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Review of "ALTERITIES"

Review of "ALTERITIES: Interdisciplinarity and 'Feminine' Practices of
Space" conference held June 4 and 5 1999 at Ecole Nationale Superieure
des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 9:00 to 19:00 each day
by Joseph Nechvatal

To begin to think about the "ALTERITIES: Interdisciplinarity and
'Feminine' Practices of Space" conference, certain basic ideas needed to
be addressed (or let drop) concerning "feminine" practices. First, do
women even want to talk about "the feminine" at all at this point, given
its unobtainable purist connotations? If they do, they certainly must
make clear that they are talking about something light years away from
the pink frilly pre-feminist definition from what seems like ancestral
antiquity. This critical distance between feminine and feminist was not
established at the outset, other than placing the "feminine" in
quotation marks - which called it into ironic question.

In the first three presentations of the initial forum entitled "Space of
the 'Other': Alternative Strategies of Design - Feminist Contributions"
(Anne Querrien, Monique Minaca and muf [muf is a London-based
collaboration formed in 1994 between women artists and architects]) the
concepts of feminine and feminist seemed conflated in (what I take to
be) post-feminist fashion while questions of the dominant and emerging
social constructions were raised. In muf's case, collaborative public
art/architectural strategies were demonstrated and self-critiqued.

Subsequently, Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne conveyed the history of
Matrix, a London-headquartered socialist/feminist architectural co-op
which emerged from their immediate predecessor, the New Architecture
movement: a Marxist-based architectural movement which, in the mid-80s
split into two groups: those that wanted to move their radical Marxist
politics into architectural praxis (Matrix) and those that wanted to
struggle to reform the architectural field from within the system.
Matrix produced anti-sexist/elitist educational material as well as
socially sensitive architecture; a practice which emerged as a strategy
to counter the sexist/elitist exclusion of women in the field of
architecture in the mid-1980s.

For those unfamiliar with Matrix, their presentation was forcefully
persuasive in making the case against the sexist social relations
typically encoded into urban space. They made another important case,
too, by mentioning that professionalism (i.e. actions at work of
professionals), before Matrix, were seen as a-political and outside of
politics; thus supportive of the political status quo. Issues of class
boundaries, decent safe housing for women, the needs of children and the
client-architect relationship (given cultural and class difference) were
also raised.

The Matrix presentation was followed by viewing the accompanying gallery
exhibition. This show accommodated jecca's "Free Fecondite"; a web-based
installation which appeared tacitly indebted to some of the theoretical
achievements of Sandy Stone
(http://www.artnetweb.com/jecca/jechome.html), Olga Kisseleva's "How are
you?"; an interactive electrification
(http://www.fraclr.org/hay/pindex.htm), Tina La Porta's "Translate { }
Expression"; a cyber investiture which put one in touch (literally, if
you consider clicking, touching) an idealized wire-frame female torso
and her code, Fiona Meadows's "The House of Divorce"; a disturbing and
mystifying media installation which remained for me resiliently opaque,
and Marie-Paule Pages's "La Fete: icones foraines et…"; which was made
up of a heterogeneous slide presentation which seemed to infer something
of the theoretical concerns of, say, Gayatri Spivak.

From here the conference split into two parallel forums: one following
the socio-political track called "Socio-Geopolitical Crossroads", and
the other, based on a more cyber vector entitled "Space and the Gendered
Body: Art Practices, Architectural Experiments, New Aesthetics of Space"
(which is the one I followed). Here the concept of feminist positions in
electronic space, known as "cyberfeminism", (*1) was put forward as part
of the wider techno-agenda. Cyberfeminism, for those unaccustomed with
the term, implies a developing alliance between women, machinery and new
technology (according to Sadie Plant). More specifically, Dr. Plant
defines cyberfeminism as "an insurrection on the part of the goods and
materials of the patriarchal world, a dispersed, distributed emergence
composed of links between women, women and computers, computers and
communications links, connections and connectionist nets". (*2) As
Harris Dimitropoulos wrote in his Abstract for the conference, "With the
advent of digital media the paradigm changes". With cyberfeminism, the
subject position of the feminine takes on the features of something like
an avatar of unmitigated alterity.

To start this anti-technophobic track rolling, Tina La Porta spoke at
length of her "Translate { } Expression", raising undeconstructive
questions in regard to the "pleasure of connectivity" and disembodiment
within high technology: the deprivation of normal cognitive body-image
which occurs in the mind when the self, via technological extensions,
removes itself from itself (as Mark Pesce defines it). (*3) As Niran
Abbas would explain a few minutes later, "What disappears in not the
material body but an abstract notion of the self. This disappearance is
followed by a reconstruction of embodiment or what is known as the
'Posthuman'. In this realm, we are transformed into information in
simulated worlds. There is the idea that we are disembodied, but in fact
we are not. Simulated worlds can exist for us only because we can
perceive them through the techno-apparatus of our body spliced into the
cybernetic circuit."

