Women Art Technology

FALL 2012: V.08 N.02: FOUND – SAMPLED – STOLEN – STRATEGIES OF APPROPRIATION IN NEW MEDIA

 
Jennifer Way, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of North Texas

Across the humanities and social sciences scholars are studying how technology engages with –and also fosters– the ostensible radicalism of developments ranging from political revolutions to transformations in the ways we learn and communicate. In the art world, we inquire how works of art participate in these processes and contribute to their effects. Conversely, we may treat technology as a key index of art’s vanguardism. However, not all subjects figure into this profile. For example, questions about women or gender seem to remain beyond the tacit remit of our current research on technology.

Outside the art world, the situation differs. Governments, non-governmental organizations, and educational institutions worry about disparities between women’s and men’s access to –and involvement with– technology. Consequently, many aim to improve women’s success in technology-focused educational programs and professions. In contrast, the art world does not appear to be troubled by these issues, perhaps because so many individuals, groups, and organizations are extending and intensifying their reliance on technology to make, exhibit, study, teach, and preserve the visual arts, including technology-based art. Nevertheless, I propose that we redress a lack of knowledge about contemporary women’s individual and collective uses of technology in their work as artists, designers, educators, historians, art writers, museum and gallery staff, and arts administrators.

Why? Because scholars from a number of studies areas –women’s studies, gender studies, feminist technology studies, and the history of science and technology– who call attention to the mutual construction of gender and technology in respect to living subjects, contend that during the past and continuing in the present day, a “fundamental way in which gender is expressed in any society is through technology.” [1] Also, feminist technology scholars maintain that historically, modern Western societies associated the ability to create and wield technology with men and socialized women to perceive that what technology consists of, how it works, and what it may be used for is beyond their ken. Furthermore, they assert, “in contemporary Western society, the hegemonic form of masculinity is still strongly associated with technical prowess and power.” [2] Consequently, in their research, instead of attributing the creation of technology to individual geniuses who work alone, or fetishizing technology as mechanical, electronic, digital or informational machines that autonomously give rise to long series of innovations unilaterally shaping culture and society, they approach technology as “an ensemble of objects, knowledge, practices, and effects” [3] or as a “configuration of knowledge, things, organizations and people” [4] that dialogically shapes technology and selves, especially in respect to gender. This is all well and good, yet feminist technology scholars do not study artists using technology. Nor, arguably, do the emerging professionals of the art world. A survey of major indices tracking recently completed graduate research in art history and new media history, theory, criticism, and creative scholarship, for example, WorldCat dissertations and theses, Pro Dissertations & Theses, which includes the UMI Dissertation Publishing Group, and the Leonardo Abstracts Services, a “comprehensive database of abstracts of Ph.d, Masters and MFA theses in the emerging intersection between art, science and technology,” suggests we lack not only existing but also new work on women or gender, art and technology in general and concerning veritably any subtopic that comes to mind.

In response, during 2009 I established Women Art Technology as an ongoing ethnography that conducts oral history interviews with any individual who self identifies as female age eighteen or older, and is willing to respond to questions regarding how her professional activity in the art world involves technology. What technology means to her as she participates in the art world? How the technology she uses in the art world relates to technology outside the art world? In what ways she trained or trains to use technology? And, what if any advice she has for girls and young women interested in pursuing careers in art and technology? The interviews are conducted on a telephone in my university office and as they take place, a project-dedicated laptop captures them as digital audio files. The resulting electronic archive now holds over one hundred ten interviews lasting from about four to thirty-five minutes each.

Women Art Technology aspires to enlarge the purview of art and technology research with first person statements from living women discussing their definitions and interpretations of technology with emphasis on the uses they make of technology in the art world. To this end, the questions it asks them aim to cultivate a “‘micromacro’ linkage of everyday skills and techniques and political-economic activities; and detailed empirical observation and broad-ranging comparative analysis.” [5] Additionally, by underscoring use, the project positions its interviewees’ activity in a cultural studies account of use, that is, “within the broader cultural turn emphasizing the importance of consumption as the constitutive site of subjectivities and power.” [6] To this point, the project holds that “[c]ulture is not a series of objects or texts, it is a dynamic practice of making and becoming, using for these purposes, among other things, the cultural commodities made available by the culture industries,” with emphasis on what the interview subjects identify as technology. [7] Interestingly, some of them narrate processes of making and unmaking technologies in ways that seem to resist if not critique a growing conviction that from technology arises a convergence aesthetics comprised of and constituting a socially activist, comprehensive, even equitable polity and its subjects where technology in art is concerned.

