Tamed Girls Running Wild. Figurations of Unruliness in Contemporary Video Art.

Yvonne Volkart

Published in: In: Stella Rollig (ed.): <hers>. Video as a female terrain. Catalogue Styrian Automn, Graz 2000.

In the film "The Office Killer" from 1996 US-artist Cindy Sherman shows a woman whose job is transformed to part-time work from home. She's on call as a result of the deregulation, feminization and flexibilization of work. Left alone with a computer and a modem, she first responds by falling into a state of deep depression before she takes revenge and kills her boss. In a further act of self-empowerment, she radically appropriates the widely propagated potentials of digital technology, which in reality served as a means to oppress her: via e-mail she camouflages the murder as suicide and takes off in a smashing convertible. The last frame shows the previously ugly duckling is now a self-asserted blonde sporting sexy sunglasses who heads towards a bright and well-prepared future in superior style.

The film shows a tamed girl running wild. First, she tries to settle into her new miserable situation as best as she can but it makes her all the more desperate. Then she gets her act together, secretly arranging things in such a way that she can live well and happily again — all by herself and in privacy. The protagonist does not instigate a political revolt of the workforce, it is highly probable that she does not even think about her position in society. All she does is fight for her own survival, and she does it in a radical and unadjusted way. Unruliness is an act of self-empowerment, the "female", subordinate kind of resistance against discriminating conditions. It is not a way of working through existing circumstances or politically articulate action: it is individual riot, a radical gesture of survival by a minority, by the female class — a class that is discriminated against, that feels deep down inside that they cannot change unfavorable conditions but have to find ways to live with them and in them without succumbing to them. It is pure flexibility and has nothing to do with opportunism or fatalism. Contrary to (open) resistance, unruliness is pure nihilism coupled with the will to survive, and hence libidinous and destructive.

"Unruly is what does not obey, what cannot be straightened out. A silly strand of hair or an undesired fold that can only be subdued by special means, technical expenditure or disinterest. Or it takes a sense of humor. Something is unruly. Unruliness has a physical, an erotic dimension. Whether this is desired or not, the term echoes something that for centuries was supposed to mark a feminine quality: lack of knowledge, unawareness — and obstinacy. A childish, almost touching disobedience to what asserts itself as unchangeable and rigid. However, it is also disobedience without a target, thoughtless, unplanned, anarchic, something that cannot be tolerated for long by that which exists. All measures taken against unruliness derive their legitimacy from this. Unruliness is threatened with being broken by violence or disinterest. Even laughter can kill it if it fails to recognize its serious motivation." This is what the art historian Ute Vorkoeper wrote about the exhibition "Widerspenstige Praktiken im Zeitalter von Bio- und Informationstechnologien" which I curated in the spring and summer of 2000.

These comments about the erotic-feminine-physical dimension of unruliness describe precisely what prompted me to use the word once again in the context of <hers>: it is associated with "femininity" in all its manifestations, and it strikes a balance between (patriarchal) ascription and feminist self-articulation. My title was inspired by the German version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew", in which I played the lead 20 years ago; like so many other feminists, I have not been able to ever forget the other, suppressed message of the play. Another reference is Donna Haraway's cyborg figure/figuration which I always pictured as an ageless naughty girl. Her Cyborg Manifesto (1984), which she considered to be an "ironic myth" as she propagated the cyborg figure and trope as a feminist fantasy of transgression, is one of the most important junctures in (post-)feminist theory. Committed to a policy of self-empowerment and articulation, these theories again and again called for the figuration of female "subjects" beyond simple policies of identity. Haraway as well as Rosi Braidotti and others have pleaded in favor of enjoying the blurring of boundaries and the state of hybridity, to take the new conditions and their "informatics of dominance" (Haraway) as an opportunity to shape subjects and identities in a new way, to form alliances — which is what the protagonist of "The Office Killer" does in an exemplary fashion. To my mind, the important point in these ideas is that the elements of pleasure and enjoyment come to the fore very clearly — in a process that could have a lot to do with loss, dissolution and a well-founded fear of new forms of oppression. I think that this productive re-interpretation of conditions that are bad on one level but are turned into a chance on a different level is a decisive aspect in (post-) feminist approaches which also conforms with my idea of unruliness.

"The Office Killer", Cindy Sherman's first feature film - the flagship of a feminist reading of art, as it were — also shows something else: female contemporary (video) artists can be in sync with the mainstream. The movie addresses a mass audience, and, judging by the simple structure of the plot, the female figure to identify with and the idea of "female power", it could well be a Hollywood production. Unruly women are popular — just think of the successful movie "Thelma and Louise", to which "The Office Killer" bears a certain likeness while it is much more critical of capitalism and more feminist. The latter is particularly true because the revolting protagonist does not drive off to meet death but possible freedom. In other words: there is great need for unruly girls — a potential of wishes which Hollywood, television, independent films and video art evoke and satisfy to the same extent, albeit with different aesthetics and degrees of complexity. Even though Hollywood movies and soap operas tend to prefer simpler structures, we must not jump to the conclusion that female artists would in general create more complex, off-beat or critical products or unrulier wild girls.

Cracking the Bases of the Information Age

A figure that stands for a strong representation of the wild and unruly girl and her image is the female hacker operating in secrecy. In 1998 US video artist Toni Dove produced the first part of a trilogy involving interactive video and sound installations, "Artificial Changelings", which links the stories of two unruly women from two centuries. One is Arathusa, an upper-class lady from 19th-century Paris who — like many other female members of the upper crust at the time — is unable to resist the temptations of the beautiful articles on sale in the newly opened department stores and becomes a passionate kleptomaniac. The thrill of the danger, the prohibited act involved in stealing trifling little things makes her life exciting, enable her to transcend the every-day order of a bourgeois woman's life. Being a product of the capitalistic and bourgeois economy, she stealthily undermines its laws without publicly denouncing them. The other woman is Zilith, the hacker, who breaks into databases and retrieves information. The only thing we learn about the reasons why the hacker engages in her activities is that she wants to explore the diffuse movements of the new decentralized apparatuses of power. In both women, the artistic message seems to lie in the facets of their transgressive acts, Dove is not interested in their motivation. This aspect is reinforced by the interactive installation which — to put it in a nutshell — is designed in such a way that the viewer more or less determines the course of the action and various insights into the characters by walking up and down in front of the screen and by moving his/her hands and arms. The common and connecting element in this tripartite constellation is the aspect of movement, of penetrating the realm of the others, of networking with them. This causes the viewer to approach physically, to seek, grope, not know, in analogy to the excesses of the characters in the film. The interactive installation offers a setting calling for the (symbolic) identification with the two unruly women where it is not primarily political content that is at stake but the sabotaging "policies" (in the sense of "practices") of unconscious drives and desires of women in capitalism.

For quite some time the Hamburg artist Cornelia Sollfrank has been researching female hackers and found that hacking is a field completely under male domination. Nonetheless she was able to produce a series of several videos in which she interviewed female hackers. In December 1999 she came to know a US hacker who attended the annual hackers' convention held by the Chaos Computer Club (CCC). She did the video interview "Have Script, Will Destroy" with her on condition that the woman code-named Clara G. Sopht remained anonymous and did not provide specific information about her work. The result is a highly theoretical interview about current forms of political resistance, undermined by seductively beautiful and enigmatically diffuse pictures of a women wearing sunglasses and a cap, moving around in a low-tech scenario. Again, what is missing here is the woman's concrete message; her representation as a reflexive agent involved in obscure political connections, claiming to hack the ideological bases of the information age, is more important.

