FC: Perhaps I should begin like this: what always troubled me with the term 'Cyberfeminism' was less the 'feminism' than the prefix 'cyber'. Does that have to be?
CS: [laughter] That's amazing! If the feminism had troubled you I could have related to that. (laughter) But you seem to be PC... (laughter). The theme 'Cyber': that is "what it is all about". I first heard about Cyberfeminism rolling off the tongue of Geert Lovink, and I said to him: what kind of nonsense is that? That was back then when everything went 'Cyber': 'Cybermoney' 'Cyberbody' etc.
FC: Yes exactly.
CS: I pigeonholed it together with all that and treated it like it was utter nonsense. But the term lodged itself in the back of mind without me knowing what it is. Then I asked Geert again what it meant and if he could send me a few references.
CS: But there was virtually nothing available in 1995/96. He sent me sure enough a reference from Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix - and 'Innen', which was a female artist group which I was in myself. He sent me back quasi my own name as a reference. That was a real little surprise. That he had done this was definitely no coincidence. So I thought to myself, OK, I assume he knows [laughter] which references he sent to me. I kept mulling over that in my mind. Then came the invitation to 'Hybrid Workshop' at the documenta x. Once again Geert was involved. He wanted me to plan a week or block - not on Cyberfeminism, but rather on one or other female issue. And this invitation was the catalyst for me to start working on the term 'Cyberfeminism'. By then I had found real pleasure in it and discovered that there was an enormous potential was involved and which both Sadie Plant or VNS Matrix had not capitalized on. They had only dabbled in a few areas.
What is interesting in Cyberfeminism is that the term is a direct reference to feminism, which means it also has a clearly political agenda. On the other hand though, due to this disastrous prefix, which sure enough is a real burden and very loaded, it also shows that there is something else there, an additional new dimension. That this 'Cyber' is present does not mean that much - apart from the fact that in all this hype it worked quite well. Taking a pre-fix that has popped up out of a good deal of hype, and what's more using it and attaching it to something else, creates a real power. Especially when everyone cries out (apart from you of course), Oh my God - feminism! It was this potential not to begin again from scratch with feminism, but to find a new point of departure - as well as the motivation to get people to begin engaging again with this term. Theoretically we could have made an attempt to redefine feminism. But History is simply too prominent and the negative Image too powerful.
FC: The difficulty I have with this no doubt stems from an academic point of view. We are in the midst of a discussion about net culture, which includes mailing lists like Netttime and other forums, where one no longer has to discuss the absurdity of 'Cyber' terminology. That's been done. Then along comes something that one knows is not to be taken completely seriously. However when I set foot in academic circles, I found myself being criticized - like I was at the German Studies Conference - for deconstructing dispositively the terms 'cyber'/'hyper'/'virtuel' which are still used there as discursive coordinates. These terms have gathered their own dynamic and have been written down and canonized for at least the next ten years. And it is precisely here that 'Cyberfeminism' fits in, as a term which does not sound so experimental or ironic when one puts it into the context of something like Cultural Studies.
CS: But what do you mean? Is that actually a problem?
FC: Well, isn't it the problem that one thereby creates a discourse which in academic operating systems can gather its own dynamic and then vanish?
CS: ...in that case, yes. I fully support you there.
FC: Another problem: what always becomes very apparent in the context of Feminism when one reviews its History from the Sufragettes to Beauvoir to the difference feminism of the seventies right up to Gender Studies is that 'Feminism' as such does not actually exist.
CS: No, that's obvious.
FC: There's an anthology of American feminist theory, which sensibly uses the title 'Feminisms' - uses the plural. Shouldn't it also be called 'Cyberfeminism'?
CS: It's been called that often. For example in the editorial of the second Reader it's referred to as 'new Cyberfeminism' and then 'Cyberfeminisms'. Or in a definition by Yvonne Volkart: 'Cyberfeminism is a myth and in a myth resides the truth, or that, which it engages with is the difference between the individual stories/approaches. I feel those are really good definitions of Cyberfeminisms and are not anti-definitions.
FC: You set up the cyberfeminist 'Old Boys Network', whose Internet Domain is registered in your name. Due to your organisation the 'Cyberfeminist International' had its first gathering at the documenta x. Is the impression I have right that it is still a group or a discourse consisting mainly of women who are active in net art culture?
