Where Are the Women of Color in New Media Art?

Screen shot from the Deep Lab book.
Screenshot from the Deep Lab book

Not long ago I wrote an article celebrating the work being done by cyberfeminist collective Deep Lab. In a post-Snowden world that’s seen few legal or structural changes since the first leaks, and one that’s filled with male-dominated tech conferences that sound more like advertising than critical discussion, I still consider Deep Lab’s work to be invaluable.

However, after the piece was published, Dorothy Santos — a writer, curator, and friend who’s currently organizing an exhibition on privacy and surveillance and their relationship to gentrification in the Bay Area — wrote to me to express concerns about the lack of women of color (WOC) and queer or trans women of color (QTWOC) artists in Deep Lab. She questioned why I didn’t discuss that lack of representation in my article.

With Santos’s encouragement, I decided it would be valuable to do a follow-up piece and include perspectives from WOC and QTWOC artists and writers regarding Deep Lab, new media and technology-based art, and representation. We emailed a small questionnaire to 20 such women. Seven responded, and their comments are featured below along with Santos’s own answers. We encourage any WOC/QTWOC readers to comment on this article or email to share your perspectives. As Deep Lab continues its work in 2015, with exciting partnerships with the MIT Media Laboratory and NEW INC, we hope these voices will be taken into account.

Screen shot of members of Deep Lab at work from the Deep Lab documentary.
Screenshot of members of Deep Lab at work, from the documentary

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How do you feel about the overrepresentation of whiteness in media, especially in projects such as Deep Lab, which seeks to nurture radical and marginalized voices?

Dorothy Santos (DS): I feel a strong sense of frustration, but I am resigned to the lack of representation. The second part of the question is tricky: If radical and marginalized voices were meant to be a part of the conversation, why was the group specifically hand-picked? Why not allow women to have a seat at the table and join the conversation? It becomes challenging when WOC and QTWOC are exchanging and sharing knowledge only among themselves — the situation becomes circular. The internet certainly allows for groups to engage in global conversations, but the fact remains that a “congress of cyberfeminist[s]” comprised of predominantly cis white women discussing issues of privacy, surveillance, new media, and digital art at a prestigious university doesn’t exactly help the communities that become the subjects of their discussions. It can be isolating to women in search of this type of (necessary) dialogue.

I acknowledge that everything can’t be covered in a mere week. For the record, the work produced by Deep Lab, from the recordings available on YouTube to the anthology, is invaluable and necessary. It is deeply impactful and influential. Yet I cannot help but perceive this work as being done in an insular manner that presents a highly privileged perspective.

Anonymous #1: It has always appeared that white people are more recognized for these positions, to speak neutrally about social issues to mainstream audiences. And white people are more often granted the power and opportunity and time to work in those places. This has been the norm throughout my education, and it makes predominantly non-white or visible minority groups who work with technology appear less interesting to white audiences, who might not be able to take into account the culturally specific and identity-related needs of marginalized people.

Anuradha Vikram (AV), educator, writer, curator at 18th Street Arts Center: I think projects like Deep Lab reflect the limited access to new technologies and media representation offered to people of color. It’s advantageous for them to reach out to more women of color for inclusion, certainly. Women of color have different and necessary perspectives on questions of surveillance, criminalization, and embodiment that need to be represented. It’s not fair to call them an exclusively white collective, though — they are underrepresented with respect to WOC but not totally unrepresented. Equally problematic is our overemphasis on American technologists when much of the most interesting work in this area is being done in places where technology is transforming economics and culture such as China, India, Brazil.

Anonymous #2: Whatever bias and discrimination that is perpetuated on the internet is purely imposed from the real world.

That being said, when I first discovered Deep Lab, I did not take into account or really notice their whiteness. I see a group of strong females coming together to voice their opinions and push for gender equality.

I only briefly went through the Deep Lab manifesto, but from what I’ve gathered, they address issues that concern people globally, regardless of race and gender. Deep Lab is in an infantile state, so there is much potential for growth for WOC and QTWOC.

Jennifer Chan, "Boyfriend 男友," (2014)
Jennifer Chan, “Boyfriend 男友” (2014)

Briefly describe the barriers you face within a new media art and technology framework as a WOC or QTWOC.

Jennifer Chan (JC), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Girl Develop It Chicago, Dorkbot Chicago, new media and digital artist: Assumption I am not the professor but the TA or another student in a classroom environment.

