simon penny on 15 Dec 2000 12:56:36 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] This artwork degrades women.

At the Beyond the Screen exhibition of ISEA 2000 in Paris, at the Ecole
Normale Superieur de Beaux Arts, Alexander Brandt presented his interactive
installation Kan Xuan, in which an image of a naked Asian woman lying face
up is projected (life size) on a crumpled cloth on the floor.The only way
to interact with this work is to stomp on the woman, and the only reward is
that she recoils in pain. If you stomp a lot she fades away. She never
objects or defend herself, but neither does she request this treatment. It
is simply the only possible mode of engagement presented to the user. If
there is anything more to the piece, it escaped me and all the other people
I saw who engaged the work.

It bears emphasising that she is not a fetishised object of S+M porn, she
is not wearing high heels or make up, there is nothing about her pose
contrived to induce desire. Her fleshtones are greyed out and pale, her
eyes are closed, she is abject. A soundtrack of a plaintive, wailing song
sung by an Asian woman (my lack of better ethnomusicological knowledge
prevents greater precision) adds to the air of misery.

Of the possible combinations of images and actions which are available to
desktop computer based interactive practice, this combination could
conceivably arise as a possibility. But it is difficult to understand why
one would decide to proceed with its realization. It is even more difficult
to understand why the curators of the exhibition Beyond the Screen decided
that this work (and not another) deserved the international spotlight. One
can only assume there were no Asian women represented on those committees.
Perhaps it was considered an issue of freedom of speech. It looked more
like hate-speech to me. Has feminism waned that much? Or perhaps there was
a modernist tradition to uphold, the tradition of Yves Klein dragging naked
women around on the floor, daubed in paint.

Lets try a little freshman-level analysis-by-replacement. What if it had
been a white woman, a white man, an asian man? A dog, a cat or a horse? A
fish or a model train set, or a painting by a friend of yours? The
situation would become more complex if we knew that a woman had made it,
more complex still if an asian woman had made it. But inescapably, the
audience is invited to enact violence against a woman of color.

But of course, its only a picture, isn't it? Just a harmless picture. Well,
an interactive picture which viscerally responds to my step or kick, but
still, just a picture. And when soldiers shoot at targets shaped like
people this in no way trains them to shoot real people. And when pilots
work in flight simulators, the skills they develop don't transfer to the
real world, do they?

On reflection, one might build this narrative: when I kick hard, she
recedes, she simultaneously drifts away, lying on her side in fetal
position, and becomes invisible. So: the thing I must do is kick her, and
the reward I get is that she recoils in pain and then goes away: she no
longer offends my sight. But, phoenix-like, she reappears, lying again
prone on the floor, as if asleep. And so I have to stomp on her again, and
again. Its a Sisyphean labor of eradication.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the piece was designed to provoke the kind of
reaction I am describing. There were no clues that this was the case, but
perhaps such clues would have let me off the hook. Even if the title Kan
Xuan holds a key to some sort of reflexivity in the piece, it is
excellently obscured by the fact that few viewers in Paris will be that
familiar with pinyin (see Note 1).

Even if the argument is made that the quotation of an act can function
critically, the argument stumbles here in two ways. Firstly, it is not just
a picture, but an actual training simulation in which the user learns a
series of actions. And secondly, if there is any critical framing, it is so
weak in comparison to the power of the 'quoted' image that it is
overwhelmed. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the quotation or
enactment of the act does more damage than any induced critical reaction in
the user.

Is it that abusive representations are somehow acceptable in the cutting
edge of electronic media art? Another work with similar undertones of
questionable racial/sexual values was presented at a gala performance at
Ars Electronica95. This work was Modell 5 by Granular Synthesis, in which
the image of the face of a young Asian woman, (repeated five times on five
enormous screens) was submitted endlessly to simulated convulsions
(reminiscent of electric shock therapy) to a loud and almost danceable
soundtrack. The technical virtuosity of this team is not in dispute. It was
interesting to observe, however, that among men, pleasure in the technical
achievement seemed to outweigh the implications of the image, while a
significant number of women exposed to the work at that venue found it
troubling enough to leave the room (see note 2).

In 1993 Paul Vanouse made a work "Touch" in which users were invited to
enact violence, censorship or caress on the image of a naked, passive woman
(see note 3). This work provoked some consternation for similar reasons to
the works discussed above. But in this case, critical reflexivity was
clearly present: At the end of the session, the users behaviors were
tabulated for the user, and if the behavior had been brutal, a modem would
dial the number of a battered women's refuge or a counselling service. And,
at least in one showing, the statistical record of the behavior of the
users in that community was presented graphically on the wall.

In the old days of feminist activism, one would see stickers on advertising
hoardings which said: "This advertisement degrades women". It was good
solid simple activism. Kan Xuan should have had these stickers all over it.
Maybe it has by now (I saw it last friday). So, what of the many
cyberfeminists presumably attending ISEA? Is Kan Xuan not a perfect object
for study, action, even old fashioned consciousness-raising? Is it not an
excellent case study of the potentiality of electronic representations to
encourage or reinforce racist and/or misogynist behavior in the real world?
Or is it OK to stomp on the faces of Asian women, who presumably are
ideally suited to lying naked, prone and passive on a rag on the cold
floor, just crying out for Westerners to stomp on them?

Simon Penny. 12/12/2000

Note 1.
A visit to a pinyin dictionary
<> allows the
possibility that Kan Xuan might be a woman's name (Kan4: /(surname)/ ) and
reveals a range of meanings. While some  combinations are thought provoking
(ie:  /kill/suppress/ -/strike with fists/) the range of meanings leaves
the question unresolved (ie :  /dangerous sea-cliff/ -/ringworm/).
[kan1]  /to print/publish/ /to look after/to take care of/to watch/to
guard//to investigate/to survey/to collate/   /endure/  /kill/suppress/
[kan3]   /pit/threshold//bold/    /to chop/    /door sill/threshold/
/camphane/   /discontented with oneself/    /unsatisfied (of eating)/
/unable to reach one's aim/
[kan4]    /it depends/think/to see/to look at/     /bird's-eye view/glance/
/pleased/     /dangerous sea-cliff/ /(surname)/peep/
[xuan1]    /to declare (publically)/to announce/  /covered
carriage/pavilion/  /clamor/noise/  /genial and warm/  /Hemerocallis flava/
/false/forget/ /pull up sleeves/strike with fists/   /ingenious/frivolous/
[xuan2]    /black/mysterious/     /revolve/    /eddy/     /hang/suspend/
[xuan3]       /to choose/to pick/to select/to elect/   /ringworm/
[xuan4]       /dazzle/to show off/     /dizzy/dazzled/  /lathe/specially
for an occasion/  /wash (color)/       /adorned/swift/     /weep/  /to
boast/to show off/    /block (hat)/stretch (shoe)/   /lathe/thread in

For notes on Modell5 etc (By Tom Sherman), see


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Simon Penny
European Professor of Interactive Environments
University of Portsmouth, UK and Merz Akademie Stuttgart, D.

Mailing Address:
Professor Simon Penny
School of Art Design and Media
University of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth, PO1 2UP UK


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