In this light, Ms. La Porta appeared optimistic about fusing the female
body with the mechanic in the interests of disembodiment, citing the
efficacious influence of Donna Haraway's cyber-theory as articulated in
her on-line proclamation "A Cyborg Manifesto"
(http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html) and her
book "Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature" (*4); an
anti-nature manifesto which emerged out of her preceding essay "The
Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit:
Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s or A Socialist
Feminist Manifesto for Cyborgs". (*5) Other speakers which followed
delivered equally favorable displays of affection for Haraway's immodest
anti-nature/pro-tech philosophy of liberation through technology.

Lucy Sherman followed La Porta and brought the discourse back down to
materialistic earth by outlining the immersive strategy of Fiona
Templeton's brilliant theatrical voyage "YOU- The City"; a
Manhattan-wide performance which was staged in the early 1990s in New
York. Here Sherman raised interesting questions concerning the social
bond and how meaning is constructed through the viral-like distribution
of media.

The next speaker's presentation, that by Niran Abbas, I found to be of
an exceptionally elevated quality. Ms. Abbas picked up on the theme of
cyberfeminist disembodiment as introduced by La Porta and flushed it out
in most persuasive manner. First, however, she demurred assigning gender
metaphors to high technology while articulating the gender collapse
which occurs between information-based sex and materialistic
palpability. Then she courageously delved into the relationships between
the protoplasmic body-image and spatial conceptions by asking the
question of whether or not the body becomes obsolete with new
technologies such as MUDs and VR. If so, what does this do to sex and
gender-based cyberfeminist theories?

I particularly was fascinated by her emphasis on re-inscription,
reification, and how the body is "staged". What principally interested
me was her concentration on the concept of cyberfeminist embodiment; a
concept which she defined as "an effect". Through this effect she asked
audacious ontological questions about how the body (here defined as
cyberfeminist when processed through new technologies) is staged in
different realities. This welcome, flamboyant, theoretical avant-gardism
was tempered with some astute questions concerning the socio-political
aspects of the hyper-texted body.

Like La Porta, Abbas paid homage to Haraway by advocating a
cyberfeminist embrace of electronic ambiguity, difference and
contradiction while promoting concepts of the collective and the
communal. As Abbas construed, "Taken to an extreme, the awareness of the
mediated nature of perception that VR technologies provide can be taken
to signify that the body itself is a prosthesis. The body, like the VR
body-suit, creates mediated perceptions; both operate through structural
couplings with the environment."

Lacking further endurance, I retreated to my flat, somewhat overwhelmed,
to recover.

Up early the next morning so as not to miss the legendary Sadie Plant
kicking off the forum called "Technologies, Ecologies, Poetics", I was
not dissatisfied. Dr. Plant, known on the net for her adventurous
theoretical works around the themes of drugs, cybernetics,
cyberfeminism, machine intelligence and self organizing systems,
attempted a tour d' force by synthesizing the main themes of the
conference (education, feminist theory, cyberism, architecture, and art)
into one overarching theoretical construct. She termed this hypothetical
model (influenced by Luce Irigaray) a "philosophy of imminence" and
defined it as a dynamic non-compartmentalized postulate which is based
in fluidity; somewhat reminiscent of the philosophy of Henri Bergson as
made contemporary by Gilles Deleuze in his book "Bergsonism". (*6) Here
the kind of top-down logic (with which we are all too familiar) is
opposed by an intricate interplay of complexity. The imposition of will
is opposed to that of the poly-willed distributed process.

Clearly this pedagogic stance makes conscientious sense in terms of
education, but its immaterilizing of architecture and art I find
somewhat problematic. Are permanency and coherent closure such odious
characteristics to support theoretically today? Is all disruption and
fluidity positive? Do we really want buildings without teleological
closure that always are already under construction/deconstruction? Is
all art which is not process/information exclusively reactionary and
elite? Are all synchronous forms complicit extrusions of the
patriarchs's dominant reason?

To her credit, Dr. Plant recognized, in passing, the need for both sides
of the form/process (also termed control/dynamic) equation to balance,
but, seeing the reification of form as the dominant trend at work today
(indeed she identified a new formalism at work presently), decided to
come heavily down in favor on the process side.

The next lecturer, Jennifer Bloomer, seemingly picked up on Dr. Plant's
theoretical construct of fluid process by emphasizing the non-linear and
hyper-rational as preferred modes of thinking in design. This she termed
the "a-rational" and defined it as a blending of the rational with the
non-rational. Though this sounds like conventional surrealism, Ms.
Bloomer postulated the a-rational as the significant feature of the
"feminine" - along with the heightened capacity to sympathize and an
intense alertness to "aliveness". A morph teeming video version of her
students's architecture-based hyper-document played behind her, offering
visual evidence of an a-rational visual a-logic at work. Ms. Bloomer,
all told, offered a highly complex and detailed account of the
a-rational as an inward design tool based in the theoretical constructs
of the feminine (and by extenuation, the cyberfeminine).

