ROLLO Contemporary Art

All-women festivals and retrospectives have flourished in the last decade, from the more alternative corners of culture (Her Noise at South London Gallery, Cinenova’s Bodies Assembling, the current Labour : Female Irish Culture at Performance Space) to take centre stage in major institutions (WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the MoCA in LA, Elle@Centre Pompidou, Modern Women at the MoMA, Tracey Emin and Pippilotti Rist at the Hayward in 2011). Whether a hip factor or the effect of the last 40 years of feminist activism, a wind of change is being felt in the curating of galleries and museums, with the Pompidou centre buying 40% of its women’s art since 2005. The recent acquisition by the Whitworth gallery of Lynn Hershmann Leeson’s complete edition of Roberta Breitmore comes as a remarkable achievement in our time of massive budget cuts, which predominantly affect minorities and women’s art as the closing of the 2012 edition of the Bird Eye’s View Film Festival can attest.

Philippa Found of Rollo Contemporary Art is working in the same curatorial vein. Since its first installment in 2009 the all-women travelling exhibition The Body in Women’s Art Now seeks to raise awareness about the representation and status of women in the arts and to contribute in redressing the balance. It enfolds as a trilogy exploring the self and the issues of (dis-, re-) embodiment in our contemporary sensorium. Considering the centrality of the female body in art since time immemorial, the show contributes to furthering the discourse on the body in contemporary art while infusing it with a strong gender perspective.

The first part Embodiment presented the work of women that deal with pressing issues affecting bodies in time of war, mass consumerism and the neo-liberal crisis of consciousness. Focusing on the lived, embodied practice of performance, the show gave an update on both the ‘personal is political’ dimension of body art and the discourse of self-embodiment, which developed from, and criticized, the Foucauldian insights on the power relations at work in the self-disciplinary practice and social normalisation of bodies.

The second installment, Flux, was a frank and open dialogue on female sexuality, revealing the ambiguity, fluidity and mobility of female subjectivity and the potent, darker side of women’s desire and pleasure. The corporeal transformation from childhood to adolescence, into the body of a mature woman showed the body as much as a source of alienation as the site of controllable pleasure and empowerment.

The current and last installment, ReCreation, sets bodies within the virtual time and space of web 2.0, social networking communities and video games. The advent of Second Life and increasingly sophisticated programming technology has rendered work and play in virtual corpo-reality as second nature for the new generation of artists working in new media. Updating Donna Haraway’s ‘ironic political myth’ of the cyborg body, the four artists in the exhibition deliver a detached view of our contemporary self, not without a sense of derision and criticism.

The show begins with a strong, politically orientated docu-performance video by Anne Marie Schleiner, a gaming artist who intervenes simultaneously in the public space of online games and in the streets. Taking its name from the military term MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) used by numerous military simulation computers games such as America’s Army (AA), Operation Urban Terrain (2004-6) is a criticism of the increasing militarization of society since 9/11 and its pernicious infiltration into civilian life.

Dressed as sexy Lara croft look-alikes and armed with computers and a projector, Schleiner and another female cyberhacker assault the streets of NYC and act out the games with projections on walls, garage doors and shop windows, juxtaposing concrete buildings and bodies on the pixilated playground. The playful interactions with passers-by and children jumping in front of the real projections/virtual shootings add a disquieting dimension to the performance. At a time when the streets are being reclaimed for social and economic justice, Schleiner’s interventions seem all the more relevant to our lives which are increasingly played out on, and controlled by, the screen. Her team’s critical gaming strategies include the creation of paint sprays for covering the walls of virtual cities with graffiti and making their avatars dance instead of shooting each other.