In her video "Involuntary Reception", a work in progress, Kristin Lucas created the third type of female hacker mentality. In it Lucas plays a woman who is filmed from the front while she talks about herself and her life with a body surrounded by a huge electromagnetic power field (EPF). On the video, the field can be seen as a flashing jagged stripe in constant motion, and she is surrounded by some kind of a halo marking the power field. Wherever she is, she causes disturbances and interference in electronic equipment, which means that she cannot go anywhere without disrupting activities or destroying things. She can move around most inconspicuously in open-floor office spaces or crowds because there is always something going on and she can vanish among the masses of people. She talks about how she involuntarily killed somebody who had a pacemaker and her beloved cat. Moreover, she is afraid of swimming in water. "The scary part is that I can't predict — what I'm going to do ... I'm like a freak, I don't know." It's her body, somehow mutated, that does all those things because she seems and tries to be a nice normal girl who refuses to be hired for "terrorist acts" such as deliberately erasing hard disks. Due to her strong power field, she cannot be recorded on electronic media as all recordings are promptly erased again. This gives her a certain privacy which she hardly gets otherwise because she always comes to notice in a negative sense and because she is hunted by a lot of people who would like to explore her strange body. Of course, she is under constant surveillance by the FBI or CIA, and of course, she does not explain why the meta-reflexive position is not hers. She plays the symptom, the product of a thoroughly technology-pervaded (control) society where all traces can be recorded and decoded, where the value of the body is solely based on its function as an information carrier, where there is no more privacy for anybody, where data protection and cryptography are political issues, and where there is no intimacy and little love. Lucas's protagonist is a female super-hero and recognized specialist looking for cover in inconspicuousness. Her own body embodies and perverts the ideologies and conditions of our times: "I'm my own sub-subculture." Authenticity is suggested by constant noises and beeping sounds or picture breakdowns — with her picture being replaced by pre-recorded video material — but at the same time, it is clear that "Involuntary Reception" is the artificial "low-tech" performance of a fictitious character. We only learn about her abilities from her narrative which is halting, sometimes confused and highly contradictory. Sometimes, we are no longer sure if it is really her talking. This contributes to the illusionary quality of the video while at the same time relativizing its claim to truth. Her origins seem mythical, all she can say about it is that it is surrounded by a lot of rumors and that there has always been great love between herself and her parents, who presumably are not her biological progenitors. Much like the characters discussed earlier, she does not convey any message about how to improve the world. Her unruliness results from her inability to be different, from the way she is, which constantly collides with her environment — and hence, from the "way in which she is biologically determined". This biologism is ironically refracted by her cyborg-like nature which has lost all its naturalness. Her body is a risk to her environment to the extent that the effect of technology are doubled and reinforced in such a way that they do not seem bearable any longer because they are uncontrolled and uncontrollable and emanate from an individual outside the dominating power apparatus.

The unruly woman as a reflection in the mirror, a copy and product of her times was also the theme of "Artificial Changelings". The title seems to imply that the two women are interchangeable but it also leaves leeway for the reading that the two are unnatural reproductions, products of their times. Lucas's character might also be a changeling or a foundling, a cyborg from outer space or a mutation. At least, her origin seems somehow "unnatural".

Biological Warfare

As I suggested earlier, the idea that unruliness is quasi genetic because resistance as something unconscious is localized in the body itself and initially defies discursivity, is the specific, or rather the specifically female about the notion of unruliness. The examples I have given so far clearly show that I do not intend to naïvely perpetuate this line of associations; I rather want to use them in a strategic and aggressive way because such hypertrophic fiction is powerful, something we might forget or underestimate.

The character "White Trash Girl" from the trilogy of the same title (1995-97) created by the US-video artist Jennifer Reeder is a magnificent and true incarnation of the garbage of our day and age. Like Lucas, the artist plays the protagonist herself; her name is derived from an abusive expression denoting the white lower classes. The opening credits of the first part, "The Devil Inside Me", starts with the sounds of cars driving and a picture in which an embryo becomes ever more clearly discernible. Text reminiscent of a fairy-tale is added: "Once upon a time there was a little girl who was raped by her uncle. She got pregnant and flushed the baby down the toilet, then killed her uncle and herself. The baby wiggled around in the sewer sludge for a long time. The ooze fed and nourished the baby, it made the baby strong — super strong. Her tiny baby body became more toxic with every tiny baby breath and every tiny baby heartbeat. None knew that this weren't no ordinary baby. This was a super baby. This was WHITE TRASH GIRL. Now, she's all grown up and she's waging biological warfare on any dumb fuck who asks for it. White Trash Girl is turbo charged and she' coming at you faster than you can scream. HATCHET WOUND." The next shot shows a cool blonde wearing black sunglasses who is driving a van. A patrol car is chasing her and she has an accident as a result. The policeman draws his gun and breaks the window, then we see her run and hide. When the policeman comes near her, she beats him up in a violent and cruel way one would hardly ever expect from a woman. She has spit dribble out of her mouth and sucks it back in, a picture we know from biology follows, showing the act of impregnation, sperms moving around, an almond-shaped ovum, a cyborg-like body, then she spits and we see a policeman being placed in an ambulance, his face horribly disfigured. After this, "The Devil Inside Me" starts, the story of her procreation and life.

