Originally published in Leonardo 29, no. 1 (1996).

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Futures are contested zones, and the language we use to talk about them is possibly more important than we usually realize. To speak with apparent certainty of things that will or are bound to happen is to use the "collapsed future tense" and to risk reproducing a form of technological determinism that pictures technology as an autonomous entity evolving under its own momentum, independent of human decisions, actions, or motives that could be contested from a variety of perspectives in a variety of languages. Can a future already known in advance even be considered a future? Is it not simply a projection of what Heidegger describes as an "entrapping securing" of a world and its inhabitants made available as resources and ordered to serve precalculated outcomes?[1]

Perhaps since Marx and certainly since the rise of the political struggles of feminists, indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities, it has become increasingly accepted that there is no one "history" but that histories are narratives told from particular standpoints and with characteristic blind spots. The same relativistic perspective is not usually applied to futurity, which (in Western culture, anyway) is almost always invoked in the singular—the future—and assumed to be a destiny shared by all. But just as we have learned to interrogate "history," so can we interrogate accounts of the future: Whose future gets to be the future? Whose visions are named as realistic and attainable, and whose are deferred as impractical and utopian? Who gets empowered and legitimated by such language? Who is ignored?

Linguistic habits such as the collapsed or singular future arise partly as ideological effects of late capitalism, reflecting the sense that technologies "arrive" or "impact" on ordinary people at speeds and from directions beyond our control. Yet at stake is not merely the possibility of gaining control over this or that technology, for, as philosopher of technology Don Ihde has pointed out, so coextensive are technology and culture that the question of how to gain control over technology is really a question of how to "control" a whole culture.[2] Thus, questions concerning technological futurity can be translated into questions about who—or what— are the agents of cultural change.

Western technologies have long been caught up in the progress narrative overtly promoted as icons of modernity, newness, and futurity. At different historical periods, artifacts such as the clock, the steam engine, and, more recendy, the computer have been taken up as metaphors defining humanness and culture.[3] Even at the supposedly postmodern moment, faith in the progress narrative persists in the form of technological neophilia (the love of the new). Advertising rhetoric that describes new products as "revolutionary" can reinforce the idea that technological change automatically brings about social "revolutions," ending domination rather than (as is more usually the case) allowing it to alter its sites and forms. The historical awareness that decisions about technologies are made by particular social actors on the basis of particular interests— often business and military ones—is frequently eclipsed by a technological determinist perspective emphasizing machines as agents of social and historical change, with their own evolutionary powers. Successive generations of ever "smarter" tools are heralded as manifestations of the future today, to which "we" can do nothing but acquiesce.

Collapsed futurity is also discernible on the post-1960s left, which has successively lost faith in socialism and utopian thought. In a 1982 essay, Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson proclaimed that "the past is dead" and that while "the future... may still be alive in some heroic collectivities on the Earth's surface, it is for us either irrelevant or unthinkable."[4] But the "us" for whom the future is a nonissue is not completely inclusive: Jameson himself cites utopian feminist writers (including Le Guin, Russ, and Delany) as counterexamples. My suggestion is that although past and future may be of little interest to disenchanted veterans of the new left, both history and futurity are very much alive and contested by members of the newer social movements (such as feminism, environmentalism, and land rights).




For many women artists working with digital media, the body's physicality is not transcended or obsolesced by technology; rather, it is a source of poetic efforts to at once use and counteract the machine's own anti-body logics by using it as a medium to explore organic or visceral forms. Women artists interviewed for Artists in Cyberculture included German artist Ulrike Gabriel discussing her computer-mediated installation Breath (1992), where images and sounds changed according to a breath monitor worn by the participant. Gabriel made the point that the work was not transcendent but was tied to the specific limitations of the body's energies and the aesthetic parameters coded into the machine: "You can't get out of your body; it can't get out of the [aesthetic] system, but still a lot can happen." New York artist Patricia Search, whose longstanding love of math made her at home with computer forms and logic, spoke of her desire to enrich her computer-based art with "color, form, and light" to keep it from "being too rigid," while Canadian Char Davies rejected the term computer artist and described her computer-generated works as organic and textured forms exploring inner mystical experiences and the natural world.

Whereas Davies and Search counter the computer's biases with an aesthetic of organic beauty, some Australian women artists have adopted an (anti)aesthetic of viscera and abjection. Melbourne-based computer image maker Linda Dement has articulated her desire to "put some guts into the machine" and describes her enjoyment of the way computer scanning allows the use of objects as "paint" in combination with "inward-looking" autobiographical narrative explorations of "brutality, violence, madness" as well as beauty, desire and pleasure, exemplified in her work Typhoid Mary (1993).[38]

Dement's images often feature detached organs, anatomical dissections, and medical images that are arranged in formal compositions with a strong decorative emphasis on layered images and textured surfaces. In a catalog note for the Tekno Viscera exhibition of women's electronic art and performance in Brisbane 1993, Jo Frare and Vicky Sowry vividly summed up the feminist interest of "putting some guts into the machine":

Given the obsession of many new technology applications (for example, video games and VR systems) with the female body, it is not surprising that feminist artists are rewiring the network so that these technologies become receptacles for abject female excess—for that which is subversive in gendered difference. The precision and order of these contemporary entertainment and/or representational technologies are being challenged with the intromission of viscera and fluid into what has previously been perceived as a hermetic, dry, closed circuit.[39]


My conclusion then is simple: theorists, critics, art lovers, and art makers need to learn to listen to the diversity of voices and visions expressed in technological media and develop more appropriate frameworks in which to appreciate artistic works that do not merely reproduce or celebrate machine logics (such as algorithms creating electronic wallpaper) but actively challenge and pervert them and the futures they imply. Otherwise, we risk not only misunderstanding specific artworks but also reducing their potential effectiveness as alternatives to the specters of monolithic futurelessness and a posthuman world. In such a world, art itself could lose all meaning, for poetic strivings to remember and embody past experiences, to critically reflect on present situations, and to shape imagined and future worlds would all be eclipsed by the overshadowing machines to which our historically transformative and evolutionary powers would have been ceded. I hope that this chapter, by focusing interest on works by contemporary women technological artists, contributes to their success in shaping alternative futures that do not simply intensify the powers of the already strong but enlarge the influence of the values and interests of those not satisfied by the pursuit of the new as a good—or even a god— in itself.


This chapter draws on collaborative research with Virginia Barratt on Double Agents, a study of women technological artists currently underway with gratefully acknowledged assistance from the Australian Network for Arts and Technology (ANAT), the Australia Council, and Murdoch University. Barratt conducted the interviews with Moira Corby and Anna Sabiel quoted here. I thank the various artists for spending time answering our questions and for providing documentation of their work. The Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane gave me the opportunity to view several of the artworks discussed here at the Tekno Viscera event in October 1993. Versions of this chapter have been presented at the Future Languages Day of the Adelaide Festival Artists Week (February 1994) and under the title "Intersections, Interdictions, Interfacings: Women, Technology, Art, Philosophy" at the West Australian Art Gallery (November 1993) for the Jillian Bradshaw Memorial Lecture series. A portion of that talk dealing with Joan Brassil, Joyce Hinterding, and Sarah Waterson has been published in Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., Electronic Arts in Australia, a special issue of the journal Continuum 8, no. 1 (1994), that is recommended for readers wanting to survey a hill range of Australian technological arts.



1. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. W. Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 27.
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2. Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 140.
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3. J. Bolter, David Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), ch. 2.
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4. Fredric Jameson, "Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?," Science Fiction Studies 9 (1982): 152.
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38. Linda Dement, in Virginia Barratt, ed., Tekno Viscera, exhibition catalog (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1993), n. 8; see also "Linda Dement Interviewed by Glenda Nalder," in Zurbrugg, Electronic Arts in Australia, 166-177.
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39. Jo Frare and Vicky Sowry, "Intromission," in Barratt, Tekno Viscera, 5-6.
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40. Sarah Waterson, note in Barratt, Tekno Viscera, 11.
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