System Complexity: feminism with Laboria Cuboniks - Art Collector

Laboria Cuboniks, Raise the cosmic diffusers! Xenofeminism: A Politics, 2015. Courtesy: the artist

By Joel Mu

Berlin’s Schinkel Pavillon was the setting for the first public appearance of Labroia Cuboniks (an anonymous feminist collective) and reading of their 7-part mega manifesto – Xenofeminsim: A politics for alienation. After the event I had an opportunity to meet some of its members and chat about the event, the (art) world and self-help technologies. Much was said on- and offline and no doubt much more is still to come.

Despite the bunker-like conditions, there was a good turn out. I remember seeing artists, artist collectives, activists, curators, writers and philosophers – how would you characterise this crowd?

The launch was in the context of a contemporary art venue, so one would presume that many in attendance were from that field – as loose as that can be in Berlin with so much interest in the arts in general. That said, who knows who these generous stranger-guests were, it’s not so important! We did have some of our friends from the cyberfeminist VNS Matrix group from Australia there, so that was a great coincidence they were in town for their own work and an honour to present our ideas with them in the midst.

The field of contemporary art, in and of itself though, requires addressing if we are to commit to the project announced in the manifesto. Essentially the same sort of systemic or structural thinking and transformation that we advocate in the manifesto with regards to technology, economy, gender and politics, needs to take place if contemporary art is to truly and substantially intervene upon reality (as it claims to desire doing). The field of contemporary art feasts on and is nourished by novelty; it requires endless doses of new content to keep up the appearance of being cutting-edge. On the one hand this field is hyper-open to the new – so where some ideas would have extreme difficulty gaining traction, especially in Germany where academia is very conservative – contemporary art is there to offer a space for visibility. The downside of this field however, is that since its sustenance is novelty, its cycles of attention are shorter than that of fashion (so ideas and forms come and go very quickly) and often with only fleeting engagement. Since the project that XF desires to embark upon is a multi-generational, counter-hegemonic one (it is not a spectacular revolution), how long will the contemporary art world be interested? Is it open enough to engage with its systemic inadequacies, generatively give up certain contradictory claims, and commit to other constructive axioms beyond models of critique that have governed the logic of contemporary art since Duchamp?

What did you think of the launch’s setting? I found it very suggestive: the near-dark lighting made it awkward to take photographs and turned off in the background Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall, from 1987, recalling a 1980s vibe like Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto!

That was pure luck; none of us had seen the temporary site of the Schinkel Pavillon before entering the site, including the organiser of the event. It did lend itself well to our premise though of speaking as no one in particular, as almost all faces from the event photos are undecipherable. It is also our hope though that the atmosphere from Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto would be present with or without such lighting, since she is part of our genealogy! We haven’t explicitly included our theoretical lineage for the sake of rhetorical flow and setting some ground for our project, but these bountiful sources are there in the appropriation and retooling of ideas. And while we are invested in connecting our project to that of earlier cyber- and technofeminist thinkers, we are also keen to avoid nostalgia for both the theories and technologies of the past. It is tempting to look back on previous generations and fetishize their imagined futures – futures that were never quite realised. While we understand and experience that urge ourselves, we believe it is equally important to think about the affordances of the present, and to consider how we might leverage these to induce a more emancipatory gender political future.

In answering an audience question about Utopia, I noted that you described XF as a platform or placeholder for self-transformation and self-inception. Can you explain a little?

We don’t want to throw Utopia under the bus as has been the trend over the last decades. In the name of being realistic, futural imagination has suffered greatly under this anti-Utopianism, and we feel the political effects quite strongly now as a result, with very few people risking speculative leaps as to what the future of humanity could be, beyond the popular dissemination of dystopic scenarios. That said, XF is not a utopian project insofar as it isn’t the drawing up of a master plan to be executed as a stable X upon which to land – and that is where we have the distinction with the platform model. In platforms, one sets systemic parameters, but they are only partially determinate, they map out territories of affordance (where some behavior is easier to enact than others), but they are systems susceptible to mutation through positive feedback loops of use (like generative recursion) that can change core structural parameters.

What are your thoughts on self-help technologies?

A lot of the self-help technologies of today are symptomatic of what we could call complexity withdrawal. What we mean by this is rather than looking outwards and tackling systemic injustices or inadequacies and seeing the effects of illness as a result of this – we see the proliferation of the psycho-pharma industry as coping device for the individual to get through it all, or remain competitive within its sets of functions. Think about cognitive enhancers or certain anti-anxiety drugs, which may make individuals feel better equipped to cope with the demands of contemporary precarity and cultures of work. These technologies operate by pharmaceutically adapting the individual to structural and systemic pressures, but do nothing to unpick these pressures themselves. They may be felt to be helpful, valuable, and necessary, but (in many circumstances) they are insufficient and should not be framed as a political response. In a way we can situate this within the distinction between the freedom from system malady (withdrawal or individual comfort in coping) versus the freedom to construct such exo-systems otherwise as a program of collective self-mastery. Such a freedom to requires that we confront and reengineer our complex reality, rather than seeking refuge in a quiet corner – that can only be an exclusive position of the one, and not the solution for the many.

The English language version of the XF manifesto will be launched with a discussion at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London on 17 June 2015 and can be read online via laboriacuboniks.net.

The German translation of Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation is available in the anthology Dea Ex Machina, edited by Armen Avanessian and Helen Hester, published by Merve Verlag, Berlin, and can be ordered online.
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