4 Survival 4 Pleasure- Living on The Margins


I presented the following text as part of the conference Living on the Margins at University of Westminster in April 2019.

4 Survival 4 Pleasure (2017), a video artwork and sequel to my 2015 work Orange Bikini, follows my avatar on a journey through a succession of luxurious digital landscapes, claiming for herself a sense of absolute agency through the multifaceted ways she presents herself. The piece touches on aspects of cyborg theory, as laid out by Donna Haraway in her foundational text A Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway, 1984) in which she asserts that the concept of the cyborg will change what counts as women’s experiences through transgressed boundaries between human, nature and machine. I also took note of Derica Shields’ comments on the subject area from her involvement in the panel conversation with Rhizome and the ICA entitled Do You Follow? Art in Circulation 3, in which she states that “I was interested in the ways that people who are most vulnerable to premature death and destitution had imagined themselves as more than human, post-human, or cyborgian.4 Survival 4 Pleasure also runs with the assertion that whether she is a concert pianist or dressed in jewels and feathers for carnival that a woman is equally valuable, important and justified. Embodied as a central theme is the desire for those who are marginalised to not only survive, but to find joy and thrive.

Working with online avatars automatically throws up ideas of idealisation and fantasy due to the inherently ‘flawless’ nature of the computer models on offer. Using an online avatar offers almost limitless scope for reinvention, with identities presenting as multiple and fluid. In the video, we see the avatar switch between a global identity and a more specific one paying homage to the Zambian half of her heritage with music and dance in one particular scene. In this way I have been able to explore multiple facets of my identity without leaving my computer, reflecting on the reality of a multi-ethnic, multi-national, globalised and connected generation.

The original prediction of many cyberfeminists in the early 1990s that the internet would provide liberation for women and aid in destroying many oppressive social constructs remains somewhat unfulfilled. Living an alternative life online is an everyday possibility through social media and the anonymous spaces of chatrooms and forums; and cyberspace remains a field in which many people’s fantasies are brought to fruition. However, ultimately the internet reproduces the conditions and hierarchies of real life, with the ubiquity of real misogyny, racism and homophobia found online shattering any illusion of an immediate escape from these structures.

In the scene with the rock band in 4 Survival 4 Pleasure, the avatar is able to reproduce herself multiple times and play her instruments simultaneously. Derica Shields in conversation with Rhizome stated “what I think is happening with the black woman cyborg is that the invulnerability is not really geared towards immortality but rather towards survival and the ability to reproduce oneself without becoming exhausted.” She goes on to describe the music video for Lil Kim’s song “How Many Licks” in which we see the artist having doll-like copies of herself produced in a factory, with the sole aim of the doll being for her to receive sexual satisfaction. In 4 Survival 4 Pleasure the avatar appears to be performing while ignoring any assumed audience or gaze, seemingly acting solely for her own pleasure.

The strip club scene in the video champions the validity of sex work and stripping, which can be life-changing, liberating work particularly for low-income, marginalised women. Here we can refer to the example of rapper Cardi B, for whom stripping enabled to leave a violent partner through her newly-found financial independence before finding fame as a musician.

In London-based visual artist Helen Benigson’s video entitled Why You Shouldn’t Date a Soldier (2011),  we see the artist’s avatar switching through a range of different appearances, changing her hair, outfits and body type before beginning to play on online poker game PKR. A group of soldiers from video game Call of Duty believe her to be kidnapped, and after briefly stopping off at website YouPorn find the artist’s avatar playing poker. She declares: “Boys. I didn’t want to be rescued. I am in control of my own destiny and my own fantasy.” This statement alludes to the idea of the internet as a site of creation of female fantasies, especially set against the backdrop of male aggression. The work also covers notions of performance, fantasy and identity.

We are at a stage where technological advances and shifts in morality and mindset of our society have paved the way for human self-alteration to become normalised. In Kim Toffoletti’s book Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls she looks at the idea of the posthuman and states that the ‘post’ in posthuman doesn’t signal something after the human, but rather “remains in a continuum of human existence and change, signalling a shared partnership between human and non-human forms, challenging boundaries between the two.”

In the book Posthuman by Jeffrey Deitch he states that “our society will soon have access to the biotechnology that will allow us to make direct choices about how we want our species to evolve further.”

The rise of the internet has spawned a multitude of new types of interactions and relationships. Does non-physical representation allow users of avatar based chat software to access and express their ‘real’ selves, and could it cut out complications of interpretation of the ‘real-life’ body? Technology has begun to complicate the idea of a ‘human essence’, and is bringing with it questions of whether it is the mind or the body that makes us human.