Compliments of Nancy Paterson
History is not usually what has happened. History is what some people have thought to be significant.

Idries Shah, Reflections (1978)


Writing about the past these days is a harrowing activity. Constant battles are maintained over what is considered true. The history of aesthetics is no exception. The history of aesthetics has only recently undergone challenges to its traditions of universality and a disinterested state of contemplative attention to the object. New media has been brewing in these recent contentious environments. Though new media is a relative newcomer to the world of aesthetic involvement, in its complexities you will find the triple espresso of contested aesthetic variations.

Talking about new media as a stable and organized hierarchy of cooperating mediums and disciplines, each contributing an equal and well-documented aesthetic, is decidedly unhelpful. Contributions to what is now referred to as new media have come from the arts, including the visual arts, design, architecture, dance, performance, and literature. These innovations have been intricately linked with and dependent on computer science, engineering, and science research. Ecology, education, health, cultural industries, social sciences, humanities, communications, and information media have extended the scope of their interests through digital media. New media's eclectic transdisciplinarity threaded loosely together by digital ubiquity are both its best and most problematic attributes.

Published in the last year or two, a number of new media histories document and comment on the intricacies of new media, both in its historical formation and in its aesthetic underpinnings. The most popular of these are Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, Stephen Wilson's Information Arts, Oliver Grau's Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, and editors Noah Wardrip-Fruin's and Nick Montfort's The New Media Reader.

All published by MIT Press, their concerns are primarily historical and formal, though Stephen Wilson's mammoth book does a superb job of covering that most central aspect of new media: its implicit reliance on contemporary science and technology research. Wilson includes a surprising range of artists who are helping to shape the medium and his book comes closest to engaging some of my concerns below. Another book I have long been anticipating is artist and editor Judy Malloy's, Women, Art, and Technology due out in October of this year.

As the opening quote to this essay suggests, however, what is recorded as history depends on who thought what was significant. Several of the histories mentioned above touch upon the contributions of critical, cultural theory and postmodern perspectives in the formation of a new media aesthetic. And yet, a number of seminal contributors to the field have developed their vision of possibilities for the new medium out of goals aligned with ethical, ecological, and feminist aesthetics.

Which brings us to the crux of this short essay. The significance of women's involvement with this medium, while being noted, is often underplayed or misapprehended. Having been a participant in new media over the last twelve years or so, I look at these recent histories from my own particular viewpoint and marvel at the difference in perceptions of the same experiences. While most of the histories noted above touch upon various women involved in the forming of new media, none emphasize the impact ethical, ecological and feminist goals have played in the forming of a new media aesthetic.

Despite the current conflation of the medium with corporate science and industry goals, there have been and continue to be strong ethical drives issuing from ecological and feminist viewpoints in the forming of the aesthetics of new media. Though individually each artist or thinker has brought a uniquely personal viewpoint, a number of women working in the medium from the late eighties to the present have been working in a subversive mode. They have questioned research agendas, traditional aesthetics and the contexts and consequences of their involvement. As a result, they have offered alternatives that have changed the possibilities of this new medium.

Brenda Laurel and Char Davies are the best known and most often mentioned women in discussions about new media. Their pioneering work in virtual environments has had enormous influence on the development of, not only virtual environment technologies, but on computer interactive interface design in general. In addition, however, their outspoken and eloquent discourse, both in print and in presentations, has continued to be a much needed critique of the established goals of technological development. In their work, one finds not only alternative content, but also innovative interactive interfaces.

These interfaces were based, unlike the more traditional interfaces, on the participant's own physical bodily sensations. For Davies, the values guiding these aesthetic practices are specifically aimed at resisting the "biological, ecological, and spiritual impoverishment of our age".

Laurel has been aware from the beginning of her work with technology that the aesthetic choices made in designing human computer interfaces and the information they offer have ethico-political implications. She continues to stand by these principles in her newest book Utopian Entrepreneur:

Stories, movies, videogames and websites don't have to be about values to have a profound influence on values. Values are everywhere, embedded in every aspect of our culture and lurking in the very natures of our media and technologies. Culture workers know the question isn't whether they are there but who is taking responsibility for them, how they are being shaped, and how they are shaping us for the future.

Nancy Paterson uses technology itself to highlight several consistent and interrelated themes. These themes, simply put, are the consequences of technology for women, for nature, for notions of destiny and chance. In her aesthetic decisions, Paterson practices multiple strategies, both rational and mystical, to enhance our experience of technologically mediated ethical questioning.

Her often referenced Cyberfeminism manifesto of 1996 outlines this vision:

Multimedia, interactive video, virtual reality; for women these new technologies present opportunities to break out of prescribed roles and away from scripted dialogues ... Transgressing order and linear organization of information, cyberfeminists recognize the opportunity to redefine 'reality,' on our terms and in our interest and realize that the electronic communications infrastructure or 'matrix' may be the ideal instrument for a new breed of feminists to pick up and play.