Next was Catherine Ingraham, who delivered a nuanced and pleasantly
baffling paper around ideas of woman as animal in architectural space
and this woman/animal's "scene of evidence". She also introduced the
rapier idea of "sentimental hyper-specificity" into the conference; a
sentiment that she defined as both "too specific" and "too general". All
told, her talk was quite formidable in its versatile span; a span which
leaves most other non-cyberfeminist cultural critics looking dismally
vapid and parochial.

Following lunch, I scurried between the two remaining sessions;
"Interdisciplinarity: Transversalities and Transgressions" and
"Transversalities, Transgressions and Architecture", first catching
Mireille Calle-Gruber's lecture on the space of the third body (which I
did not understand). Next, I heard Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger's
brilliantly dense oration concerning "matrixial swerving, borderspacing
and borderlinking". Ms. Lichtenberg Ettinger outlined what she calls a
matrixial trans-subjective space and put forth a resonant definition of
art as that which serves as a transport-station which allows for
occurrences and encounters with matrixial trans-subjective space. Her
paper was so dense with ideas that my brain's capacity felt
transgressed, which in Ms. Lichtenberg Ettinger's terms might mean that
I was having an impeccable art experience - in that for her art is the
transport space which allows encounters with trauma. Concepts such as
the non-phallic quality of the web, co-emergent death drives, trauma
traces, the artist as women (regardless of the sex of the artist),
subject as net, co-fading fantasy, and art as "transcriptum" tumbled
over and into me through a seemingly transverse transference
methodology. Vast in its cerebral reach, I shall not attempt a pithy
summary here but merely direct the reader's attention to Ms. Lichtenberg
Ettinger; a fascinating artist, psychoanalyst and feminist theorist.

Head quaking, I jumped track to catch the conclusion of Katie Lloyd
Thomas's presentation on "crossing the line" a little too late to get a
grasp on the material and all of Helen Stratford's presentation based
upon a theory of micro resistance; an analysis of micro operations in
terms of bio and biotechnological organisms. Here viral mental agents
are poised against totalitarian thinking and incremental inclusions are
opposed to revolutionary ruptures.

At that point I was thoroughly cooked, and so, without reservation,
withdrew.

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So, how to syncopate such a rich intellectual stew? On reflection, what
I sensed emerging (in terms of my theoretical interests) was a
cyberfeminine reconciliation between Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's
rhizomatization (multiplicitious/heterogeneous) and an emerging
interdisciplinary totalization based neither on reductive purisms nor
fragmentary isolationisms, but upon sympathetic community connectivity
(i.e. Matrix + matrixial swerving). These supposed opposing tendencies
seemed to be reconciled by the notion of an a-rational electronic
hyper-total; an immersive sphere of connecting vectors which suggest an
enveloping cyberfeminine-matrixical communal space.

Indeed, Niran Abbas suggested as much when she, reflecting upon Donna
Haraway's aforementioned cyberfeminist dea ex machina theory, said,
"What is particularly interesting about Haraway's conception is that
such political empowerment is constituted from textuality - from women's
collected voices, stories, and myths. A community emerges within the
cyberspatial matrix: women responding to one another's dialogue through
digitized conversation. Cyborg politics demand that we reimagine social
and political possibilities for communicating through electronic media."
This attitude, especially when taken to the next non-exclusionary level,
seems to harmonize with Nancy Peterson's definition of cyberfeminism as
a "philosophy which has the potential to create a poetic, passionate,
political identity and unity without relying on a logic and language of
exclusion or appropriation". (*7) Given our (both men and women's)
heightening condition of connectivity, the heterogeneous,
multiplicitous, spreading and non-hierarchical nature of the
epistemological rhizome and the totality of the sympathetic communal
come together under the hyper (i.e. connected) effect of the
hyper-total.

I'm sure the reader will appreciate the difficulty in absorbing the wide
range of information presented in the span of two whole days (and of
course, given the parallel presentations, I could not hear everyone
speak) but most of what I heard could be folded into the above
theoretical construct, I think.

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footnotes:

(*1) for more information see: the work of VNS Matrix; an Australian
assemblage of artists/activists (http://www.aec.at/www-ars/matrix.html)
and (http://sysx.apana.org.au/artists/vns) - including their 1996.
'Flesh, the Postbody and Cyberfeminism' In Stocker, G. and Schoepf, C.
(eds.) 1996 "Memesis. The Future of Evolution". New York: Springer, p.
181

(*2) Plant, S. 1996. 'On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations' In
Shiels, R. ed. 1996. "Cultures of Internet". London: Sage, p. 182

(*3) Pesce, M. 1993. "Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in
Cyberspace", http://apache.org/~mpesce/fa.html

(*4) Haraway, D. 1991. "Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of
Nature". New York: Routledge

(*5) Haraway, D. 1983. "The Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women
in the Integrated Circuit: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism
in the 1980s or A Socialist Feminist Manifesto for Cyborgs" In "History
of Consciousness Board Report", University of California at Santa Cruz,
October, 1983

(*6) Deleuze, G. 1988. "Bergsonism". New York: Zone Books

(*7) Peterson, N. "Cyberfeminism"
(http://echonyc.com:70/0/Cul/Cyber/paterson)

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