Art art work poetry

body politics, body poetics: part 5 – electrikaˣ /// on gender, technology, and the cyberspace

Illustration: Ines DeRu

pamela varela

Feminism and cyberfeminism in Latin America are a praxis of their own. The lack of privilege and education that runs through the region generates a collective dissociation from the academic and conceptual feminisms of North America and Europe. I recently attended an online workshop1 held by Argentinian feminist hacktivists Sol Verniers and Nayla Portas, where they talked about diverse cyberfeminist movements, only to emphasize that even if many of the principles offered are thought-provoking, their application to a Latin American context is problematic. Here, women are fighting for survival. Both in the streets and in the network, women are unprotected. The first task in the agenda of Latin American feminisms is protection.

[…] the manifold of possibilities of digital communication seem to have strengthened Latin America’s macho culture in a particular way […]

“The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century” (Introduction),
Cornelia Sollfrank2

Today and within my cultural context, our virtual persona is as important as our real one. Both of these spaces are oppressive in how they have been built; both of these spaces are in need of feminist interventions. The shapeshifting capabilities of gender and the body in cyberspace inspire hope. “The virtuality of cyberspace is seen to spell the end of naturalized, biological embodiment as the basis for gender difference.”3

Cyber, techno, and xeno feminisms are all movements dealing with technoscience and englobed within the term “cyberfeminism”. Cyber- is a prefix associated with computing, the Internet, and technology. Technofeminism is a term coined by Judy Wajcman and fuses cyberfeminism with a materialist analysis. Xenofeminism was invented recently by a collective called Laboria Cuboniks. It is described as anti-naturalist, techno-materialist, and gender-abolitionist, where xeno- stands for alien, foreign.4

These concepts converge in the inherent gender inequality of technoscience, while simultaneously envisioning its emancipatory capacities. If science and technology have been developed at the expense of women’s—let alone other dissident groups’—participation, the question is what point of departure these feminisms can take. To try to be an activist within a cause that was born from difference is an ongoing task of reconfiguration. But it is necessary; we have to reappropriate these practices, too. The idea offered by these movements is for feminism to steer a path between technophobia and technophilia, to neither reject existing technologies, nor to uncritically embrace technological change.5

Seen through one lens, virtual reality is a new space for undermining old social relations, a place of freedom and liberation from conventional gender roles. […] Seen through another lens, the Internet is marked by its military origins and the white male hacker world that spawned it.

Judy Wacjman6

The VNS Matrix was a women artist collective formed in 1991. Their cyberfeminist manifesto for the 21st century, with the motto “we are the future cunt”7, marked the beginning of an era. They, among other cyberfeminists like the OBN (Old Boys Network), widely contributed to the conversation of the role of feminism in new media, technoscience, and the Internet. The OBN had an important role as a cohesive device of cyberfeminisms—“regarded as the first international Cyberfeminist alliance […] OBN contributes to the critical discourse on new media, especially focussing on its gender-specific aspects.”8 Back then, the Internet was a fresh space, a “new” world, so the presence of women was questioned from the beginning, as opposed to the “old” world, the real, a world women had little agency in constructing. 

 “We make art with our cunt.”

VNS matrix9

I use the Periform® vaginal electrode to read vaginal muscle activity. Its original purpose is for pelvic-floor health.

But while writing about the Cyberfeminist International meetings at Documenta X in Germany, Faith Wilding warns not to forget that the main body of knowledge is almost entirely white, male, and western European, and that even if the cyberspace is new (back then), it has been founded within a social framework that is deeply sexist and racist.10 Therefore, cyberfeminism is also concerned with adopting an  intersectional framework. The theory of intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, analyses the way that a person’s individual characteristics combine to create different overlapping forms of discrimination. While the first waves of feminism focused on the experiences of cis, white, middle-class women, intersectionality calls us to consider the way gender overlaps with factors like race, poverty, immigration status, disability, and other identities to make people’s experience of subordination even deeper.11

To be a tECkhnO feminist artivist, one must be aware that the anti-racist, the environmentalist, and the LGBTQ+ fights are intertwined with the feminist fight and share a stake in the struggle for collective liberation. None of us are free until we all are, and one’s main fight should not disregard others. As an artist, the origin and afterlife of materials used should be as important as the concepts behind the work. As an activist, one must not fall into hypocrisy and draw arbitrary lines between emancipatory movements. Techno, eco, feminism, art, and activism should all work together. In transcendence – trance ‘n dance, I am using a technology12 that refers to the components as “master” and “slave” and to the cable ends as “male” and “female”. How can such a thing as technofeminism even exist, in a context where these words are still widely used? This is where we must generate change. 

