subRosa/Ryan Griffis :: Tandedm Surfing the
Third Wave 3
Tandem Surfing the Third Wave: Part 3, interview with subRosa
This interview was conducted between subRosa and Ryan Griffis via email correspondence during the first half of 2003.
subRosa is an artists collective that produces performative and new media projects that critique the relationships between digital technologies, biotechnologies and women’s bodies/lives/work. subRosa was initiated in the fall of 1998 as a project at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, from which it has evolved into its current form, a collective of five women dispersed throughout the US. A new book, Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices, edited by Faith Wilding, Michelle Wright and Maria Fernandez, was recently released by the group and published by Autonomedia Books.Current members are: Steffi Domiki, Laleh Mehran, Lucia Sommer, Hyla Willis and Faith Wilding. subRosa can be found on the Web at www.cyberfeminism.net.
Could you briefly discuss cyberfeminism and how it relates to other historical versions of feminism and critical theory?
The question of how to define cyberfeminism is at the heart of the often contradictory contemporary positions of women working with new digital technologies and feminist politics. (1) Cyberfeminism (CF) appeared toward the end of the 80's as a promising new wave of (post)feminist thinking and practice that began to contest technologically complex territories. By 2003 cyberfeminism is still a controversial and puzzling term--as was made evident by a recent lively exchange on the Undercurrents listserve. (Undercurrents is a list-serve discussing intersections of cyberfeminism, postcoloniality and technology; it was initiated by Coco Fusco, Maria Fernandez, Faith Wilding and Irina Aristarkhova in 2002). In fact, the attempt to avoid defining cyberfeminism became a central tenet for Old Boys Network, a cyberfeminist group that is attempting to create a CF politics and practice of dissent [dissence] rather than adopt a univocal political position or program. Not surprisingly though, the refusal to define a politics grounded in specificity often ends up reinforcing existing structured inequities such as those of race and class.
Members of subRosa differ in our politics, practices, and everyday life conditions, but we agree that perhaps the most urgent issue for cyberfeminist and feminist practice and theory currently is that of seeking female affiliations that respect difference and create productive projects in solidarity with others who are working on similar issues.
subRosa believes that cyberfeminism is theoretically and historically grounded in feminist philosophies and embodied in political, cultural and social practices. Crucially, CF needs to be informed by postcolonial theories and critiques of technological culture and representational politics. Areas of CF intervention and practice include research on the specific impact of ICT (Information & Communications Technologies) on different populations of women globally--including highly educated professional women in academia, the sciences, medical, and computer industries, as well as clerical and factory workers in the just-in-time telecommunications and home-work industry, and rural and urban women working in electronic parts factories and assembly sweat-shops. In order to strategize CF practices we must examine the impact of the new technologies on women's sexuality and subjectivities; the conditions of production and reproduction––always already linked for women; gender roles, social relations, and public and private space; and we need to contest the naturalized value placed on speed and efficiency when they take no heed of the limits and needs of the organic body. In the aftermath of colonialism, there are more migrants, refugees and exiles than ever before and many of these migrants are women. As women from developing countries increasingly become the home-service and child-care labor employed by wealthier families—as well as the world’s electronic parts manufacturers, assemblers, and data maintenance workers--the lives of women are mutually reliant across divisions of race, class, and nationality. Far from being subjects irrelevant to electronic media and cyberfeminism, these migrant populations are often the result of devastations caused by the interventions of empire. We must begin de-colonization in our own networks and embodied relations. CF must also research, critique and contest developments in bio-genetic technologies that will profoundly affect environmental and human futures. Cyberfeminists could spearhead activism and education about Advanced Reproductive Technologies (ART), transgenic crop production, stem cell technologies and cloning, and new eugenics practices, to expose how profoundly traditional concepts of women’s bodies and gender roles are implicated in the deployment of these technologies. bell hooks' definition of feminism proposed almost two decades ago remains relevant to cyberfeminists. In her words, feminism " is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates western culture on various levels--sex, race, and class to name a few- and a commitment to reorganizing US society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires." (2)
How does subRosa's theory and practice fit into this schema?
At present (2003) subRosa consists of five new genre artists who produce our projects. For our book , Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices (available from <www.autonomedia.org>) we collaborated with cultural theorists and postcolonial scholars Maria Fernandez and Michelle Wright, and invited the participation of 12 contributors from different countries and fields of cultural and technological research and practice. We are currently beginning a new collaborative project MatriXial Technologies with a group of artists, scholars, and researchers in Singapore including Irina Aristarkhova, Margaret Tan, and Adeline Kueh. The project concerns itself with mapping global flows of human tissue and bioinformatics, and the varying meanings and effects these have on different populations of women. sR practices an embodied "female affiliation" of welcoming, solidarity, and inclusion. For example, when we are invited to do a project, organize a panel, or speak at a conference, we try to extend that invitation to include women with different experiences and views whose voices have not been heard, or who do not usually travel on the circuits that we travel in. Our activist art practice is cyberfeminist because it is based on a contestational feminist analysis and critique of the effects of digital (cybernetic) information, communication, and biotechnologies on women’s material lives, bodies, work, and social relations. subRosa consciously tries to embody feminist content, practices, and agency within the electronic technologies, virtual systems, and RL (Real Life) spaces, which we inhabit in our work and lives. We consciously politicize and problematize how both the content and form of our work and social relations are mediated by digital technologies.
Since subRosa has been addressing different aspects of science and technology, which are now harder to separate than ever, what areas have become important targets for the group to critique?
One big area is always the language and practices of science and of commodified biotech. Thus, for example, we have critiqued the appropriation of the feminist notion of "choice" to support commodified development of ART's (Assisted Reproductive Technologies). We also point to the ways in which the promissory language of science and of many new medical and genetic technologies work to naturalize the new uses of biology in genetic and transgenic food and medical production. For example in the area of cloning and stem cell technologies (which is what we are looking at right now) there is an incredible hype going on that uses words such as "magic" "immortal" and "totipotent" to describe various kinds of stem cells. There is also the promise of "putting death to death" of "rejuvenating" and "revivifying" organs, aging bodies, and the like, not to mention "saving lives" and "extending life indefinitely." Then, we are also very concerned with capitalist science's practices of privatization of intellectual property, knowledge production and life tissues, as well as of patenting life materials and biological processes. We have talked with scientists and lab researchers in both private commercial (corporate supported) and academic (usually also corporate supported) institutions and have often heard them complain about the constraints that privatization and patenting put on their research and the exchange of knowledge and materials with other scientists. But for the public (as guinea pig and eventual consumer) these are crucial issues of concern that need to be acted on. However, most people don't really understand what is involved and have long since given up trying to keep up with what science is developing. This is where we can intervene as contestational artists and activists who are willing to do the necessary research work to be able to involve the public in a different kind of understanding and experience of these biotechnologies than sensationalized or overly technical scientific reporting can.
For sR a central concern is also the ways in which biotech and various digital technologies affect the lives, livelihoods, bodies, roles, and subjectivities of women in different ways than they may for other sectors of the population. The bodies of women have literally become parts-supply and production laboratories for many aspects of the reprotech, stem cell and cloning biotech industry. For example, lab culture fluids (also known as matrixes) are sometimes made to resemble female reproductive tract mucus by adding cells from women’s fallopian tubes and uteri. For ART, cloning and stem cell technologies pregnant women are now routinely being approached and advised to have their babies’ umbilical cord blood collected and cryogenically stored as an eventual source of stem cells that may one day “save the whole family.” Or, as in ART, asking women to donate super-ovulated eggs or "excess embryos" for therapeutic stem cell research. But new biotech and genetic engineering affect women a lot in other ways too, for example in food production and subsistence farming, which is still done mostly by female labor in many countries. Gena Corea, in Man-made Women, cites the example of the Green Revolution in India, where new farming technology deprived millions of women of a living and of their traditional agricultural work. This led in many cases to further devaluing of women and consequently to increased infanticide of female children, or of sex-selective abortions after amniocentesis. (Presumably many of these women who lost agricultural work went into high-tech assembly plants or emigrated to other countries to become domestic workers).
In sR’s experience, attitudes and beliefs about sexual difference are often a suppressed but important element in scientific research and in the way various technologies and scientific processes are deployed. We need to research this much more.
Then, finally we are also interested in questions of difference and of the division of labor when it comes to scientific research and digital technologies. For example, we did a project for n.paradoxa examining the "Economies of ART" in which we looked at the integrated circuit of workers and knowledges that go into "making a baby" with ART.
subRosa counters the often exploitive aspects of the “high tech gift economy” with what you called “embodied ‘female affiliation’.” Some people may find this essentialist in assigning a gender to the practice, especially given the residual power of gender bending cyber-theory, but Critical Art Ensemble has spoken of the need for “tactical essentialism” in order to create resistance. Does this become an issue for the group?
It might be more accurate to say that subRosa counters the often exploitative aspects of the digital info-, bio-, agri-, and repro-tech industries, with a gift economy of embodied female affiliation. In other words, we hope to challenge the axiomatic of global pancapital, in which the value of all life--from the molecular to the macro level--is understood solely in relation to its potential to maximize profit. It is rather the instrumental reduction of all of life under the current order that is the true essentializing machine. We hope to understand through our practice, in detail and with specificity, how this is effecting and affecting every day life. An embodied tactical practice of female affiliation opens onto fields of immanent possibility. For example, by asking, who makes these computers (where are the actual female bodies within the metaphorized 'matrix')? we immediately are confronted with a whole series of important questions. By forming resistant alliances and networks based on contingent possibility rather than fixed ideology, and asking "what can we actually do, here, now, together? can we work together in a way that avoids crushing difference?" many tactical artists and activists today are making important steps in countering the transcendent machines of alienation and exploitation.
Our use of the strategy of female affiliation derives in the first place from the important theory and writings of Luce Irigaray who applies the term to affective (emotional), political and even spiritual practices. And of course it is also crucially related to Gayatri Spivak’s writings about Subaltern Studies, in which she develops the idea of “strategic essentialism.”(from which no doubt the term “tactical essentialism” is derived). In her book, Essentially Speaking, Diana Fuss explains Spivak’s terms this way: “Spivak’s simultaneous critique and endorsement of Subaltern Studies’ essentialism suggests that humanism can be activated in the service of the subaltern; in other words, when put into practice by the dispossessed themselves, essentialism can be powerfully displacing and disruptive. This, to me, signals an exciting new way to rethink the problem of essentialism; it represents an approach which evaluates the motivations behind the deployment of essentialism rather than prematurely dismissing it as an unfortunate vestige of patriarchy (itself an essentialist category).” (p. 32)
sR’s deliberate revival and re-deployment of the practice (and naming) of female affiliation is primarily a strategy of welcoming and hospitality (as outlined by our friend and collaborator Irina Aristarkhova), as well as an attempt to address the ways in which we are consciously trying to discover and live our differences and the meanings that they produce--culturally, socially, politically. We suggest that Irigaray’s important thinking about sexual difference was often misread in 80’s anti-essentialist feminist theory (whose denial of essence is quite essentialist) that was almost phobic on the subject of essentialism. With the result that complex political, tactical, and practical ideas of feminists like Irigaray, Audrey Lorde and others have been condemned by different groups and often misrepresented or completely suppressed. Irigaray’s insistence on female affiliation, of women-among-themselves, addresses the lived reality that women have had, and still have almost everywhere in the world, very different subject positions that men (if they had any at all, that is) and that they must work from this difference to begin to establish a sense of what not-male (also not-white, not-dominant, etc.) might be. What could women be if they did not constantly think of themselves as either dependent on, or in competition with, or in opposition to, men, but rather as different but complete in themselves and with themselves? Irigaray eschews “equality feminism” as a false goal, she says: “women must of course continue to struggle for equal wages and social rights against discrimination in employment and education, and so forth. But that is not enough: women merely “equal” to men would be “like them,” therefore not women.” (This Sex Which is Not One p. 165-66) The world exists because of difference, not sameness, and only if difference is recognized and allowed to unfold fully can we have rich, various, productive life. The long, deep habits of patriarchy have seen to it that sexism, racism, and domination are so deeply embedded in language and culture that they are invisible and naturalized (they’ve become guiding mythology). If we do not insist on practicing and speaking female affiliation it will not exist in consciousness—and thus also not in every-day life where it can become productive. It should be noted that “affiliation” is based on a Latin term derived from adopting a son or daughter (filius or filia). Female affiliation in practice means recognizing, welcoming and acknowledging women in all their differences in public speech, in all written language, in embodied space; it is a resistant act that contests embedded mythologies of human universalism and sameness.
A word on cyber gender-bending: This has been overcoded as liberatory and transformational. Embodied gender-bending is usually a lot more risky and often harshly punished. Cyber gender bending is strongly associated with early cyberfeminism which contributed importantly to this genre and opened up vital discourse. However, it is hard to see how much further this can be pushed in the virtual media and meanwhile many difficult problems of unequal access and repression in digital terrains still remain and need to be addressed. We agree here with Anna Munster that these are issues which feminism(s) can address.
What have been the most significant sources of resistance to the group’s contestational theory and practice? And where have allies formed in cultural, scientific, or other sectors?
We have often had criticism from women (often feminists) and couples considering using (or already having used) processes of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies) and who believe that sR as a feminist group has the responsibility to support women’s choices whatever they may be rather than critiquing them. To this we respond that we have never taken the position of judging individual women or their choices. However, we certainly have critiqued the implied (and actual) eugenicism of ART along with embedded assumptions of universal desire for motherhood, and the utopian and promissory language in which its (still experimental, often dangerous, very expensive, and only marginally successful) procedures are couched. We have critiqued the advertising and informational ploys of corporate ART that play on women’s insecurities and desires by appropriating the feminist rhetoric of “choice.” We have also suggested that resistance to corporate “solutions” to infertility can take the form of adoption, child sharing, low-tech medical and fertility treatments, a gamete commons, and getting rid of the idea of genetic essentialism--i.e. parents desiring only offspring with their own genes or with handpicked purchased genes. Of course we’ve also encountered skepticism and even hostility from doctors who see us (amateurs) undercutting their (expert) markets. One female gynecologist told us that she thinks it dangerous for young women to go through super-ovulation in order to donate eggs, but that the clinic she works for is of course in dire need of such eggs and therefore actively encourages young women to consider these procedures through advertising that for example asks women to consider giving “the gift of life.”
We have had a lot of positive responses to our work both from different publics—including students, academics, activists and tactical media practitioners, feminist, and general audiences—as well as from feminist health workers, doctors, and people from countries in which these issues are usually not discussed so frankly, or so critically. Most of the scientists we have talked to are intrigued and interested and we have received many offers of help and collaboration. So far, to our knowledge, we do not seem to have antagonized or scared the corporate sector. So we need to work on that.
Feminist voices often seem missing from technological debates, or maybe suppressed is more accurate. Rosalyn Deutsche has pointed out the authoritarian and masculine desires within the language of resistance itself that seeks to suppress the gendered voice in favor of a mythical cohesive public sphere. Have subRosa’s experiences revealed a similar tendency within biotech resistance theory?
