Writing as a Woman: Annie Abrahams' e-writing

Writing as a Woman: Annie Abrahams' e-writing

2005-01-26

Is there such a thing as womens’ writng? Or, for that matter, womens’ media? Elisabeth Joyce moves through the work of Annie Abrahams and writes against restrictive domestications of electronic media.

At this year’s Women’s History Month celebration on my university campus I participated on a panel on Women’s (Art)Work. The panel was composed of several female artists and myself. Each of them sees art as fundamentally shaped by the artist’s gender. They would say with a surprising, to me anyway, degree of acceptance (they have really bought into this idea!) that women’s art is domestic, that women make art about the body, that women use different materials than men do. One of the women on the panel is a young sculptor, quite talented and devoted to her work. It did not appear to trouble her at all that her work - dark, enclosed spaces of different types - is always described as womblike. I kept asking her and the others on the panel if her gender isn’t shaping the viewer’s response to her work. What I would take as compelling images of claustrophobia and compulsory containment, they are taking as warm and inviting and safe.

I kept thinking about male artists who make the same kind of work. Do people EVER see Gregor Schneider ‘s work as womb-like? Do they even perceive it as related to the body, as some kind of warped colon, a “dirty” trail of winding odd confining passages, for instance? The criticism that I can find on his work talks about the disorientation that he creates in the space of his parent’s house, but it never relates his work to how it might recreate the human body. And yet, his work, while cruddier (in the sense of dirt, not judgment!) than my colleague’s, is not that dissimilar from hers. People never see Ernesto Neto ‘s sculpture as womblike, either. But he always uses fabrics (a woman’s medium!) that stretch and contain, and that are permeable, just like the membranes of a womb. Instead, when critics discuss his work, it is in terms of the senses, of tactility and space, but not in terms of wombs, of that feeling of warmth and comfort and waiting, that nurturance that a woman’s work provides. His work seems much more womblike to me, though, than my colleague’s does.

The problem exists, I believe, in this assumption that women’s work is domestic and private, and men’s work is public and theoretical. I keep thinking of my husband’s work: his latest series of sculptures is entirely domestic and quiet, all about our family and friends, nothing about the world out there. I’m wondering if his work would have been possible without gender politics in art. It strikes me that focus on gender issues in the arts has permitted sculpture especially to embrace a wider range of media and content than had been available to it. In the 1960s artists could weld, carve or cast, like Lee Bontecou did (an example of a female artist making art “like a man”) or they could step outside the mainstream, like Eva Hesse, and use fabrics and “female” methods of construction and installation. It was this continued effort over the past 40 years to open art to more typically “female” materials and images that permitted these materials to gain acceptance. Now, Ernesto Neto can use fabrics, installation artists can use just about anything, and this openness is due to “women’s” art not merely entering the art world, but permeating it.

I have always been especially interested in this question of gender and art when it concerns writing on the Web. We have heard for years about writing on the body and l’écriture feminine, about how the way a woman writes is different than the way a man writes. I have never understood how to take this. Is there a quantifiable difference between men’s and women’s writing? Something about the number of adjectives? The sentence structure? (my son says that it has something to do with lots and lots of capital letters and exclamation points). I hesitate to make this kind of judgment, that without the presence of the writing body, the writing itself could be different according to the writing body’s gender, but I have always wondered if my reluctance to do this isn’t driven by my fear that women’s writing or anything female isn’t perceived as lesser than men’s. The moment that a work of art of any kind in any medium is related to the gender of the artist that produced it, it is vulnerable to the discrimination that a woman’s work must face.

Having said all of this, and having expressed my irritation that women themselves identify their work as gender-driven, I find that I need to make the same commitment in this essay because Annie Abrahams’ writing is clearly female writing. While her colleagues are composing abstractions about poetry, she is writing about relationships and communication and touching or not touching. Julien D’Abrigeon, for instance, plays with homonyms in “horde d’ordre & d’horreur: or, hors (de); ordre, odeur; nom, nomme, mon, mène, mêle. In “Proposition de voyage temporel dans l’infinité d’un instant 2.0” he repeats the day’s date, streaming up the page in multiple colors and styles. In “balanc&parpill&” the word “balancé” appears in the center of the screen while “ça&” in multiples streams by. Clicking on “balancé” changes the central word to “éparillé” and the streaming letters to “la&.” A poem by Dumolin and D’Abrigeon called “l’hommage de BMPT ” involves the word “Poesie,” distorted into Optical Illusion (see all of these pieces at http://tapin.free.fr/cinetiq.htm). While I admit that I focus here on one poet in particular, few of the epoems by Abrahams’ colleagues “talk” about anything other than the act of writing, of writing electronically, of manipulating the text visually as well as semantically.

Annie Abrahams composes pieces that focus women’s issues or stereotypical female characteristics: nurturance, relationships, peace, communication, pain. I would like to suggest that we need to look at these women’s issues from multiple perspectives, and that doing so, will actually let gender politics create an art experience that is richer than it might have been without feminism. Nurturance from the typical female aspect is kind and caring; a nurturing person wants to make everything better, to make those around her feel better. But isn’t a nurturing person also a controlling person? Someone who feels superior to those being nurtured as in “I’m the adult here and you are the child;” “I’m the nurse who is in charge and you are the passive patient”? Someone who is telling everyone around her what to do and how to feel? The same approach holds true for my earlier example about my colleague’s wombs. A womb is warm and safe and provides comfort on one level; on another it is dark and confining and entrapping. A womb is ultimately a claustrophobic container that provokes nightmarish fears. When I talk about Abrahams’ work below, therefore, I will not use scare quotes to indicate stereotypes that require questioning; instead, the underside of these stereotypes needs examination to flesh out, as it were, the fuller approach to women’s art.

“Co(mn)fort, “Painsong” and “touch(er)” are especially female in their approach. In one section “Co(mn)fort” contains a long list of compliments that express reassurance ( http://www.bram.org/confort/index.html). In another section Abrahams filmed a dozen or so people saying in different languages words of comfort to an imaginary person. What, in 30 - 60 seconds, can one person think of to say to someone who is feeling absolutely devoid of hope? Her subjects took their assignments quite seriously, which is another great moment in her work. How do we find a way to talk in public about the warm and fuzzy without feeling or looking stupid? It isn’t cool to be nice, but Abrahams pulls it off. However, as I just said, what business do these people have telling us to feel better? It presumes that we don’t feel well. It presumes that our pain is something to get rid of and that they will prescribe ways to do that.

“Painsong” is a collection of statements about pain in French, Dutch, and English ( http://www.bram.org/pain/index2.htm). It is fairly weak from usability and aesthetic standpoints. It consists of a white background with red spots of varying sizes. In the center of the screen is a series of green-colored sound bars, with control icons that are so minute that they are useless. Even with DSL, this site takes an eternity to load. Many of the statements reiterate Abrahams’ issues in other sites: “Don’t touch me” and “I want to be alone.” Two of the statements talk to “Papa” and accuse him of being responsible for her pain. Push everyone away. Pay attention to me. Daddy is at fault (I’m just a little girl and not in charge of my own destiny). “Painsong” demonstrates fewer of the stereotypically positive features of femininity and more of the negative ones. This is an immature and irritable woman who cannot take hold of her life and must blame others for her misery. The song is less about pain and the sadness about it - perhaps what I was expecting was fortitude in the face of it - than about the pain of life and the tension between the desire for solitude, away from those who cause pain, and the overwhelming plea for Daddy’s attention, to be with him and NOT alone. In my obtuse reading, I see the female figure here as out of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “My nerves are bad to-night.”

In a personal exchange with Abrahams, she says, however, that this piece centers on whether or not it is possible to sing pain, but that it also puts the visitor in the position of inflicting pain, since activating the site produces the sound, “ai!,” “as if someone were hurt.” The focus of the work then becomes whether or not the person causing the pain (the viewer) becomes a participant in it and what that person gets out of this interaction: sadistic pleasure? Personal pain? Consolation? Sadness at the pain of another?

“Confrontation” is the work that appeals to me most, though I rather wish that I were not confronted with the URL of the upcoming images or the countdown of their loading sizes ( http://www.bram.org/confront/indexcon.htm). I also wish that the entire piece were not crammed into the upper left of the screen. Having said that, I find that what the piece says about communication is quite compelling. Single images related to war drawn from the Internet appear in the upper left every minute or so. Adjacent to them and overlapping them is a series of text lines mostly in English and French, sometimes both at once, and sometimes in other languages in black and red. Sometimes it isn’t possible to read these words when their colors match those of the underlying image. These are, as Abrahams calls them, “words of hope” that visitors to the webpage have left to “confront the images.” Some of these statements are typical: “I hope for peace”; “I hope faith [sic].” However, the more hope lines that appear, the more that it becomes clear that the hope is hopeless, that there is nothing that we can do to confront war: “I hope fuck you [sic],” “I hope I do not wet my pants,” “I hope your uniform is a little too small for you,” “I hope you forget my name,” “I hope you leave me.” We are set up by the preliminary words - I hope - to believe that what follows will be positive. When it isn’t, we are crushed, repeatedly, that much more. The statements purport to be about hope for peace on earth and the accompanying comfort of warmth and cosiness, but the hope is odd, depressed, and negative.

