Boycott? BOYcott!

Douglas Edric Stanley


This is a complex and difficult post to begin, because the issue requires a certain precision, the context needs to be described in order to understand what’s at issue, a lot of false rhetorical traps need to be avoided, and yet meanwhile it is very late and I need to get some sleep before doing some more work tomorrow this morning on a work I’m presenting at Villette Emergences. As you can see, I’m already at my second sentence and I haven’t even told you what the debate is about.

So it all started for me three days ago when I received an email from a colleague at The University of Paris 8 (Nathalie Fougeras) who was more or less pulling me into a debate about the lack of women at the very same Villette Emergences I was getting ready for. As a consequence of this absence, several women were calling for a boycott of the festival in protest of consistent sexism in the choice of artists represented in digital arts festivals in France. And while this might seem to some an extreme reaction, or an overly simplistic reduction of the complexity of putting together a festival, it is still a position I wholly defend — even if I’m one of the artists involved. I don’t take it personally, as this is ultimately not an issue of so-and-so (contrary to what some believe) and instead is really about the field as a whole, about the community as a whole, and how the ecology of creation ultimately suffers when a male-centric viewpoint takes over any subject.

Apparently, after quite a bit of debate on the Art Sensitif forum, very few men wanted to take a position on the subject. Although this is not the first time I have encountered this reaction in France, it always surprises me, especially given that in other parts of the world, and in other contexts, the question is such a non-issue. At least no one is going out of their way to deny iit.

For example, coming back from ISEA/ZeroOne, I can very well report that women are — gasp! — indeed existent and productive the field of digital arts — and that’s ranging from robotics, hacktivism, experimental interfaces, games, biotechnlogies, programing, and so on. Every single issue that is apparently a guy-centric one “by nature” — take electronics for example — had some of the most interresting work coming from women. Now, that is not to say that there are not more men than women programming in my experimental programming lab. Yes, I work more with young male artists than I do with young female artists. I am not going to defend this, or try to prove the contrary, because it is simply not the issue here. The issue is one of what sort of work is being defended, supported, generated, presented, and yes, financed — and might I add that this last ingredient is far less indicitive than people make it out to be.

There are a lot of messy ideas you have to wade to when talking to people about this issue. But there’s one that’s so recurrent, no matter how idiotic. So let’s be clear: no, you do not have to dumb-down the selection in order to get “quality” work from women into art festivals and museums. But you do in some cases have to go out and look for it. However, I only see this as a temporary problem. Little by little you don’t even have to really look for it anymore, because you then realize that this work has been there all along. You don’t need to do much work to find women when you know the field pretty well. But apparently this is a hard one to understand for a lot of people over here in France. Hmmm, that’s funny. I wonder if that has anything to do with my recent complaints about about many french festival curators not even knowing the major players in the field, let alone important historial figures. Now, I myself don’t have the time, like everyone else, to follow everything — but there are limits.

This is clearly a subject that will require further blogging. But I have to stop here, because I’m literally falling alseep at the keyboarddddddddddddddddddd

*Update: I forgot to mention. There is now an overcrowded website (under construction) dedicated to this debate.

Update++: For those that have suggested that the subject “art + videogames” made it more difficult than usual to find women, take note: as I mentioned in a post a while back on Videogames and their Artistic Reappropriations, I was asked by a festival to build a short list for them of artists and artworks working with games critically; and as testimony to what I have just suggested, without even looking for women many quite naturally found themselves in the list: Alison Mealy, Joan Heemskerk (yes, Joan is an example of a woman programmer/hacker, yes they exist), Nathalie Bookchin, along with women as part of collectives such as C-Level. Why? Because I actually tried to give a fairly obvious summary of interresting, let’s say near-canonical, work in this domain. Women will almost always find themselves in such lists. So let’s cut out the bullshit about no women in the field.

Original Comments:

2006-10-02 08:34:23


of course there are women in the field, i could add a couple of names to your list like anne-marie schleiner and jilian mcdonald but the ones i thought about (apart from france cadet or Margareth Jahrmann) and the works of most of the women you mention date back to a few years ago. on the other hand, emergences seemed to favour “new” projects to exhibit (whether it’s a good idea could fuel another debate). i might be wrong but i also feel that women tend to work on more subtle, less “in your face projects” than the one shown at la vilette. that might have been another curatorial choice: showing “easy to enjoy”, boom-boom projects made the exhibition super fun for kids and their parents and they might have thought that more challenging and subtle projects had no place in the exhibition.

so i’d place the debate on another ground: it wasn’t that much a question of gender that bothered me but the fact that the gaming culture was shown as a mono-colour entertaining discipline (don’t get me wrong i loooove the work of marnix de nijs and the furs guys are great, etc.), i’d have liked to see an exhibition that better reflected the various depths, trends and research themes of game culture today. works by women would have naturally fitted such exhibition.