CS: No, that's not right. We did have our first big gathering at the documenta, but even here in this documenta, the different contexts modified everything. Not only the art world, but also the media scene for example.
In the 'Old Boys Network' we had always tried out different organisational forms. An ideal form does not exist. One has to somehow organize network, because it doesn't do so by itself. Finally however there was no form that functioned really well, which meant we always had to conceive of new forms. For a while we had what could be identified as a 'core group' of five to six names. From those less than half were female artists. There is always a predominance of already established theory, from the female literary experts to the female art history experts...
FC: That refers to theory that situates itself in the context of art. But that reeks as ever of net art.
CS: For me personally that's correct. But there are many people in the OBN who would refuse to see it that way. Our goal was always manifold. Our main idea was not to formulate a content with a political goal. Instead we said that our organizational structure was as important as the content. To be a cyberfeminist also makes demands on us to work on the structure and not just to turn up at conferences and hold a seminar paper. On the contrary, it means to tend to financial matters, or to make a website, a publication or create an event - hence to engage in developing structures. 'Politics of dissent' is a very important term. It means placing the most varied points of departure next to each other, finding a form for them so that they can coexist and act as a force field to set something going. That's why we tried to incorporate women from the CCC - female hackers - as well as female computer experts. Fourteen days ago at the third 'Cyberfeminist International', for the first time there were several women from Asia, as well as women from 'Indymedia' [The anit-globalisation news network]. It is very important to keep extending the connections.
FC: I find it very interesting that you talk so much about structures when I ask you about the term Cyberfeminism. Is it then just another platform, another system that you have programmed generatively as an experiment to see what will happen?
CS: That's pretty extreme, but yes one could say that. When I was asked to define Cyberfeminism, what was always important for me was building structures, and like the Old Boy Network disseminating the idea through marketing strategies.
FC: In 1997 Josephine Bosma asked you in an interview: "Do you think there are any specific issues for women online?" - and you answered: "No, I don't think so really".
CS: [Laughter.] I still believe that.
FC: Yes? - That was my question.
CS: After four and a half years of Cyberfeminism and contexts such as 'Women and the Medias', and a round of lectures, presentations and workshops, I've come to the conclusion that one can divide this area into two areas. One is the area of 'access', meaning, whether women have access to knowledge and technology, and which is a social problem. The second area is if the access exists, and the skills are there, what happens on the net or with this medium? What factors determine WHAT is made? About that there's very little which is convincing. Mostly it is a lot of arid ill-defined essentialist crap, with which I want to have little to do with because it reaffirms the already existing and unfavorable conditions rather triggering something new. Feminist media theory that extends beyond this would find a place on the market.
FC: The phrase 'essentialist crap': is my assumption right that your focus of attention on systems and the rules of games, and games in particular which you create in order to watch what will happen - whether that is Cyberfeminism or net art generating, and for which the output will be submitted in a competition - can be see as an anti-essentialist strategy, which includes your appropriation, plagiarizing and taking of already existing material?
CS: There are not that few female artists who take as their point of departure the idea that women have to develop their own aesthetic in order to counteract the dominant order of things. I've always had problems with that and didn't know what that could be without predicating myself again in strict roles and definitions. That is the problem with essentialism. The difference can also be turned around again quite easily - even when I describe it. I think that doesn't take us anywhere. Besides one of the miseries of identity politics that was developed by certain communities and groups was that its actual intentions have completely been turned around. They have become target-groups for niche markets, and being, for example gay, has become a life style.
FC: That would apply to the art referred to in the two volume Suhrkamp Anthology 'Women in Art' by Gislind Nabakowski, Helke Sander and Peter Gorsen...
CS: I don't know it [laughter]...
FC: ...or such art as Kiki Smith's, which I see as the antithesis to your art.
CS: Could be. My problem at present is nevertheless that the theme, Cyberfeminism, has to some extent driven me into the so-called 'women's corner'. What would be a broader definition and would include a more extensive notion of my art is hardly taken into consideration. That is why I am determined to take on other themes. The work with Schöneberg was the first step to expanding the spectrum - although as ever I still like to surround myself with many great women. [laughter]...
FC: When you say that you want to come out of the Cyberfeminist corner, I have to ask myself whether - as in the Schöneberg installation - your anti-essentialist strategy of constructing and producing from given systems and situations and plagiarizing, nevertheless has a feminist component?