While working on my art, often using machinery, I wonder why I regularly ask help from my male friends. Coming from a house where my dad drilled holes in the wall, while my mom set the table, it could be that these ideas are embedded deep within me. But at the same time, being a maker-woman, I also realize the machines are not made for my body. They are often too heavy, hard, and big. “[M]achinery is literally designed by men with men in mind – the masculinity of the technology becomes embedded in the technology itself.”13

Donna Hawaray took a mythical approach to explain these binary/sexual/gender segregative tendencies. She created A Cyborg Manifesto, where the cyborg is a genderless, parentless, hybrid figure that does not abide by biological and cultural constrains.14 Furthermore, she states how suspicious she is of the separation between nature and culture.15 The cyborg blurs these and other dualistic boundaries, such as distinguishing human from machine and male from female. The collective Laboria Cuboniks, the creators of xenofeminism, call themselves “Haraway’s Disobedient Daughters”16. They bring contemporary insights while widely accepting the technological world we live in and how to use this for emancipatory purposes. Nonetheless, it is a movement criticized for being embedded in a Global North context. Some critiques point out, for example, that this collective proposes solutions that only apply to privileged persons.17 But their work is still relevant when taken as inspiration for visionary futures. 

Our lot is cast with technoscience, where nothing is so sacred that it cannot be reengineered and transformed so as to widen our aperture of freedom […]

Helen Hester18

A turning point of cyberfeminisms was when it was understood that science and technology were inherently patriarchal, in comparison to second-wave feminism, where technoscience was seen as gender neutral and the problem relied on the lack of women’s presence in the space.19 Nowadays, the appearance of technoscience is understood to go in conjunction with the exploitation of nature for capitalist ends, and movements like ecofeminism relate this to the exploitation of women. 

Ecofeminism (or at least its initial trends) is considered to be a gender binarist and essentialist movement, where woman is associated with creation, motherhood, and nature, and man is associated with war and destruction, “a project that not only feminizes creation but also masculinizes destruction”20. For these reasons, it has been discredited by many. One of the things we can recover from this framework is its concern with centering the role of ecology and climate change as major global issues.

Cyberfeminisms and ecofeminisms are regarded as diametrical movements, where the role of women within nature and technoscience is debated. Within their analysis, reproduction and motherhood are points of controversy, ranging from contraception methods to the artificial womb. Yvonne Volkart coined the term techno-eco-feminism as an attempt to show there can be an intersection. She talks about artists that connect with other beings through techno-scientific means, like Špela Petrič, who mothered plant embryos with the hormones extracted from her urine.21 It is about the “queering” of powerful dichotomies.22

Cis women with class privilege “gained control of their bodies” when the use of the pill became widely available. Engineering the female body by means of hormones revolutionized women’s rights. The pill is technology; it is not “natural” to change the hormonal count of a body for certain ends. A person with a uterus who takes the pill has control over their body; however, the pill also has control over their body. Hormonal contraception interferes with our regular hormonal levels, not only by potentially causing severe problems like cancer, but also by influencing our emotions and libido. It stops ovulation, unbalances our cycle, and quietens our bodies. Most contraceptive pills work by releasing progesterone and estrogens, which are precisely the hormones that increase when pregnant—the fulfillment of the patriarchal dream? 

Uninformed intake is also a problem and cannot be separated from a cultural context in which sex education is only about protection and not about pleasure. The inner workings of the menstrual cycle are generally not of common knowledge. Most of us are not told there are only ±7 days per cycle when a person with a uterus is fertile, but that in order to identify which days, one needs to get to know their cycle. In my experience, the majority of doctors discourage natural contraception methods without providing an explanation to their patients, encouraging hormones by saying they regulate the cycle, which actually means there is no cycle.23

I, as a tECkhnO feminist, understand the emancipatory aspects of technoscience without taking them for granted. Despite whatever contraception method I decide to use, I decide to also be aware of my cycle. And if that fails: freedom to choose abortion. Yes, to live in a world where (wanted) pregnancy termination is no longer a taboo, a world where abortion is not life-threatening because it is clandestine, a world where clinics are not harassed by anti-choice supporters. Abortion is also not “natural” and needs technoscience to happen. tECkhnO feminism is about balancing nature and technoscience, about providing a truthful, useful, and pleasurable (sexual) education, and about having the freedom to make whatever personal choice is better for each of us. 