American male freshman student making fun of my technical instruction, Canadian accent, and teaching in class.

A white gay art critic who has written for Artforum and Art in America openly questioned that I didn’t make my own work at my first solo exhibition, then slammed my exhibition on Yelp and later tagged me multiple times on Twitter to tell me my feminist ideas were stupid.

People not knowing the artist was me at my own exhibition.

People not acknowledging my work or presence.

First IRL meeting of The Jogging resulted in them drunkenly berating me for being “egotistical and maniacal” for writing “Why Are There No Great Women Net Artists?”

Art critics and peers asking how old I am on first meeting.

In-jokes and technical language at startups make social space seem inaccessible and alienating.

AV: No access to funding, which means no possibility of realizing projects at a scale that gets attention. No access to media representation. Expectation that everything I do is about “identity” such that I apply for curatorial positions that list new media art background as a desired skill and am told I don’t have relevant experience despite 10+ years working in this very space. Ageism is also a major problem, hiring 25-year-olds instead of 35-year-olds because 60-year-olds think they have a better handle on tech issues (when the younger generation sometimes has not yet figured out how to look beyond corporate priorities with respect to tech).

Laura Hyunjhee Kim (LHK), new media and digital artist: As a female working in the tech industry, I think there will always be a barrier as a woman (with or without color). Therefore, I oddly feel much more liberated within the context of art — most likely because many women have already worked hard to lay the groundwork! I think there are many women who build strong networks and communities within new media, but I have yet to encounter one driven by WOC or QTWOC (because these communities often get too exclusive).

Screen shot from Morehshin
Screenshot from Morehshin Allahyari’s “The 3D Additivist Manifesto” (2015), a collaboration with Daniel Rourke

Morehshin Allahyari (MA), new media and digital artist, educator, curator: I think in general the exclusion of non-Western ethnicities is a very common problem in the field of art and technology. So, as a Middle-Eastern artist, I have struggled, feeling isolated in the new media art scene, being frustrated with the white and specifically Western topics, exhibitions, articles, panels, etc that also happen to always be the bubble of the same 30 artists. Rarely are new or unknown faces or artists being introduced or brought into these communities. Even when it comes down to feminist issues and events focused on women, WOC are mostly excluded. Their bodies, concerns, daily life struggle are rarely taken seriously or included in a lot of these events and publications. So, Deep Lap falls into the same category — perhaps completely unconsciously, like so many other women-run organizations, exhibitions, or panels that happen to be all about white feminism.

Anonymous #2: Fortunately, I have not really felt any major barriers yet as a WOC. But the art and tech world is obviously dominated by white males — this is something I try not to worry too much about in my own art practice. I instinctually seek out strong female role models despite what is and is not publicized/recognized.

DS: During graduate school, reading critical theory and art criticism, the challenge was actually locating WOC and QTWOC within the work I was researching. What I found was the same dominant grouping of cis white men creating the digital tools and methodology. I also found myself deeply drawn to works that actually used technology to reveal deeper societal issues and made visible specific marginalized populations such as immigrants, indigenous people, and transgender people.

As I read through Garret Keizer’s book Privacy, I started to think about the different ways that underrepresented and underserved communities fall prey to barriers that they don’t even know exist. It’s in large part due to the lack of knowledge around how contemporary mobile and digital technology serve specific purposes and ideologies. More concretely, data profiling and data inclusion are huge issues among low-income families and individuals that have few resources available to help them navigate digital spaces. More often than not, technology has a specific audience in mind. It’s certainly not for underserved communities unable to afford some of the very technology that ought to serve them. It becomes a vicious cycle.

But the barrier or challenge is not having opportunities readily available or having access to individuals that could help push things forward. What exactly does it tell me when I don’t see a larger number of women of color in groups such as Deep Lab? It tells me and other WOC that I’m not welcome and that I don’t have what it takes to be a part of this dialogue. There are some amazing groups and organizations, such as Black Girls Code, FemTechNet, and Liberating Ourselves Locally, that aim to level the playing field in terms of accessibility, resources, and opportunities.

