Gaps in the Record — the scholarship of gender, technology, and the arts

Article Author: 
Julie West, features editor for the Office of Research and Economic Development; banner photo by Kevin Todora: Morehshin Allahyari at the Oliver Francis Gallery, Dallas, Texas
Art historian Jennifer Way examines the scholarship record of women artists using technology

“Geek Girl Boot Camp,” “Robotics for Girls,” and “IT Girls” are among the many programs offered to girls in Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics subjects, or STEM, that are increasingly becoming staple features in school curriculums and communities across the country. Research shows a significant underrepresentation of women with college degrees and careers in STEM fields, areas historically dominated by men, and activities targeting girls aim to inspire involvement at an early age. Throughout the last decade many national programs, universities, and organizations have created long-term strategies to redress representation and expand opportunities for women in STEM areas.  A collective prioritization benefits not only women but also society, as cultures and economies thrive when embedded with new knowledge and perspectives.

Dr. Jennifer Way, Professor of Art Education and Art History

University of North Texas Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History Dr. Jennifer Way observes that, although the importance of advancing a STEM agenda for women is assumed, these same considerations are not ascribed to women working with technology in the visual arts.  Way, whose research encompasses a variety of specialized topics that share a focus on the history of art since 1900, says there is surprisingly little historical scholarship that studies women working at the intersection of art and technology, and no substantial new research is being generated, either. An ongoing pattern of omission persists, even as digital communication is rapidly and significantly transforming the visual arts.  

Way says, “As the art world increases its reliance on technology to make, exhibit, study, teach, and preserve the visual arts, including technology-based art, we find ourselves not far advanced from the situation its members faced some 40 years ago — lacking attention to women’s activity."

Historical and Emerging Scholarship

Way acknowledges that there are excellent art institutions that focus on technology, but not necessarily in association with gender as a major research topic. And she is careful to point out that there is considerable scholarship that connects women to technology, in general, and that many notable individuals and institutions are dedicated to the education and funding of this topic. She cites The National Center for Women and Information Technology, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, the Lemelson-MIT Program, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History as prominent examples. She also credits various feminist and historical technology writers for seminal contributions in the field, such as sociologist Judy Wajcman, whose books The Social Shaping of Technology, Feminism Confronts Technology, and TechnoFeminism, have influenced her research.

But there are foundational associations concerning women in the arts that are specific and distinct from the history that connects them to technology through the sciences and engineering, and Way says that these connections deserve investigation, too. Social science, history, and gender studies of Western societies since the 19th century inform her research. Information databases such as Leonardo Abstracts Service provide a comprehensive index of dissertation and thesis abstracts on topics at the intersection of art, science and technology, and she analyzes the record of emerging and published work using sophisticated keyword searches. Way also tracks the major exhibitions and programs of a multitude of art institutions and organizations. With few exceptions, statistics from these and other sources confirm not only a critical lack of historical and emerging scholarship on the topic, both from within the art world and by major institutions, but show that a dominant rhetoric continues to reinforce associations of technology with masculinity. Stories of women’s involvement as active users, inventors, producers, distributors, and analysts of technology in the visual arts need to be told in order to evolve the gender-technology social narrative and, in turn, cultural innovation. 

 

Way asks, “What are the ways in which gender is materialized in culture, and how is technology a source and consequence of these constructions? How are women artists engaged with technology? What is the record of their activities? Is there a relationship between the technologies being used in the art world to technologies used outside the art world”? The more she learns, the more she’s resolved to supplement existing research with evidence of women’s experiences in visual arts contexts. 

“I use an interpretive framework that comes out of the social history of technology, especially feminist approaches to the history of technology, which nuance theoretical and methodological models to examine how technology is defined, how technology and gender reciprocally constitute one another, and other issues concerning the technology-gender dialogue. That’s where I get traction in asking some of my questions. But the information is not coming out of the art world.  We have great art institutions that deal with technology, but they’re not collecting, or they don’t care about gender. We have great institutions that deal with gender in the arts, but they don’t care about technology. There’s not a pipeline of new research coming out that deals with gender and technology. There’s an ideology that everybody uses technology and things are fine. And, yes, everything is, but there’s a history of asymmetrical relationships.  And this remains to be addressed.”