One must ask: What is the public sphere anyway? There are so many discourses that are repressed in it. It is not surprising that feminist and minoritarian voices continue to be suppressed in technological and biotech debates since these areas are so intensely male coded. However, many feminist and minoritarian voices are critiquing new media art, information and communication technological theory and applications, and biotech theory and practice as well - Vandana Shiva is only one example of these. There is a lot of resistant work—both practical and theoretical-- going on in India and Africa for example, that contests biopiracy, biopatenting, and the production and consumption of transgenic and genetically modified crops and animals. Those of us living in the US and Western Europe need to work much harder to ally ourselves with these movements and voices because they are actually resisting much harder--and sometimes more successfully--than we, the corporate biotech takeover of their genetic commons and agricultural heritage. There is a strong Genetic Commons initiative coming out of Porto Allegre’s World Social Forum and this needs our active support. Corporate strong arming techniques being applied in various countries in Africa and Latin America are of course related to those happening among farmers right here in the US. US art activists and biotech tactical media artists are generally not paying enough heed to what is going on under our noses in regard to how farmers are being coerced by agritech conglomerates to adopt exclusive contracts to grow patented and proprietary biotech crops or to convert to factory farming of animals. This puts farmers in impossible positions and is once again fundamentally changing the nature of all agriculture and food production in the US-including organic farming.
It takes a great deal of research and perseverance to find out about many of the initiatives and actual tactical projects of resistance that are going on locally in different countries—they do not tend to be presented at new media festivals in Europe or the US. Many of the people engaged in these activities do not think of themselves as artists or even activists. They are struggling for survival. Often they are under intense threat from the corporate sector they are contesting, and their resistance to adoption of biotech or high-tech products or methods may be in direct opposition to deals their governments are trying to make in order to get loans and technological assistance and investment in their countries. Thus, such resisters are doubly threatened from both within and without and their work is suppressed and silenced at every turn.. subRosa is interested in finding out about the tactics of such resistance, supporting it, learning from it, and engaging in it ourselves in whatever way we can through our own projects. We’ve started a project called Refugia BAZ (Becoming Autonomous Zones) in which we would like to feature such resistant projects and to collaborate with people from whom we could learn, or to whom we could be of help.
Many in the “New Media” community are aware of the practice of the Electronic Disturbance Theater and Ricardo Dominguez’s work with the Zapatista struggle (see discussion between Coco Fusco & Ricardo Dominguez) that desires to expand the uses of technology to Southern struggles against pancapitalism while also learning from them. You mentioned the “Refugia BAZ” project, could you discuss that project and what its context is?
Our Refugia BAZ (Becoming Autonomous Zones) differs in many ways from the EDT projects you mentioned, but we don’t have room to discuss this in detail here. sR is not so much focused on expanding uses of technology, as we are on trying to find out what technologies people already are using, how they are using them, and what the effects of this usage are—we focus on a pedagogical and consciousness-raising approach. So far we have not focused our projects on a particular activist group or political campaign, though we are in solidarity with many such groups and would help them in any way we could. We often use different—often fairly low-tech—digital technologies in our projects and we are very conscious of the ways in which different groups in different countries use a mixture of traditional and new technologies extremely inventively to suit their purposes. This is truly tactical media at work. For example, the way radio is used in many Latin American countries is quite different than its use in the US. Print media like wall posters, billboards, photo-novelas and street comix also have a very different status still as important communication devices. Refugia—see the BAZ manifesto on our web page >www.cyberfeminism.net< –– is a series of modular projects that generate and explore political, cultural, and ecological aspects of “Refuge.” Modules can combine participatory live performances, interactive WEB works/installations, workshops and residencies in colleges and communities, as well as radio, video, digital, and print production. REFUGIA* is an open framework that provides spaces to imagine and create critical models of cultural contestation and creative intervention. It comprises a feminist BAZ 'tool-kit' [with material and digital components] for activist projects and proposals. (*REFUGIA is: “A center of relict forms from which a new dispersion and speciation may take place”; a specific reserve for non-transgenic crops within biotech agricultural fields; an asylum for political or dissenting persons; and a critical space of autonomous social becoming and practice for contestational action.) The project will last from approximately March 2002-December 2004. So far we have done several projects within this framework, including the “Grade AAA Eggs” and “Biopower, Unlimited” projects at BGSU, Ohio; MatriXial Technologies (in progress) in collaboration with Singapore; “International Markets of Flesh” Mexico City (July 2003); and U-Gen-A-Chix (provisional title for performance at Southwest Missouri State University, October, 2003).