CS: It always has that anyway, because I have a feminist consciousness and engage with the art operating system as such, irrespective of what I do. That was the case in 'Female Extension' and it is always implicit.
FC: What I have noticed is that women are amply represented in the code experimentation of net art.
FC: From what I've seen, yes. Jodi for example is a masculine-feminine couple, the same goes for 0100101110111001.org. Then springs to mind mez/Mary Anne Breeze or antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova, which we now know has a woman from New Zealand forming the core group.
CS: Are you sure about that?
CS: I'm currently working on an Interview with Netochka Nezvanova...
CS: Yes, she tells me everything! What she thinks about the world - and the art world [laughter]
FC: That is someone then who also fascinates you?
CS: I find it extremely interesting as a phenomenon to ask 'her' things such as... how much does her success have to do with the fact she is a woman... Ultimately though there are several people involved.
FC: But the core is a woman.
CS: Great! A new concept of N.N. I have asked so many people about her, and everyone had such contradictory information about her. The last theory that I heard led me to the media theoretician Lev Manovich.
FC: [laughter] It is a good concept. A social hack and a system that is triggered off... And something that dematerializes.
CS: That's why I also fine-tuning this concept. I want to kill it by doing an interview in which she reveals all of her strategies - something she would never do anyway. That is my idea...
FC: In your interview with 0100101110111001.org you were pretty tough on both of them - which by the way I thought was good - because of your discussion of 'biennale.py'- Computervirus. You promised that out of it an aesthetic code-attitude would emerge which is not really interpretative, because no one can read the code. Would you nevertheless not admit that this intervention was a form of 'social hacking'?
CS: Of course. That's what it is first of all. The way how the code has been aestheticized is secondary, something that happened more by mistake because the artists probably had not thought so much about the traps of the art systems before. The virus clearly was a social hack. And it would have already been sufficient to call it 'virus'. Even if the code would not have worked or would have been just some nonesense it would not have done any harm to the project.
FC: Is it then necessary to use labels like 'net art' at all when the medium is not so relevant?
CS: I think it makes sense to use such labels at the start, when a new medium is being introduced, and actual changes come along with it; in the phase where the actual medium is explored like jodi did for example with the web/net, or Nam June Paik with video.
You could compare it with video art - which is in this sense a predecessor of net art. I don't think that it is useful any longer to talk of 'video art'. The ways how video is being used today are established and it becomes more meaningful to refer to contents. That is, by the way, the problem of the whole thing called 'media art'‹ too much media, too little art...
FC: Looking at your art, isn't it the case that projects like the net.art generator develop their concept, their systems of 'social hacks' from the media?
CS: That's true in this case. But it is not necessarily the way I work. The term 'net.art' functioned also as a perfect marketing tool. And it worked until the moment it gained the success it had headed for. Then everything collapsed. [laughter]
FC: Would it be possible for you to work in any context? We met here at the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club. But would it also be possible to meet at the annual congress of stamp collectors, and this would be the social system you would intervene?
CS: Theoretically, yes. [laughter] I think anyone who managed to get along with the hackers, the hacker culture doesn't shrink back from anything - not even stamp collectors or garden plot holders.
FC: ... or hotel corridors.
CS: No, theoretically a lot is possible, but not practically. My interest is not just formal and not only directed towards the operating system. It is an important aspect, but when the arguments and the people within the system are of no interest for me, I can hardly imagine to work there.
FC: That would mean at the hacker's convention your reference would be that people here play with systems, and critically think about systems?
CS: And what's also interesting for me is the fact that hackers are independent experts, programers, who work for the sake of programming, and are not in services of economy or politics. That's the crucial point for me. And that's also the reason why hackers are an important source of information for me.
FC: But that takes us straight back to the classical concept of the autonomous artist coined in the 18th century, the freelance genius. He is no longer employed, and gets no commissions, but is independent and does not have to follow a given set of rules.
CS: Maybe you're right, and my image of a hacker has in fact a lot to do with such an image of the artist. But reflecting upon the role of art in society in general, I would prefer to consider art as autonomous, to considering the individual artist as autonomous - given that the idea of autonomy per se is problematic. The idea of art as observing, positioning oneself, commenting, trying to open up different perspectives on what is going on in society is what I prefer. And that is exactly what is endangered. The contradictory thing about autonomy is that someone has to protect/finance it. And it is most comfortable when governments do so, like it was common here in Germany over the last decades. I think this ensures the most freedom. Examples which illustrate my theory are Pop Art and New Music; in the 60s and 70s artists from all over the world came to Germany because here was public funding, and facilities to work which existed nowhere else. I consider it as one of the tasks of a government to provide money for culture. And the development we are facing at the moment is disasterous.