Oral Histories

As a result of her investigations, Way has published and lectured extensively in national and international venues and developed academic courses for students in studio, design, art history, art education, and interdisciplinary degree programs that examine gender, art and technology relationships. Women Art Technology is an educational initiative she developed in tandem with these classes that creates new research about contemporary art activity.  The project centers on interviews with women age eighteen or older who self identify as females and use technology in the art world. Upper level undergraduate and graduate students conduct the interviews, with attention given to individual artists who are not famous or studied by contemporary art history. The artists are asked to describe their professional activities as they relate to self, society, culture, and technology. Way teaches students about oral history and interview techniques — how to talk with someone, stay on topic, and ask relevant questions to effectively engage interviewees. The stories comprise a digital archive that Way and students have been developing since 2009.  Interviews continue to be added to the collection each semester.

By chronicling the stories of women in all sectors of society and the circumstances in which they use technology in the arts, Way anticipates that the archive will be an important resource for scholars seeking to augment research on the subject. The project is an important resource for her students, too, as it trains them to prepare and conduct their own research investigations. Because the work involves human subjects, students must adhere to various integrity and compliance policies, which include taking an online certification course through the National Institutes of Health. Every aspect of the project must be vetted, and students learn how to proceed within these standards. She says that new students come into her class with no idea about research or that this kind of protocol exists at an institutional level, but that they leave with an understanding of how research can empower communication.

Jeff Joiner, second year MFA student and teaching fellow in the Communication Design program in the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design (CVAD), was surprised at the thoroughness of the oral history training.  He says, “The research methods initially seemed overly strict and limiting.”  He was required to ask the same questions in the same order as the other students, for example. But during the process, he realized their importance. “If I deviated from the conversation and asked my own questions, then my answers would skew the results. Quantifiable rules and the emphasis on consistency ensures a solid baseline of results, which then makes the research more credible.” Joiner is currently working on a second research project with another UNT teacher and credits Way for the head start in experience.

Way requires students to interview themselves, as well, a methodology called autoethnography that comes out of the social sciences. By inverting the process and treating themselves as legitimate subjects of inquiry, students better understand the position of the subject and can reflect on their responses comparatively to what they’ve heard. They are asked to analyze texts that survey art history and the history of technology and art and formulate their own conclusions about the representation of women, and to write a paper using the archive as a resource.  These exercises emphasize problem-based approaches to learning that are in keeping with feminist and oral history pedagogy.

New media artist Morehshin Allahyari in her studio

Ways says, “The inclusion of students is vital to the oral histories project.  By deeply engaging in the process, they become aware of the issues at stake.  They learn that there is a lack of discussion about women and technology or that there is a history of uneven relationships that are largely modeled by or even understandable in terms of gender.”  

Morehshin Allahyari, a 2012 graduate student of the New Media Art program in CVAD and a participant in the oral histories project, says it was illuminating to hear the perspectives of those interviewed.  Some women equated technology with power in society, in that being technically proficient would help them compete for jobs and make better money. The interviews prompted Allahyari to investigate the challenges facing her own art.  She uses 3-D animation to create poetic narratives that reflect on cultural identity.  "In a medium dominated by geeky males, the feminine voice barely exists," she says. "I’m interested in asking how I can use these tools to express my own concepts.”  She finds inspiration in other female artists working in 3-D, such as Claudia Hart, whose images eschew the hyperactive, violent, pornographic, and often graphically disturbing content typically associated with video games and animations in favor of feminine representations of “body.”

New Media

Caress, 2011 by Claudia Hart
HD quicktime video, 3 screens, computer, custom wood box, shelf
3 framed screens

Although the record of research on women working in art and technology is slim, art-tech activities being created by women are burgeoning. Explorations using digital and real-time/interactive elements are prevalent. The Internet, computer programs and hardware, GPS technology, cell phones, and a wide range of electronic devices and applications are some of the technologies significantly expanding the visual arts. Because these same tools are commonly used in all sectors of society — from social networking and the military to biology and information sciences — experimentation typically thrives at the intersection of disciplines, and the overlapping of boundaries creates new forms of hybrid artistic and technical expression.