i’m interested in the mode of production sR practices, moving the group throughout the US and various other locales, like the recent collaboration in Singapore. As someone who is always moving and making as many (if not more) contacts through online and “away from home” situations myself, the mobility of a lot of tactical/contestational media seems “second-nature”. One of the long-standing dictums of contestational practice, even before the “Battle for Seattle,” is that “resistance must be as mobile as capital,” but this form of work usually requires substantial capital itself. How does sR relate to this global mobility and distribution of cultural activity?
You bring up a somewhat sore point with which we wrestle daily. On the one hand, we are committed to local, embodied work and action. On the other hand the reality is that (as of Fall 2003) we are living in 4 different cities and are doing our projects wherever we are invited to do them. It is important to note that for many people—refugees, migrant workers, historically nomadic people, for example—mobility is a necessity, while for others (Euro and US activists, artists, academics, CEO’s, etc.) it is a privilege: For example, not everyone can afford to fly to Cancun or Porto Alegre to “resist.” So far our projects have ranged from Singapore, to Europe, Mexico, and many places in the US. We are interested in expanding our audience and also in working in non-Western countries because we learn so much more and we are dealing with subject matter—such as biotech, women’s health, labor issues––that are burning issues everywhere and that connect women all over the world in very new ways. The MatriXial Technologies project for example, is about tracking and mapping the global flows of human tissue in the form of stem cell lines and cloned embryos, and looking at what the implications of these new distributed global bodies are. So we are looking at these other forms of globally distributed bodies and body parts. In our Mexico project, International Markets of Flesh (IMF) we are looking at the same issue through the example of organ procurement and transplantation, and connecting it to exchanges of laboring and reproductive bodies across borders. These are very big and complex subjects and require a great deal of research.
MatriXial Technologies is a good example of our working process. We started with a two-week subRosa residency in Singapore where we worked every day with our collaborators, Irina Aristarkhova, Margaret Tan and Adeline Kueh. We visited umbilical cord-blood banks and embryonic stem cell cloning labs and interviewed doctors and scientists about their work. We also visited the largest women’s hospital in Singapore, met with gynecologists and obstetricians there, and were informed about the different ways in which women from different ethnicities are treated when they give birth. We also were toured around the intensely technologized environment of the ICU for premature babies and were able to discuss the uses of these “life-saving” technologies with nurses and interns. We conducted workshops on “Cloning Cultures” in the art school and also took part in a symposium on art and science at the National University of Singapore. Subsequently, we have conducted workshops in Chicago at Version>3 Festival and plan one in Amsterdam for the Next Five Minutes Festival. This project is going slowly because of the necessity of collaborating across such huge geographical divides, and because we need to take a lot of time to work out our differences of opinion and approach to the subject matter and to production. We are planning eventually to produce performances, print and graphic material, videos, maps, and possibly some interactive installation work. Fortunately, we received a grant from the Creative Capital Foundation that has been really helpful toward funding this preliminary work.
It is clear that sR works situationally and that this slows us down quite a bit. It also means starting anew with each different project. But we are beginning to pull together as quite an efficient team and are finding that we can adapt much of what we produce in one project to other situations. Mostly our funding comes from the places that invite us and we have luckily had a few grants. However, we regularly contribute personal money to projects that interest us for which there is no, or little, funding. All of us have full-time day jobs and some of us cannot afford to take much unpenalized time off from them for our work and for our travel to presentations. However, as you point out, it seems to be our current condition that in order to be active in the world it requires travel. In the scope of things we realize that just to be able to do as much (mostly subsidized) travel as we do is a real privilege. At the same time, the amount of money and resources we and the art world in general use up is quite small when compared to most research work—especially that in the sciences or marketing. We hope that the meaning of the work we do compensates for the expenditure in resources that it requires.