White Trash Girl owes her existence to several acts of violence which not only made her tough enough to face the cruelty of life, but actually make her the legitimate bastard of a "dirty" society. To use Donna Haraway's words, she literally came "from the belly of the monster", from the underground (in both senses of the word), the abyss and outhouse of this city, and hence she can never be innocent, even though her kind-hearted foster mother had her christened "Angel". Procreation through rape by a male family member is a literary topos of underground literature, found, for instance, in Jean Genet or Kathy Acker; it clearly identifies violence in the oedipal system, the constant feeling of insecurity and discomfort women are faced with, especially in the home. For this reason, White Trash Girl's true home is a rather dystopic urban landscape. Again and again, we see her wearing miniskirts, either shocking pink or glistening, cowboy boots — in the second part of the trilogy, "Law of Desire", she sometimes also sports a cowboy hat — as she walks through the streets and over débris and garbage in her resolute gait. With her tall and strong build, monumentally, she poses on a heap of stone, a beauty and super heroine of a different kind. If someone pinches her behind, she turns into a railing "shrew", in case of other acts of sexual transgression, she spits ropy liquids or mercilessly beats up the perpetrators.

The ghetto-like city is her realm, her body is part of it, city and body are inseparable. This is not only evoked by Trash Girl's origin in the sewer and sludge but also by the opening credits where the picture of the embryo is accompanied by car noises off-screen and turns into the shot of Trash Girl driving. Throughout the entire series, pictures of the digestive tract fade in regularly, anatomy-book illustrations with specially marked intestines. The camera enters the esophagus like a tunnel, chyme rolls down like the liquids that Trash Girls spits at attackers, or the sludge which she comes from, teeth shine where there used to be a heap of stones. Liquids and flesh, mire and rubble mix and mingle.

"White Trash Girl" shows a state of war; in "Law of Desire" this is underscored by war scenes rhythmically cut in. To live means to survive here, and White Trash Girl can only manage to survive because she takes her life into her own hands in a radical way, using a network of friends to create a wide safety zone around her body, a toxic chemical weapon. That much is clear: police would not do anything for her safety, they guard the white middle class and violently persecute minorities.

To highlight the political radicality and corrosive power of "White Trash Girl", I would like to briefly compare it with works by Pipilotti Rist, who also has a reputation for creating unruly girls. I assume that the artist's first name, Pipilotti, pays homage to the cheeky and independent Pippi Longstocking — a model for many a girl of our generation. Rist's video "Ever is Over All", shown at the Venice Biennial of 1997, also shows women ruling the streets. It starts with a woman in a bright blue dress and red shoes strolling down a street. She is armed with a huge phallus-like flower which she uses to smash car windows as she saunters along laughingly. A policewoman approaches her but there is no fighting. The policewoman extends a friendly greeting to her and the racket continues happily. In contrast to Reeder's "Angel", Rist's hooligan in the bright blue dress really seems to be heaven-sent, an angel with quite some potential for violence. However, the scene remains nice and innocuous. The impression is not only created by the seeming lightness of what she does and the lack of a really dangerous weapon, but also because of the obvious sisterhood that unites the hooligan and the law. The world is on the right track to becoming paradise — this is what it means. Away with the stinking vehicles, let's have flower-powerful sisterhood, ruling the world with charm. The protagonist's motivation, if it can be identified at all, is most likely to have fun and make the world more beautiful, or even better. This is a role transfer to female subjects that is more unmistakable than anything we have considered in our discussion so far. (Of course, it need not be accepted, everything is left open.) Here, unruliness is not dystopic and characterized by the need to survive, but utopian, thriving on the abundance and beauty of life. Life offers many pleasurable opportunities of transgression which can be savored to the full. Even though this staging can be interpreted in terms of post-feminism, the bottomline is that we do not find any feedback to the present that would be critical of society and capitalism in a way comparable to what we found in the works discussed previously. Maybe the fact that she does not call a spade a spade (not even indirectly) is what accounts for Pipilotti Rist's large-scale success and popularity. She perfectly fulfils the (serious and highly justified) contemporary wish for female power while staging this in rather conventional transferences that leave complex power structures intact. Women as an allegory of goodness and beauty is nothing really new. What is relatively new and has also been shown by Hollywood in the past few years is the idea that women also can and want to use their fists, and that they like it. That's all well. But it is not enough to be radical. White Trash Girl is radical and not compatible with the mainstream because she is an avenger with a clearly discernible cause, i.e. to explicitly fight the ruling classes' common discrimination which is usually repressed and covered up. By comparison, Rist's critique of cars seems rather naïve and it is reconciliatory where - as we know from the philosophies of survival in the other works - there cannot and will not be any reconciliation, only a "HATCHET WOUND". Lucas's character, too, highlights the social wish for mediocrity, a cover for reality and control even though, or precisely because she created a "loveable" character.

