From: Studio XX
HTMlles Festival Salutes the Rise of Fourth-wave Cyberfeminism
Nov 1st - Nov 5th, 2018
“In four days, it will have been 25 years since I’ve been online,” digital artist J.R. Carpenter tells her audience at 4001 Berri. It’s about the same amount of time that the Internet has been recognizable as what it is now, a quarter century of rapid development that has fundamentally changed the way that we live. If the Internet were a person, it would be a millennial, which feels appropriate: it’s constantly at blame for the problems of modern society, with a future that seems more uncertain every day.
But it’s the future and potential of the Internet that is at the heart of this year’s HTMlles festival, a biennial showcase of the latest in digital art with a particular focus on women, LGBTQ+ and gender-non-conforming artists. In its thirteenth year, the feminist-led program grapples with where we can go after the #MeToo movement “shook the foundation of oppressive systems” by highlighting the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse. It’s a topic that has dominated headlines since its appearance on the global stage just over a year ago (but was first used by Tarana Burke, an activist who coined the phrase to raise awareness of sexual abuse back in 2006). In terms of numbers and cultural impact, it has become one of the most significant online campaigns in recent memory, joining #BlackLivesMatter as a social justice project that far transcended its digital origins. But for all its successes, the nature of #MeToo as an ongoing reveal of patriarchy at work demonstrates that there is still a long, long way to go. HTMlles are not alone in asking the question crucial for all social movements — what next?
In pursuit of the answer, a few dozen artists worked to “[redefine] the foundations of success and failure and imagine new, emancipatory perspectives,” using digital technology to explore themes of reclamation in the digital sphere. An ambitious task, but not outside of the scope of HTMlles’ regular programming. Founded by Studio XX, the Montreal feminist collective, HTMlles entered onto the scene as Maid in Cyberspace in 1997, the same year that the first Cyberfeminist International was held. Through exploring the juxtaposition of tech and themes like privacy, identity, ownership, and borders, the HTMlles curators have become widely recognized for their skilful curation of local and international feminist digital art. It seems appropriate for them to lead this conversation about feminist futures when their work has always been rooted so squarely in both, a fixture in Montreal’s vibrant worlds of tech and activism.
Under the banner of Beyond the Hashtag/Au-delà du hashtag, the 2018 edition offered a program equal parts artistic and academic, with a series of exhibitions and performances culminating in a three-day conference in conjunction with McGill’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. It’s the aforementioned J.R. Carpenter who kicks everything off with her opening talk, “Things Rarely Turn Out the Way I Intend Them To or, The Internet Will Never Catch On.”
Carpenter began making digital art in the early nineties, at a time when computers barely mattered to many of her fellow fine art undergrads. Zines and the DIY scene feature heavily in her aesthetic sensibilities, and she creates weaving, circular narratives pieced together from photos, narrative prose, poetry, and digital art, many of which can be seen on her website. It’s this spirit of the internet as an inherently mouldable multidisciplinary space that Carpenter appreciates, saying that since she “[has] trouble with form, trouble with categories, so variable texts are perfect.” One of her most impressive cross-medium works is a cloud cartography project created in collaboration with the UK’s Met Office, this is a picture of wind.
Her presentation is a retrospective of her own work, leading us through her journey from the physical to the digital. The different challenges that such a move engendered are interesting from an individual perspective, but touch only lightly on the grander dialogues about sexism in tech. It is somewhat of a homecoming lecture for Carpenter, who was one of the artists involved in the 1997 flagship event.
J.R. Carpenter at 4001 Berri. Photo: Lucy Uprichard
Immediately following Carpenter’s presentation is the opening for the main group exhibition, Mi(s)(xed)communications / Mal(sous)entendus, culminating in a party by the ever-wonderful DJ AWWFUL. Mi(s)(xed)communications contains six distinct pieces that feature “the desire to overcome imposed personal and social constraints,” allowing the work to “claim its own liberty.” There’s a fierceness to these pieces that seems true to the anger underlying the #MeToo movement, which is at its heart about the literal and figurative pain that comes from existing under patriarchy.
Mara Eagle’s Autoerotix audio installation has a spooky siren-song-meets-sexy-Alexa (Alexxxa?) quality, with eight robotic narrators reciting lyrics about women’s masturbation from the likes of Missy Elliot, Cyndi Lauper, and Britney. It’s unsettling, and sets the tone for the pieces that come after it, all of which follow the thread of digital alienation to different conclusions. In This Could Be You by Zeesy Powers, audience members are invited to put on a virtual reality helmet and explore a trash-filled wasteland as an unnerving humanoid figure. Hannah Kaya’s digital performance of A cull to— creates an eerie, faceless dialogue about sexual violence through the use of a live Google Doc, which can now be seen as a static piece online.