I highly recommend reading this Bloomberg Business article by Sarah Frier and Peter Burrows that substantiates race and gender as a systemic problem. There are two tracks that WOC and QTWOC must deal with: 1) legitimization of knowledge, skills, and/or craft 2) gaining respect and acknowledgement of gender and ethnicity. Certain spaces, especially ones that are predominantly comprised of cis straight white men, can be extremely challenging to work and collaborate in.

, Privacy Stock Video Footage," (2015)
Laura Hyunjhee Kim, Privacy Stock Video Footage” (2015)

Why is it important that we make sure these perspectives are included in the dialogue regarding new media and digital art?

Anonymous #1: If new media art is open, democratic, and inclusive of all voices, so to speak, then these perspectives should be included. Any history of new media art in textbooks has been written predominantly by white people who reinforce this micro-canon.

AV: The whole conversation about contemporary art should be focused on these issues. By segregating ourselves, we exclude ourselves from institutions and their support, and restrict ourselves to a conversation driven by engineering and VC rather than cultural/ethical concerns. Everyone should be talking about representation, as well as about privacy, civil rights, data access (and access, broadly speaking), and flows of information in the worlds of art and tech.

DS: It’s important to include WOC and QTWOC perspectives because it’s a downright methodology for dismantling the systems that continue to oppress. Whether it’s within economic, creative, social, or cultural frameworks, inclusivity is key to progress.

I see less and less divide today between the IRL/AFK self and digital self because so much of what we do also exists online. What are the implications of this for identity and its formation? I read an essay by scholar Emily Noelle Ignacio about the construction of the Filipino/Filipina identity on the internet that proved to be incredibly eye opening. Ignacio’s work covered how participants’ perceptions of a Filipina individual were reduced to patriarchal and stereotypical modes of being (i.e., docile partner/wife, domestic worker, objectified and subjected, sexual objects, etc.). We can also see these explorations of identity, race, and gender in the texts of scholar Juana Rodriguez, who has worked extensively on understanding the gendering of language in digital spaces for over a decade. There are also cybermythologies of oppressed and underrepresented people that cis white feminists may not be aware of, and I think this is what concerns me greatly. There are WOC and QTWOC scholars committed to researching these mythologies, but they also bear the burden of being engaged and legitimized as digital and intellectual laborers. Again, inclusivity is key because it really is the only way to achieve progress, for all women. All people.

Sofia Niazi, new media and digital artist, co-curator of OOMK: So many new jobs will require tech/coding/computing skills in the future, so it’s important that access to developing them is open to everyone and barriers are identified and removed as soon as possible.

MA: As a new media artist, my way of criticizing these issues is to actively participate in creating a more diverse environment when I’m asked to curate a show or organize an event or suggest other artists or solely “participate” in an event as an artist. I make sure that I invite women artists from different countries and ethnicities, and that my role is also helping the work of lesser-known WOC be seen and exhibited. As I have said before, the new media debate about technology is completely dominated by Western understanding, access, and use of these technologies. In my “In Mere Spaces All Things Are Side By Side” video, I specifically talk about this and how so much of the new media work about the internet comes from this position of privilege and access. Even glitch comes from having “the option for failure” — it’s a “privileged failure,” if you will. I like to think about this as a metaphor for so much of what we see and discuss in the world of digital media.

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People of color and their organizations that we and our interviewees believe merit further exposure and involvement in collectives like Deep Lab:

Adrian Piper, Ana Cecilia Alvarez, An Xiao Mina, Anahita Hekmat, Andrea Crespo, Behnaz Farahi, Black Girls Code, Black Girl Tech, CAMP, Cao Fei, crystal am nelson, Elizabeth Travelslight, Fatima Al Qadiri, Gaby Cepeda, Geraldine Juarez, Germaine Koh, Hasan Elahi, Jenny Odell, Joanna Cheung, Julianne Aguilar, Latoya Allen, Lu Yang, Mailee Hung, Maria Fernandez, Micha CardenasShawné Michaelain Holloway, Mona Kasra, Mounira Al Solh, Osman Khan, Raqs Media Collective, Sanaz Mazinani, Sarah Abu Abdallah, Sarah Wong, Seeta Gangadharan, Shaina Anand, Shawne Soraya Murray, Sona Safaei, Sougwen Chung, Susana Ruiz, Taeyoon Choi, Tricia Wang, Women in Technology, and Ying Miao.

Correction: The list at the end of this article was originally identified as featuring women of color rather than people of color. It has been fixed.

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