Cyborgs, Hackers, Pirates

Women make the best robots, as Metropolis shows us.

Nina Power

metropolis-1927-002-poster-featuring-maria-00n-enb
Metropolis Poster (1927)

Cyborgs & Hackers

In 1984, two seminal accounts addressing the changing relationship between cultural theory and technology were published. One is Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1908s” and the other one is Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. While addressing two very different phenomena, and from two divergent perspectives, these two accounts, nevertheless, have proven to be equally influential in addressing the new relationship of humans and technology. The developments in digital technologies have changed almost all aspects of human life. What is interesting, however, is that even though the new technological landscape demanded the creation of new identities expressed in new language, it remained at the same time very much inscribed with traditional patriarchal structures. While Haraway’s account presents a feminist re-visioning of the female body as a hybrid between a human and a machine, Levy’s publication can be seen as the first definitive voice in what has since been seen as the masculinisation of the hacker culture (Herbst 2008, 39). As Claudia Herbst argues in Sexing Code: Subversion, Theory and Representation: “The wild west served as a metaphor for the World Wide Web and hackers took on the role of the lone cyber cowboy, an association, Paul Taylor (1999) writes, that encourages the projection of machismo personality onto hackers.”[1] (2008, 42)  The persona of a hacker, therefore, has been coded as inherently “male” in the popular imagination.

Haraway’s manifesto is a response to the tendency to present the area of (digital) technology as “masculine.” In “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” the theorist argues that “the cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, post-modern collective and personal self… [yet] this is the self that feminists must code.” (Quoted in Balsamo 1999, 151) Haraway has influenced later theorisation of female bodies in cyberfeminist discourse by radically re-imagining female bodies, which, having been delegated to a servile position by patriarchal capitalist system, demonstrate a subterranean affinity with machines. As Chela Sandoval notes, “Haraway’s cyborg is the ‘illegitimate’ child of dominant society and oppositional social movement, of science and technology, of the human and the machine, of ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds, of male and female, indeed of every binary.” (1999, 251) Cyborg body is a body which, in its “monstrosity” resists the ideologically inscribed primacy of “nature” over technology.

The equation of cyborg body with feminine body comes from the assertion, proposed by Cora Kaplan, among others, that “[t]he instability of ‘femininity’ as female identity is a specific instability, pointing to the fractured and fluctuant condition of all consciously held identity, the impossibility of a will-full, unified and cohered subject.” (Quoted in Balsamo 1999, 151) The condition of cyborg femininity, therefore, rests on the assumption that female bodies are as fractured and fragmented as female identities.

battleofcircuitboy
vns matrix :: Dentata and Circuit Boy :: Still from All New Gen https://vnsmatrix.net/all-new-gen/

The cyborg was adopted by cyberfeminist artists in the 1990s as a quite literal amalgamation of a female body and a machine. VNS Matrix’s All New Gen’ (installation and computer game, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1993, https://vnsmatrix.net/all-new-gen/) is a video game in which the players follow the female main protagonist, ANG, in her “quest to sabotage the databanks of Big Daddy Mainframe,” as the collective explains on the website. The figures of DNA Sluts, who are ANG’s allies, present a curious hybrid of female, animal and robotic bodies, with their genitals prominently highlighted. As the member of VNS Matrix, Virginia Barratt noted,

“We’re interested in talking about technology and the body, putting some sorts of guts and viscera into that clean and sterile environment and talking about sex. That’s so antithetical to the sterile computer environment android, without flesh, without biological fluids.” (Way 2016, 189)

VNS Matrix emphasised and even exaggerated strictly feminine features of the body in an ironic manner as a cyberfeminist tactic.

Haraway’s cyborg is also an answer to the sexualisation of female androids in the mainstream cyber culture. Nancy Paterson, a Canadian media theorist who is credited as the author of one of the first critical texts devoted to new digital technologies and feminism (Paasonen 2011, 339), describes this conundrum of facing up to the sexist connotations between female bodies and machines in popular culture:

“Cinema addressed the desire to anthropomorphize machines and vilify women in the process as early as 1927 in Fritz Lang’s cult classic Metropolis. Sex, danger, women and machines: the plot of virtually every futuristic, sci-fi movie in which women play any role at all. Cyberfemmes are everywhere, but cyberfeminists are few and far between.” (Author’s emphasis, Paterson 1992, par. 3)

ava
ALICIA VIKANDER AS AVA IN EX MACHINA (GARLAND, 2015).