2006-10-02 10:51:44

Douglas Edric Stanley

Yes. I originally thought something similar when it was suggested to me that the subject matter made it difficult to find women in the field. But then I remembered that my own humble attempt at getting someone up to speed on what are the « canonical » works, quite naturally included women. That is why the women I mention are a little « older » — I don’t really have the time, nor are paid, to go out and find what is « emerging ». I was simply mentioning that in the past there have always been women working in this field.

Isabelle Arvers made a similar comment, that she had already exhibited most of the women I mentioned several years ago, and then some. Further proof that it is possible.

You mentioned France Cadet, who has indeed created a work specifically dealing with violent in-your-face games with a very funny, typical Cadet-style interface. I have subsequently learned that Stéphane Cagnot — to his credit — tried to program this work for the festival. Should this change my original position on this? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. His entire crew reacted so dismissively to the original complaint, and saw it in such a binary light, that I still think it was important to react. There is a penis-mafia in France, it’s not just in the digital arts, but in our field we are specifically asking sociological, anthropological, political questions, so it is perfectly normal, in my humble opinion, to provoke this question. France Cadet is a perfect example of a woman who has been fairly harshly criticized in this country by people who have only turned around when people outside the country started taking notice of her work. And not everyone has « turned around their vest » as we say in French. So there is a problem, and I am perfectly willing to support any movement that says so. Even if I don’t agree 100% with the context, strategy, whatever. I think there should be a debate, and not get bogged down on the little details which are just excuses not to debate.

Often I myself in a very similar situation as Stéphane, and even just recently. During a presentation on generative art, I spoke of the role programming as a plastic process in our atelier, and how programming suggests an emergeant model leading sometimes but not always to generativity. I showed works by myself and a few others, mostly men, but not entirely. Myriam Gourfink followed my talk and she spoke of the algorithms she uses in her choreography. If you know her work, it’s anything but touchy-feely, the system she imposes on her dancers is pretty complex and analytical. But an audience member nevertheless took the mic and basically insulted my work (and Antoine Schmitt’s) as just a bunch of boys programming their toys, whereas Gourfink was using the body and in touch with reality. Like Stéphane of Emergences, I was pretty pissed off at the comment, and even saw a certain irony to it. I remembered way back when I worked on « La Morsure », I was told that certain forms of interaction my (female) collaborator had invented introduced « femininity » into the usually masculine-form of point and click. This was ironic because I was the one who had designed that part of the system they were describing (in fact fought for it). So this audience member’s comment was obnoxious and I probably should have just told her she was a cow and everyone would have left content (me sexist, her sexist, everyone maintains their position). But ultimately, I did agree that on some level, there is indeed a boy’s club in the programming world, and often consider that I’ve failed to introduce more women to programming as an accessible material. It is true that there are a lot of men who get into programming more convienently than women do, that it conforms to certain behaviour structures. So while I’ve taught with some brilliant women in the past — I’m thinking here of former students like Sara Elze who did some really interresting low-level work with programming structures and electronics, or of Julie Coadou who used programming as a sort of interface for her video narratives — it has been somewhat true that there is a boys club even in my atelier, much to my chagrin. Interrestingly Processing has changed this dynamic a bit, and last year we saw more women getting into the code. But there’s still a huge rift. It bores me and irritates me, so I would probably sign any petition against my own atelier if someone were to write it up!

Concerning the festival itself, I agree that the choice lacked a certain critical assessment of where the field is going, and what are the issues at stake. But I would be harsher than you and suggest that the 20 playstations lined up in a row would do little to convince anyone not already into gaming that this is an important cultural medium. It probably would have turned off all those that already do not like games. So I think it failed in its primary goal of « validating » games as an artistic medium.

But I do agree that some of the works were f§#@!¿! brilliant. A first-personal pinball(!), the now-mythical Painstation, the Beijing Accelerator, the ReacTable. These are all great things. I also really liked the Paris Pong. So there were individually some great things. But I saw no « exhibit », only a superposing of works.

2006-10-02 11:03:32


something to add to the “girlz rule!” discourse: