Stream (Contemporary flaneuses on the city - sex, surveillance and science-fiction)

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 March 1996

Contemporary flaneuses on the city - sex, surveillance and science-fiction

Imagine all the girls from Pyjama Party, the new nostalgia kick from ITV, hanging out on a balcony somewhere. Gin is passed round, soft music plays and sweet, sensual perfumes crystallise on the night's chilled air. Scanning the panorama, the conversation turns to the city. It all looks so far away, the roads entering and exiting, the roundabouts that string together trails of light like some big hair ball, and the strange haze of urban heat that settles above them.

What's on television? The Girlie Show, another one. Of course, the Pyjama Party is different, no need to explain. It says it like it is: be a girl and be happy about it. In negligé's, the girls watch passé TV from the fifties and sixties. Although it's polite amusement, they give it to you straight; gossip and laughs, stars and grainy footage for excercise and cooking self-help. In-jokes which are funny because things have changed. Everybody knows this stuff is transparent. It comes from the dark ages.

As proven about two years ago, both in the US and UK when exhibitions by the same name featured prominently, Bad Girls sell tickets. Sex, subversion and a nasty kick in the teeth can come in attractive packages. Though mauled by many female artists who described it as being a mere hoarding trick that diluted the complexity and strength of individual work, Bad Girls was out there to show how far feminism had evolved and what girls now dared to do as a matter of course. To many, the nasty curatorial manoeuvre had been precisely that which, to others, had seemed the strength of the exhibition namely the presentation of a pack. But then, sometimes it's just better to deal with girls in groups. As one "part" of VNS Matrix said at Virtual Futures'95, if you really want to get a lot of attention, get together as a group of women, make cyberspace your territory and you're on your way. Whether your coverage takes on more than the fact that, yes, you work as a group and yes, you are women, is a different question. Similarly, Orphan Drift, so clearly at pains to indicate they are, in their words, "pure signal", a deliberately non-authorial entity, and in no small way collaborators with men, are more popularly described via the girl-gang set-up. VNS Matrix pre-empt this response and make it fully theirs. Big Daddy Mainframe and Circuit Boy, the two main masculine entities in their game All New Gen can easily accommodate more wayward figures than that and, if anything, any juices stirred are juices welcomed.

It is difficult to avoid falling in the same trap of description with Stream's collaborators Sophy Rickett, Carey Young and Rut Blees Luxemburg. There's the girls-en-gang pissing in the streets, power dressing. There's the high heels. All the requisite signs. But, as with VNS Matrix, who exert a large degree of control over their ludic, self-created mythology, so with Stream, where this strong element of calculation serves to morph into a trickster aesthetic of sorts. The difference with Bad Girls being that there is no attempt to describe a movement from the exterior, no description of political truth, more a set of iconic and interrelated images/artworks whose modes of delivery are deliberately made to collide and whose slogan-like messages invite you to play with them. Although, seen individually, this is more the case for Rickett and Blees Luxemburg's actual art work, that seems largely beside the point as the venture's whole raison d'etre is collaboration; Sophy takes pictures of Carey and Rut in the city, Carey asks writers questions about cyber-cities and Rut takes a picture of the building they exhibit in together. Circling, twisting, reflecting and then opening out toward each other, their works describe an internally coherent split-moment which seeks to be just that. And then to move on.

Crucial to this is the choice of the city as a kind of hyper-aware playground image. Architecture's emergence in gender theory plus its truly palpable character in many women's fears and personal histories lend it a clear function as signifier in a set of carefully staged alter-images which counter these tropes for their desired version. So, Rickett pisses on the bridge near MI5, Blees Luxemburg hovers like a spirit out of body above the carefully framed plunging walls of the host space "Plummet", and Young carries out an international investigation into the suitability of her city photographs as visualisations of cyberspace.

Rather than in Bad Girls where being bad was enjoyable, Rickett's pissing looks like a sober undertaking. These girls piss in the city because that's what they always do, there's no need to smile about it. More so, the triptych, women in suits, the three graces, whatever, is a projection of the kind of banal situation women find themselves in when they're waiting for men doing the same. Rickett's iconography anticipates deconstruction. Its clear rootedness in the ongoing semiotic enquiry around the gaze, cinema, photography, desire and power somehow still leaving it looking, in one visitor's eyes, "like an advert".

Alongside these takes on the life of the contemporary flaneuse, Rut Blees Luxemburg's photographs offer up chilly compositions. She has made herself a stalker to the exhibition space, quiet and insistent. For "Stream" she has photographed the walls of the high-rise building in which Plummet is housed, distancing herself at the same time as temporarily inhabiting the building. Again, in another photograph, the upper half of the building is frozen from far away as if under surveillance, with its luminous windows dotting the grey walls. These are filmic and ominous scenario's that render the building only barely recognisable. Their meticulously styled composition and colours somehow pushing the possibilities for identification further away.Carey Young presents her urban images quite literally through strangers' eyes. She has undertaken a quasi-scientific enquiry into the nature of cyberspace by corresponding with a host of sci-fi writers. Rather than attempt to picture this polymorphous space, she presented the likes of William Gibson, Pat Cadigan and J.G. Ballard with her abstracted city photographs and asked for their opinion on their accuracy. A multiple choice question list gave them the opportunity to direct their advice so she might reach more suitable versions. Quite understandably, many writers, like Doris Lessing and J.G. Ballard did not understand the purpose of the exercise sending her back images of their own. Ballard, for example, sent her an image of Dorothy's shoes from the Wizard of Oz. Others dutifully obliged; William Gibson even suggesting the software tool she could use to alter the images. Odd considering that what makes Young's investigation so compelling is the way it highlights the problem of conceptualising a notion such as cyberspace or virtual networked architecture through a traditional representational and static medium such as photography. This fundamentally fluid, multi-dimensional and constantly mutating field includes a huge textual aspect, which was neglected in Young's questionnaire. Cyberspace can exist because programming languages exist. It can exist due to a constantly evolving and interrelated set of protocols. Agreed upon standards which somehow still manage to enhance its hallucinatory and, in many people's eyes, non-verbal nature. It would have been interesting to be able to gain more information about those contradictions, about cyberspace as a fusion of "virtual reality" and the dry base of numbers and code. The same contradictions which make the novel seem such a suitable medium for dealing with it.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline@ AT>

Plummet 'Stream' 4/12 - 31/12/95