While the images and text lines are cycling through, a man and a woman converse. At first I thought that they were speaking in Chinese, but then I read that Abrahams says that they are speaking in their own invented languages, so that they talk without understanding each other and so that we cannot understand them, either. The sound of these people talking interferes with the text. Between the sound and the images, it is nearly impossible to read, even though the sound is unintelligible. It’s as if the audible speaking is blocking the reading part of the brain, as if the part of the brain that understands spoken language is stronger than the one that comprehends writing, so that the unrecognizability of the spoken “words” blocks the recognizable written ones.

Abrahams says that “confrontation leads to an incapacity to define war and hope as opponents, but lets them seem more as striving forces that appear on every level of our lives” ( http://www.turbulence.org/spotlight/abrahams/index.htm). This explains why the hope statements do not directly address the war images and why, in fact, the hope statements undermine themselves. If these “forces” of war and hope are oppositional but never resolvable, it makes sense to place them side by side, and even allow them to share space, but to have them never quite recognize each other.

What makes “Confrontation” female? Perhaps it’s the warm and fuzzy hope feelings; perhaps it’s the criticism of war. In Abrahams’ interview by Pavu, she says that “Confrontation” shows “Service-to-others and Service-to-self interacting and sometimes intertwining up to a point they don’t know to what party they belong anymore” ( http://www.postartum.org/p2p/anniea-p2p-interview.html). It isn’t as if men don’t think about service to others, but the stereotype of women (and isn’t that what we are talking about here?) is a focus on the needs of the other. Once those two impulses are scrambled, the woman no longer knows how to direct her focus. The work is situated around a typically female issue and undermines it in order to call attention to what happens when it is disrupted.

“Understanding,” linked directly from “Confrontation,” is one of Abrahams’ more complicated pieces in terms of design and interaction, but it is full of commands - “Stop, don’t touch/ my borders, tell me how to avoid you/ go go go go go…home,” “Stay, don’t leave/ I need you to/ make my frontiers weaker” - and many critical remarks to us (the “you” on the page) - “You will never be me” and “You will never be able to understand me.” One of the commands says to go away; the other says to stay. One is asking, demanding even, that the viewer keep physical distance from her. The other is saying in a needy kind of a way that the viewer must stay close by. These commands nag at us. The first one says that being me is better than being you; the second one says that you are incapable of understanding in general, much less of understanding one individual (me). Negative stereotypes of women that this website promulgates are perhaps diffused by the anxiety that permeates it: “Always/ Changing/ Never the/ Same” and “floating/ loosing [sic]/ control.” “Why not?” asks the page.

Even Abrahams’ little dialogue box that pops up periodically is female in nature, if to be cheerful is “female”: “Smile on your friend in the morning,” it says. The button to make the box disappear says, “o.k.” Isn’t this box an order? Don’t we hate people who are cheerful first thing in the morning? Don’t we perceive this cheerfulness as an active state of aggression (o.k., perhaps I’m giving something personal away here, but I’m sure that you will agree with me)?

Ultimately, as Abrahams’ “Being Human” says, “where*?FUTUREoù?*,” where are we? “Everywhere/ Nowhere/ I don’t know/ You do know.” The answers are in paired oppositions, but perhaps gender politics have permitted us to co-opt the binary oppositions vilified by feminists (and rightly so) so that art has greater depth to offer. It isn’t a bad thing to see the underside of the beast of femininity, and perhaps it is a sign that it’s finally o.k. to be female, that women no longer have to make art like men, that making female-focused art no longer entails discrimination, and that in fact, it opens art to multiple perspectives, enhancing the available range of readings. “I don’t know/ You DO know.”

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>>–>Lisa Joyce writes the Introduction to the original Writing (Post)feminism thread in ebr. She also reviews the work of Susan Howe in ‘Thorowly’ American, and the historical fiction of Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson, and Susan Daitch in Memory and Oblivion.