Thoughts On Being A Female Artist In The Digital Age


It’s been exactly a week since I attended a panel discussion at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art (LACDA) entitled Sense and Sensibility. This event was hosted by LACDA founder, director and artist Rex Bruce, moderated by Shana Nys Dambrot, and included panel members whose work is currently on exhibit at LACDA (Unbound): Jane Szabo, Linda Alterwitz, and Negin Sharifzadeh.

At the beginning of the discussion, Shana Nys Dambrot brought up the question of how feminism may have affected the work of the artists on the panel, and how that is reflected in the digital age. After the event, I thought about how that question might apply to me.

I started posting my work – photography, writing and video – on the internet in late 2009. Before that, I had never shown my work, which at the time consisted mainly of painting, to people outside of family and friends. However with the acquisition of my first digital camera, I created a youtube account and a blog, and began to share my photography and video with complete strangers all around the world.

The ability to do this from my home, so easily and so directly, and to a great extent, as an unknown, was and still is one of the wonderful things about the digital age. When I started posting, I was working a regular job (where I still work) and was the mother of two young children (which I still am, though they have grown a little). I had always been inclined very strongly in the direction of visual art, but my life had developed down many different paths by the time I was certain that I HAD to use this inclination productively, at the age of 41, and it would have been a far more arduous journey to share my work with so many without the internet.

So, what were my experiences as woman posting artwork on the internet? First, that the anonymity – that is, the fact that I was a remote entity to many people who saw my work (and still am to a large extent) – was encouraging for me. There was no filtering, no discrimination, no jockeying for favors or politicking, just the work itself, and a community of artists who were all coming together, male and female, to encourage one another based on that work. It was and is a very egalitarian situation when you are in control of exhibiting your work, and the most substantial thing about what you post IS the work, because so few of the people in your internet art community know much more about you.

There is another side of being a female artist on the internet that is not so nice. And that is, that even in cyberspace, once a female among males, always a female among males. Within my first few weeks of joining the now defunct Mubi Garage as a filmmaker, and posting on the cinephile forums, I got propositioned by a younger man. I have had the dialogues with men:

“You’re so beautiful in this…”

“But what about the work as a whole, what did you think of it?”

“It’s great. You’re beautiful. You should show more of yourself…”

As a woman past the age of 40, married for years and with young children to boot, getting these accolades from men ranging from much older than I to much younger was surprising, flattering, and eventually just annoying – particularly when they came without any hint of remembering that there was a real person on the other end of the conversation, behind the screen. Then, in the same way that you don’t walk in front of a bunch of construction workers on lunch break but instead cross the street, I had to figure out a way to exist on the internet and be the same person there that I am in real life with these types: polite, but remote, and ready to answer with biting sarcasm in case “the hint” wasn’t gotten – or best yet, drop out of that person’s sight altogether.

When I was in my first year at Barnard College in the mid-80s, most of my classes were on the campus and most of the vibe floating my way was what feminism was then: “You and men are equal. What a man does, a woman can do. Don’t restrict yourself to the traditional roles, have a CAREER.” The implication was, in dealing with men at all levels, that they were to think of you as an equal spirit. A spirit. Was that my experience in real life? Hell no. It was much more like the type of conversation that I paraphrased above.

So what did this result in? Some earnest and unrealistic desire to be perceived as a fellow spirit – yeah yeah, I have a body, but for GOD’S SAKE CHECK OUT MY BRAIN! ISN’T IT GREAT AND SMART AND LIKE YOURS? YAAAAY, LET’S WAIT TO HAVE SEX!   man: disappointed silence, confusion, let’s try that other route, AGAIN, this chic is hellbent in some unnatural and silly direction

It’s a failing struggle, that way of dealing with men, wherever you are, wherever you go, whoever you encounter. In my experience, a woman is still perceived as a WOMAN. Yes she can be smart, yes she can work hard, but her shape and everything biological about her is the overwhelming and defining thing to a man, eventually, eventually. Everything else registers as a good plus, but see her as “a fellow spirit?” You gotta be kidding. Game over.

So what about the camera? How does having a camera in the digital age, as a woman, work with feminism? Alright then, now we’re getting somewhere new. As a woman with a camera, I can control my OWN visual image. A camera – we’re talking about a representation that is much more faithful to reality than a painting will ever be. Rather than allow some dude who tells me to strip off my clothes in his presence for some idea he has of women and of me, I can now strip off my clothes and take a photo of myself, as I see myself. I can edit it – crop it, color it, distort it, or I can do absolutely nothing to it – and by the fact that it is both an image of me AND made by me, I have a connection to it that is TRUE, whether likeness-wise or by my mind and heart’s intention and perception. And, I can do the same exact thing with video. No one is directing me to do this and that, because unlike most women portrayed visually throughout history, I appear both in front of what makes my image, AND behind it. This is extremely powerful. It only adds to the self-determination that an artist who works on her own has. In THIS sphere, no one can tell me how I should look, how I should act, whether I have to conform to any norms of gender or power- I cannot be strong-armed into being someone else’s toy, someone else’s pet, someone else’s idea of me as a person, someone’s idea of what a female is. What is perceived about my work once it’s “in the world” may be another story, but it is a very edifying fact that I have the uncontested power to share my image with the world at large AS I SEE IT, both by my self-portrayal with my camera and because of the egalitarian, undiscriminating nature of the internet. To me, this combination is very supportive of being a woman in the world, it’s “a hands off, up to you” approach. There is no burden of history, the history of women, in this combination – unless you choose that burden.

Lastly, I want to mention some extraordinary collaborations I have had with a male filmmaker, Rouzbeh Rashidi. Our projects together have been extremely “digital age.” I have never met Rouzbeh in person. He lives in Ireland. I first came across his work as a member of Mubi Garage, after my viewing of his film Zoetrope. I fell in love with it – its original visual decisions, its poetic flow. I had found, very quickly in my extremely short video career, a filmmaker whose work I could look up to and be inspired by.

Eventually, we connected and started collaborating. Our method was this: I shoot my own footage, send it to Rouzbeh, he edits it and adds to it and creates a whole. Recently, he invited me to participate in a feature film in which we use the same method of collaboration. Ten Years In The Sun tackles voyeurism and ritualistic perversion, and is dedicated to Luis Buñuel and João César Monteiro. So THIS is feature film in the digital age, a collaboration between two artists, one male and one female, where the female gets to shoot her own footage of herself as a character in a film – amazing in the history of feature film, where the usual case is an actress directed more often than not by a male director to do this and that. THIS is what makes me happy, as a woman, as filmmaker, as an artist – two people from different gender worlds allowing one another to contribute as themselves, as THEY see themselves. What could be more perfect?

Every Thursday