Feminist approaches to virtual bodies in visual arts

The use of virtual reality as an artistic medium to bring forward a critical discourse on self-representation

In recent times, several women artists have used virtual reality as an artistic medium to bring forward a critical discourse on self-representation, commodification of virtual bodies and on gender roles that survive in a posthuman context. The choice of this specific tool is not a coincidence, for two reasons. On one hand, the virtual representation of the body opens a gate to a new concept of corporeality, which overcomes the binary differentiation between material and immaterial. Virtual bodies, therefore, are grounded in the coexistence of two ambiguous states: their immaterial features and the fact that they are inherently “embodied” (a term usually referred to something that appropriates a material dimension).

On the other hand, another reason that makes VR particularly suitable for artists to carry on a self-narration on female bodies, is the wide use that the pornographic industry has made out of it. Several studies have recently compared the two-dimensional and three-dimensional format, related to the enjoyment of pornography, with the result that virtual reality appears to be the most effective medium to consume it. In fact, VR – usually for POV-style porn – has become one of the fastest-growing video categories on pornographic streaming platforms, as estimates suggest that pornography will be the third-largest VR sector by 2026 (representing 22% of the global digital adult content market value). No wonder that pornographical use of 3D models and avatars is one of the features that have worked as a starting point for artists to subvert the erotic image consumption system and start a discussion about a reappropriation of the virtual body.

Sidsel Meineche Hansen, DICKGIRL 3D(X), SECOND SEX WAR, 2016. Virtual reality production and CGI animation. Courtesy of the artist. Credit- Werkflow Ltd, London. Commissioned by Gasworks in partnership with Tro

That’s the case with Danish artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen (b. 1981), whose research is focused on the commodity status of 3D bodies in digital image production. Sidsel Meineche Hansen used EVA v3.0 – a royalty-free avatar made by freelance 3D designer Nikola Dechev and sold online by Turbosquid, a company that provides stock 3D models for video games and pornography – as the main character of several works (Seroquel®, 2014; No right way 2 cum, 2015 and DICKGIRL 3D(X), 2016).

DICKGIRL 3D(X), for example, is a pornographic virtual 3D animation that can be viewed through a VR headset and that the artist directed and produced with the London-based 3D studio Werkflow Ltd. In this “automated performance” (as the artist defines it), EVA v3.0 becomes a hybrid between a post-human pornstar and a digital anthropomorphic form specifically generated for submission, deprived of any specific features or identity. As a virtual being born exclusively to be a sexual object, EVA 3.0 raises a crucial question: how can we regain possession of a fair representation of virtual female bodies, that is freed from sexual commodification? This work is, using the artist’s own words, “an attempt at hacking the virtual pornographic body” and a way to critically rethink the relationship between sex and technology under a feminist point of view.

Evelyn Bencicova, Artificial Tears. 2019, “It is dark inside”- Synthsis Gallery, Berlin. Curated by George Vitale

The commodification of virtual bodies is not the only problematic issue related to gender representation in technology. Take, for example, the case of virtual assistants: “machines in general are not gendered by default”, writes visual artist and photographer Evelyn Bencicova (b. 1992, Bratislava, Slovakia). “We shape them by setting their behaviour, voice, or appearance. It is compelling to observe how many AI voice assistants end up being ‘female’. Is the notion of being more pleasant or trustworthy equated with sounding more servile just because a “woman” is speaking?”.  In her VR work Artificial Tears (2019) – in collaboration with Joris Demnard and musician Arielle Esther – the focus is on the cultural notion of the male creator in opposition to the female machine, based on a centuries-old story of submission “through innocence, of striving for obedience and artificial perfection”.

The main character in Artificial Tears is based on stereotypical female beauty perfection. Again, it is a representation of a woman designed – by others – to satisfy an ideal. As the VR experience goes on, the multi-layered character finally achieves autonomy by discovering her own free will and power to act. “The issue here”, writes Bencicova, “is no longer how something functions but what effect it has. Do servile behaviours of voice assistants stand in opposition to actual women’s expressions in contemporary society?”. Therefore, the artist stages a kind of fairy tale – where the observer is guided by a voice-over, a stream of consciousness of an AI – at the end of which the virtual assistant finds her self-determination: “I don’t exist just to be interpreted. I am not your dream” says the woman in her final speech, “neither am I your nightmare. I am not your slave. I function, but I refuse to perform. I am moral, not obedient. I am autonomous and alive. What about you?”.

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Laura Cocciolillo
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