For Rhizome (

Review of "ALTERITIES: Interdisciplinarity and "Feminine" Practices of
Space" conference
June 4 and 5, 1999
Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 9:00 to 19:00 daily
by Joseph Nechvatal

To begin to think about the "ALTERITIES: Interdisciplinarity and "Feminine"
Practices of Space" conference, certain basic ideas needed to be addressed
(or let drop) concerning "feminine" practices. First, do women even want to
talk about "the feminine" at all at this point, given its unobtainable
purist connotations? If they do, they certainly must make clear that they
are talking about something light years away from the pink frilly
pre-feminist definition from what seems like ancestral antiquity. This
critical distance between feminine and feminist was not established at the
outset, other than placing the "feminine" in quotation marks - which called
it into ironic question.

This aside, in general, I thought the presentations given at the
"ALTERITIES" impressive in both terms of the content and the delivery and
that the level of the conference as a whole was exceptionally high. I
congratulate the collaborative effort made between Ecole Nationale
Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Iowa State University, The British Council, Ecole
d'Architecture Paris-Villemin, and the French Ministry of Culture in
bringing the conference to life. I regret I was unable to hear each and
every presenter, but given the parallel sessions (and my endurance levels),
this was not feasible. I hope a publication or web-site containing every
presenter's ideas might come forth to fill this lack.

I especially appreciated the success of the entire conference in that I
served as conference coordinator for the 1st international CAiiA Research
Conference entitled "CONSCIOUSNESS REFRAMED: Art and Consciousness in the
Post-Biological Era" (5/6 July 1997) - an international conference which
looked at new developments in art, science, technology and consciousness
held at CAiiA: the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts,
University of Wales College, Newport, UK. Thus I understand some of the
forces at work behind putting together such an effort. That the conference
was free to the public, all the more enhanced my appreciation and respect.

In the first three presentations of the initial forum entitled "Space of the
'Other': Alternative Strategies of Design - Feminist Contributions" (Anne
Querrien, Monique Minaca and muf (muf is a London-based collaboration formed
in 1994 between women artists and architects) the concepts of feminine and
feminist seemed conflated in (what I take to be) post-feminist fashion while
questions of the dominant and emerging social constructions were raised. In
muf's case, collaborative public art/architectural strategies were
demonstrated and self-critiqued.

Subsequently, Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne conveyed the history of Matrix, a
London-headquartered socialist/feminist architectural co-op which emerged
from their immediate predecessor, the New Architecture movement: a
Marxist-based architectural movement which, in the mid-80s split into two
groups: those that wanted to move their radical Marxist politics into
architectural praxis (Matrix) and those that wanted to struggle to reform
the architectural field from within the system. Matrix produced
anti-sexist/elitist educational material as well as socially sensitive
architecture; a practice which emerged as a strategy to counter the
sexist/elitist exclusion of women in the field of architecture in the

For those unfamiliar with Matrix, their presentation was forcefully
persuasive in making the case against the sexist social relations typically
encoded into urban space. They made another important case, too, by
mentioning that professionalism (i.e. actions at work of professionals),
before Matrix, were seen as a-political and outside of politics; thus
supportive of the political status quo. Issues of class boundaries, decent
safe housing for women, the needs of children and the client-architect
relationship (given cultural and class difference) were also raised.

Sadly, Matrix faded out of existence with the adjournment of public funding
in the mid-1990s. However, the issues Matrix raised respecting a healthy
total community based on inclusion informed most all of what was tacitly
insinuated in the more cyber-based and art-based presentations which
followed. Truly important self-critical questions were provoked by the
Matrix presentation.

The Matrix presentation was followed by viewing the accompanying gallery
exhibition. This show accommodated jecca's "Free Fecondite"; a web-based
installation which appeared tacitly indebted to some of the theoretical
achievements of Sandy Stone (,
Olga Kisseleva's "How are you?"; an interactive electrification
(, Tina La Porta's "Translate { }
Expression"; a cyber investiture which put one in touch (literally, if you
consider clicking, touching) an idealized wire-frame female torso and her
code, Fiona Meadows's "The House of Divorce"; a disturbing and mystifying
media installation which remained for me resiliently opaque, and Marie-Paule
Pages's "La Fete: icones foraines et..."; which was made up of a
heterogeneous slide presentation which seemed to infer something of the
theoretical concerns of, say, Gayatri Spivak.

