back
 
 

Technologies of Identity

Yvonne Volkart

Within the communities of political activists and engaged art producers, the utopian hope of an alternative use of new media and new technologies has always been crucial. The use of video in the beginning of the 70's was deeply linked to this "utopian moment." Therefore, it is no accident that the rise of the second movement of Feminism in the beginning of the 70's has been historically parallel to the rise of the Camcorder. The use of the Net in the beginning of the 90's was very much triggered by the same faith. Cyberfeminism, as well as a lot of feminist art practices in the 70's (however mostly in opposition to "straight" feminist theory), can be seen as the offspring of this utopian moment and of the link between art, technology and female identity politics. However, this does not mean that technologies and media fully shape our bodies in a techno-determinist sense. Rather it shows how strongly technologies are culturally and ideologically coded. Technologies are never neutral but always constructed within specific contexts with respect to specific aims - i.e., it is a mistake to believe that their content depends only on their "right" use - they also are simultaneously offspring and target of culturally and socially coded phantasms. These fantasies also shape and construct our bodies and identities.

Therefore, following Michel Foucault and Teresa de Lauretis, the metaphorical use of the term "technology" has always been a central one in my research work. Beyond any techno-determinism, these two theorists show that the construction of bodies and genders has always been technological. Thus, I would like to put forth that politically engaged aesthetic strategies have to go beyond socially and visually coded and controlled public and private fantasies and to open up other fantasmatic zones in order to create spaces of identity. I consider identity politics still a crucial issue - one which addresses and "produces" multiply coded, hybridized and differential political subjects and agents.

With this essay, I would like to talk about three different cyber/feminist aesthetic strategies which use video to negotiate the question of technologies and gender and to map identity models for an existence in the post-human space of the time-being. One will notice within my argumentation that I will use among other things the term "woman" or "female subject," and that I find concepts of "female identities" central. Though I would prefer to talk of agents instead of subjects, or to use the plural instead of the singular, and to take off from the idea that gender is a set of variable and not indeterminate rules - that "gender is a boundary concept" (Anne Balsamo) - I still consider the terms woman and female useful, insofar as they always refer to embodied experiences and life conditions of specific agents and entities called and calling themselves woman, again and again. I, myself, as a woman, also represent a situated female perspective, though it is temporary and shifting.

One of my aims, as a female and cyberfeminist theorist, is to render these different female, or rather feminist, points of view transparent and productive. Therefore, my interest is to analyze the different ways by which artists create specific aesthetic strategies embodying these issues. I also hope to cross the various borders which define and often separate among other things, issues of art, new technology, new media and gender.

1. Wounds and Machines

I would like to begin with Zurich-based artist Ursula Biemann's work, Performing the Border (video, 1999). She takes the Mexican City ‘Ciudad Juarez' as an example in investigating what kinds of bodies, identities and genders the global high-tech industry produces at its low-end. She uses video, which is semi-documentary, but in a polyvocal, visually heterogeneous manner. In this work, her own video and film researches from 1988 to 1998, interviews with local women's organizations, TV-clips of the border situation, data of corporations like Philips and police documentaries of serial killings are intrinsically interwoven. However, the video goes beyond documentation insofar as on one hand, it performs on a structural and aesthetic level the idea of borders, and on the other, it is strongly based on theoretical thesis, represented by the Mexican border activist Berta Jottar, and the theorist Mark Seltzer.

The aesthetics of the video-essay suggest that the border city Ciudad Juarez, beyond its significance as a place of exploitation in the context of the new international labor division and high-technology, is also a general metaphor for the performativity of bodies, genders, identities, nations and capital. This is primarily produced by a constant set of movements, which are sometimes interrupted by shots of sitting women who are either being interviewed by Biemann or waiting together in bars or on the streets for their clients. In between, there are the movements of the masses of women streaming in the pure and clean maquiladoras , of the bus rides there in the morning, of the cars and horsemen in the desert, of the flickering images on TV, of the virtual pictures of the detonations of the minefields on the U.S. side and of the drive along the border fence, which is 5000 miles long. There are the movements of a floating rubber dinghy, of white-dressed women working in pure white rooms, of a woman washing laundry by hand, of a girl walking down the street. "She is still a little girl. Can she find a way to steer her through these cultural ruptures?" asks the voiceover. The movements of the camera, of the montages, of the people can be interpreted as the aesthetic performance of a so-called "flow discourse," connecting all these different streams by its common nature of mobility. The rhythm of the assembly line, the flow of the financial capital from the North, of the migrants from the South, of the streaming of female desire as it is articulated in the love songs heard in the morning bus rides and finally, of the production of female bodies. But Performing the Border is more than a visual criticism of pan-capitalism; it is also an attempt to show, or rather establish, what possibilities there are for individual female lives in this cyborg world of labor.