Testimony, from Zohar Kfir, is the most moving and difficult installation. It features interactive testimony from survivors of sexual assault that moves speakers closer or further from the listener depending on their body language, reflecting Kfir’s intention to force participants to engage with the content on an emotional level while giving the option to take space if required. Kfir’s subjects are presented in black and white, with a sparse black background, loosely connected through the VR experience by a silver thread. Each one has a distinct story of sexual assault and aftermath, many speaking of the added trauma that can come with reporting, the isolation and rejection that they faced from peers, legal representatives, and family alike. These kinds of trade-offs between suffering in silence or facing a hostile world that is largely complicit in rape culture is both a limitation and a defining feature of #MeToo, and it feels particularly relevant to the current climate in Canada ― just a few days before this show opened, former UBC professor Steven Galloway started legal proceedings against the unnamed woman who accused him of sexual assault.
There are more lighthearted elements to the show - Bun Shin Sa Ba, by artist Ahreum Lee, is a more playful take on patriarchy that includes that staple of many Montreal feminist exhibitions, a nod to the great Celine Dion. Lee has created a mesmerizingly garish performance in the form of an interactive karaoke track. The audience is invited to sing along to a version of My Heart Will Go On rewritten by predictive text applications, generating phrases from popular word combinations. It’s a delightfully incongruous mix of spiritual imagery and glitchy tech that is meant to reveal patriarchal bias in algorithms while also calling to mind a seance, or the female ghosts of East Asian folklore, and it’s also a lot of fun.
Bun Shi Sa Ba, by Ahreum Lee. Top images: Lucy Uprichard, bottom image: HTMlles
One of the most compelling parts of the HTMlles ethos is their dedication to the practical as well as creative elements of their program. Following in a tradition of previous years, local artist and Concordia undergrad Liane Décary-Chen hosts the workshop Encrypt Your Nudes, intended to help marginalized people take ownership of the spaces they inhabit online and teach them basic cybersecurity, as well as provide resources required for those who have already been subject to an attack. It spawned a zine of the same name, produced through her collective Tech Witches. I spoke with her in Concordia’s cosy Technoculture, Art and Games lab in the week before the workshop to hear more about her work and learn about why we should be protecting ourselves online.
"Originally, this workshop was aimed at artists and activists, during Gamergate," Décary-Chen tells me (Gamergate was a misogynistic online harassment campaign targeting female game reviewers in 2014). “I was just starting to put work out there, and I didn’t feel comfortable putting work on the internet.” She remembers how local artist Sophie Labelle, whose comic series Assigned Male explores the experiences of a young transgender girl in Montreal, faced brutal levels of harassment while sharing her work online. The attacks ramped up again last summer, when her website and Facebook page were hacked by far right individuals and her contact details were spread across the internet (a form of harassment known as doxxing). Labelle’s experience was a single example of a widespread hostile environment for marginalized creators, and Décary-Chen was prompted to try and develop resources to combat what can seem like an incessant torrent of online abuse.
"Ultimately, when trolls or whoever retaliate against artwork that you put online, it’s basically censorship,” she says. “The point [of the workshop] was as an artist, to be able to build your armour so that you can put stuff out there and the damage people can do to you is limited." This is especially important for queer people, who she notes have “historically been pushed out of physical spaces.”
In 2016, she developed the zine, still available as a PDF. It’s a straightforward introduction to online security that strips back technical language to its core concepts. Its strident inscription ― "You have the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, the right to public participation, the right to freedom from violence, the right to freedom from defamation, the right to work, the right to protect your artistic work, the right to exist, the right to sexuality” ― is a tech-focused call to feminist arms. But while Décary-Chen takes some pointers from people such as Donna Haraway, whose work Cyborg Manifesto is credited for prompting cyberfeminism as an academic discipline, it’s the more personal posts from young people on social media in her teenage years that most influences her feminist and artistic praxis.
"I was seeing a lot of [posts on Instagram] from people of color, grassroots activists, teenagers posting shit, the type of people who don’t have access to academic circles," she says. “Just people who would write what they were thinking without it being formulated like discourse. It was much more like, ‘this is a picture of me, this is what I did today’; and then through that, ideas woven into it. I think that’s the type of cyberfeminism that I feel built up my practice, and that I owe my inspiration to.” Categorizing movements while we are still in them is difficult, but if there is such a thing as fourth-wave cyberfeminism, Décary-Chen is at the forefront of it.
The conference segment of the festival, Off-Script: Tactics and Techniques of Feminist Errancy, is where the links between the past, present and future of cyberfeminism are firmly cemented. One panel in particular, Artful Dodgers: Between Digital and Analog Media, brings together three seemingly unrelated stories of women and marginalized people engaging with technology: graffiti artists, amateur wrestlers, and sex workers.
Kate Bundy of McGill University recounts the time she spent in an amateur wrestling league in the persona of "eco-feminist cyborg wrestler, Amazona Prime.” Amazona Prime was part of a year-long project in Athens, Georgia, in which Bundy, along with her crew South West Women Wrestlers, attempted to reclaim wrestling from “hyper-masculinity and [subvert] sexualized stereotypes of women to promote a body-positive space where alter egos can be constructed, cultivated, and performed.” Resistance to patriarchy and gendered norms through what Bundy calls “performative identity politics” is a well-established theme in feminist and queer circles alike. Roller derby and drag king culture both share women wrestling’s simultaneous embrace of masculinity while rejecting the patriarchal, homonormative confines that can come with it.