The idea of the artificial womb has also been controversial within feminist circles. Shulamith Firestone was a Canadian-American radical feminist, who in her book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution proposes the artificial womb as the ultimate emancipatory tool for people with uteruses. Both Judy Wajcman and Helen Hester discuss her problematic ideas, seeing the two edges in her proposition. If (cis) women do not have to fulfill a reproductive role, by means of artificial gestation, they will be free. But at what expense?

Reproductive and genetic technologies are about conquering the ‘last frontier’ of men’s domination over nature. […] This is liberating for women, who have been captive to biology. At the same time, there is the spectre of genetic engineering and cloning depriving women of any control over reproduction.

Judy Wajcman24

[…] her preferred tools for feminist interventions in embodiment are carefully problematized: reproductive technology, including birth control, is described as ‘a double-edged sword […] to envision it in the hands of the present powers is to envision a nightmare. 

Helen Hester25

Taming the body to dominate nature destroys all hope of imagining the artificial womb as an emancipatory tool. Cyberfeminisms have a huge dilemma to deal with: the dissonance between the emancipatory and the exploitative potentials of technoscience. I position myself within this discussion because I want to explore that path between technophobia and technophilia.

But once again, these are questions of privileged people. Women without resources, like many in Latin America, often have no access to artificial contraception, be it from lack of resources or from lack of education; there is no choice to make. Reproductive “luxuries” and technologies are out of the question. Ensuring one’s physical safety remains one of the main causes of concern for these marginalized groups.

1 Verniers, Sol and Nayla Portas. “Tecnología y Feminismo” DIVERSES. 26 Oct. – 6 Nov. 2020, CCEBA, Buenos Aires. Online Seminar/Workshop.
Edited by Sollfrank, Cornelia, The Beautiful Warriors: Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century. Autonomedia, 2020, p.12.
Wajcman, Judy, TechnoFeminism. Polity Press, 2004, p. 7.
Hester, Helen. Xenofeminism. Polity Press, 2018, p. 6.
Wajcman, Judy, TechnoFeminism. Polity Press, 2004, p. 6.
Ibid., 4.
I am aware of the cisgender use of language the VNS matrix employed, hoping that if formulated in the present, their choice of words would be different. Shortly, I will talk more about rethinking the gender binary and genitals.
“FAQ” OBN, n.d., Accessed February 2021.
9 “The Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” VNS Matrix, 1991, Accessed February 2020.
10 Wilding, Faith, “Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?”. Old Boys Network, 1997, Accessed May 2020.
11 Press, Alex. “The intersectionality wars”. Vox, 28 May 2019, Accessed February 2021.
12 ESP32 modules are wireless microcontrollers who “give orders” to each other to communicate, instead of using cables to do so.
13 Wajcman, Judy, TechnoFeminism. Polity Press, 2004, p. 27.
14 Haraway, Donna J.. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feministm in the Late Twentieth Century.” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.
15 Haraway, Donna, ¨Son[I]A #247¨. Radio Web MACBA, 2006, Accessed February 2020.
16 Hester, Helen. Xenofeminism. Polity Press, 2018, p. 20.
17 De Sena, Isabel, “Stirring the Embers: Preliminary Critical Notes on Xenofeminism” in Sollfrank, Cornelia (Ed.) The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century. Autonomedia, 2020. p.137.
18 Hester, Helen. Xenofeminism. Polity Press, 2018, p. 12.
19 Wajcman, Judy, TechnoFeminism. Polity Press, 2004, p. 17.
20 Hester, Helen. Xenofeminism. Polity Press, 2018, p. 39.
21 Petrič, Špela. “Phytoteratology”. 2016, Accessed February 2020.
22 Volkart, Yvonne, “Techno-EcoFeminism: Nonhuman Sensations in Technoplanetary Layers” in Sollfrank, Cornelia (Ed.) The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century. Autonomedia, 2020. p.111.
23 I do not get on the specifics of contraception. I know there are artificial contraception methods that do not use hormones.
24 Wajcman, Judy, TechnoFeminism. Polity Press, 2004, p. 21.
25 Hester, Helen. Xenofeminism. Polity Press, 2018, p. 9-10.