In critical writing on new media art made by women and gender-nonconforming artists, feminized qualities of mediums are often unfairly attributed to the artists themselves. For instance, these artists are deemed vain or narcissistic for making videos of themselves—despite Rosalind Krauss’s infamous claim that video is the medium of narcissism. Women and femmes are also deemed promiscuous (slutty) or attention-seeking—hence the term “cam-whore”—when their images are widely distributed, even though digital image formats are designed to be widely shared, and artists have limited control over the spread of their images.
A number of women and gender-nonconforming artists, from Adrian Piper to Pipilotti Rist to Frances Stark, have been unfairly subject to such problematic interpretations in ways that their male contemporaries have not. Still others, such as Ann Hirsch, Amalia Ulman, and Shawné Michaelain Hollway, have deliberately explored this conflation of media and maker in critical ways.
Krauss described video as the medium of narcissism in 1976 because it enables live feedback or instant replay of the imaged self, working as a sort of broadcasted mirror. While Krauss’s critique focused primarily on the work of Vito Acconci, video art made by woman-identifying artists has since been more regularly critiqued as narcissistic. Curator Karen Archey, for instance, notes that video artist Pipilotti Rist has been branded as “a narcissistic female vanity artist.” Similarly, in Adrian Piper’s 1987 open letter to Donald Kuspit, she refuted Kuspit’s characterization of her as narcissistic (among other negative descriptors), arguing that he utilized the artwork to make judgments about the artist. Writing largely about her videos and photographed performances, Kuspit dared to call her work “the archetypal ‘women’s art,’” not only reducing Piper’s work to her gender identity and glossing over her important contributions to Kantian ethics and Conceptual Art, but also gendering so as to demean something Krauss had already established as inherent to video itself.
These cases serve as historical precedents which a number of artists have reacted against, though they don’t only represent a tendency from the past. In 2015, a T Magazine headline read “Frances Stark and the Art of Narcissism,” a clear reference to Krauss’s essay used to pathologize Stark’s confessional and diaristic work, including her sex chat videos like My Best Thing (2011). This characterization flattens the diary’s centuries-long importance in feminist art and literature, especially at times when women’s work had almost no audience or platform other than the artist herself.
Uneasiness with the moving image as deceptive, or as empty spectacle, is often expressed in gendered terms, as cinema scholar Rosalind Galt points out in her book Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. This includes language derived from fear of a seductress or witch. Galt writes that, while some suspicion toward media is healthy, refusing to trust the media image because it is too seductive or too made-up often relies on patriarchal logic, which equates the image with the woman and the woman with the witch. This skepticism toward the seductiveness of images can be found in the reception of Rist’s work. When her immersive installation Pour Your Body Out: 7354 Cubic Meters was on view at MoMA in 2008, actress Alexandra Auder went so far as to hold yoga classes amidst the projections, worried that the prettiness of the installation would lull viewers into passivity rather than criticality. Auder assumed that a pretty image was necessarily a deceptive and uncritical one. But we shouldn’t forget what Rist’s video was about: it shows a woman collecting her menstrual blood in a silver chalice. It was actually radical for Rist to make something normally considered disgusting or taboo mesmerizing and hypnotic. Assuming that a pretty work cannot be tooled to political ends looks dangerously like equating femininity with unseriousness.
A younger generation of internet artists has responded to this misogynist criticism of video art, while also showing how conflations of the medium and the maker have evolved in a digital age. For instance, when nude or semi-nude images of women are leaked online, feminized bodies are blamed, or slut-shamed, for a promiscuity inherent to the image file itself. As Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland write, “[This logic] blames the user—her habits of leaking—for systemic vulnerabilities, glossing over the ways in which our promiscuous machines routinely work through an alleged ‘leaking’ that undermines the separation of the personal and the networked.” Chun and Friedland go on to argue that networked privacy is contradictory, and what we should be insisting upon is the right to be open and vulnerable without being attacked—valuing not privacy, but interdependency.