Ask Not What Cyberspace Can Do For You,
by Skawennati Tricia Fragnito

starConsider cyberspace–that collection of websites, chat rooms, virtual environments, online games and other intangible places–as a new territory. Seemingly boundless, it is an area to be explored and mapped. Borderless, it is a virtual nation, made up exclusively of immigrants; a new final frontier, thronging with personalities of every description. The people who flock to this latest utopia do so chiefly because it is one of the few areas left where we feel agency. We find ourselves able to affect our “netscape” in clearly visible ways, from posting to a forum to building and governing our own virtual island. As we gather online to find information, exchange stories, imagine, play, complain and critique, we begin to experience feelings of enthusiasm, involvement, loyalty, ownership, even passion. Our apathy evaporates, and we begin to act like members of a community.

If the inhabitants of cyberspace can be considered its citizens, then what are their civic duties? Voting is certainly the first that comes to mind. But, despite the plethora of market surveys disguised as polls (“How much did you spend on your child's first birthday party? Submit Vote!"), there are no civic elections in cyberspace. And there is no need for them. Disenfranchised peoples throughout history–Canadian women before 1918 (Québécoises even later), First Nations before 1960, youth–will tell you that voting is actually the minimum action we can undertake to exercise our citizenship. True civic duty is exemplified by activism: working to change laws, policies and attitudes, towards the goal of improving the world. An activist writes letters to members of government, sends out press releases, gives presentations or workshops, organizes or participates in demonstrations, hands out flyers, canvasses door-to-door and, of course, makes art.

starWikipedia defines cyberactivism as “the process of using technology, generally the Internet, to participate in civil disobedience and to send a concentrated message to a large audience.” There is, of course, a continuum between cyberspace and the real world. Facts from the real world influence what we see on our computer screen. But the converse is also true: our actions in cyberspace can affect the real world.

Myfanwy Ashmore, Cathy Davies, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Valerie Lamontagne, Rainey Straus and Katherine Isbister are all artists who use their varied skills to make thought- and action-provoking statements about the real world. Their works address a spectrum of social issues, including anti-corporate populism, First Nations/non-Native relations, intellectual property, religion and voyeurism.

One objective of Grrls, Chicks, Sisters & Squaws: Les citoyennes du cyberspace was to meaningfully incorporate the gallery into this virtually oriented exhibition. Many new media artists and curators (myself included) have questioned the very need for a gallery space when exhibiting screen-based work. I’ve concluded that galleries are points of access, offering computers, connectivity and expertise—both technical and cultural. In that spirit, the show is set up like an Internet café. Seven computer stations, one foreach artwork, plus one for this essay, are all loaded and ready to go. The relevant peripherals are connected. Espresso is, of course, available at the bar.

starAlso at your disposal in the gallery will be an iron and ironing board. You might need it for Cathy Davies’ piece, Dollarhack. In the bible of the anti-corporate movement, No Logo, Naomi Klein writes, “A growing number of activists believe the time has come for the public to stop asking that some space be left unsponsored, and to begin seizing it back.”1 In an ironic culture jam, Dollarhack does just the opposite. The artist responds to our anti-corporate concerns by putting logos in the last sacred secular space you’d expect: on our currency. Davies has redesigned familiar corporate logos and packaged them with a set of instructions for printing them onto dollar bills, making it appear as if McDonald's, Disney and the like are “corporate sponsors … of money!”

Unlike Where's George?! ® and Where's Willy?! ®, a pair of bill-tracking sites that encourage you to conspicuously write their URL on your bill, the Dollarhack logos are seamlessly integrated into your legal tender. Originally produced in 2001-2 for the American dollar, the artist created a Canadian version especially for this exhibition. My personal favourite is the CIBC logo.

The artwork really comes alive when—or if—you actually print on the money. (It has to be wrinkle-free, hence the iron.) It was one thing to see a webpage featuring an American dollar bill with the golden arches next to George Washington. I smirked. Actually printing a logo onto my very own, hard-earned twenty was something entirely different, eliciting the thrill of a not-quite-civilly-disobedient action, with a measure of anxiety at the thought of potentially having rendered the bill valueless. What if the clerk at Wal-Mart thinks my cash is counterfeit?!

starFrom printing on money, you can go on to print your own web-generated I.D. card. Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s treatycard is a net.artwork that invites you to fill in a form, uploadyour picture, and print up your own treaty card, spoofing the identity card officially known as a Certificate of Indian Status, issued by the Canadian government to Aboriginal people in this country. When I first saw it, treatycard made me mad.

As a holder of one of these alternately sought-after, derided or unrecognized cards, I’ve had many different kinds of discussions centered on it. In one instance, a United States customs officer, who should know better, very emphatically and very erroneously told me that anyone could buy one of those cards! So you can imagine my dismay when L’Hirondelle made it possible for the entire Internet to get one, upside down Canadian flag logo notwithstanding! The artist postulates on the government’s reasons for assigning these cards. She asserts:

… the purpose of this certificate has been to track the movement – spending patterns, prescription drug use, doctor and dentist care, police contact, social services use – and institutionalise the identity of ‘...Indians within the meaning of the Indian act.

While this may or may not be true, what I was taught is that our forefathers made agreements with the British and Canadian governments that in exchange for allowing the newcomers to use our land, we would never have to pay taxes, pay for education or pay for medicine. What foresight they had! For this has remained true: when I go to the store, I show my card and the taxes are not charged; I gave my band card number when I received a cheque for my university tuition; and my prescriptions are covered by Indian Affairs.

