When you open a self-proclaimed “sourcebook documenting the work of women in media” you expect a collection of works that maps out uncharted territory – which, at first glance, seems like a noble cause. At second glance though, what you get with this book is a terribly confused mass of text, randomly chosen as representative from a bunch of women working for the last thirty years at the forefront of media art. It does not expose the richness and diversity of approaches by female media practitioners – in contrary it obfuscates its key themes. It doesn't answer some basic questions that a topic like women, art and technology implies. Which women, which art and which technologies are being addressed - and to what end? And worse, apparently, the editors didn't consider them at all.
"We navigate this volume knowing that at the turn of the century many paths emerge from the matrix where art, technology and gender intertwine," muses the editor, Judy Malloy, in her preface. Further exploration of how these topics relate would have been appreciated. The reader is left with a phenomenological description of unrelated art works. Regardless of the twenty-one pages of introductory texts that lengthily describe the Leonardo Journal of Electronic Arts, and the history and context of bringing this book to print, there is no explanation of Leonardo's motives for publishing this particular collection of texts, nor the goal of this accumulated material.
After all these forewords the book finally begins with the Overviews section, five essays that elaborate on different sets of women's media practice from the past thirty years. Neither historical, nor chronological, the section does little to inform the reader of discourses that would potentially frame the artists' papers or contextualize their work. Patric D. Prince's straightforward account of the 60s era "pioneer women" of early interactivity is interesting, but the reader cannot glean any connection to the socially and politically engaged accounts of the same time by Margaret Morse and Sheila Pinkel in the same section.
These two authors describe radically changing cultural environments, ripe for new forms of expression, which according to Morse encouraged "an egalitarian impetus opposed to the one-way and hierarchical relations in society at large" that paved the way for interactive work. She goes on to tackle the slippery semantics of interactivity with her careful exploration of the terminology used to describe the relationships that exist in "computer mediated art." Sheila Pinkel in her essay “Women, Body, Earth” opts for Art. Her version of the 60s includes performance, feminist deconstructions of media, and a survey of well known women artists. Interestingly, in her version, technology takes the back stage to the issues at stake when the “transgressive imagination became the terrain for frontiers of meaning.”Paper Tigers [Artist's Paper as a Genre]
The artist's paper plays a central role both in the Leonardo Journal and in this publication. But what exactly is an artist's paper? Is it a critique, a careful consideration of the work and its place in the context of media art? Or a public relations statement from the artist? Empirically, it appears to be a hybrid format combining everything from technical project descriptions and hardware lists to critical theory and personal anecdotes about ‘my first video camera’.
It is presumptuous to think that artists need to write about their work. Why should they? Their job is making art. While some of the artists published here have a way with words that lends credence to their work and make it more interesting, others are less fortunate, and their papers lead to confusion about their work. One of the presented artists Judith Barry explains this nicely: "If I were to describe all of the different graphic techniques that were used in the production of just this section of the project [...] it would be a rather long essay that would not allow the reader to really experience the effects I'm describing." This is true of many of the artists' papers, which read more like technical descriptions and leave the reader cold: who needs to know how many video-disc players and light sensors are used in an installation.
Some of the artists' papers even received the honorary label “classic”. Aside from appearing in print in the last ten years, there is nothing to indicate the critera used to distinguish classic artist papers or explain how they achieve this status. Classics are commonly understood as landmarks, works that mark a signifcant shift in a given field. Relying on technical descriptions of work does little to trace the artists’ influences – and offers even less in terms of the kind of discourse that defines landmark work.
The concluding essays have the proud role of “set[ting] the stage for a future new media practice that is diverse and inclusive." This section is especially troubling, as it includes both texts that describe the medialized work of women from poor countries, and work that deals with race, which are contradicted by essays that suggest a lack of access to new media prohibits more women producing media art. In spite of Martha Burkle Bonecchi's account of technology's forgotten women in poor countries, there is no shortage of women around the world using media and doing what many artists who resist a capitalist and technocratic view of art do: reflect, criticize and assess the world around them.
With this sourcebook, women media artists are officially included in the Leonardo canon. However, staking out this territorial claim in the name of inclusion is done so by means of exclusion. Of the forty contributors to this book, all (except one) live in rich, western countries. Thirty-four are north Americans. Not even one Japanese artist is included. The total lack of artists outside the wealthy west is justified through peripheral mentions in the essays – justifying a current lack with a future presence.
While Valerie Soe's “Video Arte Povera: Lo-fi rules!” is included amoung the artist papers, Simone Osthof's essay expands on women in Brazil working with limited technical resources – not included in the book. It appears that choosing to work with low-tech is valid only when one is based in a rich country.
An inspired reading of one meta-narrative might allow for some connections to be established between the essays and the artists' papers – clearly, Lynn Hershman is aware of the ecological art cited by Pinkel and produced by the Harrisons, but how deep does that awareness go when she applauds interactive art because “it does not pollute the environment,” forgetting the damaging effects of computer chip production. While the field may appear self-evident, this book’s seeming focus on “new media” does little to redress that sphere’s lack of critical inquiry into how the work functions outside its own hermetic feed-back loop. One of the few interesting texts is Zoe Sofia's excellent essay Contested Zones: Futurity and Technological Art which closes the book. She rejects a universally shared destiny and calls for an “interrogation of accounts of the future.”
Unfortunately, the editor of Women, Art and Technology didn't listen to her. So the reader leaves the book feeling that perhaps something has gotten lost in the humdrum of neophilia, this unconditional love for the new that new media enthusiasts succumb to: a sense of tradition, of knowing what one’s predecessors were doing. New media needs art history.