Paterson’s solution to this power imbalance is different from Haraway’s theorisation of cyborg body; instead, state-of-the-art digital technologies (with Internet being the chief one) serve to concoct new, bodiless identities for cyberfeminists: “The body, in virtual space, is no mere user-interface; VR offers the chance to trade-in, remodel, or even leave behind the physical nature with which we are, in reality, burdened.” (1992, par. 15) Using technology as a subversive tool, cyberfeminists acquire the possibility of engineering their new virtual bodies and identities, away from the constraints of social and biological reality. In that sense, women appropriate positions viewed traditionally as “masculine” such as that of a hacker, computer programmer or IT specialist.

While attempting to present the female body as a radically feminist cybernetic synthesis of the human and the machine, early cyberfeminists seem to have inadvertently followed in the footsteps of the patriarchal tradition of depicting female bodies as sexualised servant-machines. The fragmentation of (female) bodies, as well as the fusion of mechanistic and human characteristics has strong connotations with Surrealist aesthetic; specifically, a method of assembling collages of images and words, known as “exquisite corpse” (Matheson 2006, 350). The female body, the corpse and the machine form a surreal assemblage in Salvador Dali’s The Seven Lively Arts. Art of Radio (c. 1944, destroyed, unknown media, unknown measures). Here, the female body is not only split into pieces; it consists of a juxtaposition of organic elements (heads are substituted by apples, further dehumanising the body), two sexualised and fragmented bodies and a microphone. In Dali’s work, the female body is equated with the device as a “desiring machine,” in an act of surrealist displacement, emptying the body of any notions of agency and authority. Fragmentation and hybridity likewise feed into the patriarchal notion of the female body. This pictorial tradition plays a definitive role in the depiction of female cyborgs and androids in contemporary popular culture.[2]

dali
SALVADOR DALI, THE SEVEN LIVELY ARTS. ART OF RADIO, C. 1944, DESTROYED

 

(Gender) Pirates

a00089_VNS Matrix - A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century_web

In the new media theory in the 1990s, the Internet was hailed as an alternate universe where the dominant patriarchal, racist and colonial ideology can be subverted.[3] This utopian vision is expressed in Australian cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix’s Manifesto. Written in 1991, the text draws on hacker culture with its promise of “infiltrating disrupting disseminating/ corrupting the discourse.” This manifesto expresses the need to, on the one hand, expose the bias lingering in the everyday use of language, as well as technical and academic discourse, and, on the other hand, to completely disrupt the networks of techno-scientific patriarchy.

The idea of piracy, which has been influential in radio art discourse for decades before the advent of the Internet, quickly found its way into Internet discourse. While the persona of a hacker has found more resonance in cyber culture as a symbol of an outsider, infiltrating and subverting existent power structures, piracy has retained its relationship to the sonic realm in digital discourse, denoting an act of illegal music file sharing. It is therefore interesting to witness the adoption of the persona of the pirate by feminist radio practitioners in Canada in the 1990s.

Perhaps the outmoded and slightly ridiculous self-stylisation as a pirate by Canadian artists owes to the contemporary discussion of pirate utopias, as a historical system of secret islands, sustaining a network of outlawed seamen (see Wilson 1995 and Ludlow 2001).[4]  This idea has fuelled the discussion of the anarchist potential of piracy in cyberspace. On the one hand, the appropriation of the persona of the pirate by artists echoes the centuries-old trope of an artist-outsider, transgressing social and political norms and living on the fringes of society. On the other hand, cyber-piracy developed in the 1990s alongside the concept of cyberspace, a utopian environment still largely devoid of any national and corporate control. Up until 1990s, piracy retained its association with locality in radio art discourse, as pirate radio’s broadcast range would usually reach small communities within particular area. Nevertheless, the subsequent cross-fertilisation of Internet and radio technologies has meant that radio broadcast has become able to potentially reach anyone in any place at any given time.

