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Babydoll Paper for: The Question of the Girl, Part II
panel chaired by Jillian St. Jacques
National Womens' Studies Conference, Denver 2010
Last February, Jillian St. Jacques, the chair of this panel, invited me to propose a paper on The Question of the Girl. I had several days to write an abstract, and as I often do, I translated issues from my personal life into an apparently objective theoretical system. The paper that I proposed, Babydoll: A Rumination on the Virtuality of Gender, intended to examine a cultural redefinition of the body in terms of digital media. I had planned to analyze the phenomenon of gender-crossing-and-bending virtual dolls, primarily played with by the almost all-male homosocial culture of high technology.
I was hired to teach 3D computer animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. For the first several years of my employment there, I was forced to grapple with a culture of recalcitrant male students in their Department of Art and Technology. I arrived in Chicago from New York, appointed by two women, Carol Becker - then Dean of the School - and Tiffany Holmes, then chair of that department. All of the other departmental professors were men, and almost all of the students were boys. Upon arrival, Tiff, now my close friend and supporter, and Carol Becker, immediately left the scene - Carol Becker for New York, to become Dean of the Arts at Columbia University, and Tiffany to have two children in the course of three years. Although their intentions in bringing me to Chicago were noble, the requirements of their own lives resulted in my being left stranded in hostile territory. Until my transfer to friendlier ground this past fall - the more progressive Department of Film, Video and New Media - I found myself isolated in a hyper-macho, high-tech homosocial engineering culture. Jillian's invitation inspired me therefore to write not about girls, whom I actually had little access to, but rather about these hostile boys. I decided to write about them in the terms of Jillian's panel, in the terms of a girl.
The paper that I proposed to Jillian was intended to be a critique and an unmasking of an all-male engineering world. In the Department of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute, no different from the other 3D animation departments where I'd taught at other schools, I found exaggeratedly masculine, back-slapping male students obsessively interested in creating hyper-realistic computer models of cliché, gender types: beautiful buxom women, and faceless male warriors dressed in armor. I found it pretty much impossible to persuade these students to open themselves up to variety, or even for them to consider why that might be so. To me, their obsession was obviously some kind of fetish, and I was interested in deconstructing it. These are boys playing with dolls! They are not so hyper masculine as they see themselves.
I decided to write specifically about Poser, a mass-market character-design software commonly used in the 3D animation subculture to design hyper-realistic characters. Poser users are a particularly hard-core group who typically post their creations on line in user-group websites. They build very precise female characters to save and swap. My plan was to reveal these boys as being what Arnold Schwartzenegger, Governor of California and a related variety of hyper-masculine action figure, so aptly coined as"girlie-men." To this kind of guy, what could actually be worse! Revenge was going to be sweet.
I'd begun research on this paper, the one I initially intended to present to you today, when life intervened. I was delighted to learn that my current dean had put me up for early tenure, and I was forced to embark on the usual trials and tribulations associated with that particular rite of passage. Part of it is a letter meant to outline my contributions both to my school and to my profession - in my case, a contemporary artist working with virtual imaging and 3D animation. Like everything I do, this letter is a hybrid of the personal and the academic, and tells the story of girls and of boys - in other words, of gender identities - in the context of technological culture. I'd like to present it to you now, it is my Babydoll:
3d animation and imaging - my artist's medium - has until very recently been outside the purview of contemporary discourse. It is therefore important for me to describe the context first. I will begin with a brief history of my relation to it before arriving in Chicago in 2007.
I began working with 3D computer imaging in 1997. Maya, the 3D software I use, has since become an entertainment industry standard, but at that time it was not available for the personal computer. The software was then only supported by the Unix operating system, commonly available in large institutionals. I took classes at NYU's Center for Advanced Digital Applications in order to gain access both to Maya and to their sophisticated computer labs.
Learning high-end technologies was a daunting task that required tremendous will and commitment on my part. I was an early computer user, and worked with multi media before I turned to 3D animation in 1998, but was a primarily a painter. I showed paintings, objects and photographs in the contemporary art context, first with Pat Hearn Gallery, from 1988. Nothing I had done previously, however, prepared me for the mathematical nature and technical rigor of spatial 3D imaging and the culture that surrounded it.
I began teaching as a visiting instructor in 2000 at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, in a department then called Computer Graphics and Interactive Media. My skills were limited at that time, but I was distinguished by 12 years of exhibiting in the contemporary art context. Although Pratt is a serious fine art school, the departmental students were vocational, intending entry into what Tim Lenoir, Chair of Program in History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford, was the first to identify as the military entertainment complex.