 

“New Media” is a term used to represent this frontier.  CVAD offers a New Media Art studio program, and Way’s classes address new media issues within an art historical context.  She tracks these trends and asks her students to consider women’s contributions in this changing landscape.  She also reflects on the role of the university in addressing these changes through its infrastructure, curriculum, and hiring practices. If, in Wajcman’s words, “Technological innovation is itself shaped by the social circumstances within which it takes place,” then what are the social contexts that exist within the university and how does the institution nurture innovation and new lines of inquiry?  She asks students to actively examine these structures, too.  For example, in what ways are their degrees patterned on historical models?

Still image from The Romatic Self-Exiles-1, by Morehshin Allayari
3-D animation, 2012

Way observes that the early 20th c. Bauhaus model continues to dominate art education with its emphasis on specific media and materials and a hierarchy of importance related to them, and that this paradigm tends to produce a curriculum based on materials and medium-specific degrees like Ceramics, Metals, or Textiles.

"But the very nature of new media brings a hybridity and intersections into other areas that aren’t necessarily replicated in the school curriculum," she says. “This is the challenge. Team teaching, crossing over into other areas … there are a lot of lines to be crossed, and infrastructure needs to be developed to accommodate the intra-inter cross-disciplinary aspect of that. Yet these approaches may be antithetical or conflict with art from many times and places, including, with some exceptions, the Western modern subject — the solo artist and original authorship, and the caution to keep ideas to yourself.” 

Allahyari and Way are participants in iARTA — the Initiative for Advanced Research in Arts and Technology — one of fifteen cross-disciplinary, collaborative research clusters at UNT.  The cluster model is one means of transforming dialogue and social constructions. iARTA is committed to the “exploration of emerging technologies and new media for novel interactions between the arts, engineering and sciences.” From Allahyari’s perspective, collaboration and exchange is increasingly common among her visual arts peers who work with new technologies. Some of the interactions don’t involve artists but people from other fields, such as physics and engineering. She says, “The boundaries that separate disciplines are becoming fluid, and this shift brings new influences and material to the arts forum. Involvement with iARTA has stimulated these connections.”

As the field evolves, the dialogue and ideologies associated with the visual arts — from aesthetics to politics — must necessarily expand, as well. And students today will become the future arbiters of history with new narratives that will impact the future of techno-culture and artists’ participation in the field.

Additional Context

Funding in support of the Women Art Technology research has been provided by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation [in technology] at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, and by the University of North Texas. The project is one of Way’s many active research threads that investigate “historiographic and methodological innovation in the history of art since 1900 with emphasis on the period since 1945.”

Dr. Way writes "Back to the Future: Women Art Technology," Chapter 10, in Cyberfeminism 2.0 by Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh, eds., 2012

Way is currently investigating the cybernetics phenomenon, which grew out of the information explosion of the 1950’s. She explains that cybernetics “brought about an enhanced understanding of informational and communication systems, engendered artificial intelligence and machine-biological interfaces (cyborgs), and impacted game theory that influenced art and popular culture around the world.”  She studies these areas of influence — from interactive art, performance and computer art, and telematics in the West to the underground art of the USSR, including kinetic constructions and installations, conceptual art, and performance.

With her colleague at the University of Cincinnati, Maia Toteva, Way is co-chairing “From Utopian Teleologies to Sporadic Historiographies: ‘Interfaces’ of art and cybernetics” for the Association of Art Historians conference in the UK at the University of Reading, 2013. The session redresses a lack of attention to cybernetics globally and invites presenters in the visual arts and from non-art disciplines to reconsider or generate new knowledge about the generations and geographies of art and cybernetics, including practices that create, distribute, and theorize art forms, concepts, and histories. Learn more about submission guidelines.

Other topics of Way’s current research include:

  • American reception of Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
  • The politics of American –government sponsored craft programs in Southeast Asia ca  1954-1961
  • Internationalism, transnationalism, and Irish art since 1949
  • Ethnicity in the art of Tracey Emin

Learn more about Dr. Jennifer Way.