 96 Datableed

LD: I work with making digital art, I have made a couple of CD-ROMs and I am still working with that. At the moment I'm doing free-lance corporate software training and CD-ROM production.

Miss M: You are associated with Feminism, one of your latest productions was "Cyberflesh Girlmonster", what where your intentions on that project?

LD: That one began as an event where I collected body parts from women, they donated their body parts digitally, and I put those bits and pieces together to create little monsters. From that I made a work that is really about monstrous femininity, it's like a black comedy, there are little monsters and digital videos of various monster's behaviors and stories and medical information about the physiology of certain monsters.

Miss M: What kind of monsters are they?

LD: Very fleshy, female, conglomerate. All of the monsters are made up of women's body parts, different body parts. They are conglomerations.

Miss M: To give people a picture who have not had the chance to see the CD-ROM, what means body parts?

LD: Everything. Lots of people sat on the scanner. We've got hands and faces, not many though, because it's hard to put your face on the scanner, the lights are too bright. A lot of scars, bums, feet, hands, anything. And by the time I've made the monsters you can't really recognize particular things anymore. They are just strange, fleshy shapes.

Miss M: You also collected people's voices. What was the message that these women gave?

LD: Really varied. Not many of the women wanted to leave words, sounds. But the ones that did left some really great little phrases, but really, really varied: There's one that says : suck on my code, there's little god growling, there's laughter, words as well.

Miss M: Let's move to Sadie.

SP: Well, at the moment I'm a research fellow at the University of Warwick and Director of Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, which is a small graduate research unit. I've been writing a book for the last year and consequently haven't done anything else for the last year. The book is about women and machines, trying to talk about it in very different ways to the ways it has been talked about before and very much in tune with Linda's work.
When I started the book it was really to try and correct, what I thought was the great miss-conception at the moment about the relationship between women and computers in particular and technology in general. It seemed to me, that a lot of "orthodox" feminist theory was still very technophobic. Whereas in practice most of the interesting work in new media was actually being done by women, who where far from being technophobic and in fact seemed to have a particular intimacy with computers. Which confounded existing feminist theory. It began as an attempt to try and set the record straight, but obviously things like setting records straight in a non-linear world is not easy, so it has become a much more complicated project. Looking at for example the historical connection between women and machines. The way in which women have been effectively used as machine parts for the reproduction of the species. The way in which our conceptions of machines are now changing, moving away from machinery itself being to reproduce an existing world and much more about replicating new worlds.

Miss M: Do you see any connections to your work Linda?

LD: Yes, absolutely. The staff that Sadie comes up with, I just have to think: oh, soulmate.

SP: Yes, for me it's the same. Linda's work, remains really the epitome of the flavor I'm trying to catch in the book. Linda is dealing with very gritty, bloody, fleshy body stuff in a way which again is very different to either traditional feminist takes on technology or on women themselves and also very different to the male cyberpunk, especially the corporate line about cyberspace being a disembodied zone. That's one of the things that inspired me to do the book in fact. It's all your fault, Linda.

LD: [laughing] Well, I'm sorry...

Miss M: Looking at the CD-ROM, one doesn't have the feeling that you connect the female body to machines but the "construction of the body".

LD: "Cyberflesh Girlmonster", in the beginning was mostly about just to get women to put their flesh into cyberspace. So the work itself is not particularly about computers, it's situated in the computer. I like the idea of contaminating the technology, of putting the blood, the guts and the madness, all those nasty womanly things into this beautiful, slick technology, into the beautiful and pure machines. I really like that juxtaposition.

Miss M: One has the feeling that men are actually frightened by the work.

LD: That's good! A lot of the stuff I've made is about male fear. The perception that I have is that men are very scared of women's sexuality, that they are very scared of women who have power, intelligence or any kind of murderous desires, or passion or any kind of intense emotions. There's a lot of male fear about that. And I think that it is quite strong at the moment, it's probably always been around, but you see evidence of it in popular culture all the time. I was playing with that. Are you scared? Well, you should be!

Miss M: Why do think is there a rise in male fear, is it because women are starting to use technology just as men do and getting more active and powerful in general ?

LD: I am not even sure whether there's a rise in it, because I don't know what it was like before. My perception is that there is, but I wouldn't be really convinced of that.

