Tactical Cyberfeminism:
An Art and Technology of Social Relations


Currently in many parts of the world different feminist voices are calling for a new vision and engagement in local and global feminist activism. Much of this renewed interest in feminism is a result of the social, cultural, economic, and political effects on women's lives (globally) of the new digital communications and bio technologies. Women all over the world daily encounter the incursions of technology in their lives and communities, and many of them are struggling with ways to both resist and use the power of these technologies. Cyberfeminists need to develop contestational strategies for critical uses of new technologies, and create new forms of activist networks and feminist coalitions.

Our bodies have always been culturally constructed and technologically modified or extended. Alteration of human bodies and the environment began with technologies like tool making, agriculture, textile production, metallurgy, pottery, cooking, chemistry, medicine, tattooing, language, and writing. Today, however, new biological entities, new bodies and organisms are being created through molecular biology, genetic engineering, and transgenic technologies. Laboratory constructed humans, animals, plants and trans-species are proliferating in our environment often without our knowledge. These are fleshed organic entities beyond any previously known category: Recombinant chimera, part plant, part animal, part human; intelligent viruses, smart bacteria, clones, lab grown organs and body parts, monstrous embryos, cryogenic ghost children, stem cell starter cultures. Entire new medical specialties and techniques are being created and deployed experimentally among selected populations. The complexity and speed with which this Second Genesis--a term employed by Jeremy Rifkin in The Biotech Century to denote the era of new genetic creation-- is proceeding seems almost beyond our grasp and understanding. Perhaps that's why there is very little informed critical public debate actively engaged with the momentous issues being raised by the new bio sciences. Because the genetically altered creatures and organisms introduce irrevocable changes to currently existing life forms and ecosystems, it is urgent that the discourse becomes far more public and informed. Each one of us is implicated because our environment, bodies, genetic heritage, and food supply are being radically altered; each of us is challenged in different ways by these new conditions to activate our creative, social, and political imaginations.

Artists operate in the field of representation and invention in social, political, and cultural life. They work and research across disciplines — most importantly today they are experimenting with the hot new sciences of genetics and molecular biology. Artists are taking very different approaches to biotech. Some are exploring this area without formulating a critical stance, and their work often normalizes, validates — even celebrates — experimental genetic engineering as they exploit daring new possibilities for their own art. Increasingly however, activist artists are bringing together different research fields and working with scientists and practitioners in many disciplines to raise consciousness through participatory art works that expand public thinking and dialog about the biotech revolution. Artists’ hands-on pedagogical and informational models can perhaps help galvanize an engaged public debate about the ways in which bio technologies are being developed and deployed to serve primarily corporate interests.

In the Biotech Century, Information Technology marries biotechnology through digital technology. The far-reaching implications of this have not even begun to be understood by the general public. Biotechnology and science are not monumental or all the same. There are beneficial aspects to biotechnological deployment that however must be considered in the light of economic, ecological, ethical, and power issues in ways that are rarely addressed. The overwhelmingly market driven interests of the biotech industry must be brought into clear focus. There must be ways of slowing down the rapid deployment of largely untested and uncontrolled dissemination of biotechnological, genetic, and transgenic experimentation in the global environment.

A new era of medicalization of women’s bodies began in the late '70s with the rise of intensive research in genetics and biomedical technologies linked to sophisticated new visualization and digital information technologies which together made new reproductive technologies (NRT) or as they are now called, Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), possible. ART’s are a powerful political and socio/economic instrument of control of women’s bodies, particularly of their reproductive functions; and they have been developed as a lucrative private enterprise by a capitalist medical consumer market for those who have the resources to pay for these procedures.

In the early 1980s feminist biology professor Ruth Hubbard warned the American Association for the Advancement of Science about the ART’s which she felt had not been tested enough, and she was also concerned that In Vitro fertilization required extremely costly and prolonged experimentation with highly skilled professionals and expensive equipment — distorting our health priorities and funneling scarce resources into a questionable effort. Neither Hubbard warnings, nor those of many other feminist biologists, theorists, gynecologists, health workers, and sociologists, have prevented full steam ahead developments which have actualized many of the procedures only speculated about in the '80s. This has been achieved almost exclusively through private funding from fees of willing clients who have given entrepreneurial fertility doctors and genetic scientists unrestricted access to the innermost molecular and physical structures of their bodies as a eugenic experimental theatre. And it has helped to naturalize the idea that creating a child by any means possible is a right that can be exercised by any individual in any way he/she sees fit, without regard to the threats these procedures might pose to the genetic welfare of their offspring, to the germ lines of future generations, to health and environmental resources; and to a just human social development for those who have no access to the range of choices ART presents.

