(image courtesy University of Illinois Press)

“Women naturally gather together, develop, nurture and sustain. It is the intrinsic nature of women to be creators and communicators.” This quote, from video artist Barbara Sykes-Dietze, is perhaps the best summary of New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts.

Edited by Donna J. Cox, Ellen Sandor, and Janine Fron, the book analyzes the so-called “Silicon Prairie.” The term refers to a group of women artists in the Midwest — an often forgotten center when it comes to mainstream cultural coverage — who were early adopters of digital technologies and foreshadowed what digital art would become in the new millennium. Many of these women were pioneers in virtual reality (VR) technology, which interactive artist Margaret Dolinsky defined as “the first redefinition of perspective since the Renaissance.”

Martyl with Ellen Sandor, Keith Miller, Pete Latrofa, and Janine Fron of (art)n., “Have A Nice Day” (2002), 40 x 30 inches, PHSCologram: Duratrans, Kodalith, and Plexiglas (courtesy of Ellen Sandor, (art)n.)

Each profile, with the exception of Martyl’s (Martyl Landsdorf, the creator of the Doomsday Clock), allows the subject to detail her artistic curriculum in her own words. All of the women in the book were huge proponents of the concept of the “artist as producer,” borrowing their vocabulary from Hollywood productions and acting as liaisons between artistic and scientific and technological innovations, thus providing more than just “aesthetic” input. “In 1985, I had the gut instinct that the world was going digital,” Sandor explained, adding that this realization inspired her to collaborate with eminent personalities in the digital world, such as artist Dan Sandin, engineer Tom DeFanti, and fashion photographer Gina Uhlman. Together they developed the computer-camera technique to feature computer-generated imagery.

Carolina Cruz-Neira, “Ashes to Ashes” (2001), from Scenes from a 9/11 memorial (courtesy of Carolina Cruz-Neira)

It almost feels nostalgic to read about artists’ wide-eyed praise of technologies as a virtually uncharted territory offering seemingly unlimited artistic possibilities. “It just blew me away at the beginning, I thought, wow this is so neat,” VR pioneer and Glass House Studio founder Caroline Cruz-Neira says, describing her first encounter with the Cray XMP machine and training in supercomputing at the tail-end of the 1980s. It was the heyday of fractals and fractal art — and, in 1992, Cruz-Neira would invent the CAVE automatic virtual environment, a system that would become the standard of rear-projection-based VR systems. 

“Mass culture [in 1974] had no idea that video, computer or electronic arts existed,” video artist Barbara Sykes-Dietze relates in her retelling before mentioning her first meeting with Dan Sandin. “I had never seen anything like it […] it was the power of the medium itself that was extremely provocative. It was the real-time capabilities and the absolutely beautiful radiant colors, translucent at times, and luminescent at others, that fascinated and intrigued me.” Similarly, digital media artist Joan Truckenbrod praised computers for breaking the constraints that accompany work in a single discipline: computers can produce sound and still and animated images, and can convey simultaneous ideas (for example, combinations of images and sound) that could not be reproduced on a single medium.

Margaret Dolinsky, “Self Portrait” (undated) (courtesy of Margaret Dolinsky)

A collaborative spirit among these artists was an integral part of their art movement, in part because, in the 1970s and ’80s, access to computing machines was relatively limited. “Collaborating was always easy for me. I find being a team member and a team leader to be very natural. I absolutely love it,”  says new-media artist Ellen Sandor, who founded the collaborative artists group (art)n.

Nan Goggin, Joseph Squier, Robb Springfield, “In[side] Out” (2000) (courtesy of Nan Goggin)

While the subject is rife with interest it is severely limited by the book’s format: aside from an essay that is more journalistic in style on the late artist Martyl and a very informative introduction, the 21 essays are all told in the artists’ own words; as a result, their quality depends on how articulate each artist is. This chronicle-type approach can be tedious if one reads several of the essays in a row. As a reader, I found myself wishing that some artists had analyzed a specific artwork, conveying the context in which it was conceived and conceptualized, rather than running through the details of their lives and work. Nevertheless, what these women achieved was, and still is, groundbreaking, and New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts is poised to become a valuable study tool for those interested in the intersection between art, women artists, and technology.

New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts (2018) is published by University of Illinois Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.