More than 20 years ago, the first of the U.S.-high-tech-corporations settled in this region. On the screen is written: "The maquiladora is a laboratory of deregulation," and the voiceover comments: "Within a short time, a new technological culture of repetition, registration and control was introduced into the desert city." Control is an important issue in the video in terms of the regulation and use of female bodies in the production process, in the sex industry, and as victims of murder. However, Ursula Biemann does not show the actual technologies of repression, nor does she even try to be authentic and convey the intimacy of these women's lives; she lets her interview partners narrate some of their concerns about their individual ways of existence, providing thus a certain kind of distance and reflection. The productive force of control is expressed by the mention of the regulation of their labor and leisure rhythms, and by creating parallels between these women's lives and the increasing militarisation and mediatisation in which the geographical border itself is re-demarcated again and again. This equation is in place from the very beginning of the tape. While we hear Jottar's sentences about the materialization and naturalization of the actual U.S. border politics, we see an infrared image of the border and a man on observation duty, controlling by surveillance through his binoculars: "In a way the border is always represented as this wound that has to be healed, that has to be closed, that has to be protected from contamination and from disease. [...] Its like a surgical place." Jottar's words regarding geographical landmarks remind us of the discourses of the body, of the idea of the body as a battlefield, of open and closed bodies, and of the female body which is traditionally represented as a wound.

"Gender Matters to Capital" says a running text in the video. Biemann reveals life on the border as a set of total sexualisations. Here, the woman is permanently reinstalled as mute working and sex object, although there are striking shifts in traditional patriarchal patterns (women are now the consumers at whom the local entertainment industry aims, and women are the principal earners in their families). Nevertheless, beauty competitions organized by maquiladoras and advertisements of international corporations for which pretty young girls are explicitly sought out help to renew patriarchal structures under the sign of global capitalism. In Performing the Border, none of the many girls filmed talks about her situation. It is only the older women, the journalists, the members of women's organizations, the activists, the mothers of the missing girls or the fired trade unionist who dare to talk into the camera. "The maquiladora is a strategic point in the national economy of the Mexican state." Nothing is natural in Ciudad Juarez, everything is under the dictate of the pan-capitalistic machine - which is what Jottar said in the beginning. "So you need the crossing of bodies to produce the discursive space of the nation state and also to produce a type of real place as a border." And this place is always represented as a dangerous place, which may lead to death if you do not adjust to its prohibitions.

Since 1994, more than 140 women have been killed and buried in the desert. Many girls are missing; many victims remain unidentified. Sometimes they only find parts of clothing, sometimes the clothing has been exchanged among the corpses. The pattern of the murders remains always the same: raped, strangled, stabbed. We learn that the nameless murdered women are catalogued by the kind of wounds which led to their deaths and that the local corporations do not want to be named as their employers. Thus, the dead woman from the South becomes the metaphor of this wound which is always represented as an effect of this warzone. But Biemann goes one step further and argues that this way of female death is being caused by the rhythm of the machines. "The compulsive, repetitive violence of serial killing does not exist without an extreme entanglement between eroticized violence and mass technologies of registration, identification, reduplication and simulation. [...] Serial killing is a form of public violence proper to a machine culture." The economic war dominating this region is made over the bodies of poor women from the South and can therefore be endlessly naturalized and renewed. The new international labor division is structured as a "technology of gender." (Teresa de Lauretis) It is for the permanent re-construction of gender difference, for the consolidation of power, subjectivity and identity in a scared world of cyborgs. According to Biemann, it is only the line of sexual difference which marks the one fundamental difference being recognized in serial killing. Performing the Border refers to the opening up and closing of bodies in the endless cycle of actual high-tech-control-technology, where they are consumed, produced and f ixed as female. "We believe technology is good when it's shared for the benefit of all," states the journalist Isabel Velazquez.

2. Becoming a technowound

Above I said that it is important both to address and to produce the subject as something hybrid and paradoxical. The video and webwork I am Milica Tomic of Belgrad-based artist Milica Tomic is an example of this. Her use of digital technology helps to trigger strange and alienated sensations and to perceive her project as being completely artificial and constructed.

Tomic stands before us in a white slip; she is radiantly beautiful with a heavenly glow about her. Then she starts to speak: "I am Milica Tomic. I am a German." She repeats this 65 times, substituting different languages and nations each time. I am an Austrian, I am an American, and so on. For each sentence a new wound appears, so that by the time she finishes, she is completely covered by blood-spouting gashes. After all 65 recitations, everything closes back up, her body is intact once more, and the whole thing starts all over again. The wounds spontaneously appear, and you immediately realize that it is only digital technology that brings them into life. Technology is the flesh and the blood, and vice versa. Nothing is natural here, neither the body nor its gashes nor the different languages. There is only this abstract situation, this mechanical and monotone repetition of virtual, i.e., metaphorical inscriptions.

