The Domestic as Virtual Reality: Reflections on NetArt and Postfeminism

The Domestic as Virtual Reality: Reflections on NetArt and Postfeminism

2004-01-27

Jess Loseby on “cyber-domestic” aesthetics.

My introduction to net.art began in 2001, past its “heroic era.” Indeed, by the time I felt confident enough to upload my tentative photomontaged sound-bytes, New Media writers had already begun to say that the network avant-garde was limping, if not mortally wounded. At that time I was working off a laptop based on my kitchen table from which I could operate a limited artistic practice whilst chasing my youngest child around the house. Thus, the kitchen table became my portal to digitality, not only the hub of my digital practice (as it is the hub of my domesticity), but the centre of my desire to develop my thematics of the cyber-chick - sitting somewhere between the microwave and the modem in the isolation of the domestic/digital world, questioning what the avant-garde might be and what my role might be in it, just as I was throwing myself into what at that time appeared to be its last days.

I found myself sitting, not merely at the kitchen table, but surrounded by the accoutrements of the domestic world. In the perennially hierarchically structured social system, the domestic is perceived as insignificant in comparison not only to the world of work (for no work is really done at home, is it?), but also to the world of “male” tools. Screwdrivers are tools, and drills really are, but aren’t the implements of the kitchen tools, too? These wooden spoons, knives, and peelers? In fact, many of them are technological: the coffee maker that grinds its own beans and makes its own coffee, hours after programmed to do so; the digital food processor that must be set up “just so” to prevent loss of fingers; the microwave, the dishwasher… What has happened, I asked myself, to make a hammer bear a masculine and therefore superior connotation where a wooden spoon, equally essential, has a distinctively feminine aspect (except within the hands of a male chef, of course)? Yet even in the kitchen a male hierarchical system prevails, one that places the microwave over the spoon, the processor over the knife. The degree of development through technological innovation determines the ranking of an object within the domestic sphere. A bachelor kitchen may be thoughtfully littered with smart, chrome gadgets - but ask if he owns a wooden spoon.

The irony of the domestic and of technology and women is three-fold: first off, the more that technology has entered the domestic world, the more domestic work that women have found foisted upon them. Studies have estimated that with the advent of washing machines and vacuum cleaners, etc., time spent on female domestic work has stayed the same or actually increased so that domestic technology has in reality made a woman’s day longer and more difficult. Michale Bittman, James Mahmud Rice, and Judy Wajcman, in “Appliance and their impact: The ownership of domestic technology and time spent on household work,” say that “owning domestic technology rarely reduces household work. In some cases owning appliances increased the time spent of the relevant task” (The British Journal of Sociology 55.3 (2004): 401-23). Secondly, while even technology-driven domestic tools are not considered technological, women actually use computers more than men. In fact, women constitute 57 percent of all computer users so that even though computers have a high-tech and male connotation, most users are female Bruce A. Weinberg, in “Computer use and the demand for female workers,” argues that “not only are women substantially more likely than men to use computers, but the adoption of computers has likely been associated with changes in the nature and conditions of work that favor women.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 53.2 (January 2000); Business Source Premier. Also, interestingly, as Cornford and Habib suggest, “Home computers are often considered as `domestic technology’ or part of the `domestic media ensemble’ as if those were simple and straightforward concepts.” Merely placing a computer within the domestic sphere strips it of its technological social advantage, but often ignores the complexity of that very internal private space, for that is what we are talking about here, isn’t it? The higher the social standing of the male and the technological, the lower one of the female and the domestic?

The domestic world is complicated by the human application of value onto its tools. Items become rife with significance regardless of their technological standing. Objects themselves are infused with unique meaning by their users. An old chipped cup might be the last of a treasured wedding set or a remnant of childhood. A brand new juicer might be the gift of a lover. Patterns of significance developed within this environment are individual to the home, to the domestic context.