Canadian media landscape has proven especially receptive to the critical discourse surrounding pirate radio as a medium of artistic expression. One of the most influential theorists and radio art producers, Heidi Grundmann, asserts that “[r]adio art in Canada has developed outside of the institution of public radio.” (2001, 237) This suggests that the idea of piracy has had much more potency in Canadian media landscape, as the artists have always already been positioned in resistance to the mainstream radio. While one can see the idea of a pirate as an anachronism, the adoption of the term by such artists as Bobbi Kozinuk, Kim Sawchuk and Anna Friz signals that they, like cyberfeminists with their adoption of the role of the hacker, saw the appropriation of this gendered persona as an act of “corrupting the discourse.”

Historically, pirate radio has been seen as an advocate for local political issues. This position has been espoused by a Japanese artist Tetsuo Kogawa, who, having started the micro-FM movement in 1982 (Kogawa 1994, 287), has been organising workshops ever since, teaching people how to assemble their own transmitters. Kogawa sees radio as a means of a two-way conversation, with the micro-FM transmitter facilitating communication between members of communities living within one particular area of a city. The micro-FM radio movement has since spread around the world, paving the way for many generations of radio artists.

In 1992, Kogawa was invited to organise a workshop at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada by the organisers of Radio Rethink, an exhibition and series of events centred on radio art. This event had proven to be very influential for a Canadian radio artist Bobbi Kozinuk, who felt empowered by the skills that she learned at the workshop: “Similarly, when I first looked at radio transmitters, they seemed impossibly complex and inaccessible — it wasn’t until I saw Tetsuo creating one that I realized that such technology was within my grasp.” (Kozinuk 2010, 138) Interestingly, the investigation into the pirate radio technology has served the artist as a metaphor for inquiry into gender binary as a social construct:

“I find this situation to be analogous to when I first began exploring my gender identity — navigating a need for a more feminine gender expression despite the limitations of a social framework where I was assigned a male gender at birth […].” (Kozinuk 2010, 138-139)

Kozinuk sees herself as a gender pirate, with radio technology as her tool box. Piracy, then, signifies a theft or appropriation of technology for subversive ends. Kogawa’s micro-FM radio transmitters were subversive due to their emphasis on the two-way communication and flexibility of the roles of listeners and producers of radio. The active implication of users/listeners of radio technology in the making of technology itself is one of the operational modes of pirate radio. The availability of open source software and new networking technologies has subsequently re-defined the idea of piracy in relationship to digital technologies. The empowerment that comes with the ability to navigate technological discourse is paralleled in the DIY culture of cyberfeminism of the 1990s, which was invested in making technology more accessible to women, as it is argued by Paterson (1992). An example of this attempt may be the practice of Limor Fried, aka Ladyada, who, in 2005, started a company designing and reselling open source electronic kits, components and tools.

radio rethink
Photo of a live broadcast staged at Radio Rethink, Banff Centre, Alberta Canada, 1992 (Bull 1993, fig.1).

From the 1990s onwards, the persona of the pirate has acquired a new meaning in radio art discourse: an agent of transnational hacker culture. Piracy signals a mode of transgressing the binaries, of adopting the position of an outsider, who infiltrates the largely male-dominated culture of technological expertise.

Kim Sawchuk’s radio-play/performance titled Pirate Writing: Radiophonic Strategies for Feminist Techno-Perverts (1992), presented as part of Radio Rethink, is centred on her appropriation of the persona of a pirate:

“Pirate subjectivity provides a potential metaphor for understanding my feminist appropriation of language and radio technology. Like women who often work with technology but rarely own or control it, we must search for ways to explain our ambiguous relationship to its seductions; we are both excluded and complicit. […] Like women in relationship to phallocentric cultures, pirates are border creatures crossing languages, power, money, genders, dependent upon tools, such as compasses to navigate our way through these territories, but at the same time susceptible to the vagaries of the natural elements.” (Sawchuk 1994, 203)

Drawing on Sawchuk’s discussion of radio broadcast, imagined as a certain “territory,” where the traditional distinctions between countries and languages and other such denominators cease to exist, one observes the way in which the fascination with cyberspace and virtual reality has influenced the perception of radio as a spatial practice. Radio technology is a tool, a compass, allowing feminist artists to navigate this unknown and often hostile environment. Furthermore, Sawchuk’s radio play explores how female artists learn to grapple with and use technology, highlighting the errors and failures that inevitably happen along the way:

“The Control Room as an Instrument. / Radio trepidation. The terror you feel as you walk into the control room alone. You have your songs, your tapes organized. […] Will you be able to make them work? Will you be able to move your body in and around the studio with the practiced ease of the regular controls?” (Sawchuk 1994, 210).