Moreover, Women Art Technology “strive[s] to be collaborative and open-ended, rather than fixed and prescriptive.” [8] For one thing, it gives participants “access to the position of speaking subjects and ‘having a voice’ in our culture.” [9] What is more, the project’s Informed Consent Form urges each to ruminate self-reflexively, taking advantage of the opportunity to “reflect on the meaning and significance technology has for your work in the art world.” To get started, some request the oral history questions ahead of time.

The project emphasizes collaboration in its status as an educational initiative, too. Women Art Technologybecomes active only when I deliver it as an assignment in undergraduate and graduate art history courses devoted to the subject of art and technology. To facilitate student learning, I mentor and guide the students in conducting one or more interviews and completing post-interview self and comparative analyses. Together with oral history, I train them in autoethnography, the use of one’s personal experience and narrative as the basis for understanding cultural and social contexts. The two methods for studying living subjects expose the students to research concepts, perspectives and skills that they don’t learn in other art history courses, plus, they send a crucial message: the experience and agency of the self ­–including their self– matters in advancing what we know about relationships of society, culture, and technology. This last point represents a broad shift in scholarship involving the “subjective view, often criticized from a positivistic standpoint [that] has gradually come to be seen as an acceptable platform for the practice of research.” [10]

Several post-interview assignments reiterate the significance of these themes. For example, students comparatively analyze the interviews to assess the presence of community. They inquire whether the subjects express “a particularly constituted set of social relationships based on something [they] have in common – usually a common sense of identity” involving technology. [11] Often students become absorbed in exploring patterns in the ways that women who work in the same institution or region define technology or reflect on using it. For their autoethnography, students ask themselves and respond in writing to the same questions they posed to their interview subjects. Then, they compare their responses with their subjects’. Since, for many, technology is a pervasive, normative, and unquestioned part of their lives, the assignment challenges students to consider how what their subjects/s said may shed light on their own relationship with technology. Crucially, as it underscores the legitimacy of their lived experience for advancing knowledge, this assignment implicitly charges students to “make a commitment to understanding meaning from the perspective of those being interviewed” [12] and in a larger sense, to learn empathy – “[t]he desire to discover and make room for the worldview of others [that] suits a postmodern sensitivity, in which no one right form of knowledge exists and multiple viewpoints are acknowledged and valued.” [13] As a final assignment, students compare and contrast how an existing scholarly publication about technology and art either addresses or fails to take into account the insights they gleaned from their autoethnography and from the interviews they conducted. More often than not they discover that their own, and their subjects’ experiences, were not represented. Consequently, they are invited to propose ways of using the oral history interviews as “new communicative forms that can then intervene within particular electronic environments,” such as virtual classrooms, to remedy our lack of information about women using technology in the contemporary art world. [14]


REFERENCES

1.  Francesca Bray, “Gender and Technology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 36 (2007): 37.
2. Judy Wajcman, “Feminist Theories of Technology,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34 (2010): 145.
3.  Mary E. Hocks and Anne Balsamo, “Women Making Multimedia; Possibilities for Feminist Activism,” in Virtual Publics; Policy and Community in an Electronic Age, ed. Beth E. Koklo (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 200.
4.  Ruth Oldenziel, “Object/ions: Technology, Culture, and Gender, in Learning from Things, eds. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2006), 66.
5.  Bray, “Gender and Technology,” 47.
6.  Bray, “Gender and Technology,” 45.
7.  John Storey, Cultural Consumption and Everyday Life (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), xii.
8.  Mary E. Hocks and Anne Balsamo, “Women Making Multimedia; Possibilities for Feminist Activism,” 198.
9.  Christine Tamblyn, “ ‘She loves it, she loves it not’: Women and Technology, Leonardo 28, no. 2 (1995): 104.
10.  Margot Duncan “Autoethnography: Critical Appreciation of an Emerging Art,” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 3 (2004): 30.
11.  John Scott, and Gordon Marshall, “Community,” A Dictionary of Sociology (Oxford University Press, 2009),http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t88.e337 (accessed January 20, 2012).
12.  Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, The Practice of Qualitative Research (London: Sage, 2006), 162.
13.  Margot Duncan “Autoethnography: Critical Appreciation of an Emerging Art,” 30.
14.  Mary E. Hocks and Anne Balsamo, “Women Making Multimedia; Possibilities for Feminist Activism,” 209.


Bio:

Dr. Jennifer Way is Associate Professor-Art Education and Art History, Affiliated Faculty Women’s Studies; Founding member IARTA art/technology Research Cluster, and teaches courses in the history, theory and methodology of art since 1900 in the College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas.