This essay examines contemporary Latin American women artists working with open source and refuse technologies and combining art, science and technology to counter mainstream technologies and ideologies while developing experimental practices. The focus is on three projects, Amor Muñoz’s Maquila Zona 4MA4 (2010-2013) and Yuca Tech (2014-ongoing) realized in Mexico, and Carla Peirano’s and Orit Kruglanski’s Sexual Bricolage (BS) (2004-2010), realized in Europe and Guatemala. Muñoz’s work addresses issues relating to indigenous women’s labor in the electronics factories of Mexico. Carla Peirano’s and Orit Kruglanski’s project explores the gendering of sex toys from a queer perspective and through the deconstruction of consumer technologies. Parallel to maker movements, these projects employ deconstructive techniques to both speak to unequal power dynamics in the economies of globalization, as well as to create spaces and connections counter to these dynamics. Because these projects foreground issues about gender and race, power, and knowledge, this discussion also examines historical and contemporaneous strands of theory and practice relevant to their understanding through “situated knowledge,” a concept central to feminist epistemology. In this spirit, I argue, these practices open up maker culture to new sources and ways of doing and making beyond its current proprietary focus.
Feminism, Latin America, Spain, Making, Situated Knowledge, Crafts, Digital Arts.
By Claudia Costa Pederson
Traditionally associated with non-Western and women’s arts in art history, the current interest in crafts by Latin American artists working with digital technologies and electronics is concurrent with the rise of the global maker movement. As a recent exhibition on making in Latin America at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City shows, the conjunction of art and maker cultures in the region led to a surge of novel practices involving collaborations between artisans, artists, and designers. (This exhibition, titled “New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America” showcases seventy-five such collaborations as a trend emerging in the past fifteen years across distinct cities in Latin America).[i] While refracted through diverse sensibilities, the expansion of hacker culture into making (which in part represents an expansion from open-source software to hardware that is inexpensive and relatively easy to use) can be seen as a significant factor for the emergence of such projects, including works with feminist themes discussed in this essay: Maquila Zona 4 (MA4) (2010-2013), a mobile maquila-production unit, and Yuca-Tech(2013-ongoing), a temporary textile lab, by the Mexican artist Amor Muñoz (b. 1979, Mexico City); and Bricolage Sexual(BS)2004-2010), a travelling sex-toy workshop, by the Chilean artist Carla Peirano (b. Santiago de Chile, 1981) and her collaborator Orit Kruglanski (b. 1982, Tel Aviv). Muñoz’s work focuses on labor, specifically, the key role of poor, Mexican women workers in the production of digital technologies, while Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s project addresses consumption, with a focus on the gendering of technological products. The articulation of technology via race and gender (from the perspectives of indigenous women and queer women), which characterizes the interventionist orientation of these works, however also diverges sharply from dominant discourses about maker culture in which gender equity, making, knowledge, and entrepreneurship are routinely aligned terms. My analysis of Muñoz’s, Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s works highlights alternative modes of ‘making’ in line with feminist scholarship, showing the important critical work that can be accomplished at this intersection.
Similarly conceived as participatory performances that fuse technology, craft, and foci on gender, economic, and race-based marginalization, these projects echo Donna Haraway’s critique of reductionist views of knowledge (i.e., the understanding of knowledge as a passive category or object) (Haraway, 1988). All three projects testify to what Haraway termed “situated knowledge,” a concept that runs contrary to a value-neutral understanding of knowledge and instead focuses on the body (embodiment) as a site from which to understand knowledge as a non-linear, communal, and relational process (Haraway, 1988). From this perspective, knowledge is understood as “situated,” and thus the focus is on showing that what can be known is always subject to the position—the situation and perspective—of the knower. In this spirit, Muñoz’s, Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s projects foreground the muted realities of women’s exploitation and oppression in the global capitalist system of technological production and distribution, what Haraway called, after Rachel Grossman, the “integrated circuit” (Haraway, 1991, 170). The integrated circuit is the web of institutional (medical and military), labor, and informational forces where women and other subaltern subjects, as well as animals and plants, are valued and exchanged as commodities. In the vein of Haraway’s (and a host of others) calls for the appropriation of technology for feminist ends, these projects simultaneously seek to articulate concrete modes of interaction and production of technology that altogether stand counter to objectification as the dominant model of relating to the body (in these cases, women’s bodies), technology, and knowledge.
So, while conceptually resonating with the notion of “situated knowledge,” Maquila Zona 4 (MA4), Yuca-Tech, and Bricolage Sexual are in practice conceived as collaborative practices in which the integration of open-source and re-purposed technologies and crafts is designed to both foreground traditional knowledge (of indigenous women and feminine crafts), as well as enable community formation through knowledge sharing (over the creation of artifacts as an end in itself). In this regard, they formulate practices that echo Haraway’s call for projects that privilege “construction, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing” (Haraway, 1988 p. 585).
In light of their foci, this analysis situates these projects as inquiries into the gendered and raced dimensions of electronic production and consumption, and as rearticulations of technology embedded in historical and more recent instances of identity-based opposition to instrumentalization and the search for alternatives to the circumscription of community interaction, knowledge sharing, and technology, within the extractivist logic of capitalism.
Alongside expanding on our understanding of maker culture as an historical and transnational movement, my examination of these works is intended to counter the emphasis of dominant media discourses about women and making in the North; that is, the highlighting of the individual and the linear (capitalist processes of production and distribution) in relation to the feminist ‘ethos’ of maker culture (the media portrayal of Limor Fried, a former MIT engineering student and now-CEO of Adafruit Industries, a multi-million dollar start-up company manufacturing open-source hardware, as a poster child of the maker movement is a case in point).[ii] Often not stated, though implied, these discourses advance a view of “making” or hacking as a-priori feminist practices because of their alleged contribution to inclusivity in science and technology fields, as well in business (as the portrayal of Fried suggests). Counter these perspectives, Muñoz’s and Peirano’s works suggest that any feminist interventions into the politics of technology requires both the empowerment of the individual and the collective as well as the transformation of current modes of production and distribution. Working from politicized standpoints, these artists are, among other contemporary Latin American women artists, fusing craft and technology to address the convergence of digital technologies and global capital, thereby simultaneously emphasizing its impact on the bodies and lives of marginalized women, and negotiating these dynamics to formulate alternatives. Built on feminist perspectives filtered through postcolonial and queer standpoints, these works are significant not only because they represent innovative developments of feminist and indigenous crafts, but also because they additionally remind us that discourses and practices about empowerment and knowledge, (and by extension their applied forms, including technology), are a priori never value-neutral.
Remaking Gender, Knowledge, and Technology
In this section, I describe each artwork in turn, highlighting some of the subversive aspects of each of the projects. As contrary to the assumption that these works are unprecedented in art and activism, I will follow this examination with a discussion of past projects relevant to their understanding as practices that are simultaneously embedded in and revitalizing the threads of contestational legacies intersecting feminist, queer, and post-colonial thought and practice.
Muñoz’s interest in electronics developed organically, out of interactions with other artists working with open-source technologies in Mexico, with whom she began working upon her return to Mexico from New Orleans, where she trained in graphics at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. Alongside graphics and electronic art, her interest in indigenous textiles, and in particular huipiles (traditionally embroidered garments woven and worn by Mayan women in Mexico and Central America), forms the basis of her work. Maquila Region 4 and Yuca-Tech combine these interests with themes that relate to the social and cultural dynamics underlying the production of textiles and electronics, two women-dominated occupations in Mexico.
Muñoz’s focus on gendered labor and craft was already salient in Amor Porno (2007), a project consisting of a collectible series of handmade embroideries and artifacts, including pillows, handkerchiefs and shoes, with pornographic and erotic imagery, conceived as commentary about the exploitation of women’s bodies in sex work. Later works explore the connections between bodies and textiles through interactivity. Muñoz’s initial experiments with interactive textiles includes Esquematicos (2011), an installation of five different large-scale sound-generating textiles incorporating electronic components such as open-source sensors, each of which were hand sewn based off her schematic drawings (hence the name). Inspired by the geometric aesthetic of constructivist graphics, these works also evoke the schematics of printed board circuits (PCBs) and incorporate conductive thread, electronics, and sensors designed to be activated by audiences. Alcoholmeter, for example, emits the sound of a siren and radiates with patches of color when a gallery visitor takes a drink of alcohol and blows into its attached breathalyzer, and 555 produces a high-pitched radio frequency when someone draws on a piece of paper that is connected with circuits (555 is a very common integrated circuit used for timing and sound generation).
In Maquila Region 4 fig. 1), Muñoz explores related themes, materials and techniques beyond the confines of the studio or gallery. Designed for public spaces, the project consists of a series of performative exchanges between Muñoz, her ambulant textile factory (a large white bike-trailer equipped with materials required for the manual production of interactive textiles, including open-source hardware including Arduinos), and residents of working class neighborhoods in Mexico City and Campeche (fig. 2). Conceived as a commentary on the social impact of globalized labor, the project mimics the conditions of maquiladoras, the Spanish term for manufacturing plants located in “free trade” zones, in which such factories import materials on a tax-exempt basis for assembly and processing of products, often destined for export back to the raw materials’ country of origin.[iii]
Like at the maquiladora, Muñoz’s workers, the majority of whom are women, sign a contract, are paid hourly, and are provided with raw materials for assembly. The difference between Maquila Region 4 and industrial maquilas is in the compensation received, however. Muñoz pays workers between six and eight dollars an hour, in contrast to maquiladora wages, currently set at roughly $3.50 an hour (the minimum wage in Mexico is still lower, at sixty cents) (Cave, 2012). The work involves the production of interactive art pieces that combine sewing and embroidering with conductive thread over the patterns in the shapes of circuits traced on pieces of cloth (miniatures reminiscent of the earlier large-scale installations previously mentioned). Once finished, each piece is catalogued through an embroidered BiDi tags (similar to QR codes), which contain information about the work including the “name of the worker, location, date and duration of the work session, salary received, schematic and a “self-representation” section where the worker can optionally “add information about him or herself, stories, dedications, donations, videos or anything else.” (Muñoz, project’s website). In this way, the embroidered tags, which can be ‘read’ with a mobile phone, function like the patterns on huipiles, as these patterns, which are connected to ritual and Mayan mythology, serve to identify the community to which the wearer belongs.[iv]this case, the tags, usually used for the tracking of products, serve to humanize maquila workers and their communities by placing focus on the relationships of exchange underpinning the industrial production of textiles and electronics, normally invisible to consumers (figs. 3a and 3b). The project also upsets notions of commodity fetishism by potentially reducing a form of alienation (industrial products) from the labor that produces the commodity.
In engaging technology in this way, Maquila Region 4also speaks to the instrumentalization of labor forces in the electronic factories of Mexico, known for their preference of mestizo and indigenous women workers—considered to be socially trained to accept tedium, defer to authority, and accept lower wages—who are overwhelmingly poor and traditionally skilled in sewing and embroidering (desirable skills in assembling electronics). Instead, the project activates women’s traditional craft skills to highlight these dynamics. While maquiladoras have been operating in Mexico since the 1990s, presently many are relocating elsewhere (mainly China, where labor is cheaper). As these changes take shape, Mexican politicians continue to uphold neo-liberal policies as an antidote to the social and economic woes gripping contemporary Mexico. The project thus emerged in response to the neo-liberalist rhetoric espoused by Mexico’s newly elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto (elected in 2012 amidst wide-spread protests), who has repeatedly argued (along with other PRI party members) for the suppression of wages in Mexico as a way to compete in the global market.[vi] Muñoz’s ambulant maquiladora, which she characterizes as a “fantasy”, shows otherwise, as it highlights the promises of free-market driven global capital as a fantasy in of itself. The exploitation of women’s labor, as the project shows, is integral to global capital’s dependence on low-paid production. It follows then that capital’s wealth is dependent on preserving the status-quo, in this case in buttressing, not changing, existing retrograde gender and racial divides in Mexico, whose impact is most felt by the most marginalized group in society: poor, indigenous women.
An extension of the dynamics explored in Maquila Region 4, Muñoz’s current project, Yuca-Tech (figs. 4 a, b, c), focuses on the development of alternative forms of production through collaboration with women crafters in Ake, a small village located in the Yucatan henequen zone (a Maya region). (Incidentally, the Yucatan has a large concentration of maquilas.) Yuca-Tech is designed as a community technology lab that builds on an existing small-scale textile cooperative managed by local women. Begun in the fall of 2014, and conceived as a year long experiment, Yuca-Tech involves the creation of textiles that combine indigenous crafting techniques (weavings of agave fibers), with open-source technologies (including photovoltaic panels that are integrated in clothing, mats and paneling). Like in Maquila Zona 4, the project shows a penchant for mimicry, as the photovoltaic apron, one of the lab’s most recent creations, testifies. The apron, which is designed to store electricity, is currently being tested by members of the Ake community (former convicts), who, as street vendors, sell it for one peso a minute to passerby needing to charge their cellular phones (fig. 5).
The aim of Yuca-Techis both functional and experimental, as the project represents jobs (albeit at the moment, temporary) for the community’s five families, while also exploring the feasibility of developing portable photovoltaic textiles and artifacts designed to function as distributed energy generators in communities off the main grid, like Ake. The notion of situated knowledge, which underpins the basis of the project, is reflected in its conception as an application of open-source technologies that align with the collective and non-propriety nature of traditional indigenous crafts or technologies. In this way, Yuca-Tech clarifies the implications of Maquila Region 4, namely that the transformation of the technological and social spheres are questions best addressed, as Haraway contends, from “subjugated” positions (Haraway, 1988, 584).
Like Muñoz, Peirano and Kruglanski focus on the gendered dimensions of technology, albeit from the perspective of consumption. The feminist conceptualization of Bricolage Sexual reflects the duo’s converging interests in electronic art and design, and their involvement with feminist and queer communities in Barcelona, Spain, where both are based. Kruglanski, who self-identifies as a queer woman, came to the project through her work in non-linear, electronic poetry, which she began developing during her graduate studies at the Tisch ITP program at NYU during the 1990s. Peirano has long been involved with feminist communities in Europe in various positions, after receiving her masters in Communications at the University of Rome Tor Vergata (currently, she works in her textile studio in Barcelona). Bricolage Sexual emerged in the activist context of La Teixidora CSOA (Centro Social Okupat Autogestionat) in Poble Nou, Barcelona, where in 2004, Peirano and Kruglanski began devising experimental workshops designed to teach consumers how to convert domestic technologies into sex toys (Peirano and Kruglanski, 2006). For the following six and half years, Bricolage Sexual travelled to various localities in Spain and Northern Europe, as well as Israel, and Italy. In Guatemala, they worked with women nurses on a project in public sexual education (personal communication with Peirano).
Conceived as a “sexual DIY experience,” Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s workshops (fig. 6) typically begin with visits to local sex-shops followed by communal discussions about issues concerning sexuality (Peirano and Kruglanski, 2006). Topics range from personal to social reflections on sexuality, including discussions of participants’ sexual fantasies and auto-eroticism, the commodification of sexual life, the political dimensions of heteronormativity, and the relationship between sex and technology (to facilitate discussion, some of the initial workshops were recorded and the footage was shown at subsequent workshops). Discussions are followed by hands-on sessions, in which participants assemble their own sex toys using a variety of recycled materials such as empty water and juice bottles and parts salvaged from household appliances, including computer mouse balls, safety switches, and motors taken from electric tooth brushes, depilation machines, cellular phones, and blenders, all components that participants bring to the workshop. In the context of the workshops, Peirano and Kruglanski teach basic electronics techniques (such as soldering and the design of electronic circuits), traditional crafts (including sewing, knitting, embroidery), and simple casting techniques (such as molding silicone rubber) (fig. 7a and 7b). In this way, participants are encouraged to ‘personalize’ sex toys (keggel balls, vibrators, and dildos).
The design of public announcements, including “how-to” flyers and posters (fig. 8), is also a central component of the project, as Peirano and and Kruglanski conceived of these materials as both serving as a call for participation and as a means of distributing pluralistic representations and images of human sexuality in public spaces (counter the objectifying images of mass-media advertisements). Like Maquila Zona 4, Sexual Bricolage was not intended solely for female audiences, yet its key focus was on highlighting and challenging objectifying views of women, in this case in the marketing and retailing of consumer technologies, especially the assumptions surrounding technologies as neutral tools. Along these lines, Peirano and Kruglanski point in their statement to how domestic technologies are encoded with gendered assumptions, how these assumptions imply a prospective consumer, and how their project intervenes in these dynamics by way of activating participants’ agency in deconstructing given meanings (Peirano and Kruglanski, 2006).
Conceived on the basis of personal experiences with sexual harassment at sex shops in Barcelona (Kruglanski, personal communication), Sexual Bricolage points to the gendered implications of sex technologies as consumer products that often imply a male consumer. Similarly, the project explores the gendering of domestic technologies, even if the consumer is assumed to be a woman. In this regard, Peirano and Kruglanski highlight how black-boxing of technologies (the concealing of their inner working) is inscribed with masculinist connotations of control, and how these connotations function to circumscribe use along existing gender categories. As one of the posters announcing the project declares: “There is a blackbox around our blender, depilation machine and even our electric tooth brush.”[vii] In contrast, Sexual Bricolage is designed to encourage engagement with domestic technologies beyond the assumed passive or ‘feminized’ consumer of domestic technologies. In sum, the project’s deconstructive orientation, which is geared toward making visible, exploring, and understanding the inner mechanisms of a machine, mirrors its conceptualization as a project that enables a “window” into pluralizing views of gender and technology through the sharing and exchange of knowledge (Peirano and Kruglanski, 2006).
Altogether, while developed in and for distinct contexts, Muñoz’s Maquila Zona 4, and Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s Sexual Bricolage converge in their shared interest in aligning community, knowledge sharing, and technology through the non-linear, relational processes of sensorial experiences (rooted in the body), a concern that ultimately speaks to the conceptualization of these projects as exploring issues that go to the crux of situated knowledge, namely the relationship between power and knowledge. As it happened, while all three projects received support from governmental agencies in Mexico and Spain, Peirano’s and Kruglasnk’s project met with public ambivalence in Spain (and according to Peirano also in Chile, where an arts organization withheld funding for the project citing apprehension about conservative mores).[viii] Similarly, in Spain, where the project was realized in urban and various rural settings, it was publically questioned (in the press) as being neither craft, nor art, but pornography and thus altogether representing a misallocation of public funding at a time of economic austerity (Peirano and Kruglanski, 2006). Contrary to these assertions, which altogether point to the obscuration of feminist histories, these projects are steeped in a long line of feminist creative contestation of commodity culture, which behooves clarification.
Situated Knowledge in Feminist Practices
As practices that bring crafts and electronics together, Maquila Zona 4, Yuca-Tech, and Sexual Bricolage represent new forms of feminist art in Latin America (and Europe) that nevertheless resonate with and draw from radical feminist legacies. This tradition spans various art forms and historical and contemporaneous strands of feminist theory and practice in various localities, which altogether exemplify the notion of “situated knowledge” in their shared oppositional stance to capitalist control of knowledge and technology as forms of gendered oppression (and its intersections with all forms of oppression, including race, class, sexuality, etc.). Muñoz’s and Peirano’s focus on crafts, the body, community, knowledge sharing, sexuality, as well as their use of performative processes, including consciousness-raising techniques and the reclaiming of technologies, are rooted in such historical legacies, as well as represent their renewal and re-adaptation to their specific conditions and localities at present.
1. Performing Gender
Albeit approached from distinct angles (labor and consumption), the focus on the relationship between the body and knowledge acted through performative approaches is a common theme of Muñoz’s and Peirano’s works. Speaking to the background of her project, in her statement about Maquila Zona 4, Muñoz acknowledges her project’s kindredness with the work of feminist performance artists from Latin America and the Caribbean diasporas, who have similarly addressed the disturbing realities of Mexican women maquiladora workers, including the Cuban American artist Coco Fusco; the Mexican director Inti Barrios; the Costa Rican performance artist Elia Arce; and the Argentinian artist Judi Werthein.[ix] Their work in performance, theater, and installation draws on post-colonial perspectives and focuses on the lives of migrant workers, and in particular on the women laborers in U.S.-Mexico border towns where most maquiladoras are located. The horror of the Juárez feminicidios (femicides) involving young maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez is a common point of reference, and one of the principal touchstones of these works. (The murders, often extremely gruesome, are ongoing since 1993, yet the number of women kidnapped and or killed in the area since is unknown, and few perpetrators were convicted or identified).
Maquila Zona 4 resonates with these projects: conceived in the tradition of feminist performance art, it draw parallels between the misogynist impulse of femicide and the attitude of disposability taken by the maquila industry vis-a-vis women workers, with the ultimate aim of raising awareness about these issues and involving the public in their transformation. Likewise eschewing victimizing representations of women of color, Muñoz’s projects similarly engage performative techniques (including her mimicking of the strategies of corporations, and collaborators acting out the kinds of work of informal economies) in order to raise consciousness about labor issues (for instance, by way of the circulation of information and images produced by the participants involved). Muñoz’s current work, Yuca-Techhowever, also expands on past works, as her focus is shifting toward developing communal production frameworks and connections between women as ways of bypassing maquiladora work altogether.
Similarly, Peirano and Kruglanski, cite the work of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920-1988) as a point of reference for Sexual Bricolage (Peirano and Kruglanski, 2006). [x] While not self-identifying as a feminist artist, Clark’s ‘relational objects’, which she fashioned as moveable, small figures or sculptures made of inexpensive materials, were designed for sensorial interaction, as their ultimate aim was to make the spectator aware of her physical body. Clark’s objects thus signal a shift from the privileging of contemplation and viewing as the dominant paradigm in Western art, itself a reflection of hierarchical categories (such as the body/mind split), toward an art that placed emphasis on experiencing the totality of human sensory perception (the experience of art through all the senses). In this vein, Clark’s artistic practice rejected the notion of the passive spectator, instead placing emphasis on the person as an integral participant in the articulation of the work of art. Late in her career, Clark became interested in developing her objects as therapeutic means for the treatment of psychotic and mildly disturbed patients, a shift that represents an activation of her work to counter traumatic experiences. The political overtones of Clark’s positioning of her art (her ‘relational objects’) as aids in healing processes cannot be understood apart from the individual and social trauma (such as torture and confinement) inflicted by the military dictatorship (1964-1985) ruling Brazil for most of her career.