Going back to what you said before about the appropriation of “choice” by the reprotech industry, similar forms of appropriation by other biotech industries have been criticized by environmental and agricultural activists as “greenwashing” and “playing the hunger card.” As Francis Lappe and others have pointed out, the promise of GMOs to feed “the hungry” and reduce the use of chemicals are some of the more insidious and widely used. Despite the vast collection and publishing of data revealing that hunger results from lack of distribution, not production, while the majority of GMO crops are designed to use more pesticide (Monsanto’s Round-Up product-line being the most blatant), the discussion has been following the path of the global warming debate, i.e. an ideological battle overwhelmed by industry-led organizations creating massive PR campaigns to misrepresent criticism. i would imagine that the discussion of reproductive technologies becomes even more ideological, when it’s even discussed at all, due to the history of reproductive rights struggles here. Many of the activists i know are involved in fighting transgenic developments, and do not often seriously consider the ramifications of genetically assisted reproduction, or how the desire for the technology is being created. At the same time, the issue seems off the radar for most pro-choice advocates. Which is one reason why sR’s work is so vital, in my view. How is the rhetoric of “choice” shaping reprotech, and how does Sr, through projects like “Expo Emmagenics,” attempt to redirect the debate?
As you are probably aware, we wrote a long article on this subject called “Stolen Rhetoric: The Appropriation of Choice by ART Industries. It is included in “Domain Errors!Cyberfeminist Practices”, a subRosa book now out from Autonomedia Books ( July 1, 2003). Here is a taste of it from the Introduction and Conclusion:
(Introduction)“Biotech industries currently expanding globally, but especially in the U.S., have opened new frontiers for colonizing bodies––and commodifying and patenting life––at the molecular and genetic level. Gamete harvesting and freezing, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), pre-implantation embryo screening, and genetic manipulation of embryos, are just some of the new techniques transcending previous limits of reproductive intervention that have profound repercussions for human genetic heritage. Under the guise of optimizing reproduction––and “improving” human beings––ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies) are rapidly being naturalized in every day life. As feminist theorists have pointed out, the new biotech reproductive order has territorialized the female body as a pre-eminent laboratory and tissue mine for a lucrative medical/pharmaceutical industry (1).
The women’s liberation movement of the early ‘70s formulated a politics of women’s autonomy and control over their sexuality and reproduction that included the right to safe contraception and abortion. By the late ‘80s, after almost two decades of abortion wars, the politics of autonomy and liberation had been transformed into a rhetoric of “choice” typified by the slogan: “A woman’s right to choose,” which became identified with the pro-choice movement. Since then, the rhetoric of “choice” has become firmly associated with reproductive liberalism.
Using strategic marketing, a seductive consumer industry intent on normalizing ART in every-day life has appropriated the rhetoric of “choice” in order to appeal to a broad constituency of progressive consumers ready to produce “children of choice.” Marketers of new reprogenetic technologies (Reprotech) were quick to capture this rhetorical territory, cashing in on the expectation that it would appeal to liberal, educated, middle class consumers schooled by feminist activism to be proactive in personal health care. ART industries, principally driven by profit making motives and embodying eugenic ideologies, have recuperated the politicized rhetoric of “choice” only by concealing a deeply embedded conflict between the macro politics of rationalized reproduction in late capital and a micro politics that capitalizes on individual desires.
Despite the highly invasive and risky body processes of ART, many feminists have explicitly welcomed the development of Reprotech for its promises of an expanded range of reproductive choices for women. Others have recognized that Reprotech represents not only an ultimate form of body colonization, but that its practices and ideologies reinforce patriarchal systems of scientific and medical authority, control, and rationalization of reproduction––contradicting feminist philosophies of women’s autonomy. …..