How did this happen so smoothly and seamlessly with so little effective resistance from the general public, and from feminists, for that matter? A major reason has already been mentioned: The fact that ART is conducted almost entirely in the private, "elective" medico/consumer realm. Another, is the seductive ideology of consumer choice and desire. Since it is now technologically possible to choose to improve one’s genetic success and that of one’s offspring through purchase of ART technologies, a compelling new desire has been created. Many people do not understand how their "individual choices" are fueling this flesh machine. Propelled by new eugenic consciousness and consumer marketing, this machine has opened the possibility for calculatedly and permanently altering the diversity of human germ lines. The exciting adventure of re-engineering the human race from the genes up is presented as a solution to the tragic personal "medical problem" of infertility; and those who question and critique these procedures are made to feel churlish indeed.

At the moment subRosa consists of five new genre artists and two cultural theorists specializing in postcolonial theory and practice, plus collaborators from other disciplines when necessary. Our activist art practice is cyberfeminist because it is based on a feminist and postcolonial analysis and critique of the effects of digital (cybernetic) information, communication, and bio technologies on women’s material lives, bodies, work, and social relations. subRosa consciously tries to embody feminist content, practices, and agency within the electronic technologies, virtual systems, and RL spaces, which we use for our work. Thus we consciously politicize and problematize both the content and form of our work and social relations as they are mediated by digital technologies.

Our embodied practice includes collective work on performances, publications, residencies, web-sites, and actions; self-education and consciousness raising; technical training and skill sharing; conviviality, flesh meetings, and collaboration with other groups and individuals.

subRosa brings a critical feminist framework, and a history of feminist activism to its work. For the past two years we have focused on Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) because there is a need to address the gendered and raced effects of this branch of biotechnology. We wanted to analyze how in the Biotech century the female body has become the pre-eminent laboratory and rich body-parts mine for a lucrative and largely untested medical/ pharmaceutical industry. And specifically we wanted to address and de-code Repro-tech’s historical connections to eugenics and colonizing ideologies.

This branch of biotech directly engages many classic feminist issues: Women defined as a subject and object of science and technology in relation to the reproductive process; invasion, surveillance and control of women’s bodes and life-styles; women as the laboratory for experimental scientific processes; culturally compulsory motherhood; women as a target market for new repro-genetic engineering and medical intervention.

One of the watchwords of feminism has always been Choice and this is a word that has been co-opted and distorted in the selling of ART. In the US in the 1970s, the Feminist Health Movement built empowering alternative structures of woman-centered and staffed medical clinics, which dispensed information on female sexuality and reproduction, and provided health care, counseling, education and treatment by and for women. Currently, however, this movement has been eroded, and we now face a situation in which women’s bodies have become the sites of new rationalized and eugenic bio genetic reproductive and medical procedures which represent a potentially even greater and more subtle colonization of women’s bodies than ever before.

subRosa believes that resistance, critique, and activating the public to understand the processes and implications of advanced repro-genetic technologies are vitally important. As cyberfeminists and artists we are using the framework of participatory performance as an information theatre of pedagogical art that models various tactics for intervening and commenting on the seductive representations of the flesh machine. The powerful desire for rational control over non-rational life forces must be countered and de-constructed. Scientific representations promising genetic success, reproductive enhancement, and immortality must be de-coded and processed through a corrective lens that reveals their hidden distortions and will to power.

Accordingly we've developed our public information theatre to dispute and disrupt the unquestioned authority of private ART theatres. While subRosa is by no means anti-technology, we do approach technology critically and argue that some technologies should not be further deployed until far more testing of long-term biological and environmental consequences has taken place. By informing themselves about the reprogenetic sciences, deploying their knowledge and expertise, withholding their bodies and body parts, refusing to act as self-interested individuals and organizing in solidarity, women scientists, doctors, nurses, educators, artists, data entry workers, day care workers, computer scientists, ecologists, nutritionists, etc. could take the lead in shaping ART’s future development and use. It seems reasonable to demand that such life-altering technologies should only be employed under the scrutiny of full public information disclosure, and a thorough understanding, and debate regarding their implications and consequences. subRosa’s tactical works are aimed at helping to initiate this debate. subRosa also wants to join other groups to issue a call for complete disclosure of all commercial interests and involvement of biotech and drug companies in scientific R and D of genetically altered life-forms.

subRosa initiated debate on women and new reproductive technologies by means of open interdisciplinary community forums and actions. We organized panels with women from different areas of practice-- fertility doctors, feminist ethicists and theologians, feminist artist/activists, women’s studies, nursing, and infertile women.