Clark’s questioning of rigid separations between object and body, spectatorship and authorship, aesthetics and healing, and art and non-art, is similarly foundational to the aesthetic conceptualization of Sexual Bricolage as performative workshops. As a project that challenges the commodification of sexuality, Sexual Bricolage echoes Clark’s stress on the agency of participants (through collaborative making) to enact alternative performance acts, which include technology, and are designed to re-configure alienating notions of and relationships with one’s and others’ bodies.
While like Muñoz, Peirano evokes the centrality of the body in Latin American performance art, the feminist focus on women’s bodies and sexuality, and the use of consciousness-raising techniques in Sexual Bricolage also echoes the activist ethos of the 1970s’ Feminist Women’s Health Movement, which emerged concurrent to feminist activism in the arts, as I discuss shortly. Working in a vastly different context as Clark, the Women’s Health Movement in the United States and Europe included groups of women working to challenge the authority of the medical establishment through the circulation of information and knowledge about women’s health and sexuality (books, leaflets, etc.), the establishment of its own clinics, the exploration of alternative healing practices, the fabrication of tools (such as menstruation cups), and feminist sexual counseling. (The women’s collective, Our Bodies Ourselves, founded in 1971 and originally called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, is still active today). In reflection of the collectivist and activist ethos of the broader 1970s’ feminist movement, women’s health groups stressed personal experiences and the sharing of these experiences as valuable tools toward the understanding of one’s own body beyond the information provided by experts, as well as a way of preparing women to evaluate the institutions charged with providing for their health needs. Just as the work of women artists aimed at challenging the obscurity of women’s creative practices, women involved in health care movements sought to counter the historical lack of knowledge about the female body, and as a consequence, the alienation women felt vis-à-vis their own bodily processes. As a result, women’s health care providers in the U.S. and Europe began changing some of their standard gynecological and obstetric practices.
While the tactics and techniques employed in Sexual Bricolage are similar to those of 1970s health groups, they are also filtered through a post-modern sensibility, thus taking a more pluralistic view of the body, which is markedly different from the often essentialist views of the female experience and the female body in the 1970s (i.e., the understanding of ‘woman’ as a coherent group with identical interests and experiences). Like Muñoz’s work, which represents both an extension and a re-articulation of performative interventions into the nexus of globalization, gendered labor, and imperialism to draw attention to the reductive views of race impacting indigenous women workers, Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s project similarly develops feminist activism, in this case by approaching sexual health from the perspective of “gender performativity” (Butler, 1990). The notion of gender as a flexible and multiple identity, which underlines Sexual Bricolage, reflects the project’s conceptualization on post-structuralist strands of feminist and queer theory that inquire into gender an act underlined by relationships of power (gender performance, or the way one performs one’s body through gestures or speech, is understood as historical and subject to hegemonic ideologies and conventions of heteronormativity). Along these lines, Peirano and Kruglanski cite their affinity with the work of Rosi Braidotti, whose notion of the “nomadic subject” implies a view of human (male and female) identity as not fixed, but rather always in flux; Teresa de Lauretis’s concept of “gender technologies,” which similarly underscores the instability of identity as a way from which to approach discussions about differences among women; and the thought of queer theorist Monique Wittig, known for her provocative proposition that queer women are not women as the notion of “’woman’” has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems” (Wittig, 1993).
2. Crafts as Feminist Practice
Alongside performative approaches to the body, the use of crafts in all three projects points similarly to their interventionist articulations, which while aligning them with maker culture, is best understood in relation to the historical imbrication of craft and feminist art-activist practice. Altogether, the focus on crafts common to these works resonates with second-wave (1970s) feminist art movements in which the questioning of the ingrained division between fine arts and crafts in art history was first systematically explored and criticized as a reflection of Western philosophy’s gendered thought, thereby resulting in the historical obscurity of the creative contributions of women. At this time, feminist artists and art historians pointed out that the naturalized emphasis on vision in Western aesthetics, which, as previously mentioned, favors contemplation and detachment, is at the root of hierarchical categories in the arts in which the fine arts take center stage while crafts, which are traditionally practiced by women, are seen as inferior because implicating practical use.[xi]The recuperation of embodiment (the body as a total sensorial apparatus) and crafts in 1970s feminist art thus represents a political stance counter the conceptual and exclusionary domain of the dominant artistic paradigm (at the time represented by minimalist art, exclusively represented by male artists).
Among others, a significant project in this regard, The Dinner Party (1979), was an artistic and pedagogical project by Judy Chicago in co-operation with four-hundred women and a man. The project developed within a co-operative framework involved extensive research into women artists (few women artists were included into the art canon at the time), and the use of crafts, including embroidery and ceramics. The final installation took the form of a triangular table laid out with thirty-nine plates shaped in Chicago’s signature “butterfly-vulva” imagery and representing mythological female figures and women activists and artists, resting on a tile floor inscribed with the names of 999 notable women. The work, which developed from Chicago’s involvement in projects aimed at reclaiming and developing feminist art histories, including the co-founding of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (no longer extant), also uses supplementary information in the form of embroidered banners, timelines, and three book publications to provide context for the women included and the processes of the work. The project prompted various responses, including a debate in the United States Congress summed up by conservative Congressman Robert K. Dornan in his statement that the work was “3-D ceramic pornography”. Subsequently, despite art world resistance, it toured to sixteen venues in six countries on three continents to a viewing audience of fifteen million, and is currently understood as a product of 1970s feminism’s essentialist gender views, if a significant work addressing the precarious condition of women artists operating in hierarchical and exclusionary patriarchal systems, similarly mirrored in the art world.
Maquila Zona 4, Yuca Tech, and Sexual Bricolageall employ crafts in recognition of their resonance with historical feminist interventions in art. Following from this, Muñoz’s, Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s use of craft in their works similarly reflects their conceptualization of collectivity, the sharing of knowledge, and the valuation of the body, all counter the individualist, objectifying processes of dominant systems of knowledge, production, and circulation in the arts. Tellingly, the resonance of the objections leveled againstSexual Bricolage with those leveled against the Dinner Partyover thirty years ago, point to the resilience of gender-based marginalization in the arts and its imbrication with the prevalent framing of the artist and art (a form of knowledge) on the reductive logic of the commodity (i.e., on mastery and the object).
3. Reclaiming Technology
Likewise, just as these projects extend the legacies of feminist interventions in art by way of reclaiming handicrafts, they take a similar stance to technology. As performative projects aimed at repurposing technology for feminist ends, they are in step with emerging strands in maker culture (Taupin, 2014; Chan, 2014), which altogether have precedents, even if not acknowledged, in historical feminist practices emerging in the 1990s alongside the mainstreaming of digital technologies (the internet), under the term of cyberfeminism.
Cyberfeminism loosely describes the work of feminists interested in theorizing, critiquing, and engaging with digital technologies (the internet, videogames, biotechnologies, etc.) in their practices.[xii] This work took impetus in post-modernist conceptions of identity, which stressed the self as a fluid concept (here the figure of the cyborg, a fusion of woman and machine, theorized by Donna Haraway in her “Cyborg Manifesto”,replaces the goddess and the “cunt” as images of female empowerment in second-wave feminism); the masculinist undertones of the then nascent digital culture (male and Western-dominated); and an investment in intervening and reclaiming digital technologies for feminist ends. Beyond these shared interests, cyberfeminism spanned varied strands of thought and practice. Some took a utopian view of the internet and digital technologies as means of freedom from social constructs like gender (Sadie Plant, VNS Matrix, among others), while other individuals and groups took a more skeptical stance, understanding the then-emerging technologies as both potentially empowering, as well as extensions of control structures, critiques that resonate today in the work of Muñoz, Peirano and Kruglanski.
Among others, the U.S.-based, cyberfeminist group subRosa, which is today still an active collective of theorists and artists (which includes Faith Wilding, a Paraguay-born artist and a former student at the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s), takes a politicized perspective of the impact of new technologies on women’s lives from the standpoints of postcolonial and transnational perspectives.[xiii] Since its inception in the 1990s, the group has produced work that spans theory and practice, including installations and performances that like Muñoz’s works focus on the effects of the global economy on labor, as well as like Peirano’s project touch upon sexuality, in their case, with a focus on reproductive technologies, among other topics. For instance, Can You See Us Now, an installation realized in 2004, mapped the displacement of electronics manufacturing from the U.S. to maquiladoras north of Ciudad Juarez (the project evoked forensic work through the tracing the history of the North Adam’s Sprague Electric Company, from its emergence as a military supplier during WWII to its current form as a global enterprise). subRosa performances, such as Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century(2000), Expo Emmagenetics (2001), and Epidermic! DIY Cell Lab(2005), to name a few, are conceived as participatory environments that mimic science labs where subRosa members, acting out the part of scientists, engage the public in scientific methods (e.g., the streaking of petri dishes), and discussions about Assisted Reproductive Technologies (e.g., in relation to eugenics), with the aim at demystifying science and technology. subRosa’s focus on topics related to the commodification of women’s labor and sexuality in the global economy, as well as its deconstructivist methods in which participation, the exchange of knowledge, and enlarged forms of consciousness raising (paneling, leafleting, and networking online and offline) take center stage, are closely related to those of the works at hand, as altogether these projects converge in the oppositional legacies of feminist art and activism working by way of repurposing technologies for cultural critique and empowerment of historically subjugated voices (Subrosa cites the work of the Women’s Health Movement in the United States and Europe during the 1970s as one of its precedents).
While expanding on the intertwined art and activist legacies of feminism (and queer activism), Muñoz and Peirano are also part and parcel of a new generation of artists who are steeped in the postcolonial legacies of Latin America, and are both well versed in the discourses of globalization and with the tools of maker culture. As makers, both artists are part of a broader group of women working at the intersections of art, making and activism, presently emerging in Latin America. The foci of Muñoz and Peirano, on feminist and queer perspectives on technologies, sets their projects apart from their women peers, however. Concerns with the corporate control of media and technology and interest in experimental practices are the most salient themes unifying the work of women artists in Latin America working in maker culture and with open-source and DIY technologies. Among others, the Mexican artist Leslie Garcia focuses on developing open-source bio-sound interfaces, a practice that traces to her work as a member of the Dream Addictive Lab (2003-2011), a now-defunct Tijuana-based collective which Garcia co-found with Carmen Gonzalez (Kirn, 2013).>[xiv] The Colombian artist Claudia Robles-Angel, who resides in Germany, also focuses on developing open-source aural tools which she uses to manipulate live projections of images and sounds (these interfaces are built with skin conductance sensors that measure GSR or Galvanic Skin Response, and EEG or electroencephalography that measures electrical activity in the brain, and are both attached to Robles’ body).[xv] Both Garcia and Robles conduct workshops, often in collaboration with other artists, which are designed to share techniques and information about their work with the public. Lastly, the collective Chimbalab from Chile (Constanza Pina and Claudia Gonzalez) designed a portable radio station which works on energy generated by potatoes for the Vega central vegetable market in Santiago, Chile, when the 2010 earthquake made clear that radio is a more robust and accessible medium than the country’s cellular network.[xvi]
Altogether, these works can be understood in relation to a situation in which the rapid expansion of digital technologies under the aegis of global capital signifies both control and the potential to enable opportunities for knowledge exchange and intervention, a situation that often follows the uneven paths of colonialism. Whereas firmly rooted in anti-colonialist and transnational perspectives (as much of these works deal with environmental issues in their respective localities), these artists do not necessarily identify as feminists, nor see their work as feminist art but foremost as maker and hacker practices. Beyond the suppression of radical histories of feminist and the prevalence of negative stereotypes of feminists, this distancing from the term feminism reflects the occlusion of gender and race discussions in maker culture in favor of the idea that making is a priori inclusive (in these cases, the idea that open-source and DIY technologies signify sine qua nonan anti-capitalist stance).
As recent literature shows, however, maker culture is far from inclusive, leading presently to the emergence of maker spaces and practices that take a separatist stance (women and transgender only) in face of marginalization. These developments, I believe, should give us pause, as they both point to the replication of hegemonic culture in maker spaces, and as well as to the diversification of making and hacking at present. Muñoz’s, Peirano’s and Kruglanski’s projects speak to these dynamics as they represent inquiries into the tensions of the maker movement positioned between commitments to inclusivity and the upholding of market culture (individualist, capitalist-driven entrepreneurship). As these projects show, race, gender, and class-based exclusion and exploitation are intrinsic to the extractivist logic of so-called information or post-industrial capitalism. By extension of their rootedness in feminist, queer, and post-colonial theory and practice, they suggest that the creation of a truly open and inclusive maker culture hinges on an understanding of the intertwinedness of gender and racial dynamics as kindred manifestations of the sameness of authoritarian culture (i.e., control of bodies, knowledge and its forms: art and technology). In engaging these perspectives, these projects also contribute to realize the potentialities of maker movements towards interventions into closed fields of action, and the creation of common interstitial spaces where theory and practice, imagination and materiality, cannot be easily separated. Conceived conceptually, materially, and within spaces predicted on inclusivity, they also suggest that knowledge is not, as Haraway puts it, a “passive category” (Haraway, 1988); instead, it can only work in a multiple web of relations. That is to say: as a commons producing being, in Rosi Braidotti’s words, as “non-unitary, non-linear, web-like, embodied and therefore perfectly artificial.” (Braidotti, 2000). In this spirit, I hope that my analysis of these projects contributes to activate awareness and change of the critical scope of maker culture, from its common understanding of the transformation of proprietary modes of production and distribution of technology as a social justice issue, toward a more radical vision of what this project might entail in terms of its implications for transforming oppressive gender and racial relations.
Bradotti, Rosi. 2000. “Between the No longer and the Not Yet.” Available at: <http://www.women.it/cyberarchive/files/braidotti.htm.> [accessed February 14, 2015].
>Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.
Cave, Damien. 2012. ‘A factory on bicycle wheels, carrying hope for a better future,’ The New York Times December 30. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/world/americas/mobile-factory-with-hope-for-a-better-life-mexico-city-journal.html?_r=1&> [accessed November 28, 2014].
Chan, Anita Say (2014). “Beyond Technological Fundamentalism: Peruvian Hack Labs and “Inter-technological” Education”. In <Journal of Peer Production, Vol. 5, October, 2014. Available at: http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-5-shared-machine-shops/
Coleman, Gabriella E. (2012). Phreaks, Hackers and Trolls, The Politics of Transgression and Spectacle. In Michael Mandiberg (ed.), The Social Media Reader. New York and London: New York University Press, pp. 99-119.
Emma. 2013.”Entrevista a Amor Muñoz: la mutualidad Textil-technologia.” Blog [online]. Available at: http://noiselab.com/blog/tecnologia/entrevista-a-amor-munoz-la-mutualidad-textil-tecnologia/. [accessed December 10, 2014].
Fusco, Coco. 2001. “At your service: Latin Women in the Global Information Network.” In The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings. London and New York: Routledge/iNIVA.
Fernandez, Maria, and Faith Wilding. 2002. “Situating Cyberfeminisms.” In Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practicesedited by Maria Fernandez, Faith Wilding, and Michelle M. Wright, 17-28. New York: Autonomedia.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. In Feminist Studies, Vol. 4 (3), 575-599.
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Kirn, Peter. 2013. “When Plants Jam with Synths: Leslie Garcia’s Open Project Lets Plants Talk with Sound.” Create Digital Music March 27. Available at: http://createdigitalmusic.com/2013/03/when-plants-jam-with-synths-leslie-garcias-open-project-lets-plants-talk-with-sound/[accessed February 12, 2015].
Nakamura, Lisa. 2014. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture.” In American Quarterly, Vol. 66 (4), December, 919-941.
Sollfrank, Cornellia (1999). Women Hackers. In Old Boys Network (eds.), Next Cyberfeminist International. Hamburg: Hein&Co, pp. 41-48. Available at: < http://www.obn.org/hackers/text1.htm>. [Accessed December 19, 2014].
Toupin, Sophie (2014). “Feminist Hackerspaces: The Synthesis of Feminist and Hacker Cultures”. In Journal of Peer Production, Vol. 5, October, 2014. Available at: http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-5-shared-machine-shops/.
Wilding, Faith. 1988. “Where is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism?.” In n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal 2 (1), pp. 6–13.
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Projects and websites mentioned
Amor Muñoz. Amor Porno. Available at: http://www.amorporno.net/index.php?/about-amor-porno/. [accessed November 28, 2014].
___. Esquematicos. Available at: http://amormunoz.net/index.php?/en-proceso/e-s-q-u-e-m-a-t-i-c-o-s/. [accessed November 28, 2014].
___. Maquila Region 4. Available at: http://amormunoz.net/index.php?/en-proceso/maquila-region-4/. [accessed November 28, 2014].
___. Yuca-Tech. Available at: http://amormunoz.net/index.php?/en-proceso/yucatech/. [accessed November 28, 2014].
[i] See, http://madmuseum.org/exhibition/new-territories.
[ii] The name of Fried’s company is an homage to Ada Lovelace, a nineteenth-century British mathematician, recognized as a pioneer of computer programming. Since being awarded a Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group, in 2009, Fried was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Entrepreneur magazine in 2012, and was the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired in the same year. She was also included on Fast Company’s “Most Influential Women in Technology” list in 2011.
[iii] The term maquila has its origins in colonial forms of production, and refers to the practice of millers charging a “maquila” or a fee for the processing of grain.
[iv] Indigenous textile production in Mexico involves both men and women. Maya women’s huipiles, however, are more elaborate and ornamented than men’s garments (currently the embroidered loincloth of Mayan times appears as a sash or belt). Along with community identification, huipiles have a ritual function, and particularly complex designs, symbols, and techniques, with certain fibers and natural dyes once reserved for the religious and ruling classes of pre-colonial times. Once a fading art due to the impact of colonization, ironically, the tradition of adorning catholic saints in huipiles also contributed to the surviving of huipiles, as specialized techniques and designs were practiced, preserved, and handed down through the continuing production of such ceremonial garments. Today, the huipil is almost exclusively produced by indigenous women.
[v] The term mestiza or mestizo, still used today to refer to a person of European and native American descent, traces to racial categories or the casta system of colonial times. Like Muñoz, other researchers and artists have discussed the maquiladoras’ preference for native women over male workers as ultimately based on a mixture of economic calculation, misogyny, and racism. Women are paid less; are considered to be more efficient workers because they possess greater manual dexterity (a trait connected to their training in traditional crafts, and essential to the maximization of production); and are assumed to be culturally socialized to “accept tedium, and to obey unquestioningly” (Fusco, 2001 pp. 195). More recently, the media theorist Lisa Nakamura pointed out the legacies of Native American women employed in electronic factories in the U.S. who were similarly sought after because of their craft skills.
[vi] The election of Enrique Peña Nieto marks the return of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) to government, after a brief hiatus of ten years (from 2000 to 2012). The PRI has its origins in the Mexican revolution (1910) and was in power for 71 years consecutive years prior to 2000. Nieto’s election was accompanied by wide-spread protests in Mexico, with Mexican youth and students spearheading calls against media censorship and fraudulent politics.
[vii] “Existe una nube negra alrededor de nuestra batidora, maquina depiladora y hasta cepillo de dientes electrico.” My translation.
[viii] Personal communication with Peirano.
[ix] See, http://amormunoz.net/index.php?/en-proceso/maquila-region-4/.
[x] Peirano and Kruglanski also cite Nicolas Bourriaud’s term “relational art” (1986) as a notion that can be applied to their workshops as loci of aesthetic production aimed at probing existing social relations, dynamics relating to interpretation and knowledge rather than focusing solely on the art object. Bourriad’s notion is however in itself not new insofar as a long tradition of avant-garde art, to which feminist artists are central, have pointed out that art and artistic production is itself embedded in the production of social relations.
[xi] The fine arts are traditionally a male domain, as social mores prevented women from acquiring the requisite skills. Until the nineteenth-century, women were, for instance, not accepted to art academies, nor were they allowed to paint or sculpt from nudes (a requirement in the classical tradition of the fine arts).
[xii] The first mentions of hacking in feminist art and theory occurred on the background of the overwhelming masculinism of 1990s computer culture. The German artist and cyberfeminist, Cornellia Sollfrank, herself a self-proclaimed hacker and cyberfeminist, in her search for the missing “women hackers” in hacker culture in the 1990s concluded that very few women were then involved with computer technologies (Sollfrank, 1999). More recently, the Puerto Rican media theorist Gabriella Coleman pointed out that hacking is a highly diffused practice, which includes a wide variety of groups and practices, and therefore cannot be reduced to one single definition (Coleman 2012).
[xiii] For a discussion of the varied perspectives of cyberfeminism see for instance the essay by Paraguayan-born artist and co-founder of Old Boys Network and the art collective subRosa Faith Wilding’s “Where is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism?” (1998).
[xiv] http://dalab.ws/. Dream Addictive Lab was active during eight years producing distinctive public sculptures that reflect concerns with interactivity, sound, sustainability, and open-source culture.
Fig. 1. Amor Muñoz,Maquila Region 4 (MR4), 2010-2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figs. 2. Workers in Campeche, Maquila Region 4. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figs. 3a and 3b. BiDi tag with profile of Trinidad Cruz, hired worker at Maquila Region 4. Images courtesy of the artist.
Figs. 4 a, 4 b, 4 c. Amor Muñoz,Yuca-Tech, 2013-ongoing. Images courtesy of the artist.
Fig. 5. “Electricity sold here/charge your phone” (photovoltaic apron), Yuca-Tech. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fig. 6.Carla Peirano (right) and Orit Kruglanski (left),Bricolage Sexual(BS)(2004-2010). Image courtesy of the artists.
Figs. 7a and 7b. Participants at Bricolage Sexual workshop. Images courtesy of the artists.
Fig. 8. “Because color matters, DIY dildo workshop, bring rope, fabric, old socks, pvc pipes, sponges, plastic bags, and other materials”, poster announcing a Sexual Bricolage workshop. Image courtesy of the artists