SP: I would say it has always been around. But perhaps it is becoming a little bit more overt at the moment. It is not just a question of women and technology, but the whole culture in the west is really shifting, very much in men's detriment, which isn't necessarily in women's favor, but obviously the two tend to go together.
I do think we are seeing a response to almost overwhelming upsurges, in what's generally perceived of as dangerous female activity. And that runs right through art and technology to the whole changes in career structures, the economy, working patterns, education, a thorough cultural shift.

LD: One of the things I have been looking at recently is female murderers, female serial killers. There is the tendency at the moment for what they call the "killer's comfort zone", to change for women killers. Which is the area that you feel is your territory, in which you act. There have always been women murderers, but in the past they would do it at home and now they are tending to go out and kill men on the streets. So there is this perception that women are more dangerous now, but actually we are more out in the world. We are more visible. We are more public.

SP: I would ever so much agree with that. In my book the message is a little more subtle, or has to be a little more subtle. It is -like Linda's work - to say, yes if you are worried you have every reason to be. One of the approaches I am taking is to re-write the history of computing. I actually started off to do as a sort of draw-out of the influende women have had on computing, thinking that it was quite small and minimal when I started, but in fact the more work I've done on this, I have become really convinced that in fact that computing has been built almost lot sack and barrel by women. All of the machinery that feeds into it, for example the typewriter, telephone, calculating machines, everything has always been operated by women. Clearly the men had been organizing that activity, but now this cultural sea change we are seeing is partly because that organizing role is diminishing. To be the organizer is no longer to be the most important factor. That's why it's such an overwhelming threat, that really pulls the rug from under the feet of the existing set-up.

Miss M: Where are these changes most visible?

SP: Well, I do think that the conjunction of the Art & Technology world is a very interesting place to see it happen. The number of women involved in this world is vast and also the most interesting work is done by women. Time after time you go to conferences or events and on the line-up you'll see one or two lads, but it's almost always women who are doing the most interesting work, in VR, CD-ROM work like Linda's, the VNS Matrix group in Australia, even the writing in terms of fiction, say Pat Cadigan's work is always been quite ahead of it's time, almost ahead of the earlier wave of cyberpunk. That now too is gaining in popularity, in all of those areas it's interesting that what's still said to be a very male dominated world, in fact is quite the contrary.

Miss M: Looking at the Internet, which at the moment is THE big thing, do you have the feeling that there is more space for women than in other communication technologies we've had so far? That they could gain from it as women?

SP: There is perhaps too much optimism about it in some respect. But again, all communications technologies have been very much used by women. The telephone is the obvious example. It is almost a cliché that women spent lots of time on the phone, and they use the telephone in ways which are very appropriate to the telephone. Whereas men - a survey was done on that recently in Britain - about the fact that men use the telephone in a sort of grunt fashion and don't spent very much time on it, whereas women tend to talk about being on the telephone and that's obviously what happens on the Internet as well: Hi, where are you? Well, I'm at the computer. Oh, so am I. Whereas men have this sort of "Hmm, Hmmmmm, Hm" conversations and that's it. Even letter writing has always been a big thing for women. I think this is partly for very pragmatic reasons, it has actually been historically less easy for women to travel physically. You could even see patriarchy or whatever you want to call it as a travel restriction system. So any opportunity to communicate in terms of telecommunication has always been used where possible. So obviously the Internet opens a whole new world up on that front. In many senses women tend to be very pragmatic about how they use computers, they'll use the Internet to find some piece of particular information. Even I still, when I get messages from Linda, have this naive amazement that that is possible. Whereas a lot of men are very, oh, well sure you can send a message to Australia, so what.
But for a lot of women, who have not been in the position to travel, who have international friendships, to be able to communicate over such long distances is really quite big, new thing. For the businessman who has been tracking around the world since the 1950s, this is quite obviously so exciting.

Miss M: Looking at the Arts, don't you think that this opens up new possibilities for you as an artist, but also for you as a woman?

LD: One of the great things about being able to use computers or make digital work, rather than traditional arts is this thing about being able to include everything. That's really fantastic. Material, or research, or writing, or images and sounds, all this kind of disparate media, can end up on this one thing. That's been the real key change for me.

Miss M: Did you work with traditional means of artistic expression before this?

LD: I was a photographer and did a little bit of film work, but mostly photography.

Miss M: You personally, do you have the feeling that you gained from these new possibilities?

LD: Absolutely, I think as soon as I started to use the computer to work on my images, it was like in Thelma & Louise, "something crossed over in me and there was no going back". Things that had been missing in the past, all of a sudden were possible, it really solved a lot of problems for the way that I think and work.

Miss M: What kind of problems?