Thus, radio art is always about the movement, whether it is the movement of the body in the recording booth, or the movement of the virtual body in the radiophonic space, weaving in and out of the narrative soundscapes.

Sawchuk’s idea of space projected by the radio broadcast is indebted to the ideas of virtual reality and “the emancipatory potentiality of technology [as] the very basis of cyberfeminism.” (Doran 2018, par. 5) Rather than seen from the perspective of technology enabling communication within local groups, after Kogawa’s micro-FM transmitter tradition, Sawchuk’s idea of radio space reminds one of the anonymous, transnational space of the early Internet years, where “one can virtually embody a self beyond the confines of the physical body, with its sexed, gendered, racialized, and classed connotations.” (Doran 2018, par. 2) While Sawchuk explores her family history in the play, examining the sense of displacement inherited as part of history of emigration, her coping mechanism is to re-invent herself through various voices donned by her in her artistic practice:

“Pirate writing is an act of thievery where I reconstitute my self on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that has marked me, a world at every turn mediated, affecting my self-perceptions and perceptions of others.” (Sawchuk 1994, 206)

This act of assuming a different identity in the radiophonic space can be compared to Internet-based practice of “identity tourism,” a term coined by Lisa Nakamura, which is “the process by which members of one group try on for size the descriptors generally applied to persons of another race or gender.” (Quoted in Daniels 2009, 109) Daniels argues, however, that the ability to escape one’s race or gender identity “rests on an assumption of an exclusively text-based online world that belies the reality of digital video and photographic technologies.” (2009, 111) As Sawchuk suggests in Pirate Writing, the lack of visible dimension to radio broadcast creates a perfect environment for practicing “identity tourism.” The disembodied voice becomes for her a powerful tool of emancipation from gender and class oppression.

While the idea of piracy as a means of emancipation and liberation from the constraints of gender and/or class features prominently in the work of both Sawchuk and Kozinuk, another Canadian artist, Anna Friz, presents a more nuanced approach to the relationship between piracy and the virtual space of the broadcast. In her work The Clandestine Transmissions of Pirate Jenny, developed between 2000 and 2003, Friz explores the idea of radio broadcast as a self-contained, virtual space inhabited by people whose voices are heard via radio. The work was presented in various forms as live gallery performance, live radio broadcast and on community and pirate radio channels (Ouzounian 2008, 219). The titular Jenny travels through this virtual space, emitting SOS signals in hope of establishing contact with other “radio voices,” tweaking her radio transmitter to simultaneously receive signals. Friz adopted the figure of Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht, which is significant due to German theorist’s influence on radio art discourse as an advocate of radio as a bi-directional communication medium. In her discussion of Friz’s practice, Gascia Ouzounian remarks that “early radio was conceived as ‘an extraordinary connection between individuals across space.’” (2008, 213) Ouzounian further argues that,

“As radio became increasingly regulated by nation-states, the dream of a transceptive radio—one that could link multiple senders and receivers—dissipated. In its wake, radio re-emerged as a tool for state control, a mass medium, a unidirectional apparatus designed to establish the ‘voice of a nation.’” (2008, 214)

Friz, however, goes beyond Brechtian dream of radio as a language-based communication technology, and imagines the “in-between places of the radio” as “uncharted airwaves rich in meaning and potential.” (Friz 2010, 173) Jenny travels through space alone, (unsuccessfully) attempting to establish contact with other “radiobodies”/ “voicebodies.” (Whitehead 1996, 99) Friz’s approach likewise diverges from both Kogawa’s idea of radio communication as a symbol of the communal and the local, as well as Sawchuk’s idea of radio space as an emancipatory space. Instead, the connection between piracy and radio waves serves Friz to contextualise radiophonic space as a vast, uncharted, virtual territory, not dissimilar to the placelessness of the early Internet space.