A short time ago somebody asked me how I would imagine the art of the future, and after thinking for a while I got the image of a an open-plan office, packed with artists who work there, all looking the same and getting paid by whatever corporation; the image of art which is completely taken over and submitted to the logics of economy. This does not mean that I would reject all corporate sponsoring, but it should not become to influential.
FC: Doesn't the electronic artist make the running for the others, because they are so extremely dependent on technology?
CS: Absolutely, and I think this is really a major problem. They make the running for the others...
FC: ... but in a purely negative sense.
CS: Basically yes. It is a difficult field to play on. Some artists are thinking of work-arounds, like low-tech, and as another example, I would highly appreciate if ars electronica, which obviously suffers from a lack of ideas and inspiration, would choose the topic of Free Software. They could do without their corporate sponsors, and only give prizes to pieces which are produced with the use of Free Software. It would be really exciting to see what you can do with it.
FC: But not to forget that Free Software is also dependent from corporate sponsors. You almost don't find any major Free Software project where no big companies are involved - directly or indirectly trying to bring an influence to bear.
CS: At the latest with the distribution ...
FC: Yes, but it starts already with the development. The GNU C-Compiler for example belongs to Red Hat, IBM invests billions in developping Linux further, and these are, of course strategic investments. Almost every well-known free developer receives his salary cheque from some corporation.
CS: Are you saying that Free Software, in the end, is nothing but another utopia?
FC: No, I wouldn't say it's an utopia which does not become true. The code always stays free, and even if there's a recession, the developers are able to work quite self-determined. - But I do not believe that this equals the type of the autonomous artist.
CS: We are mixing up several things now. Hackerdom for example is not a profession. A hacker may be employee in a company, but this has nothing to do with being a hacker. And here you can make comparisons with art. How about being an artist: Is it a profession or not? Would I still be an artist even if I would make my money by practising a different job?
I am organized in the German trade union for media workers-in the department for artists- and am interested how generic interests of artists can be represented. Being an artist should be an acknowledged profession, secure, and insured like the Social Insurance for artists does here in Germany (Künstersozialkasse). But this point does conflict a lot with the idea of autonomy. I am not sure myself how it can go together. Although, I basically insist on my professional rights, it often seems to contradict the status of being autonomous. And this uncertainty of the artists very often gets abused, by treating artist unprofessionally, and exploiting them shamelessly.
FC: A while ago you have said that you contradicted Gerfried Stocker when he equated art with creativity. Being an artist is a profession for you, and therefore a definable and distinguishable subsystem of society. This would also be an anti-thesis to the 'expanded art' idea ['erweiterten Kunstbegriff'] à la Fluxus-and to Joseph Beuys' idea of "Everyone is an artist?.[Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler.]
FC: I would simply add 'potential'. I think there shouldn't be any mechanism or criteria which includes certain people per se, but certainly not everyone is an artist, although everyone could be an artist. But most people don't feel any desire to become an artist anyway.
[At his point we switched off the tape recorder and kept on talking about the necessity of doing things on the one hand side, and discarding them again on the other hand. During that the conversation turned to Neoism and its internal quarrels.]
CS: Such quarrels can become very existential, very exhausting, and weakening. Things tend to become incredibly authentic - something I try to avoid otherwise.
FC: But this is important. When I hear standard accusations, saying that dealing with systems, disrupting systems through plagiarism, fakes, and manipulation of signs, is boring postmodern stuff, lacking existential hardness, my only answer is that people who say this, never tried to practise it consequently. Especially, on a personal level, it can be deadly. You have mentioned the group `-Innen' before, a group you have obviously been part of in the early 90s, before the days of net.art...
CS: Yes, this was in '93-96.
FC: And, if I get it right, it was also a 'multiple identity' concept.
CS: Yes, and although we handled it very playful and ironic, it started to become threatening - so much that we had to give it up. We had practised the 'becoming one person' to an extreme by looking exactly the same, and even our language was standardized. And then we felt like escaping from each other, and not meeting the others any more.
FC: Is this the point where art potentially becomes religious or a sect?