It also contains an explicit feminist critic of the macho world of the military and gaming industry, which perpetuates the image of the hero as typically male and white, while portraying women as highly sexualized and often violently powerful. When she is not a bombshell or a deadly cyborg, the woman depicted in videogames is the mother with child in need of protection. In OUT, the introduction video to the America’s Army game starts with the sweeping view of a Middle Eastern desert town with a suitably westernized, oriental soundtrack in the background. A US military convoy is entering the town. Perched on a tank, a soldier waves to a woman and her baby standing in front of her house. The message, aimed at recruiting the youth of Middle America into ‘The Strongest Force in the World’, illustrates the gendered representations and imaginative geographies that have contributed in legitimizing the War on Terror and other masculine initiatives under the Bush administration. In typical orientalist fashion, women and children embody the weak and the helpless of an ‘Other’ world wrecked by dictators, and binaries such as good/evil or civilised/barbarian are used to entrench further the difference between us and them. Schleiner’s critical strategies reveal the gendered visions of politics by playing on the binary codes of game/society, destabilizing gestures and bodies by performing them live in the street and subverting their gendered imposition.

Going deeper into the rabbit hole of gaming technology, Gazira Babeli and Mira Segal explore the parallel Internet universe of Second Life in all its trappings and possibilities. Contending that ‘for me is like the wild Middle Ages of the Internet… Second Life seems to offer a Renaissance Perspective’, Babeli (or ‘Gaz’ as she is known online) performs directly in Second Life, taking unsuspecting avatars by surprise and upsetting the normal course of events staged there with her ‘unauthorised performances’, code-hacking ‘grey goo’ and earthquakes.

In Anna Magnani/Take 2 (2007), she manipulates the code to make her avatar perform, in quick sequence and random order, all the facial expressions available on the application. In jerky, robotic fashion that precludes the infinite subtleties of human features, her face turns from scary frown to ecstatic grimace, and her upper body moves back-and-forth in gestures that recall the trope of the hysterical woman. Dressed in a military jacket that reveals her bazooka breasts, she appears as an aggressive crank, a misfit cyberpunk whose identity search is set on splitting the code, double-crossing the self, subverting the gender conservatisms that persist behind and beyond the screen. This, ultimately, led to self-destruction. In 2010, her avatar died, an appropriate dada-esque exit of code-performance.

In the documentary film BRB (2007), Mira Segal also slipped into a second skin made of exotic virtual landscapes and various masks (including a Google search page printed on her face) and video-ed her experience in Second Life. We follow her and her assistant Iris, as they rummage around a Gothic palace overlooking a green ocean at sunrise, staring awkwardly at people and bumping into pixilated walls – nostalgic remnant images of my Tomb Raider past. The then-popular game provided my first virtual, ‘out-of-body’ experience. Early VR theorist Anne Balsamo explains that ‘a user experiences virtual reality through a disembodied gaze – a floating moving perspective that mimes the movement of a disembodied camera ‘eye’’. In the early 1990s, she viewed virtual environments as a ‘new arena for the staging of the body’ and suggested that VR would bring about a re-examination of the human body’s limitations as much as its extensions.

Segal is interested by ‘the question whether an image can touch you’. In BRB, she employs various animation techniques and equips the viewer with multiple perspectives, allowing us to follow her avatar’s adventures both intimately and as distant voyeur. When passing through a public orgy, for instance, she films Iris’s avatar, Roga, having sex with a boy. During intercourse Roga asks the boy ‘are you touching yourself in real life?’ at which point he disappears, leaving us with an uncanny impression of ‘la petite mort’. Or, depending on one’s point of view, a lame performance of virtual man’s post-coitus withdrawal from reality. Is the possibility of getting out of undesirable situations at will and seemingly ‘untouched’ an expression of enhanced freedom? Second Life, as all our networking platforms that wire bodies to circuits of communication, isn’t a realm of limitless fantasy but an alternative space mixing fancy flights of imagination and participatory actions that have real impacts on social life, emotions and the self. In this new perceptual realm in which we can simultaneously project and live our personal dramas, the question is not so much how far our bodies can extend as how responsible, feeling bodies can, and should, operate.