In her work, radio becomes “self-conscious” (Friz 2010, 173) and ceases to be considered simply a tool for broadcasting. The radical potential of pirate radio is its ability to not only transmit (subversive) information using nationally-controlled communication channels, but also to question the ideology of radio communication in general; the white noise, the static and the occasional obscure signals create a landscape or “a field of relationships,” (Friz 2010, 168) the meaning of which is elusive and unstable, and demands skills in deciphering and decoding the messages hidden in “the noise of unoccupied frequencies.” (Kwastek 2008, 136) The loneliness of Jenny is a metaphor for the idiosyncratic position of women invested in technological discourse, often dismissed and ignored by mainstream culture.

 

Conclusions

Ever since radio waves became subject of governmental regulations, the metaphor of piracy began to be used in order to signify interference with the official broadcasting spectrum. Radio has been, since its invention, understood in spatial terms, as a wireless communication network between localised stations. The metaphors of radio waves and piracy have been employed in order to help visualise the new technology to the general public. However, the advancement of Internet and digital technologies influenced the understanding of radio as a virtual space and gave new meaning to the metaphor of the pirate. On the one hand, the visualisation of the Internet in spatial terms has been indebted to the earlier metaphorical descriptions of wireless technologies such as radio, with the adoption of terms such as “surfing” to denote perceived movement around the virtual spaces of the Internet. On the other hand, piracy gained a new meaning in terms of hacker culture and cyberfeminism.

Seeking an entry point into the “masculinised” world of technological expertise, cyberfeminist artists adopted gendered personas as their avatars, signifying a need to challenge the prejudicial connotation between technology and sexualised female bodies. The persona of the pirate was adopted by Canadian feminist discourse to denote the condition of being an outsider, who, through the act of “thievery” or hacktivism can subvert and destabilise the patriarchal order. Kozinuk’s experiences as a transgender radio producer, engineer and artist manifest the belief that access to technical expertise should be at the forefront of feminist activism. Echoing Paterson’s argument, the artist believes that radio technology can become a tool for emancipation from the dominant power structures. Sawchuk’s radio play likewise chronicles the emancipatory power of the access to technology. Radio allows the artist to play with a variety of voices and personas, mirroring the anonymity and changeability of Internet avatars. Friz’s early radio art likewise seems to be informed by the developing Internet discourse, with her treatment of radio space parallel to the understanding of the Web as a vast and unexplored territory. Rather than seeing it in utopian terms, however, Friz seems to see the idea of piracy in somewhat contentious terms, acknowledging the marginal positioning of the persona of the pirate as both subversive but also lacking real agency in the virtual world.

***

 

[1] Herbst, nevertheless, argues that even in the gendered environment of early Internet and hacker culture, female hackers and activists such as Judith Milhon, Cornelia Sollfrank and Anne-Marie Schleiner managed to negotiate a space for feminist agenda, opposing the masculinisation of technology (2008, 44-46). This version of the story of hacking remains marginalised.

[2] See Paterson’s (1992) critique of the figures of Molly in Neuromancer (Gibson 1984), Maria in Metropolis (Lang 1927) and Melanie Griffith in the film Cherry 2000 (De Jarnatt 1987). Feeding into that trend, although with a dose of critical distance, is the film Ex Machina (Garland 2015) with its depiction of a female android Ava (Alicia Vikander).

[3] The role of Internet and virtual reality in addressing the power imbalance of genders has since been contested (see Daniels 2009, Paasonen 2011, Hester 2017).

[4] In “The Temporary Autonomous Zone” (1985) anarchist theorist Hakim Bey describes the network of pirate islands as a prototype of the Internet: “The Sea-Rovers and Corsairs of the 18th century created an ‘information network’ that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably.” (Quoted in Ludlow 2001, 401)

 

Image credit: VNS Matrix. 1993. “DNA Sluts,” taken from All New Gen.’ Installation and computer game. Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide. https://vnsmatrix.net/all-new-gen/ 

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