Producing Futures—An Exhibition on Post-Cyber-Feminisms

Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst , Zürich, Switzerland
16 Feb 2019 - 12 May 2019

Mary Maggic, Housewives Making Drugs, 2017, video still. Courtesy the artist

Mary Maggic, Housewives Making Drugs, 2017, video still. Courtesy the artist

With Cao Fei, Cécile B. Evans, Guan Xiao, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Juliana Huxtable, Mary Maggic, MALAXA, Shana Moulton, Tabita Rezaire, Gavin Rayna Russom, Frances Stark, Wu Tsang, Anna Uddenberg, VNS Matrix, Anicka Yi

In the group show Producing Futures—An Exhibition on Post-Cyber-Feminisms, the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst surveys the causes championed by feminists in the post-internet era. The maturation of a number of technologies and the associated digitalization of many or perhaps all domains of life have progressed to a point where a digitally engendered media universe arguably defines the compass of our reality and the meanings we find in it. The cyber-feminists of the 1990s hoped to harness the internet’s potential for communication and networking to establish cyberspace as a realm of liberation and self-empowerment; the time has come for a critical review of this optimism. The new freedoms opened up by the World Wide Web have gone hand in hand with the entrenchment of existing hierarchies and power structures. The exhibition revisits the cyber- feminist movement’s historic aspirations and visions, contrasts them with the contemporary situation, and inquires into ways in which its ideas may still be productive. The presentation accordingly undertakes a critical engagement with different feminist approaches that turn the spotlight on the tension between the body and technology and on discriminatory gender norms. For instance, the contributing artists reflect on and defamiliarize the offerings of various online platforms in order to further blur the boundaries between the virtual and real, the online and o line domains, as well the genders. Many of the works pursue a holistic approach, drawing on (medical) science, the occult, and other fields to stimulate a more comprehensive discussion and generate ideas for a livable future of emancipation, gender justice, and social equality.

While showcasing the diversity of these feminist strategies and concerns, Producing Futures—An Exhibition on Post-Cyber-Feminisms also seeks to forge a new synthesis under the aegis of an alternative model of knowledge formation called “SF”. Proposed by the American biologist, philosopher of science, and literary scholar Donna Haraway, this concept—the abbreviation “SF” may be read as “science fiction”, but also as “speculative feminism” or “string figures”—describes a practice characterized by the entanglement of diverse reflections and considerations, of the factual and the fictional. An open invitation to embark on intellectual experiments in which speculation emerges as a valuable breeding ground for innovative visions of the future, it is explicitly opposed to conventional modes of knowledge formation that often rely on the establishment of hierarchical systems of order and promote rigid ideas of inclusion and exclusion, of right and wrong. As a way of taking possession of the world, such conventional epistemes give rise to certain social structures including, for example, sexism, racism, and classism. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices has denounced the tacit acceptance of these structures: feminism has become a buzzword in popular culture, with various hashtags causing a stir in the media. We have never been more networked than today, with manifold options for getting in touch with each other, exchanging ideas, and forming alliances. Still, the digital universe is not just an empowering safe space; the growing online visibility of marginalized groups has also met with harsh condemnation. Various communities and many individuals have become targets for hate-filled responses. These intersections between the virtual and real domains and our experiences in both demonstrate that cyberspace is not a sphere unto itself, separated by a sharp line from our real lives. Our experiences in it have come to exercise a crucial influence over how we engage and interact with our environment and assimilate and process information. That is also true of the “womxn”—the unusual spelling is designed to draw attention to the prejudices, discrimination, and institutional barriers they confront, and emphatically includes trans women and women of color—whose works are on view in the exhibition.

With works by VNS Matrix and Lynn Hershman Leeson, pioneering explorers of the internet’s possibilities in the 1990s, the exhibition looks back to the early days of cyber-feminism. Almost three decades later, it is high time that we rethink the issues they first raised; the need to develop a more deliberate stance on the online sharing of personal data as well as the inexhaustible flows of images catering to entrenched (and often sexist) clichéd role models is one main emphasis of the exhibition.

It is most explicit in Wu Tsang’s video installation and the sculptures of Guan Xiao and Anna Uddenberg, who confronts us with an unsparing exposition of the prevailing conception of femininity. The necessary reimagination of womanhood as an open and queer gender identity is a project that is addressed head-on in Gavin Rayna Russom’s art as well as the works of Juliana Huxtable, where gender dichotomies and even the human-animal distinction are obsolete. Shana Moulton analyzes the pressure we put on ourselves in our relentless pursuit of perfection with canny irony in a video installation that examines her own neuroses. Her New Age-style spiritualism bears some resemblance to the holistic reparative practice sketched by Tabita Rezaire and the artist duo MALAXA (Alicia Mersy and Tabita Rezaire). They make art that seeks to break the silence over contemporary injustices as well as the iniquities of the past in order to initiate processes of healing. Anicka Yi visualizes the fierce patriarchal resistance that female empowerment and the prospect of women building strong networks can prompt. Inspired by insights in cutting-edge biotechnology and genetics, her tent sculptures consider feminist concerns through the lens of science while also reflecting on the normative authority accorded to experts. The artist Mary Maggic counters the power imbalance between scientists and laypeople with DIY science tutorials. Where her guidance on “estrogen hacking” refers to physical space and the bodies beyond the screens, Cécile B. Evans’s video launches a more general inquiry into the idea of embodiment in light of the reality that we share cyberspace with a multitude of digital beings. Such scrutiny of the significance of bodily existence goes hand in hand with a meditation on closeness and a ection, as Cao Fei’s and Frances Stark’s videos demonstrate. They chart the internet as an ecosystem encouraging experimentation with the self and reveal the ways in which online games or Chatroulette fundamentally alter the subject’s experience of identity and intimacy. What ultimately unites these diverse artistic positions is the shared quest to establish gender and identity as open, performative, and therefore always temporary constructions.

The exhibition highlights the enormous potential for change that is unleashed when people come together for collective action, a mobilization now facilitated by various online platforms. Like Donna Haraway’s game of string figures, it weaves together a variety of positions in order to propose new perspectives on our emotional and rational, our conscious and unconscious entanglements with cyberspace. It illustrates that feminism concerns all of us, with implications not just for how we live together but also for our existence in a natural environment on which we are increasingly wreaking havoc. Our visions for the future, then, should draw on a range of (spiritual, liberal, ecological, and/or biological) approaches; sustained engagement can build a community based on comprehensive equality, and thanks to today’s (new) communication technologies, such a community is now conceivable on the global scale.