The first class I wrote for Pratt students integrated art history into the teaching of 3D character design in order to contextualize 3D animation within the larger cultural context of the Grotesque. I remember the hesitancy and suspicion with which my ideas were viewed at Pratt by my colleagues, who had all emerged from an industry rather than an art background. The response by the students, however, was enthusiastic. My first Pratt students intended to enter industry, preferably Pixar, and identified with the tradition of children's book illustration. Although our orientations were different, they embraced my strategy of combining art history with technology, and because my classes were very popular, I was soon given Associate Adjunct Professor status. World events then intervened that were to change the culture of 3D animation in the US, as well as significantly many other things.
9/11 had a dramatic effect on the popular culture of 3D and it also changed the demographic of students who attended the department of Computer Graphics and Interactive Media at Pratt and also at all of the other engineering and vocationally oriented schools where I later taught adjunct before arriving at the School of the Art Institute in 2007.
I read about the strategy of economic cross fertilization promoted by the US military in order to develop simulation technologies in Tim Lenoir's All but War Is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex. I had studied this seminal work in 2004, when researching Virtual Sex, an article co-written with my then Pratt colleague, professor Claudia Herbst, but I'd experienced its force first hand in the culture of 3D animation vocational training. Lenoir described a history in which military simulation scientists entered the commercial computer game industry to further develop simulation technologies in the form of popular games with their vastly superior commercial production budgets, with the intention of their being re-deployed by the military. I directly experienced the impact of the culture of the military on animation culture.
During the Iraq War years, 3D games became a larger and more profitable industry than 3D animated children's films. 3D animation students flocked to vocational training schools connected to art schools, community colleges, and polytechnic universities to learn techniques they believed would lead to a job. These departments have as a result become homosocial education cultures that are hyper-masculinist and reflect the values and ethos of the militarist gaming culture. It was a boys' club that I found at best prurient. At its worst, my students were rigidly closed to the unfamiliar, to reflective thought, and resistant to an analytic reading of the world around them. After 9/11, a plethora of shooter games were produced to become a significant part of an at-war American military culture. As a woman rooted in contemporary art discourse, my submersion in this pedagogical environment had direct impact on me as an artist, a critical practitioner, and as an educator. The milieu of 3D gaming education actually instigated my own political one.
Claudia Herbst, my colleague at Pratt, previously an employee of Disney Interactive in Hollywood and later the author of Sexing Code a critical reading of women and digital code writing, co-authored Virtual Sex for the College Art Association 2005 conference in NY. After we presented, attendees expressed their astonishment at the overt sexism we described in both the milieu of 3D education and in the 3D work presented at digital art festivals such as Ars Electronica, held annually in Linz, Austria. Our paper was eventually published in Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, a journal promoting the progressive use of new media.
Six years later, this coming spring, Professor Herbst and I have been invited to re-present our paper in a panel on technology and community at a Gender Studies conference at Denison University in Ohio. In addition, Jillian St. Jacques, chair of that first CAA panel, has invited me to present a paper at the National Woman's Study Association Conference, in Denver this November. Jillian St. Jacques, the transgendered theorist, and new media art historian Anne Swartz, have invited several artists to present on 2 panels addressing The Question of The Girl. My paper, Baby Doll, will describe the hyper-masculine fetishization of 3D character models among young gamers in relation to Freud's idea of the uncanny and a flight from knowledge (of death).
My point in tracing this genealogy is that my experience as a teacher of 3D animation production as it emerged in post 9/11 America, has inspired my contemporary practice as a critical writer and researcher, a curator, and most significantly as a teacher and as an artist. In response, I developed the body of work produced between 2004 and 2010: animations consisting of female nudes, moving slowly, languidly and in a sensual, erotic manner, rather than an overtly pornographic one.
My short looping films were first produced as a series of in-class tutorials for 3D character animation classes taught at Pratt to male students whose goals were to work production in the commercial gaming industry. My response to this environment was to create virtual images that were sensual but not pornographic within mechanized, clockwork depictions of the natural. In so doing, I tried and I am still trying to subvert earlier dichotomies of woman and nature pitted against a civilized, "scientific" and masculine, homosocial world of technology.
In my own way, with my intentionally feminine and slow moving (as opposed to the hyper reactive, violent, speedy world of games), I am staging a romantic rebellion against a technocratic and bureaucratic culture. Since 2007, when I began teaching at SAIC, I've produced four personal exhibitions and over 20 group shows ( - Empire - Twilight - ) of these works, all produced in the context of my rebellion ( - Machina - Swing - Ophelia - The Seasons - Empire - Dream - ).
In the beginning of my experience teaching 3D, I blamed everything on the masculinist, militarist game industry, and without a doubt, this ethos contributes to its particular culture. But, as I have become more experienced, I've decided that the 3D problem is as much a result of the pedagogical structures borrowed from their specific style of industry production pipeline, oriented towards large-scale effects films. These are films that are assembly line in their production style. This means that skills are taught with an eye towards narrow specialization. As a result, students are literally taught to resist big picture thinking, which also means to resist thinking conceptually, holistically and along with that, creatively. In one swoop, the baby AND the bathwater.