By encouraging the production of a physical object, treatycard has the potential to open up dialogue in the real world. It is absolutely vital, to First Nations, Canadians and the rest of the world, to question the strategy of assigning cards to one race in a country and not any other. For those who would like to make their own treaty card, a webcam, printer and laminator are available in the gallery.

starAfter engaging in the questionable activities of the last two artworks, you might feel the need to come clean. Valerie Lamontagne’s piece, Sister Valerie of the Internet, is an online confessional where the public is invited to post their sins. Once entered, your sin goes into an archive that you can then scroll through, and see just how bad you are compared to everybody else. I expected the archive to be filled with admissions of Internet trespasses: “I sent spam to four thousand people today”; “I hacked a corporate website last week”; “I wore a Brad Pitt avatar and pretended I was a man.” In fact, the transgressions are the same as those that might be whispered to a priest: “I masturbated”; “I lied”; “I was never baptised.” So don’t worry, your admission will fit right in.

Valérie Lamontagne adored nuns when she was a kid. She loved the idea of praying; that it was a nun’s job. What clarity this could give one’s life! She’d found the movie stars who had played nuns—Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds—to be beautiful, simultaneously spiritual and seductive. And because her parents had categorically rejected the church, her affinity to nuns also had an element of the forbidden to it. So of course she jumped at the opportunity to play a nun herself.

Lamontagne’s performances incorporate live chat, allowing the public to pray with Sister Valerie telematically. During these events, the viewer might ask herself whether or not the artist is actually present, reminding us of the fact that technology also requires a measure of faith. Similarly, visiting the website can be likened to visiting a church. You might go in to check out the architecture, or you might go to mass. Either way, you have an opportunity to reflect on the role of faith and religion in technology.

starA subset of cyberactivism is hacktivism—getting right down to the code level to make changes, political as well as digital. mario_battle_no.1 (which should be read, “Mario battle no one”), by Myfanwy Ashmore, is a pacifist version of the '80s classic video game, Super Mario Brothers. Ashmore has hacked it, removing all the architecture, prizes, enemies, performance-enhancing drugs and obstacles, so that all you can do is go for a walk. Some might consider the game ruined, to be sent on “[a] solitary mission without an obvious goal.” But in fact, a different type of gameplay has been created, one more introspective than we are accustomed to. Players still make choices that can carry meaning in the game; they are just a little more subtle than, say, killing a Goomba.

Perhaps less obvious is Ashmore’s commentary on another current debate: copyright versus copyleft . Though copyright was invented to protect artists, many feel that it now only protects corporations. While Mattel, Nintendo and Sony Music certainly should be able to keep profiteering imitators at bay, Ashmore protests their ability to stifle artistic expression. She writes: “Companies are able to penetrate our thoughts, imbibe us with experiences and we are not allowed to actually own or comment through any of this imagery….” Her strategy around this problem has been to distribute her games freely on floppies and from her website. On-line visitors to the exhibition can find it here, while in the gallery, it is all set up for you, gamepad included.

starSimbee, by Rainey Straus and Katherine Isbister, emblematizes a recent generation of computer games and gaming, one in which modifying the code, or “modding,” is not only legal, it’s encouraged. The producers of many current titles now make tools for modifying their games easily available with the idea that it expands their audience and therefore their profits. A good example is The Sims, an extremely popular simulation game, or perhaps “toy” is a better term. It is this “digital dollhouse,” as Will Wright, the game’s designer has referred to it, that Straus and Isbister use as the basis for their piece in this exhibition.

starSimBee parodies the work of Vanessa Beecroft, a performance-installation artist known for asking groups of similar-looking models, usually in advanced stages of undress, to stand around in a gallery for extended periods of time (from 3 to 11 hours). Straus and Isbister have crafted Sim replicas of Beecroft's scantily clad models and placed them in a gallery space. On the one hand, Straus and Isbister are kinder than Beecroft: they provide the models with a kitchen, couches and toilets. On the other hand, they expect their models to live in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition (at least several days in Sim time). As the simulation runs, the viewer observes events unfolding in the gallery. The girls get tired, hungry and bored. Even the artists do not know what will happen from moment to moment, but I can tell you that it all ends in tears.

Straus and Isbister encourage the viewer to consider how issues of exploitation and voyeurism are shifted when filtered through the lens of simulation. It seems dehumanizing—not to mention inhumane—to ask even virtual models to stand around in a gallery (in high heels, no less!), so why is it okay when an artist does it in real life? Yes, even in the realm of contemporary art, bastion of progressive thinkers, there is room for improvement.

On the website you will see a selection of Quicktimes that highlight key moments during the simulation, such as the beginning of the in-game exhibition when the models are all standing around in the gallery; the point when they start to leave; the moment the first one falls to the ground. In the gallery, visitors can watch the simulation unfold in its own Sim time.

starConsider cyberspace as our own territory: ours to roam, to improve, and to create. If we can do this, then we emancipate ourselves from passive inhabitants to proactive citizens. By using cyberspace as a place to imagine society as we want it to be—or don’t want it to be—as the artists in this exhibition have done, we actually create a template for the real world of the utopia activists are aiming for.

Skawennati Tricia Fragnito

1 No Logo by Naomi Klein. Vintage Canada Edition, 2000. Page 280.