Segal’s avatar spends interminable time hanging there, thinking alone or discussing the meaning of virtual life around fires with bodies that ‘type’ their words into the void instead of speaking them out. The faint, finger-tapping chit-chat on Second Life makes us acutely aware of our wired, noisy world riddled with pedestrians talking to ghosts via their portable technologies. Our bodies have already vanished, taking the small psycho-geographical step from the streets to Wonderland and lucidly-dreaming new ways of going about our evolution, relationships, sexuality, politics, and identity. In this process, our self is ‘an image, a mental model… a dream body’ as one of the jerky chimera of Waking Life points out. Segal’s film reminds of the dreamlike visions of Linklater’s animated film whose characters are drawn on top of real actors and thus perfectly mimick and exagerate human bodily gestures and facial expressions. Their sketchy re-embodiment gives them a distant, spectral aura. Their philosophical musings on existentialism and our bio-technological evolution are revealed to us as if drawn from our collective unconscious. The distant viewpoint and dreamy soundscapes in Segal’s work achieves a similar, contemplative, disembodied quality. Bodies are stiff, however, their gestures aren’t fluid and easy as in a reverie and the glitches and frozen frames take us regularly back to the digital/genetic code and our technological/biologic dimension. Contemporary embodiment provokes and twists the jolting and splitting of interactive technology in our sensory system. This creatively self-dissociating and re-fashioning process is now proliferating as an aesthetic in its own right – the virtual glitches and possibilities within our biological existence work with social and cultural forces to produce a perpetually becoming state-of-body.

Helen Carmel Beningson’s techno-pop fantasies illustrate the creative self-fashioning of our contemporary moment. Her works are a repertory of signs picked from pop culture, TV reality, music and online games where girls are playing an increasingly active role. In the spirit of the girl culture/power of the 1990’s, she infuses her mix of performance, video, print, sculpture and installations with a hyper-feminine sensitivity saturated with brash, pink colors, acidulated flavours and assertive, sardonic statements. The video Why You Shouldn’t Date A Soldier (2011) feels like a daydream juxtaposing her net incursions into a Poker game forum where she wins a few hands, and a parallel narrative where her avatar, Princess, is being ‘rescued’ by a bunch of soldiers coming straight from the video game Call of Duty. Her favourite things such as sushi and palm trees float around. Meanwhile the soldiers, which we see as a first-person account, holding our gun, make a detour to YouPorn to interrogate ‘prison babe’ – a shot of the YouPorn clip is on full view – we have switched from male hero to voyeur. When the soldiers arrive at the forum’s threshold, she sends them off with a texto-poem: ‘boys. i didn’t want to be rescued. i am in control of my own destiny and my own fantasy’ and she transports us far away from there, in a safe, pink world of her own. Asserting her agency over her life and sexuality while poking fun at boys’ one-track mind and in-your-face fantasies, Beningson doesn’t so much subvert the girl culture she represents than rejoices in it, playing with its codes and confusing the viewer as to whom exactly she thinks she is.

Back in 1998, Rosi Braidotti said that ‘cyberfeminism needs to cultivate a culture of joy and affirmation…Nowadays, women have to undertake the dance through cyberspace, if only to make sure that the joy-sticks of cyberspace cowboys will not reproduce univocal phallicity under the mask of multiplicity’. Revealing subtle issues of gender representation online or explicitly negotiating strategies of genderfusion and hybridity to combat stereotyping, the women artists in ReCreation have successfully translated into practice some of the political aspirations of cyberfeminism. Anne Marie Schleiner’s engaged feminist politics on the net deals more broadly with the question of the embodied state, and contributes to the, often neglected, debate on the body politics’ salience for understanding state-community relations, political sovereignty and social equality.

The curator, Philippa Found, believes that women have a very unique relationship to the body in art and has presented their works as part of the art historical discourse of the body – which experienced a renaissance following the feminist art movement of the 1970s. This theoretical framing is, arguably, what had been missing to create a visible women’s body of art in the digital age. Faith Wilding’s invitation to imagine ‘cyberfeminist theorists teaming up with brash and cunning grrl net artists to visualize new female representations of bodies, languages, and subjectivities in cyberspace’ has finally become real.