LD: Mostly, about being able to include any form, I always did photography and I always wrote and I always researched, was interested in moving images and stuff like that, but before I had a show, I would have to get rid of it and just put the images up. Now, I can include whatever is appropriate. It doesn't mean that I don't edit it probably, it means that I can use disparate media.

SP: I think that's really important as well. It is part of that big cultural shift away from being very focused, single-minded and one-track about things, to a much more diffused and distributed way of thinking.
Also, digital media do undermine all of the presuppositions about the author, genius, authority, ownership and so on. All of which is crucial to two and half thousand years of western civilization. That again, has worked very much to women's detriment in the past.

Miss M: In which sense have they changed?

SP: In very pragmatic terms, it has become quite literally very difficult to claim a piece of work. As with Linda's work, this is a huge collaborative project, in terms of all the women's body parts. In fact it is not even a collaboration between already existing authors themselves, but little bits and pieces all put together to form something -which I'm sure Linda feels s quite beyond her - it becomes another entity altogether, you no longer have the relationship with. It is the same with me and writing. It is no longer quite "yours".
I think women have never been able or wanted to claim work like that. That drive to territorialize, own things and stamp a mark on them, has historically been associated with masculinity rather with whatever the other side is.

LD: The rest...

Miss M: Do you think it undermines the notion of the "male genius" ?

SP: Absolutely, and that's also true for, for example the role of the teacher, which is much under threat, and I thin that's a good thing.
The notion that anybody can be a font of wisdom or any kind of organizer, organizer or creator, which all comes from a traditional Judeo-Christian notion of the artist being inspired by god and having a "hotline" to big daddy in the sky. Inevitably women have been very much excluded from that. I have been associated in the past and to some extend now, with the discipline of philosophy, which is notoriously male-dominated and really almost as a discipline hinges on the notion that there is this line to some transcendent truth. It is particularly interesting to see all this crumble in such a mainstream authority zone.

Miss M: Looking at the art world, we still have very many rich and famous male artists and very few female ones who "make it". Do you think this is going to change?

LD: I don't know. What I hope is that the whole structure of that changes, more than having fifty-fifty artists, the end of that kind of system.

Miss M: What system is that?

LD: The system Sadie was talking about with this particular genius, with a salable product that has a high value, traditionally it was a range of selected prints, it was not reproducible, it was shown at galleries and sold at Christie's. That notion of art is so boring.

Miss M: So, where do you see the future for art?

LD: Well, maybe there isn't one. It is something we have to get rid of now, besides the idea that there's that "art" thing. Anybody can make art, anybody is an artist if you make something if you communicate what it is, is it a communication, an artwork, is it a performance. I don't think that we need to fall into the old structures and labels.

Miss M: I imagine many will say now, ouch, we still have wonderful painters!

LD: There still are beautiful objects in the world and there are interesting and complex and wonderful things that people make.

Miss M: The boundaries of what is and what is not art should be dissolving.

LD: Yes, scrap it, it's no useful concept!

Miss M: This will be difficult for the "art economy". Many people, men live from selling their pictures and many live from selling other people's pictures. What is going to happen?

LD: I don't know, they'll be broke I guess...

SP: That's really the least of the problems. I think the whole western economy in itself is in question, this strand of art dealers is almost irrelevant. I'm sure it is painful to hear for all the people in this area.
Or as an institution in itself or discipline. To discipline something is after all to squeeze it into some narrow confine and police what is "proper art". I don't think it is a question of undermining this system, because this already happens, from bottom-up. By grassroots activity that people do, for example the club-scene is obviously the great instance where things that only a few years ago would have been considered installations if they had been in an art gallery, are now made on a nightly basis. And come and go. That's what art has -ideally- always been trying to do, but has often failed to do, because of being so disciplined and institutionalized. That's to really work and function, rather than just be something you admire with great reverence.
There's plenty of room for reverence if it actually does something, presses your buttons, makes something happen.

LD: Yes, that really shows my idea of what's happening with creativity. That's where it is going.
And talking about the economy before, there's an economy attached to that, so maybe this where the new kind of money that circulates creative production will be in places like the clubs.

SP: That's a much more self-generated grassroots economy, rather than a hierarchically organized one. It's almost like the difference between a street market and a corporation. It's much more vibrant and healthy from that point of view, less likely to get stuck in particular kinds of categories or to get trapped. It is very fast moving and keeps going. Again, it's making something happen, rather than be an object of contemplation.

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