Victoria Vesna's 1996 web-based piece Bodies Incorporated did more to catapult us into a complex understanding of both the possibilities and problems of engagement with the web and its capacities for both virtual physicality and community building than probably any other piece of web art of that time. Her most recent work, Zero@wavefunction, is one of series of art and science collaborations with nanoscientist James Gimzewski. In this project, Vesna is attempting to offer public understanding through a web community of the coming revolution in nanotechnology. Her concern is that: " ... within it there are dangers and immense opportunities to change not only world economy, but the entire structure of society and the environment of the planet".

Margot Lovejoy has long been an "advocate for public participation and community building" through her work and her writing. Her book, Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media, originally published in 1992, now in its second edition, was at the time one of the few surveys connecting the production, dissemination and value of electronic and digital art. Its publication allowed artists in this new medium to see themselves and their work as a viable force. Her website, Parthenia, has been archived by the Walker Art Center as part of the pioneering site. Her website ( Turns was featured in the Whitney Museum of Art's 2002 Biennial. In her artist statement on the URL of Studio XX's 5th Maid in Cyberspace 2002 Conference she says:

Artist projects using new media have the potential to open up a discourse on community based systems which utilize processes of exchange, learning and adaptation. These are built on the premise that meaning in a work of art is dependent upon dialogue and communication between individuals and groups. Such relational systems provide a context for participants to reflect their personal understandings about their own social and political contexts.

Lynn Hershman, another justly well-known artist, has been involved with issues of female identity for some time. Coming from a successful career as film and video artist, in 1979, Hershman created one of the first interactive videodisc artworks. Entitled Lorna (1979 - 1983), it involves an agoraphobic woman afraid of what she sees on TV. She connects with the outside world only by phone. Hershman says about her third interactive computer based installation, Room of One's Own (1993):

This work was not only about voyeurism and a feminist deconstruction of the "media gaze",  but also about the explosive effects attached to media representations of female identity. Furthermore, it repositioned the viewer into the victim.

Like other artists in this essay, Catherine Richards' work has emphasized our embodied imagination and understanding. She has concentrated on uncovering the materiality of our natural electromagnetic environments including our own bodies. Her piece Charged Hearts (1997) began this ongoing investigation for her, one she continues today:

Little is known about our own electromagnetic systems. The human heart, the symbolic seat of the emotions, happens to be one of the body's better known electrical fields. Excite, excite, and our hearts fire the heart beat itself. 'Excite' -  the same word equally describes the firing of our hearts electromagnetically; our intimate emotions; the excited electrons firing up a computer screen and the ones creating the aurora of the night sky.

Last year she was awarded one of the first Artist-in-Residence for Research Fellowships jointly established by the Canada Council of the Arts and the National Research Council of Canada.

Though, as Richards suggests, we are already connected, we increasingly feel the need to be plugged into sound and image. Richards' newest research, working with scientists at the Institute for Information Technology in Ottawa, will question why this is so.

Working with interactive installations since 1990, Toni Dove debuted the first in a series of responsive film installations, Artificial Changelings in 1997. The interface of these pieces allows users to engage with the female characters through body movements that change the video and sound. This physical involvement makes possible an emphatic response by allowing the participants to enter into the character. Like acting and other arts of the imagination it is this embodied response that spurs what Mark Johnson calls the "moral imagination."

As Johnson, points out:

Moral and artistic perception are alike in this way: they are acts of imagination and feeling for which there is no predetermined method (or algorithmic procedure, yet they were "assisted" by general principles and constrained by the nature of our bodily, interpersonal and cultural interactions.

The artists mentioned in this essay, and there are many more like them, share a commitment to understanding the world through our own connected physicality and the rich sources of knowledge and feeling it affords us. As well, they are involved in questioning and changing the goals of technologies that are leading us away from this commitment. In these times of corporate and industry initiatives, of global distancing from our shrinking natural environment, and of the continuing impetus to see national and cultural differences as cause for violence, this commitment is both an aesthetic and an ethical necessity.


Carol Gigliotti, an artist, educator and theorist teaches Interactive Design at Emily Carr Institute for Art and Design (ECIAD) in Vancouver, Canada, where she is also Director of the Centre for Art and Technology. She lectures and publishes widely.


Brenda Laurel:

Char Davies:

Nancy Paterson:

Victoria Vesna :

Margot Lovejoy:

Lynn Hershman:

Catherine Richards:

Toni Dove:

Another perspective on women and technology may be found on the excellent website See particularly their Cyberfeminism Special Issue:


Shah, Idries. Reflections. London: Octagon Press, 1978, p 9.

Davies, Char. "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space." Digital Creativity IX (2) (1998), pp. 65 - 74. [Preliminary version published in ISEA '95 Conference Proceedings. ISEA: Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Arts Montreal (1995).]

Laurel, Brenda. Utopian Entrepreneur. Boston: The MIT Press, 2001.

Hershman Leeson, Lynn. "Romancing the Anti-Body." Ed. Lynn Hershman Leeson. Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, San Francisco: Bay Press. 1996, p 335.

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

trAce links

Assemblage: The Women's New Media Gallery
curated by Carolyn Guertin

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website.† Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.