Toward a Feminist Ethics of Circulation

By Emily Watlington

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 holloway, have deliberately explored this conflation of media and maker in critical ways.

The critic Rosalind Krauss. Photo by Judy Olausen, c.1978

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.

In 2007, Disney Star, Vanessa Hudgens apologized to her fans for being hacked.

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.”[5] 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.

shawné michaelain holloway, self.submit : portraits (2015?), .png. Image courtesy the artist.

The promiscuity of images has been critically tooled by a number of femme artists. For shawné michaelain holloway’s, Self.Submit : Portraits (2015), the artist proposed a feature for sharing images of her body only with “LOVERS” and “ANGELS,” while hiding them from “FUCKBOYS.” holloway distinguishes between lovers and fuckboys, where both might be promiscuous but only the former are marked by what bell hooks would call a “love ethic,” the latter concerned only with himself.[6] In so doing, she imagines a digital sphere in which only those who embrace the vulnerability that always accompanies intimacy with care—rather than utilize it to assert power—would be able to see her images.

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (2014), Instagram performance. Image courtesy the artist.

For Amalia Ulman’s semi-fictional, performed makeover on Instagram titled Excellences and Perfections (2012), she made herself vulnerable by being open with her followers about her desire to perfect her image, and also by publicly healing from (staged) plastic surgery. Strikingly, the comments from viewers read as efforts to be kind and supportive, but in actuality support toxic behaviors of perfecting oneself so as to conform to misogynist and capitalistic beauty standards. Ulman’s work points out how these pressures are made worse in the digital age, especially on Instagram which itself seems to demand vanity and perfection.

Ann Hirsch,The Scandalishious Project (2008–2009), single-channel video series, image courtesy the artist.

Ann Hirsch’s The Scandalishious Project (2008-2009) likewise directly took on the vulnerability that accompanies the promiscuity of images. On YouTube, Hirsch took on the persona of a young cam girl named Caroline—an eighteen-year-old (read: fuckable but relatively naïve) who made videos of herself dancing in her room, at times apparently oblivious to the ways in which viewers hypersexualized her for simply having fun, though at the same time exploring her budding sexuality. Older men left comments about wanting to be with her, and young girls commented that they wanted to be her. In one crucial video in the series, Comments, Hirsch responded to the comments as Caroline but encouraged critical reflection in her followers. With striking politeness and assertiveness, she asked male commenters not to tell her what to do and encouraged girls to be themselves and not her, all while respectfully refuting death threats. In other words, she demanded her right to be open and vulnerable online and not be attacked by explicitly encouraging healthy and ethical behavior from her followers.

Aria Dean and Aallyah Wright, Wata Proxy (Yazoo), 2017. Photo: Tim Bowditch. Image courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa.

Writing on the promise that feminist selfie art failed to deliver, Aria Dean commented in 2016 that this genre of work was motivated by, “a shared belief that the control afforded through the act of self-imaging is invaluable; nothing less, in fact, than the primary feminist tool for resistance.” [7] Yet as holloway, Ulman, and Hirsch show, self-imaging has proven easily co-opted by the patriarchal gaze, largely because circulation online is designed to escape the creators’ control. These projects wisely remind us that what is at stake is not only how a woman’s body is depicted and who is the author or behind the lens, but even more so, how these images are circulated. Looking to past misogynist criticism, their projects elicit consciousness as to how gendered language and attitudes infiltrate the way we talk about properties of media, reminding us that gender itself is constructed through appearances and performative acts; that gender itself is an image and performance, the mediums these artists use. The projects, then, ask viewers to take up an ethics of circulation as a feminist project.

Emily Watlington is a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar based in Berlin and Cambridge, Mass. She was previously the curatorial research assistant at MIT List Visual Arts Center, and her writing has appeared in publications such as Mousse and Frieze, as well as exhibition catalogs including Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” Perpetual Inventory, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 3-18.
[2] Karen Archey, “Pipilotti Rist,” Frieze (Summer 2016).
[3] Adrian Piper, “An Open Letter to Donald Kuspit,”Out of Order, Out of Sight, Vol. 2: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1967-1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 107-25.
[4] Donald Kuspit, “Adrian Piper: Self-Healing Through Meta-Art,” Art Criticism 3, no. 3 (1987): 10, 12.
[5] Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland, “Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards,” differences (2015) 26 (2): 3.
[6] bell hooks, “Values: Living by a Love Ethic” in All About Love: New Visions, (New York: Harper Perennial, 200), 85-102.
[7] Aria Dean, “Closing the Loop,” The New Inquiry, March 2016.