Sofia Misenheimer’s preceding panel covers the graffiti scene in Montreal, and gendered dynamics within graffiti communities more broadly. According to Misenheimer, female and queer graffiti artists either fit into the grand tradition of graff writing (such as Klor of the French 123Klan graffiti crew, who says that "when people think I’m a boy, that’s the best compliment"), or represent a break entirely, often exploring more feminine themes through a feminist, anti-oppressive lens. The act of producing graffiti as a queer person or a woman can be materially different than for men, with one of the most pressing issues being personal safety; regardless of where you are in the world, existing in the kind of dangerous, mildly anti-social spaces that graffiti work demands is more than just a legal risk for women and marginalized people. The introduction of stencils into graffiti culture allowed for a faster means of printing, enabling artists to get in and out more quickly, which Misenheimer says led to the rise of work from people like Miss Van in France, or Billy Starfield in Montreal, whose stylized hyper-femme characters form their own graffiti lineage.
Misenheimer is also emphatic about the identity-building aspect of graffiti, an art form that is in itself an act of reclamation over our publicly accessible spaces. By inscribing walls with personal work laced with anti-patriarchal messages, feminist graffiti artists have the chance to reimagine urban spaces. She quotes local artist Made in Shaina as saying “through [my work], I paint my identity as a racialized woman... Street art is a perfect way to represent myself, because I’ve never been represented. It is how I can tell I exist.”
For the final component of the panel, Seeley Quest of Concordia presents a brief informative talk on the current state of online safety for sex workers following the passing of two anti-sex work bills, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). These bills have resulted in mass shutdowns of the platforms that sex workers use to communicate with clients and other workers. Many of those sites were US in origin but operated on a global scale, meaning that sex workers from all over the world have been affected. Quest invites people in need of the most up-to-date information to get in touch by email, since the active sites are changing almost constantly. Current safe networking spaces include Switter (sex worker Twitter) and Mastodon (a leftist Twitter alternative), but users can’t be sure that they’ll stay that way.
The phenomenon of disappearing resources also concerns Décary-Chen, who is currently in the process of putting together a zine for sex workers detailing industry-specific cybersecurity practices. Sex workers are not only at risk from the authorities - they are also frequently targeted by anti-sex work activists, their own clientele, and misogynistic men in general. Recently, the latter group, including the sinister sub-community known as “incels” (short for “involuntary celibates,” or men who feel that they are entitled to sex), started an all-out war on sex workers operating online. Under the hashtag #ThotAudit, harassers began mass-reporting workers to the IRS, as well as to Paypal, Venmo, Twitter, and any other online platform that sex workers may use to solicit clients or receive payment.
"When I went looking for information online [for this project], there was really nothing. It was mostly sex workers writing cybersecurity guides for each other in forum posts," says Décary-Chen. The problem with such posts is that they’re likely to disappear at any given moment, either through deliberate targeting from FOSTA/SESTA or simply because nobody is maintaining the website. Décary-Chen is in the process of collating the advice she finds online and the thoughts of sex workers contacted via Discord to establish what information people need the most. She calls it a “collaborative project,” an attempt to create a resource of "basic knowledge that’s really adapted to meet the cybersecurity needs of sex workers, that is easy to use, and that people can realistically adapt to their actual lives."
As we trudge forward in what occasionally feels like the worst timeline, it is becoming clearer and clearer that any future of the internet as a neutral space will not be given freely. For feminists and marginalized people, the internet has been a vital ally in consciousness-raising and organizing, but its benefits are in danger of being drowned out by targeted attacks from trolls and neo-Nazis. This year’s HTMlles festival provides a defiant rebuttal to the idea that marginalized people must accept these conditions, highlighting the fact that they have always had a claim to the internet as an artistic and political space. There are shards of optimism lying among the mess, and their artists know how to wield them. It’s almost enough to make you a little hopeful.
https://www.obn.org/kassel/ - Cyberfeminist International
https://luckysoap.com/ - J. R. Carpenter’s website
http://luckysoap.com/apictureofwind/about.html - J. R Carpenter’s collaboration with the UK’s Met Office, this is a picture of wind
https://www.facebook.com/awwfulsounds/ - DJ AWWFUL
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KZusAQ-ifNR0lbAYW7xVo5DmRadmXP8vDX9gjKuHiz8/edit - Hannah Kaya’s digital performance of A cull to—
https://testimony.site/room - from Zohar Kfir
http://i-docs.org/2017/06/21/interview-zohar-kfir-interactive-vr-testimony/ - interview with Zohar Kfir
https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/a3mwg4/this-canadian-author-is-suing-his-sexual-assault-accuser - Steven Galloway starts legal proceedings
https://www.gaystarnews.com/article/trans-cartoonists-website-hacked-replaced-nazi-imagery-alt-right-trolls/ - Sophie Labelle, hacked and harassed