CS: Maybe, if you don't quit.
FC: ... if you don't quit. I am thinking of Otto Muehl and his commune...
CS: That is exactly the point where you have leave and go for the unknown, leave the defined sector, and reinvent yourself - which might be not so easy. To do this together, in or with the group is almost impossible. There's probably some marriages which realize to do so, to reinvent themselves and their relationship permanently, to keep it vivid (vital). But with more people than two it's too much.
FC: Are your projects kind of marriages for you, or sects or groups?
CS: Well, it has a lot in common. That's amazing! It starts already with the reliabiliy, which must be there. Because nothing works, if there is not a certain degree of reliability, also regarding the dynamics, how roles are assigned or how people choose them.
FC: Designing such systems also has something to do with control and loosing control, right? In the beginning you're the designer, you define the rules, but then you get involved and become part of the game yourself, and the time has come to quit.
CS: Well, certainly I do have my ideas and concepts, but the others might have different ones. The whole thing comes to an end when the debates and arguments aren't productive any longer. With the 'Old Boys Network' we are currently experimenting with the idea to release our label. To think through what that actually means was a painful process. You think:?Oh god, maybe somebody will abuse it, do something really aweful and stupid with it. That's shit.? But if we want to be consequent, we have to live with that. And the moment comes where you have to learn to change the relation you have towards your own construct-what might be difficult.
FC: What was the case with 'Improved Tele-vision', where the system already had been set? As far as I can see, this work was the first where you did not design the system yourself, but engaged in an already existing process.
CS: Yes, that's why it was so easy for me.[laughter] I didn't have to work too hard on that one.[laughter]
FC: Can you imagine to consciously leave 'Old Boys Network?'
CS: Oh yes - meanwhile!
FC: ... and ignoring it for like three years - or longer - and after that period trying to engage again, but with an artistic approach which is observing, like in 'Improved Television'...
CS: Sounds like a good idea, but I am afraid it would not work. My presumptious idea is, that three years after I have left, OBN would not exist any longer. [laughter]
CS: At the same time it is a generic name. 'Old Boys Networks' have always been around; usually, they are not exactly feminist. [laughter]
CS: One big trap for us was, that we called it 'network', although it actually functioned as a group. And we refused to realize that for too long. OK, there is the associated network of hundreds of boys, but the core is a group.
FC: But this seems to be a very popular self-deception within the so-called net cultures. I also say that also 'nettime' and the net culture it supposedly represented was nothing but a group, at least until 1998.
CS: And that is the only way it works. There's no alternative way how a network can come into being. At some point there have to be condensations, and commitments. And 'networks' dont require a lot of commitment.
FC: So, how do network and system relate in your understanding?
CS: I think a system is structured and defined more clearly, and has obvious rules and players. A network tends to be more open, more loose.
FC: Now, I would like to know, if in your view, systems as well as networks necessarily have a social component. One could claim that purely technical networks as well as purely technical systems do exist. Your work alternatively intervenes in social and technical networks. But, in the end, your intervention always turns out to be a social one. Can you think of networks and systems-referring to the definition you just have given-without social participation?
CS: Not, not at all. Because the rules or the regulating structure always is determined by somebody. Like computer programs are often mistaken as something neutral. 'Microsoft Word' for exampel. Everyone assumes it just can be the way 'Word' it is. But that's not the case. It could be completely different.
FC: ... as Matthew Fuller has analyzed in his text Text "It looks like you're writing a letter: Microsoft Word" in every detail...
CS: Yes, there are endless individual decisions involved - decisions of the programmer, and from the person who designs the program, and decides how and where to lead the user, and to manipulate the user, making him/her doing certain things.
FC: There's also earlier experiments within art, on designing self-regulating systems. Hans Haacke has bulit in the 60' his 'Condensation Cube', made of glass. On it's side-walls water condensates corresponding to the amount of people who are in the same room. Such a thing would not be of any interest for you?
CS: No, I don't think so. It is also typical for a lot of generative art that one system is being transformed into another one. I find this totally boring. For me, it is important that the intervention sets an impulse which results in - or at least aims for a change.
The interview has been conducted for 'transcript'- books on contemporary visual culture;
issue: Communication, Interface, Locality, published by Dr.Kerstin Mey and Simon Yuill
University Press and School of Fine Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design,
University Dundee, Scotland, 2002
Published on nettime-list, January 2002