Drifting Subjects

By way of conclusion, I would like to discuss an example of figurations of unruliness in which, initially, the scandalous element of unruliness does not seem to result from the status of the protagonist as part of a minority, as a female subordinate (as we will see, the position will later on emerge in a different way just the same). Moreover, by contrast to the works discussed so far, the direct visual representation of the unruly figure is missing. It comes up indirectly, through music and words, as other "inappropriate" pictures are shown. For her video "Small Lies, Big Truth" (1999), the New York artist Shelly Silver exclusively used authentic excerpts from the Starr Report about President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. However, we only find out that the texts were taken from the Starr Report when we read the end credits. While we are watching, the things that are said only seem familiar somehow.

The video is a kind of visual radio play in several acts where there is neither a climax nor a dramatic denouement. It stops the same way it starts: right in the middle of a sentence, in a fragmentary way. In the beginning we hear the husky voice of Louis Armstrong which seems to come from a horrible abyss, singing an old song about an affair. The song is played again and again later on. All we get to see is pictures of animals in a zoo. Moreover, we hear eight voices, four female, four male ones. They talk about an illegitimate love affair, or to be precise, about intimate physical acts, sex, emotions, wishes, hopes, fears, insecurities, how it all started, interruptions, the end. A common theme. The different voices often say the same or almost the same words, e.g.
Ken: She seemed attracted to me
Simin: She seemed attracted to me
David: He seemed attracted to me
This undermines the authority of any one speaker, of any one truth, as well as the obviousness of heterosexual love being involved. The many speaking voices, the randomness of the personal pronoun open up a wide range of variations, differences and contexts without the same, quasi universal theme of sex and love.

The details, the reflections are touching precisely because they are so common and normal, because as a viewer, one can identify with so many of them, knowing the strong feelings, the unique features and abysses behind this hackneyed story and the descriptions of sexual practices. We stare at eagles, zebras, prairie dogs, lions and elephants, sweet seals, playfully fighting monkeys, excrement-eating stags, bottom-sniffing camels, as we listen to people talking about intimate physical acts. The physical and reproductive aspects are no only reinforced to the extreme by the zoo pictures, as a matter of fact there is not other level than a physicality obsessed with drives and desires but without infinite freedom. The zoo and its animality behind bars, the narratives of the lovers with their anxieties, feelings of guilt, reticence, repression of drives that border on the unbearable, reveal a love story in the age of its observability and investigation. The fact that it happened at all and there was an ability to articulate it, that these subjects got involved with each other and maybe even had feelings of love for each other, that the secure bases of their lives were shaken because of what they felt for each other, and most of all the fact that it is impossible to assign hierarchical power — this is what makes the story of "Small Lies, Big Truths" so unruly.
Tracy: I never expected to fall in live with him. I was surprised that I did.
Ken: At times I believed that she loved me too.
Tracy: At times I believed that he loved me too.

All the speakers are in the same position, experiencing varying states of crisis, they have literally gone to the dogs. Traditionally speaking, this is a female position. No position here is gender-specific, phallic, castrating, oppressing or exploiting because each sentence relativizes the individual validity of the previous one. It is the representation of people, together on their way through the enclosure of insecurity, doubt, a little happiness. If we associate the story with Clinton in retrospect, it also reflects the decline of an eminent governing patriarch, his move into the private, female, animal, subordinate position where there is instability and where privacy and physicality are subject to control by the law, surveillance and multi-media publication. Even though the video is permeated with sadness and melancholy, which is created by the shift to black-and-white images and the clumsiness of certain animals which seem handicapped (such as seals on land), the affirmation of physicality expressed by the off-screen voices, the affirmation of desire, unconscious not-knowing, recognition in retrospect, contradictoriness, the subordinate position of the "animal female" not only reveals itself as a radically anti-rational, anti-pragmatic way of individual action but in fact as an "unruly practice in the age of bio-engineering and information technology". The rupture that separates music, the language of the bodies and the pictures of the animals cannot be healed.
Joan: I take full responsibility for it. It wasn't his fault it was mine.
Bill: I take full responsibility for it
Kathy: It wasn't her fault, it was mine.