Significance also imbues the domestic tool by means of the social and the material. Branding becomes an issue (Is that a Viking stove? A Subzero refrigerator?) and a marker of social standing. Machines that separate the body from direct contact with the food carry higher social place as well, so that a grater is not as esteemed as an automated slicer/chopper/shredder.

In addition to this collaboration between body and domestic, technology engenders a secret rhythm and interchange: the endless cycle of consumption and elimination, the formation of bacteria and its ritual extermination. Repetition, routine, multiplication, and control are the thematics of this relational space. “[E]verday life,” says Van Loon, “consists of a multiplicity of rhythms. Everyday life thus entails a range of flows, each with their own `proper time’ (e.g., duration, pace, frequency). Likewise, we could argue that everyday life consists of a multiplicity of spatializations, including forms of embodiment.” Manovich, L (2002) quoted in A. Galloway, “Intimations of everyday life,” Cultural Studies 18.2-3 (2004): 384-408; EPSCOHost. Edwards and Grinter identify difficulties with determining and taking advantage of these inherent iterations of the domestic: “routines are subtle, complex, and ill-articulated, if they are articulated at all” (“At Home with Ubiquitous Computing: Seven Challenges” 256-272 in G.D. Abowd, B. Brumitt, S. A. N. Shafer (Eds.) Proceedings of Ubicomp 2001. LNCS 2201. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2001). The repetition of daily domestic experience serves two purposes: one is to place the body in space, to orient the self but on a domestic rather than an urban level (a la de Certeau, for instance); the other is to accrete value over time. By doing the same thing time and time again (wiping the counter, washing the dishes, folding the laundry), the value of the devoted to that task becomes an essential component in the confirmation of the value of life - the order of the private world.

The kitchen quietly and without panoply models a seamless new medium, one that provides an intersection between the body and technology, one that facilitates the co-immersion of the female with the high tech. The kitchen, therefore, has already created and established the type of embodied environment that New Media theorists such as Lev Manovich have predicted but failed to identify. In The Poetics of Augmented Space, Manovich dismisses the domestic as nothing more than a “physical space filled with electronic and visual information.” http://www.manovich.net

The domestic spaces in New Media could be said to be the developing “rooms” of Augmented Reality (AR) and Augmented Virtuality (AV). Although definitions still remain fluid, it may be generally understood that in AR, the space and its objects, are constructs of the imagination and fantasy of another (most usually a [male] programmer) in a similar manner to Virtual Reality (VR). In an Augmented Reality environment, a domestic object would not have its “expected” properties but would be superimposed with new, virtual properties. For example: in AR, a table might be used as a transportation device, it might transform into a doorway opening to some other level or it might have animistic or human properties. These imposed properties only exist within the Augmented Reality.

Augmented Virtuality (AV) is also a construct, not of fantasy or imagination, but of a simulation or a matrix-like imitation of the “real world.” AV uses “real world” objects to enhance the digital reality and the augmented objects it creates to aid the immersive experience. “The ultimate goal,” says Vallino, “is to create a system such that the user can not tell the difference between the real world and the virtual augmentation.” Vallino, J, “Introduction to Augmented Reality, ” 2002. From: “Augmented Reality Page” Internet: http://www.se.rit.edu/~jrv/research/ar/introduction.html