In order to teach 3D animation in way that did not repress big-picture thinking, I had to develop a new methodology. Between 2003-2007, I taught half-time at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, NY. Sarah Lawrence prides itself on its progressive education, and supported me in my first attempts to develop an alternative 3D pedagogy. At the same time as teaching there, I taught in vocationally oriented schools with distinctively homosocial, engineering cultures. These included Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brooklyn Polytechnic, and the City College of New York in the Bronx. By teaching in such polemically opposed milieu, I was able to correct what I perceived to be problematic in one education culture in the classes that I developed in the other. I found myself, by chance, in a dialectical research environment, a research that came to fruition at the School of the Art Institute, when I had the opportunity to work with students who were seriously dedicated to the study of art and design.
At SAIC, I developed a program - Experimental 3D - in which clusters of complimentary skills were grouped together for their esthetic and expressive potentials, and in rather unorthodox ways. To my surprise, students who normally never took 3D animation classes, ones without any Hollywood aspirations - from the performance and painting and sculpture departments - began taking the classes. In the three years since I've begun the X3D project, enrollment has gone from sparse to full, with waiting lists. These classes function as a working laboratory for my new methodology, and the students who take them perpetually create things that surprise me.
I wanted to bring my pedagogical research to my peers, so I invited Rachel Clarke, the editor of the New Media Caucus journal, Media-N, to co-chair a panel with me at the last CAA conference in Chicago, 2010 (http://www.claudiahart.com/theory/theory6.html) . For Under Fire: 3D Animation Pedagogy and Industry Complicity in New Media Education, we invited early users of 3D animation in the context of contemporary art: Joshua Mosley, Jennifer Steinkamp, Michael Rees, Gregory Little, and Claudia Herbst to present their art in terms of their pedagogical practice.
The discourse with my peers engendered by the CAA conference and the young artists works emerging from my Experimental 3D classes have stimulated me to draw on my art history education in order to create appropriate language and categories in which to understand them. Rachel Clarke, Michael Rees and I have curated a traveling exhibition, The Esthetics of the Fake, based on a lecture I give my SAIC students, and also give when I'm invited as a visiting artist to other schools. Another related project is The Simulationists: Mixed Reality Performance, an exhibition, evening of performances and a conference sponsored by the SAIC performance department and with a faculty research grant for exhibitions, co-curated with my SAIC colleagues Mark Jeffrey and Judd Morrissey, scheduled at the school for February, 2011.
I've also begun a research contextualizing digital filmmaking into standing film discourse. The Experimental 3D program of classes is a proposition, but the work of my students is, I am sure, an extension of photographic and cinematic language. I'm attempting to define that in The Digital Any-Space-Whatever, a program of films to be shown at the CAA 2011 conference in NY, that builds on Deleuzian film theory.
In addition to this kind of context building, my own work has expanded as a result of my creating X3D at SAIC. In my class Digital Bodies, I teach animation in the context of the dance film and included a screening program of historic and contemporary work. These films have influenced my own. This summer I received a grant from the Ellen Stone Belic Center for the Study of Women and Gender in the Media and Art, an independent institution associated with Columbia College, where I was also a fellow . My fellowship gave me access to Columbia's sophisticated motion capture studios, allowing me to produce a contemporary 3d animated dance film revising Tricia Brown's 1971 video of her piece Accumulation.
My Recumulation integrates the live, captured performance of Roberto Sifuentes, a founding members of the performance group La Pocha Nostra and SAIC colleague. Sifuentes performed Brown's piece, but did it suspended 18 inches off the floor, permitting me to invert the original to create a virtual dance film inserting Sifuentes' Latino, masculine, and highly gendered performance into one of my female avatars, in an environment in which s/he floats, a weightless counterpoint to Brown's early works - all of them so driven by gravity and all its exigencies.
This piece marks the beginning of a new artistic phase for me, evolving from the Experimental 3D context I have developed in my first years at SAIC: a series of impossible dance films that perhaps offers the resolution to the gender conflict my work has so far elucidated. My first body of work was reactive. If one accepts the Hegelian dialectical model, it was the antithesis of the 3D gaming world I entered via Pratt Institute's department of Computer Graphics and Interactive Media in 1998. Recumulation is a synthesis of both of these worlds. The Belic-produced Recumulation will be shown in Chicago in a site specific installation produced by the foundation in Fall 2011, and simultaneously in two New York exhibitions, one at The Black and White Project Space, a not for profit in Williamsburg, and including live performance by Sifuentes and others in an architectural environment, and also at bitforms, my Chelsea gallery.
With Obama in office and the Iraq War apparently winding towards resolution, it would be extraordinary if life (like my own art work) could, in the arena of real politics, be ruled similarly by synthesis and therefore closure. But maybe stuff like THAT only happens in the movies.
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