[ISEA2011] Paper: Lynne Heller – Fuzzy Precincts and Bleeding Edges: Feminist Theory and the Study of Virtual Materiality


This paper proposes an inquiry into the idea of continuums, challenging a number of professed dichotomies, particularly those that reference technology. I will focus on how we perceive, utilize and parse traditional divides between the virtual and the material. To that end, I use the phrase – virtual materiality – which describes the purposeful blurring, to the point of conflation, of screen-based digital production and, the seemingly other extreme, tangible hand-made objects.

Following the trajectory of the virtual/material dichotomy as it stems from a classicist position of the mind/body split, which has manifested into male/female divides, I propose feminist theory as a potent tool to effectively analyze the artistic and sociological implications of virtual materiality.

Mess, obfuscation, bedlam, redundancy – these qualities, redolent of humanity, are typically considered the antitheses of insight. They confound compartmentalization. Perhaps the necessarily chaotic can be an impetus for ‘soft’ thinking that relinquishes conceits of specialization. Art is, in essence, a repudiation of the polemics of division. In its essence, it seeks to confound division and distinction. Artists strive to complicate at precisely the same time as they simplify. The simultaneous existence and commingling of two extremes is a liberation from categorization and parceling – a continuum that curls back on itself.

A critical questioning of the separation of computer based technology from other technologies is at the heart of this proposal. Where does the virtual start and stop? Is the digital always virtual? How can we ‘know’ the virtual without a material manifestation? How can the material not impart the virtual as it is the conduit of knowledge of the world and others?

The reality of online virtual worlds is they tend to be highly charged, sexualized places, full of fruitful data to examine contemporary male/female ideology and practice. As well, traditional views equate technology with machine, attributed as male, and related to the sublime and power; whereas beauty is often the stand-in and proponent for the aesthetics of the organic, and gendered female. I believe critique around the issue of beauty can provide pivotal clues and associations for my discussion of virtual materiality with a feminist perspective.

Full text (PDF) p. 1181-1186