We performed Cheaper by the Dozen on the Carnegie Mellon campus, and produced a poster that addressed the issue of soliciting egg-donors from young college girls at elite colleges and Universities, and the relation of ART’s to old, and new, eugenics.

subRosa wants to complicate the discussion about Assisted Reproductive Technologies which often divides along the simplistic binary of good vs. bad: those who point out its beneficial aspects, and those who are opposed to any kind of technological intervention in the "natural" reproductive process. Our work addresses the normalization and naturalization of ART through the rhetorics of its entrepreneurial development and direct digital marketing to the public. We need to understand and decode the systems of representation and marketing of these processes to women, and to engage with how women are perceiving and using them, as well as to discuss publicly their social and political implications for everyone. Thus our work often borrows the strategies and signage of consumer marketing targeted at women.

The participatory theatre model that we employ is situational because we use it to build a particular audience, or determine its shape in relation to the particular context and audience. We use different media to reach different audiences. For example, Expo EmmaGenics was performed at Intermediale Art Happens Festival in Mainz, Germany; here subRosa staged a three-hour American style commercial Trade Show, to "familiarize Europeans with the convenient consumer marketing of Repro-Tech now available to Americans."

The information theater taught and demystified some of the science involved in ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies), and allowed people to directly experience and participate in the generally unspoken social codes for normalization of new technological processes, and revealed the authoritarian structures and economic coercion that operate in every day life. The audience was primarily artists along with some local residents and tourists.

For a recent performance at Bowling Green State University, US Grade AAA Premium Eggs, we adapted this module to target the audience of students who are being invited to participate in the Flesh Machine through the “donation” (sale) of their genetically desirable gametes — eggs and sperm cells. We wanted to point out the New Eugenic values at work behind the stolen rhetoric of “choice.” We wanted to point out the connection of this commodification of the body in the global medical industry – to the global flow of human organs and tissues. While the traffic in human organs is officially illegal in most countries, it is central to the global medical industry, and in it, the ‘flow’ of organs goes from ‘Third ‘to ‘First’ world, from poor to rich, from female to male, etc.

To reach this particular audience we set up in the Student Union just like any corporation marketing to students — credit cards for example — and assumed the identity of Express Choice, a subsidiary of the ‘Technical Advantage Genetics Corporation. Students were invited to peruse the website and encouraged to “capitalize on the brand recognition of your school and ensure your virtual immortality…” by donating (selling) their gametes. Then they could ‘Calculate their Net Worth on the Flesh Market’. If their net worth was determined to be above a certain value, they received a beautiful Certificate of Flesh Worth. Of course there were some disqualifying factors: If one was ‘not a normal woman’, if one was an artist, or not of Northern European descent, one’s gametes were determined to be genetically less desirable. However, there was still hope for the student as a ‘Non-reproductive Donor’: she could sell her organs! It became apparent that within this global market, biotechnologies have different effects and place different values on different bodies in different locations. Many of the students were horrified, and yet it became clear that most of these texts were culled from actual web sites involved in the trade in gametes, and that the idea of a web site trading in human organs was not so far-fetched. (The American Medical Association has in fact proposed the sale of advanced contracts on cadaveric organs).

subRosa has found this strategy of using various registers of irony and truth-value in our performances to be generative of criticality. For example, on the Flesh Worth questionnaire, one link promising more information on advance contracts on organs actually linked to a website of an anthropologist at Berkeley devoted to critically addressing this issue; another link took them to a Glossalalia (subRosa Glossary of Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century). By combining performative texts that re-present and recontextualize — and sometimes slightly exaggerate — the strategies and logic of consumer marketing, with texts that are informative and critical, the reassurance of authorizing voice is removed and the participant/performer must think for h/erself.

While performing US Grade AAA Premium Eggs, many passers-by took our corporate façade at face value and got upset that their organs and tissues were commodities that could be bought and sold on the global Flesh Market. This is another sense in which this cyberfeminist theater is embodied: not only are we pointing out the embodied social relations that normally remain hidden in the seduction of digital technology commodities—but also this theatre ideally creates a visceral embodied emotional response. The participant/performer is directly placed into a position of having to make an ethical choice that reveals the social nature of the decision, where normally the social nature is hidden in terms of individual privatized “choice”. Then she has to begin to articulate her own ethics and politics around these issues. And there are various tactics and methods for eliciting conversation among the participant/performers.