>From here the conference split into two parallel forums: one following the
socio-political track called "Socio-Geopolitical Crossroads", and the other,
based on a more cyber vector entitled "Space and the Gendered Body: Art
Practices, Architectural Experiments, New Aesthetics of Space" (which is the
one I followed). Here the concept of feminist positions in electronic space,
known as "cyberfeminism", (*1) was put forward as part of the wider
techno-agenda. Cyberfeminism, for those unaccustomed with the term, implies
a developing alliance between women, machinery and new technology (according
to Sadie Plant). More specifically, Dr. Plant defines cyberfeminism as "an
insurrection on the part of the goods and materials of the patriarchal
world, a dispersed, distributed emergence composed of links between women,
women and computers, computers and communications links, connections and
connectionist nets". (*2) As Harris Dimitropoulos wrote in his Abstract for
the conference, "With the advent of digital media the paradigm changes".
With cyberfeminism, the subject position of the feminine takes on the
features of something like an avatar of unmitigated alterity.

To start this anti-technophobic track rolling, Tina La Porta spoke at length
of her "Translate { } Expression", raising undeconstructive questions in
regard to the "pleasure of connectivity" and disembodiment within high
technology: the deprivation of normal cognitive body-image which occurs in
the mind when the self, via technological extensions, removes itself from
itself (as Mark Pesce defines it). (*3) As Niran Abbas would explain a few
minutes later, "What disappears in not the material body but an abstract
notion of the self. This disappearance is followed by a reconstruction of
embodiment or what is known as the 'Posthuman'. In this realm, we are
transformed into information in simulated worlds. There is the idea that we
are disembodied, but in fact we are not. Simulated worlds can exist for us
only because we can perceive them through the techno-apparatus of our body
spliced into the cybernetic circuit."

In this light, Ms. La Porta appeared optimistic about fusing the female body
with the mechanic in the interests of disembodiment, citing the efficacious
influence of Donna Haraway's cyber-theory as articulated in her on-line
proclamation "A Cyborg Manifesto"
( and
her book "Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature" (*4); an
anti-nature manifesto which emerged out of her preceding essay "The Ironic
Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit: Science,
Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s or A Socialist Feminist
Manifesto for Cyborgs". (*5) Other speakers which followed delivered equally
favorable displays of affection for Haraway's immodest anti-nature/pro-tech
philosophy of liberation through technology.

I must say I find this cyberfeminist view against nature slightly baffling,
and at the same time, familiar. The aim of creating an inorganic world - and
luxuriating in its rarefied artificiality - was well articulated in 1884
with the publication of Joris-Karl Huysmans's décadent novel "A Rebours"
("Against Nature"); a story of a recluse art worshiper who yearns for new
sensations and perverse pleasures within a transcendental artificial ideal.
(*6) Like the unequivocal anti-nature aspects of cyberfeminism, décadent
French theory - which was almost the equivalent to Fin-de-Siècle symbolist
theory - aspired to set the subject free from materialistic preoccupations.
I understand fully this anti-materialist lurch towards freedom in terms of
feminism within cyberfeminist thinking, and I can fully understand how
culture has (and does sometimes still) repress women (one thinks of the
dreadful practice of clitoridectomy here), but I cannot see how nature
represses women anymore than it represses men. It bridles all corporeal
being. Does it not?

Lucy Sherman followed La Porta and brought the discourse back down to
materialistic earth by outlining the immersive strategy of Fiona Templeton's
brilliant theatrical voyage "YOU- The City"; a Manhattan-wide performance
which was staged in the early 1990s in New York. Here Sherman raised
interesting questions concerning the social bond and how meaning is
constructed through the viral-like distribution of media.

The next speaker's presentation, that by Niran Abbas, I found to be of an
exceptionally elevated quality. Ms. Abbas picked up on the theme of
cyberfeminist disembodiment as introduced by La Porta and flushed it out in
most persuasive manner. First, however, she demurred assigning gender
metaphors to high technology while articulating the gender collapse which
occurs between information-based sex and materialistic palpability. Then she
courageously delved into the relationships between the protoplasmic
body-image and spatial conceptions by asking the question of whether or not
the body becomes obsolete with new technologies such as MUDs and VR. If so,
what does this do to sex and gender-based cyberfeminist theories?

I particularly was fascinated by her emphasis on re-inscription,
reification, and how the body is "staged". What principally interested me
was her concentration on the concept of cyberfeminist embodiment; a concept
which she defined as "an effect". Through this effect she asked audacious
ontological questions about how the body (here defined as cyberfeminist when
processed through new technologies) is staged in different realities. This
welcome, flamboyant, theoretical avant-gardism was tempered with some astute
questions concerning the socio-political aspects of the hyper-texted body.

Like La Porta, Abbas paid homage to Haraway by advocating a cyberfeminist
embrace of electronic ambiguity, difference and contradiction while
promoting concepts of the collective and the communal. As Abbas construed,
"Taken to an extreme, the awareness of the mediated nature of perception
that VR technologies provide can be taken to signify that the body itself is
a prosthesis. The body, like the VR body-suit, creates mediated perceptions;
both operate through structural couplings with the environment."

At this point I began softly to concentrate on the theoretical qualities of
a cyberfeminist matrixical intelligence, connectivist lyricism, and a
sympathetic imperative which I detected emerging in the conference as a
whole, where once apparent conflicting ideas and intellectual positions are
mitigated in poly-rational interplay. Most notably, a philosophical
poly-rational interplay seemed to be suggested between the philosophic
positions which address feminist and cyberfeminist ideals, aspects of
spatial cyber-totalization phenomenology, and cyberfeminist ontological
idealism, with the philosophical position of Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari's epistemology based on the model of the poly-perspicacious rhizome
(ideals, totalizations, phenomenology, ontology and idealisms are dismissed
in their epistemological model).

Lacking further endurance, I retreated to my flat, somewhat overwhelmed, to

Up early the next morning so as not to miss the legendary Sadie Plant
kicking off the forum called "Technologies, Ecologies, Poetics", I was not
dissatisfied. Dr. Plant, known on the net for her adventurous theoretical
works around the themes of drugs, cybernetics, cyberfeminism, machine
intelligence and self organizing systems, attempted a tour d' force by
synthesizing the main themes of the conference (education, feminist theory,
cyberism, architecture, and art) into one overarching theoretical construct.
She termed this hypothetical model (influenced by Luce Irigaray) a
"philosophy of imminence" and defined it as a dynamic non-compartmentalized
postulate which is based in fluidity; somewhat reminiscent of the philosophy
of Henri Bergson as made contemporary by Gilles Deleuze in his book
"Bergsonism". (*7) Here the kind of top-down logic (with which we are all
too familiar) is opposed by an intricate interplay of complexity. The
imposition of will is opposed to that of the poly-willed distributed

Clearly this pedagogic stance makes conscientious sense in terms of
education, but its immaterilizing of architecture and art I find somewhat
problematic. Are permanency and coherent closure such odious characteristics
to support theoretically today? Is all disruption and fluidity positive? Do
we really want buildings without teleological closure that always are
already under construction/deconstruction? Is all art which is not
process/information exclusively reactionary and élite? Are all synchronous
forms complicit extrusions of the patriarchs's dominant reason?

To her credit, Dr. Plant recognized, in passing, the need for both sides of
the form/process (also termed control/dynamic) equation to balance, but,
seeing the reification of form as the dominant trend at work today (indeed
she identified a new formalism at work presently), decided to come heavily
down in favor on the process side.

The next lecturer, Jennifer Bloomer, seemingly picked up on Dr. Plant's
theoretical construct of fluid process by emphasizing the non-linear and
hyper-rational as preferred modes of thinking in design. This she termed the
"a-rational" and defined it as a blending of the rational with the
non-rational. Though this sounds like conventional surrealism, Ms. Bloomer
postulated the a-rational as the significant feature of the "feminine" -
along with the heightened capacity to sympathize and an intense alertness to
"aliveness". A morph teeming video version of her students's
architecture-based hyper-document played behind her, offering visual
evidence of an a-rational visual a-logic at work. Ms. Bloomer, all told,
offered a highly complex and detailed account of the a-rational as an inward
design tool based in the theoretical constructs of the feminine (and by
extenuation, the cyberfeminine).

The following speaker, Harris Dimitropoulos, the sole male presenter I heard
(and former protégé of Ms. Bloomer), amplified this general cyberfeminist
a-rationality by proposing interesting parallels between systematized
computational processes and psychological ones. For example (only one among
many) he attempted to establish that our contact with the computer is
equivalent to the Lacanian mirror stage. Jacques Lacan's term "mirror stage"
indicated the point in a child's growth when the psychological feeling of
undifferentiated unity with the mother is substituted with a conception of a
disconnected self. According to Lacan, the experience of perceiving oneself
in a mirror, literally or figuratively, generates internal trepidation
inasmuch as one anticipates and wills for oneself a homogeneous total being
over which the ego has dominion. However, this totality is never achieved,
so that one's spellbound ego comes to feel inadequate. By bringing the
Lacanian mirror stage query to the floor, Mr. Dimitropoulos seemed to be
addressing a question which was put forth by Niran Abbas in her
pro-cyberfeminist oration when she insisted that "the question ... is not
whether we will become posthuman, for posthumanity is already here, but,
what kind of posthumans we will be."

Mr. Dimitropoulos was followed by Catherine Ingraham, who delivered a
nuanced and pleasantly baffling paper around ideas of woman as animal in
architectural space and this woman/animal's "scene of evidence". She also
introduced the rapier idea of "sentimental hyper-specificity" into the
conference; a sentiment that she defined as both "too specific" and "too
general". All told, her talk was quite formidable in its versatile span; a
span which leaves most other non-cyberfeminist cultural critics looking
dismally vapid and parochial.

I was impressed too by the sentimental hyper-specific range of Doina
Petrescu's provocative urban projects which followed Ms. Ingraham's
discourse as she, in one case, re-mapped the structure of women's undies (a
garter belt) onto the flow of auto traffic through a callously dead urban
space. This somewhat post-girlitudic project (auto-erotic by definition)
tickled the clownish Duchampian in me. Ms. Petrescu, who served as the
conference co-ordinator, also showed a selection of additional, equally
satirical, urban site-specific projects, and introduced into the conference
the concept of autopoiesis; what Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
define in their book "Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the
Living" as a newness that emerges on the scene of culture due to dynamic
forces that cannot be predicted or measured. (*8) Maturana and Varela
maintain that autopoiesis interactions between unity and environment consist
of reciprocal perturbations. By suggesting such a brazenly twofold concept
as autopoiesis autopsies to bare upon dead urban spatial conceits, Ms.
Petrescu exhibited an uncannily keen eye for urban patriarchal cant.

Following lunch, I scurried between the two remaining sessions;
"Interdisciplinarity: Transversalities and Transgressions" and
"Transversalities, Transgressions and Architecture", first catching Mireille
Calle-Gruber's lecture on the space of the third body (which I did not
understand). Next, I heard Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger's brilliantly dense
oration concerning "matrixial swerving, borderspacing and borderlinking".
Ms. Lichtenberg Ettinger outlined what she calls a matrixial
trans-subjective space and put forth a resonant definition of art as that
which serves as a transport-station which allows for occurrences and
encounters with matrixial trans-subjective space. Her paper was so dense
with ideas that my brain's capacity felt transgressed, which in Ms.
Lichtenberg Ettinger's terms might mean that I was having an impeccable art
experience - in that for her art is the transport space which allows
encounters with trauma. Concepts such as the non-phallic quality of the web,
co-emergent death drives, trauma traces, the artist as women (regardless of
the sex of the artist), subject as net, co-fading fantasy, and art as
"transcriptum" tumbled over and into me through a seemingly transverse
transference methodology. Vast in its cerebral reach, I shall not attempt a
pithy summary here but merely direct the reader's attention to Ms.
Lichtenberg Ettinger, a fascinating artist, psychoanalyst and feminist

Head quaking, I jumped track to catch the conclusion of Katie Lloyd Thomas's
presentation on "crossing the line" a little too late to get a grasp on the
material and all of Helen Stratford's presentation based upon a theory of
micro resistance; an analysis of micro operations in terms of bio and
biotechnological organisms. Here viral mental agents are poised against
totalitarian thinking and incremental inclusions are opposed to
revolutionary ruptures.

At that point I was thoroughly cooked, and so, without reservation,

So, how to syncopate such a rich intellectual stew? On reflection, what I
sensed emerging (in terms of my theoretical interests) was a cyberfeminine
reconciliation between Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's rhizomatization
(multiplicitious/heterogeneous) and an emerging interdisciplinary
totalization based neither on reductive purisms nor fragmentary
isolationisms, but upon sympathetic community connectivity (i.e. Matrix +
matrixial swerving). These supposed opposing tendencies seemed to be
reconciled by the notion of an a-rational electronic hyper-total; an
immersive sphere of connecting vectors which suggest an enveloping
cyberfeminine-matrixical communal space. Indeed, Niran Abbas suggested as
much when she, reflecting upon Donna Haraway's aforementioned cyberfeminist
dea ex machina theory, said, "What is particularly interesting about
Haraway's conception is that such political empowerment is constituted from
textuality - from women's collected voices, stories, and myths. A community
emerges within the cyberspatial matrix: women responding to one another's
dialogue through digitized conversation. Cyborg politics demand that we
reimagine social and political possibilities for communicating through
electronic media." This attitude, especially when taken to the next
non-exclusionary level, seems to harmonize with Nancy Peterson's definition
of cyberfeminism as a "philosophy which has the potential to create a
poetic, passionate, political identity and unity without relying on a logic
and language of exclusion or appropriation". (*9) Given our (both men and
women's) heightening condition of connectivity, the heterogeneous,
multiplicitous, spreading and non-hierarchical nature of the epistemological
rhizome and the totality of the sympathetic communal come together under the
hyper (i.e. connected) effect of the hyper-total.

I'm sure the reader will appreciate the difficulty in absorbing the wide
range of information presented in the span of two whole days (and of course,
given the parallel presentations, I could not hear everyone speak) but most
of what I heard could be folded into the above theoretical construct, I

(*1) for more information see the work of VNS Matrix; an Australian
assemblage of artists/activists ( and
( - including their 1996. 'Flesh, the
Postbody and Cyberfeminism' In Stocker, G. and Schoepf, C. (eds.) 1996
"Memesis. The Future of Evolution". New York: Springer, p. 181

(*2) Plant, S. 1996. 'On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations' In Shiels,
R. ed. 1996. "Cultures of Internet". London: Sage, p. 182

(*3) Pesce, M. 1993. "Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in Cyberspace",

(*4) Haraway, D. 1991. "Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of
Nature". New York: Routledge

(*5) Haraway, D. 1983. "The Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in
the Integrated Circuit: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the
1980s or A Socialist Feminist Manifesto for Cyborgs" In "History of
Consciousness Board Report", University of California at Santa Cruz,
October, 1983

(*6) Huysmans, J-K. 1973. "Against Nature". Harmondsworth: Penguin

(*7) Deleuze, G. 1988. "Bergsonism". New York: Zone Books

(*8) Maturana, H. and Varela, F. 1980. "Autopoiesis and Cognition: The
Realization of the Living". Boston: Reidel

(*9) Peterson, N. "Cyberfeminism"