Little Rebellions: Women and Robots at di Rosa

Notes from di Rosa

Little Rebellions: Women and Robots at di Rosa

By Emily K. Holmes April 7, 2015

Notes from di Rosa is produced in conjunction with Art Practical's yearlong residency at di Rosa, in which the museum's collection serves as a focus and cornerstone for an in-depth exploration of Northern California contemporary art.


When you first lay eyes on Rene di Rosa’s vast collection of modern and contemporary Northern California art, dispersed between four buildings and a sculpture meadow, it seems that there must be something for everyone here. It certainly includes strong pieces by such notables as Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, and Roy De Forest. Yet after the mandatory guided tour of the grounds, the late Mr. di Rosa’s tendency toward the humorous (and sometimes, to be honest, a little wacky) becomes apparent. Fascinating subthemes also emerge, as in one unexpected moment in the main gallery devoted to explorations of technology and gender. Works by Stephanie Syjuco, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Bruce Cannon reflect di Rosa’s keen attention to the Bay Area’s unique demographics and tech culture.

In her series Comparative Morphologies (2001), Stephanie Syjuco portrays computer peripherals—USB connectors, power cables—in a style inspired by 19th-century scientific illustrations. Printed in warm grays and black on sepia-tinted paper, the plugs seem like orifices, and the spiderweb configurations of the cables recall neuron nets. Syjuco’s concentrated study draws attention to these objects’ liminal, marginal status since they “merely” serve to connect computers to electricity or to other devices. When noticed at all in real life, their presence is more cause for irritation than any sort of aesthetic appreciation, given today’s preference for wireless everything. In Comparative Morphologies LIII, the cord’s twisted coils mimic DNA strands so strikingly that one wonders in what ways these umbilical cords that convey “life” to computers similarly facilitate our own digitally oriented social and professional lives. Given the year of their making, 2001, Syjuco’s anthropological diagrams also serve as an archive of sorts, as these objects edge ever closer to obsolescence. They remind us that no matter how fast our Wi-Fi is, or how darned convenient Google Drive is, physical hardware still exists somewhere.

Stephanie Syjuco. Comparative Morphologies LIII, 2001, and Comparative Morphologies LII, 2001; digital iris prints on watercolor paper, 40 1/2 x 30 in. each. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

Syjuco’s work denaturalizes objects related to computers and, by extension, technology more generally. Technology is, she reminds us, historically and culturally specific. There is nothing “native” or universal about Facebook or text messaging, despite their prevalence in the more affluent parts of Western society. The artist’s quasi-scientific gaze, drawing as it does on a particular historical style, calls into question the objectivity and universality of any gaze. The cultural theorist Donna Haraway suggests that this way of looking historically implies a privileged, white, male point of view.1 Syjuco, operating as a contemporary woman of color looking at the tools of technology—themselves markers of class and power—effectively flips the perspective of the 19th-century visual language and its received, embedded dynamics.

Nearby in the same gallery, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s black-and-white photographs Seduction (1990) and Call Me ... I Know What You Want (1999) resonate curiously with Syjuco’s work. In Call Me, a feminine body drapes itself across a plain bed pictured against white negative space. It wears a simple black shirt and skirt, and its hand reaches out toward the camera, invitingly. Superimposed over the head is a matchbook displaying the following text: “Call me ... I know what you want! Thirty two dollars per call ... 18+ older.” The female form is further dehumanized by the addition of an electrical cord emerging from under her skirt that ends in a common three-pronged plug. This end of a cable is called the “male” due to its protruding prongs, which are to be inserted into the receiving end of the “female” socket. Such terminology reflects traditional gender binaries and the normative-ness of heterosexual coupling. (The contemporary collective Queer Technologies, based in Los Angeles, once produced alternative, re-gendered tools in a utopic reappraisal of this conflation of sexism with electronics). Although such taxonomic language is commonplace and socially acceptable, Syjuco’s and Hershman Leeson’s works indirectly point to the need to challenge such embedded sexism. The cyborg collage in Call Me suggests a hypothetical robot-woman waiting to be plugged in, turned on, and used for sexual pleasure. With the strategic use of an advertisement for phone sex, Hershman Leeson presents an embodied fantasy—definitely not an actual sex worker carrying out her lived experience. The work is a critique of an imagined, idealized fantasy in which the sexual subservience of women is parallel to technological convenience.

In Seduction, what looks like the same model is again spread out on a bed. She presses her palms flat against the sheets. Her legs are arranged to emphasize the curves of her hips and ass, and her arms twist her torso up to face the camera. Over her head this time she is wearing a television screen featuring closed eyes, eyelashes heavy with mascara. One wonders: Could we change the channel to get a different woman’s face? Is she powerless, trapped in a programmed version of herself? The cyborg nature of her body is not monstrous here or in the other picture. Though bizarre, she seems docile, even servile. The images evoke the punch of Dadaist collage techniques (one might recall Hannah Hoch’s work responding to the New Woman of the early 20th century), a blow that lands here as a critique of sexualized and imbalanced expectations of gender roles.

Around the corner from Syjuco’s works are two different configurations of technology. One is a computerized female voice that addresses the viewer, seeming perhaps like a vocalization from Hershman Leeson’s cyborgs. “You’re gentle,” she coos. A giraffe-shaped robot—Alan Rath’s Creature (2001)—spins its head around, silently surveying the room; its head holds a tiny monitor depicting a blinking eye. For a moment we suspect that the female voice is coming from Creature, but it is actually emanating from Bruce Cannon’s Contract II (1995), which hangs on the wall. Contract II is a rudimentary hard drive, sensor, and speaker behind a rust-colored metal grate, from which a curled electric cable extends (identical to the “DNA strand” Syjuco examines).

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Seduction, 1990; black and white photograph; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

The motion-tracking sensor in Contract II responds with additional comments that vary depending on the proximity of the viewer’s body. “You’re sensitive,” she compliments at one point. That a mechanized sensor is describing our sensitivity is a humorous play on the double meaning of the term, referring both to one’s capacity for emotional empathy and a machine’s receptivity to electronic stimuli. But then, when we are closest to it, the computer coldly states, “I wish you were dead,” and then, “I’ll never leave you,” far less a loving reassurance than a creepy threat. Is Contract II a spurned lover, a robotic rebellion against its master/maker, or perhaps a conflation of the two? Its feminine voice reminds us how frequently women are made to be the “speaking voices” of electronic devices. In her overview of this phenomenon in popular culture, the journalist Maggie Lange reminds us that “though the robo-voice has the trappings of the future, it can deliver tones of old-fashioned gender politics.”2 While Cannon’s piece risks reiterating stereotypes of women as clingy and overly emotional, his robotic-lover-gone-wrong scenario playfully grants considerable agency to the machine.

In what ways do new technologies reflect actual social progress or reinscribe an imbalanced status quo? 

Taken together, these artworks ask: What does technology promise us? In what ways do new technologies reflect actual social progress or reinscribe an imbalanced status quo? The theme has never been more relevant, given the latest sex-discrimination legal battles roaring through Silicon Valley. Although the lawsuit Ellen Pao recently brought against her previous employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, was unsuccessful, the publicity of the case instigated necessary conversations about gender in the industries surrounding technological development. With this in mind, one might take Syjuco’s attempt to estrange computer technology and the political determination of Hershman Leeson’s critique as excellent complements to Cannon’s work, which suggests that there is always room for rebellion.

Notes

  1. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 575–99.
  2. Maggie Lange, “The History of Sexy, Servile Lady Robot Voices,” New York Magazine, December 20, 2013, http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/12/siren-song-of-the-female-robot-voice.html. 

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