Having a national identity and a mother tongue are important identity-forming factors, and in our age of (not yet obsolete) nation states, these constitute our feelings of home and being-in-the-world. The yearning for these identities is all but inscribed in the body; it determines the wish potential that express itself in the unmarred body. The reality, however, is also that the phantasms of the nation mutilate the bodies, that the subject articulates itself as a contingent, vulnerable and wounded body, regardless of whether one's "own" nation is particularly bloodthirsty or not. The subject, as a splinter of one of these phantasms, has always been caught in the paradox of being both body and symbol. Tomic's wounds that result directly from her words reveal that each of her performative acts of the identity recitations she is forced to make is an act of misunderstanding. Still, through her hysterical mimesis of the wish for national identity with its simultaneous deconstruction through her gaping wounds, she does not a priori dismiss her desire for (national) identity. Instead she takes this desire seriously, in respect to both its subjectivity-constituting and its traumatic-fatal productive powers and extends it, as it were, in a ritual act of speaking the understood misunderstanding ad absurd. In her hysterical identification with the Oedipal position (she is blinded and gets castrated), her reduction to woman with a proper name and subject of a national state entity becomes manifest; thus, her performance of a symptomatic becoming-a-wound, has the effect that we too, as viewers, are called upon to take part in this mimetic process and to identify with her role of complete vulnerability - and to transform it into something powerful.

3. War Zones

To conclude my argumentation, I would like to talk about Marina Grzinic and Aina Smid's video, LUNA 10 (subtitled: The Butterfly Effect of Geography) , because it is about the desire for expansion, conquering the world, and the question of survival from a female, Eastern-European, point of view. The main title, LUNA 10, refers, according to Grzinic's explanation, to the Soviet intraplanetary automatic station which entered the Moon orbit on April 3, 1966, becoming the first artificial moon satellite in the history of steps in the direction of conquering the Moon; the subtitle refers to the dream of winning new territories as products of the Cold War. (Grzinic)

At the beginning of the video, we see a woman looking through a telescope - that is the "repetition" of the female viewer's own situation as observer. In a sort of a framework situation, the woman and a man guide us through the video's various window-like, or, as Grzinic/Smid call it, hypertext-like image sequences. In the hypertext-image sequences, we see footage by neo-avantgarde Yugoslavian filmmakers, like Emir Kusturica or Zelimir Zilnik, as well as documentary material taken from pirate radio stations, etc. Beauty remains silent while he (the main male character) speaks about technological "revolutions," like the Internet, wars, the role of the media, and the perspective of people from the East. Although he plays the role of a pontificating male authority figure, he also appears wearing nothing but his underpants, or turns into a kind of technological medium writing the numbers on a blackboard that "she" dictates to him. Thus, his body in underpants occupies a female subordinate position. She, too, changes her clothing, sometimes wearing only a slip, other times a military uniform. The gender-specific and social matrices of both figures are temporary and contrary, complex and diffuse.

LUNA 10 can be interpreted as a critical argument for appropriating new (wartime) technologies and media and reassigning them to women and other subaltern groups. The woman from the East has seized control of the telescope (outdated technological "prosthesis" and phallic substitute). She too wants to go to the moon, and she too will pass on only the images she sees. Her searching eye and the greenish tinge to the film are indicative of the analogies to military infrared surveillance scenarios. But the screen images we are presented with are replete with contrasts. At the beginning, for example, she appears before us in a poor rural setting, her hands covered with dough. While the man recites Western technological fantasies of transgression, we see images of private domesticity, rustic simplicity, weddings, Communist parades, and three soldiers executing a woman in a field. The green tinge also emphasizes the archival aspect of the footage. Spaces, bodies, identities and technologies are represented as historical, media and ideological constructs. Everything becomes reciprocally involved with everything else, but there are very real spaces and bodies in which we experience everyday emotions like desire, fear, sadness, joy. Media constructs of places and bodies do not preclude intense experience.

Making art in the age of posthumanism means, through actively continuing deconstructive practices, however with a focus on the suffix, while at the same time not failing to keep in mind the negative and paradoxical nature of current conditions, to place the specific positionality of one's own perspectives in the foreground. We should be skeptical of simple identity models and bliss-promising reconstructing attempts. But we also need to be wary of overworking territorialized zones! We need to pursue strategies of infiltration, invasion and - "despite all" the attitudes of survival - strategies of simulation and construction that from the start destroy every form of naturalization.

"Have you queued up for the virtual bread?" the man in LUNA 10 asks, continuing: "as it is with technological revolutions in the West, you will get only bread crumbs! Better that, than nothing!"

Notes
Martha Rosler, "Shedding the Utopian Moment," in: Block, Issue 11, 1985/6.
Maquiladora is the Spanish word for golden mills, a metaphor for mass production and low-wages.
http://www.shiseido.co.jp/cygnet/
Marina Grzinic/Aina Smid: LUNA 10: The Butterfly Effect of Geography, Ljubljana, 1994.

This text is a kind of a reedition of some of my texts and has been written for the book: Marina Grzinic/Adele Eisenstein, ed.): 'The Body Cought in the Intestines of the Computer and Beyond. Women's Strategies and/or Strategies by Women in Media, Art and Theory', Ljubljana/Maribor 2000

back