Unlike the objects in the domestic kitchen space, in both the utopias of AR and AV the relational spaces between objects are made and signified by the same digital materials: any relational space is between two equals, if it exists at all. The perceived differences of organic and non-organic, animate and inanimate are illusional, differentiated only by a length or arrangement of code. When translating these arrangements, the processor sees no hierarchy between the coded cluster that will represent the microwave and that which will represent the wooden spoon. Although these digital representations can mimic cycles and flows within the domestic space, there is no differentiation between high and low technology as all objects are constructs of high technology. In the language of rhizome, hierarchical structures are neutralised because all structures are fabricated. This observation of “digital equality” can be extended in that, although it might be argued that there is an organic (human) positioning within AR or AV (via the avatar or user), what might be called secondary organic material (which might cover blood, sweat or tears) can also only exist as a digital fabrication. Extending this exploration further introduces the complications of placing emotions/feelings or even ideas of self within an AR or AV. Within a cyber-domestic aesthetic (or the kitchen model) these ingredients are treated as tangible objects, the presence or absence of which may also conceivably induce a relational space in which the cyber-domestic can operate. The presences or absences of these conditions or objects also can impose significance or neutrality onto other relational objects even without reference to their form or function (which may also affect their hierarchical positioning within the space). AR or AV is as yet unable (within the constraints of current technology) to take these objects of self, emotion, or their associations to enhance immersive environments beyond a digital catharsis or symbolically representational level. Mark Weiser (sometimes called “the father of ubiquitous computing” “Ubiquitous Computing,” (no date) From: Xerox Palo Alto Research Center - Sandbox Server Internet: http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/UbiHome.html ) put it in a more comprehensible way when he asserted, “virtual reality is only a map, not a territory.” Galloway, A., “Intimations of everyday life,” Cultural Studies 18. 2-3 (2004): 384-408. Internet: http://ejournals.ebsco.com/direct.asp?ArticleID=80APWUT7VNY4WAJ4QDA0

However, if technology can and has been assimilated into the domestic, where or what is the domesticity of cyberspace? Within the recent trend for a formalisation of net.art, it is immediately apparent that domesticity plays no part within the texts and institutionally directed net “agenda.” Dietz’s “datamined ten categories” of net.art include “net.art, storytelling, socio-cultural, biographical, tools, performance, analog-hybrid, interactive art, interfaces + artificers.” Dietz, S. “Why have there been no Great Net Artists,” 1999. Internet: http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php This leaves little room for domesticity to manoeuvre - unless one redefines the vocabulary.

Artists and writers may see this uniformity as the foundation and promise of digitality. In “Database as a Symbolic,” Manovich argues that “many new media objects do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end; in fact, they don’t have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.” Manovich, Lev. “Database as a Symbolic,” 1998. Internet: http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/database.rtf Many female digital artists have embraced this augmented equality of digital matter as the utopian “level playing field” outside of social, patriarchal, or geographic limitations.

Yet, as the medium becomes message (and difference becomes materially inseparable) the quotes of digital visionaries such as McLuhan’s “extensions of man” McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, NY: The MIT Press, 1964 (358). may appear to take on increasingly literal connotations and, in turn, may contribute to a world lacking in import. A lack of narrative and a collection of static items are indeed alien to the domestic space. In the absence of domestic hierarchies and objects or spaces infused with significance and meaning, the narrative of the kitchen will be lost in favour of Baudrillard’s hyperreal, where there is no space for dirt, noise, children, and domesticity. This will not be a postfeminist space. Still bound by a narcissistic fascination with its own novelty and technological innovation, is net.art being driven to become as equally beautiful and ineffectual as a kitchen full of “smart” processors, blenders and coffee-grinders - and no spoons?

The cyber-domestic aesthetic (CDA) not only seeks to undo and subvert these constraints by using the tools of both the cyber and the domestic, but it seeks to become the “beautiful seams” Galloway, A. “Intimations of everyday life,” Cultural Studies 18. 2-3 (2004): 384-408. Internet: http://ejournals.ebsco.com/direct.asp?ArticleID=80APWUT7VNY4WAJ4QDA0 that divide the two. Rather than repressing hierarchical distinctions, the CDA seeks them out and uses them to explore the nuance of repetition in life (much like minimalist music), to discern their value based on social concerns, and to reveal the freight of meaning attached to them through associations, both past and present. Methodologies for CDA net.art are therefore drawn directly from the kitchen and include: repetition, interaction [interactivity], routine, text [subtext], and domestic iconography. Secondary tools, representing the complication of the human presence, include a deliberate use of narrative, personality (as apposed to anonymity), gender (over androgyny), aesthetics, and a questioning of interface/surface relations. The cyber-domestic space is not Augmented but Amplified space. It is reality with the volume turned up.