In Sex and Gender Education in the Biotech Century, we use the model of the American sex education class room which has also been invaded by propagandistic market forces. (Here we note that, just as some artists have begun to form problematic alliances with biotech corporations, so educational institutions at every level have accepted corporate funding in exchange for strategic product placement. Remember the child who was sent home from school a few years ago for wearing a Pepsi shirt on Coke day?) The underlying lesson for the day is how enhanced, positive eugenic reproduction through ART is increasingly being normalized by infertility clinics and biotech companies.

In our Knowing Bodies show at the Miller gallery we tackled the subject of construction and re-construction of the body, gender, and sexuality through new biotech. Constructa/vulva allowed people to playfully reconstruct a large soft sculpture of female anatomy. In so doing they not only learned the terminology and biology of women’s genitalia, they also directly participated in the idea of the reconstruction and deconstruction of the body. A video, vulva de/reconstructa, which critically examines genital “aesthetic” surgery also played in the gallery giving further information.

subRosa is committed to the practice of using different media to reach different audiences. An example is the Economies of ART broadside, which critically addresses the issues mobilized in the Expo EmmaGenics and Sex and Gender performances. It thus can be distributed as a supplement to our information theater, at presentations, and on the streets.

Our project @SecondOpinion: A Journal on Women, Health, and Technology, also exists in both online and hard copy form, enabling it to reach various audiences. Our first issue contained articles situating ART’s in the historic context of struggles for reproductive choice, and articles addressing other issues of women’s health. We handed out the hard copy version of the journal along with lemonade at the annual Race for the Cure for breast cancer walk. This version was made to resemble medical literature of the type found at doctor’s offices, and was surreptitiously placed in clinics and distributed nationally and internationally.

Finally, subRosa’s mode of production is recombinant and reproducible. Recombinance has been one of the primary modes of cultural production in modernity. In the digital age, resistant cultural producers can embrace recombinance for subversive ends. subRosa is opposed to the exclusionary ownership, commodification, and hoarding of knowledge (in fact what is today termed ‘plagiarism’ was the dominant mode of cultural production throughout most of human history), and encourages collaboration, difference, gift economy, detournement, and collective invention. Everything subRosa produces is anti-copyright and may be freely reproduced for non-commercial use; we only ask that those who do, inform us at: subRosa@cyberfeminism.net. We further invite women to start their own cyberfeminist cell and use the subRosa logo and name to create solidarity, connection, productive confusion, and multiplicity.

Current global conditions of acute economic injustice and suffering in the digitized, war-supported capitalist world order are being contested by a gathering wave of self-organized demonstrations and direct actions against corporate economic and bio-colonization and authoritarian take-over. Youth, women, and politically poor people are initiators and shock troops of these actions worldwide. Feminism's strong history of direct action and cultural intervention and postcolonial and net-activist strategies are generative inspirations for many of these actions. Cyberfeminists can have a crucial role in this gathering wave. Using our skills, tools, access, and knowledge we can initiate and support critical direct action and solidarity projects with women worldwide who are facing, from the bottom up, the top-down power vectors of corporate globalism.

As artists — people who because of the social division of labor have a particular set of skills in representation — we can lend those skills to this growing momentum. In many ways this strategy is indebted to the tradition of coalition politics, where disparate groups who have different agendas and do not agree on everything, come together around an issue or issues, so that the sum of differences is greater than the parts, each group retaining its autonomy.

subRosa has initiated The Refugia/Becoming Autonomous Zone (BAZ) as an on-going project. The Becoming Autonomous Zone is a multi-use actual and virtual space of Refuge, reclamation, and re-generation in which to develop new projects and theory of autonomous action and becoming. Our performative poster and BAZ manifesto flyer map out the possibilities of this project. subRosa created the BAZ poster out of the Dupont manufactured building material, Tyvek. Printed on the flexible, waterproof surface were diagrams and drawings that suggested a variety of possible uses for the poster itself. The intention was to encourage appropriation or adaptation of the material and mutation of its corporate identity.

subRosa believes that Becoming Autonomous means acquiring and practicing (embodying) skills, knowledge and consciousness. Becoming autonomous is the practice of the social relations of difference. It is a powerful antidote to domination, exclusive expertise, and ruthless competition. Becoming autonomous agents in Real Life means building coalitions between groups with different backgrounds, skills, resources, and knowledge. Becoming autonomous is a political position for it thwarts the exclusions of proprietary knowledge and jealous hoarding of resources, and circumvents the economic hierarchies on which these depend. By sharing her knowledge with others, the becoming autonomous agent creates a common wealth of knowledge and power that contests and circumvents dominance and hegemony. Using imagination, cunning, and wit, they must build strong, flexible, and decentralized networks of knowledgeable and skillful amateur and expert practitioners that by their actions put pressure on the authority of institutions governing everyday life.

subRosa 2002