Donna Haraway’s foundational text, “A Cyborg Manifesto”, published in 1991, informs the praxis of many cyberfeminist contemporary artists, especially vis-a-vis the current technological, social and political developments (indelibly connected), which could only be imagined when Haraway began writing her essay, in 1983. The cyborg emerges as a timely alternative to the monolithic and essentialist category of women, facilitating coalition through affinity, not nature, and later through kinship as assembling (Haraway, 2015).
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.[…] The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion. (Haraway, 1991: 149).
Haraway proposes an appropriation of the means through which oppression takes place, as emancipatory praxis. For example, technology, communication and systems are perceived as intrinsic to contemporary warfare — through the metaphor C³I (command-control-communication-intelligence) — but also as providing “fresh sources of power”, underlining the need for “fresh sources of analysis and political action” (Latour, 1984 apud Haraway, 1991: 165). Reclaiming the technologies which have inscribed otherhood — instead of longing for an imaginary past free of injustice — to produce knowledge towards liberation is cyborg practice:
Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other (Haraway, 1991: 175).
Communication technologies are particularly relevant in present day. We are virtually in constant contact with others, in spite of our best efforts to mute, to turn off, to avoid unwanted connections and surveillance. They are also able to ressignify and reconfigure our already “historically constituted bodies” (Id.: 157).
Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations for women world-wide. Technologies and scientific discourses can be partially understood as formalizations, i.e., as frozen moments, of the fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings (Id.: 164).
Alli Coates and Signe Pierce – American Reflexxx, 2015.
American Reflexxx “is a short film documenting a social experiment that took place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina” (Coates & Pierce, 2015), a popular tourist spot, in 2013. It was posted to YouTube on April 2015. Performance artist Signe Pierce donned a mirrored mask which concealed the entirety of her face and “stripper garb” — a thigh blue mini-dress and fluorescent green high heels — while director Alli Coates captured her stroll through a busy oceanside street. Completely silent, this towering character — whom Signe Pierce named “the cyborg” — is disobedient in her long strides, sensuous movements and provocative confidence. It was not long before interactions with people in the street began taking place: men approach to provide feedback on her appearance and proposition her sexually, as fleeting voices question whether ‘that’ is a man. A mob formed and started shadowing the performer. Soon enough, the “unchoreographed realities of harassment”, as the reality artist puts it, took over. Bottles were hurled over her head, she was under constant sexist and transphobic verbal abuse and, eventually, a white middle-aged woman runs into the frame in order to push the performer to the ground. People laughed and demanded her to get up. Seconds elapse before someone attempts a rescue of the inert body on the pavement, but are quickly satisfied with ‘it’ being alive. The artist owes the push to an inherent need to draw blood as means to prove she was real.
The situation is idiosyncratic to the context of the American south, as the performance unfolds into frictions unlike those practicable within a legitimized artspace: “At one point in the video, a voice emerges in a crowd of black teenagers — an urge not to ‘get arrested for the blonde girl’ — alluding to extremely real phobias regarding race and sanctions of authority” (Avedisian, 2015). Many people were filming the incident with camera phones. The spectacle of female sexuality devoid of identity or voice, so prevalent in cultural phenomena such as instagram modelling and internet pornography (or even worse, revenge porn), when embodied and transposed into the realm of reality gains different, more menacing, contours:
Online identity is a strange condition, because even if we choose to broadcast our lives, it is just as easy to revert to anonymity when we’re sitting behind our screens. You can exist online as an avatar or an anon, but to do it in real life reads as a threat. I think I instilled fear in people. (Pierce apud Avedisian, 2015).
The mirrored mask reflects the actions of the public back towards them, evidencing, in real time, their malice and cruelty while simultaneously impeding comprehension and consumption. On some of the tense events that transpired, Pierce comments:
I knew that there was no way that I was going to let them have the satisfaction of getting me to unmask. It didn’t matter if behind the mask I was a man/woman/trans/ugly/pretty, and I didn’t want them to feel like they were any less justified in hurting me if they realized I was a cis woman after hurling all these hateful slurs and transphobic remarks my way.
The director with her camera was not once bothered by the passersby, rather joining into — and possibly instigating — the crowd. She was even protected and ushered into the best viewpoint. Perhaps her presence and the bond between both of these figures (the cyborg and the camera) suggested something interesting was developing, worthy of attention, but the outcome was unpredictable and “startling“. How many other performances have attempted to garner attention in the public space only to be ignored by a cynical audience? This is not the case for Myrtle Beach: “only one person dared to accuse my actions as possibly being ‘pretentious high art.’ No one else thought to consider asking if it was art, which reinforces why we did it in the first place. Art needs to live and breathe in the places that need it the most” (Pierce apud Avedisian, 2015).
This artwork might be perceived as a practical application of cyborg-thinking and performing: an individual of unidentifiable gender — as photographer Kelsey Bennett puts it: “something beyond what used to be considered ‘gender bending’ or androgyny that was more akin to an alien life form or a beautiful monster” (Ongley, 2016) –, half human, half mirror, defaced and defiant, “a condensed image of both imagination and material reality” (Haraway, 1991: 150), who, through “serious play” (Id.: 149), provides insight into “our bodily reality” (Id.: 150). Anonymous, this cyborg confuses, angers and disgusts, but does not give into victimhood. She dances before a minister who feverishly advertises her demise. She gets up and clicks her heels together, frightening the hundreds in her wake. Disheveled, dirty and bleeding, the cyborg poses in front of shining lights.
Haraway, Donna (1991) “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna (2015) “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, pp. 159-165.
Avedisian, Alexis Anais (2015). Interview: American Reflexxx.
Chiaverina, John (2015). ‘We didn’t set out to make a piece about dehumanization, mob mentality, or violence’: Alli Coates and Signe Pierce Talk ‘American Reflexxx’.
Ongley, Hannah (2016). the all-female art show imagining a cyborg feminist future.