Gook Girls, Monstrous Chimeras and the New Technology

Ross Moore visits three Melbourne techno-art exhibitions

Alternative Realities at the Ian Potter Gallery featured “five Australian artists working with technology”. Though the work was individually impressive, and I admit, I thoroughly enjoyed the show, the ‘technological’ theme as curatorial strategy seemed insufficient to hold the pieces together. Why should technological dreams recoup the failed modernity of the gallery space?

This said, I was particularly impressed with Patricia Piccinini’s work, not only for its high, indeed, deliberately slick techno-production values, but also for its cunning pre-subversion of corporate plans for mass marketing genetically-designed babies. What better way to do this, she reckons, than by anticipating, then aping, a multinational-style billboard advertising campaign. Showing the same kind of insider ‘knowingness’ of a Barbara Kruger, she has designed giant glossy posters that display the babies of the future as yours to take home today. Like all good consumer items they come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. LUMPLand from TMGP1995 ™ shows five delightful little lumps, variously limbed and proportioned – doesn’t it warm the cockles of your heart? One wears an all-too-cute piebald bow on a bald head while another a Maverick’s Wild-Western hat – entirely appropriate for a frosted lunar landscape. Your Sperm Your Egg Our Expertise from TMGP1995 ™, while mocking the consumer empowerment strategy of big business also works as an educative primer for intending parents still presumably somewhat disturbed by the implications of the new technology for that obsolescent notion – biological paternity. Piccinini has also designed a hands-on computer baby designer program for intending ‘parents’ about to do it. Gallery goers get to create, view and cost their new offspring, simply by manipulating the mouse. A perhaps predictable evolution of safe sex.

Rosemary Laing’s computer manipulated photographic landscapes in the same show seem to acquire poignancy as critiques of essentialism filter through to the feral environmentalist movement. Her digital versions of sublime landscapes, including forested arcadia, open out a problematic hiatus between Greenpeaced nature and Baudrillardian simulacra. If transcendent-alism was once incorporated in organicism, is it now to be found in pixel ratios? Her large format images are at once Hilton wall decoration and metaphysical critique.

Shiralee Saul, a long-term player in the new media network, has curated a small but powerful show at New Media Network, Southgate. Titled Ada’s Spawn and captioned by the post-Kristevan cartoon cry “they’re back … and they’re meaner, slimier and smarter than ever before!”, it assembles the work of eight women. The ‘Ada’ reference is to Ada Lovelace, who collaborated with Charles Babbage to develop the first binary programming language. Amazing how these names conjure phallogocentric scenarios of vulvic seduction and cabbages! Ada’s occlusion from electro-phallic history merely reiterates the vaporisation of those women who inaugurated the loom. Is the patriarchal scenario so palpable now?

Linda Dement certainly thinks so. Her interactive multimedia work CyberFleshGirl Monster carries out Donna Haraway’s call for perverse cyborg unities to take on the “escalating domination of woman/nature.” By cloning direct scans of numerous female body parts into visceral hybrids, she not only hyperbolises the phobic construction of woman as formless castrating gunk, but also plays at re-inventing female bodies that can invade and collapse the male Cartesian body/mind split – that’s if they care to!

What I enjoyed about Ada’s Spawn, apart from its humour, was its appreciation of ‘technology’ as digital ‘state of the art’ and plastic techno-trash. Martine Corompt’s fluorescent wall piece, Two Face, was a parodic reworking of Munch’s The Scream. When you pushed the soft tongue, it let out a febrile electronic toy cry that seemed all the more poignant for being such a hopeless similitude of the ‘real’ thing. Here was the mechanical hysteria of TV soapies as well as the histrionics of cartoon culture.

Technothelylogia, at Monash University Gallery, featured the work of 20 women artists “in/on technology” as Zoe Sofoulis puts it in her catalogue essay Against the Grain. More ambitious than the other shows, it provides an opportunity to explore a range of feminist responses to technology and hence to notice some prevailing discourses. Viewers are also able to tease out the issue of whether or not (especially top end) technology might be considered a male juggernaut. It is at this point that a certain stress appears in some of the work between seeing technology as phallic extension and regarding it as a potentially liberating set of tools for re-imagining social structures and subjectivities – even those of sexed bodies and gender boundaries. Clearly, critiques and contending strategies within contemporary feminist theory and art practice are also invoked here. 1970s notions of women as domesticated and disenfranchised workers, or even as prime baby-producers, seem insufficient to deal with the complexity of how machinery is now employed within, across, at and out of the body, a body which is itself being remapped as a network of cognitive processes and energy pathways.

Janina Green’s manipulated photographic image of modernism’s Utopian promise of domestic bliss, Geodisic Dome 1993, with its potted cactus, vacuum cleaner, painting of solar sky and attractively reclining female mannequin complete with conveniently articulated joints, would seem to reveal how even the separate realms of public and private have collapsed into anachronism. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, Marion Marrison has taken Maria Kozic one step further, and beautifully morphed her own face into that of a fresh out-of-the-packet Cindy, thereby confounding the gap between her own body and that of the ideal. She’s a real living doll. In another droll enactment of penile fantasies, Michele Baker and Anna Munster have morphed a dick in four stages into an authentically muscled gun. Significantly, even the original was a dummy – a dildo. Is even that gun for real? Lynne Sanderson in her MTV spoof video, Need 1994, celebrates the lesbian S/M nightclub scene. “NEED SUCK PROBE,” says the text over and over, as bodies merge and penetrate in rhythm to the disco beat.

Does technology open out or fill holes in established meaning? Does it satisfy or aggravate our desires? “Do you always do what you are told?” asks Josephine Starr’s and Leon Cmielewski’s User Unfriendly Interface 1994. “Yes”, you click, feeling naughty for once. Next screen carries only a single instruction, “Don’t click here”. You click. There’s no other way out.

RealTime issue #8 Aug-Sept 1995 pg. 8

© Ross Moore; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1995