(Conclusion) The micro and macro politics of the public discourse of ART are unbalanced; currently the forces of market capitalism have won the field with the consumer friendly appropriated rhetoric of “choice.” Research in assisted Reprotech is still advancing rapidly, and increasingly there are contestatory interests at stake. An ever-growing body of feminist cultural theory and literature, as well as new media practices and art works play with concepts of the cyborg body and recombinations of women and machines. The ‘80s saw strong feminist activism, both in the U.S. and internationally (groups such as FINNRAGE), that critiqued and opposed new Reprotech using many classic activist feminist arguments and tactics. But currently there is a wide gap between academic theory and activist (radical) feminist practices in the domains of biotech and ART. (Cyber)feminist artists working with these domains must expose the ways in which the marketing of ART promotes the colonizing interests of late capital, rather than the critical goal of women’s autonomy.
New developments in ART, genetics, and biotechnology, are constructing new rhetorics and practices. This places critical artists who desire to counter the recuperation of political and cultural rhetoric by a consumer economy in a quandary. On the one hand they must learn enough about the new biological science to understand its implications and risks; on the other, they must maintain a critical stance and create a non-specialist public discourse that debunks the capitalist propaganda of corporate biotech. One way to do this is through cross-disciplinary collaborations of artists, scientists, doctors, and health practitioners, in which expertise is shared to create a participatory discourse. Rather than producing aestheticized representations or objects celebrating biotech (as many artists are now doing), such collaborations involve participants in a critical and pedagogical process––an information theatre––in which they can develop informed, critical responses based on actual learning and experience.
The challenge for feminist activist/artists is to create strategies to deterritorialize biotech’s control of the female body. In Women as Wombs, Janice Raymond suggests separating science from technology in order to create a new feminist science of reproduction that doesn’t depend solely on risky high tech solutions (9). (This is not because of technophobia, but because it is the money to be made off technologizing of science that attracts the interests of capitalist entrepreneurs). Such a science would recombine diverse sources of knowledge, and interdisciplinary practices, to create wholly new solutions that take into account women’s differing conditions and desires––and it would be based on a criteria of what is good for women’s autonomy. New feminist reproductive science would have to devise a workable distribution mechanism, perhaps based on a combination of electronic networking and performative practices. As in the autonomous method of menstrual extraction practiced by lay people (and bypassing the medical authority system), new approaches to reproductive science could enlist feminist activists as informed, non-specialist practitioners using methods that foster principles of autonomy and embodiment.
subRosa has activated a resistant cultural practice based on the goals discussed above. Initially, we have focused on aspects of ART that have largely been silenced in public discourse. We hope to disrupt the current “choice” discourse of ART; to initiate an interventionist debate and practice among diverse non-specialist audiences; and to further probe and expose biotechnologies’ far-reaching repercussions for women’s health and bodily autonomy worldwide. Following is a brief listing of subRosa projects on ART to date: 1) “Does She or Doesn’t She”, “SmartMom”, and “Vulva De/Reconstructa” expose gender differences in ART practices, and highlight the effects of high tech body invasion on women’s health and bodily autonomy. 2) “Expo EmmaGenics” and “The Economies of ART” question and challenge the ways in which market forces drive the research, development and deployment of Reprotech’s products and ‘services’ through an analysis of the economies of ART; and 3) “Sex and Gender Education in the Biotech Century” interrogates the intersecting ideologies and practices that serve to normalize and naturalize ART, exposing their historical connections to eugenics and colonial ideologies.
1) Much of this interview contains material from Maria Fernandez
and Faith Wilding, "Situating Cyberfeminism(s)," the introduction
to Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices, a subRosa project, Autonomedia Books,
See also: "Where is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism," (Faith Wilding, n.paradoxa, No. 3, London, 1999); "Notes on the Political Condition of Cyberfeminism," (Faith Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble, CAA Journal, NY, Summer 1998).
2) Bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston:South End Press, 1981), p. 194-195.