Interview with Alla Mitrofanova and Olga Suslova

published: 
April, 1997

This interview was made at V2 Rotterdam, April 19th 1997 and published on the Nettime list later that year. It was translated into Serbian and published in 'Cyberfeminizam [ver. 1.0]' by Igor Markovich in 1999. Alla Mitrofanova is an art critic, media-philosopher, and media art curator at Gallery 21, St. Petersburg. Olga Suslova is a philosopher and media theoretician; also she is editor of the Virtual Anatomy journal. We discuss this journal and its recent theme, the body. From this we also talk about cyberfeminism. Both Alla Mitrofanova and Olga Suslova consider themselves cyberfeminists.

JB: You said you see yourselves as philosophers?

 

OS: That is because our work is a theoretical one. Of course, our activity doesn't describe itself as a classical process of philosophizing which is opposite to practice, because, and that's evident for us, creation of meta-theory or meta-narrative that is far from vital experience, is a non-productive position today. We can't strictly distinguish or limit where art-practice stops and philosophy begins and we don't pose this question, but if our form of representation is connected with texts and language we speak about philosophy.

 

JB: Is working with media a logical choice for a philosopher?

 

OS: Yes, because working in the Internet is actual for the modern situation. Also its necesary to say that while we have these Internet experiences as we try to make our Internet magazine, we can analyse what happens in it, what problems there are. Internet - is a qualitatively new information space that changes the mode of thinking, it changes process of orientation in the world. Generally speaking the Internet is a new type of human reality, a new field of experience, which is invested by libidinal coloured interest as any other reality (social or economic field). That is why reflection upon which of the "libidinal" demands of modern people can be fulfilled or realized in this new reality of the psyche has some provocative moments for us. When we see multisemantic instead of monosemantic, reactivity and mobility instead of stability, instrumentality instead of substantiality in the field of new media, it doesn't mean that they produce this type of activity but it means that these characteristics of modern being are the most visible there. At the same time the Internet is the place for explanation and the instrument of explanation.

 

AM: The Internet is a specific functional expression of contemporary culture. Analytical ability, new theoretical tools made for Internet research suppose to be useful for current processes in different fields of culture. Internet research has to have an appropriate analytical discourse: not descriptive, not hierarchical, but operative, which is for me schizoanalyses based. This is a half-marginal, half-mass popular hugh filosofical domain which was developed by two french filosofers, Deleuze and Guattari. It is probably the most radical critique of structuralist thinking with bipolar oppositions, a hierarchy of meanings and an illusion of complexity. Schizo analyses counted a multitude of not necessarely connected significations, giving equal rules to each signifier, to each expression. Key word here is that every possible segment should work for own cost, not for the cost of signifier order or of any other structure. The same counts for subjectivity, the body. There are a lot of identities, but you responsible only for what you choose. We always create a conceptual remix of subjectivity and body.

 

It is not a compulsory process, but free choice, an open creative act. So you don't need to worry about somebody's problem and you don't need to worry about narrative describtions of reality. You just have to live in the strongest existential mode. If you are strong existentially you could follow very quickly diffrent activities around, you could participate without having very straight ideas about the way you are and whats going on. So the position is not to describe a world how it should be or how it is, but the position is to act productively, to be a productive functional body or person. I don't try to repeat the filosofy of Deleuze and Guattari here. I don't want to be responsible for the interpretation of their ideas. My ideas are based on my personal experiences, which include a destruction of the soviet imperial signifier order by a reshaped economical and territorial state.

 

JB: Is the fact that you work with the experience of others, that you look for the experience of others, and the fact that you say you do communication thinking, is also linked to this?

 

AM: You mean I said that we couldn’t have our personal practice in many fields, and that we have to take a point above all to learn from somebody else experience? I think it is kind of a democratic position because you cannot be productive in a different sense. You should believe in your social, cultural neighborhood. So you vocalize/focus on peoples creative desires. It’s a kind of social politeness to work with the creative ambitions of people, to appreciate that other side (opposite) of everybody's realization. There is no integration of somebody's experience into my personal experience, but there is a communication where some things could be correlative with intimate acts but remain other - detached.

 

JB: What neighborhood are you talking about now, do you mean your working neighborhood, so that means the whole internet or some people on it anyway, or you mean locally around you in St Petersburg?

 

AM: I mean the whole neighborhood that I could reach through different media or through my fysical presence. My ability to reach is very limited, because as a person I could keep for example only a few emotional situations, not more. To have more I would have to develop my personal energy.

 

JB: Why did you choose to have the body as a central point in your work?

 

OS: All through history we can see different types of "body images" that have existed. We can see the variety of body practices that were connected with problems of normativity, esthetic and ethic acceptibility. The "harmonized" greek body, the "spiritual" body of christians, the "exaltative" body of romanthics and many more, but also the body image of the structuralists that was determinated through the figure of the Other was deconstructed by schizoanalysis with the concept of the "process" body-without-organs. The main question for us is: does the body image really change now? Can it really exist as a pure accidental crossing of intensivities? How can we escape the machine of representation, that writes upon our bodies? In the field of these questions the problem of computer experience is the crucial one. We see that in the internet the body image constituates itself as surface, an interface which allows you to move and choose a point of bodygathering for reaction, for communication elsewhere. It doesn't work with space but with a "time" of the body where the body has no strict limits or concepts and is a process.

 

JB: Do you say that because there simply is no real fysical body on the Internet? Of course the idea that you are completely free of your body and your gender is a bit of an illusion.

 

OS: Yes, but we don't talk about fysical limits of the body, because some knowledge constructions, some psychic constructions, discoursive and non-discoursive practices regulate our fysical activity and that's why there is a correlation between our presence in the internet and our real behavior outside of the computer screen. While we have no center in the internet space and can choose different possibilities, we can see in real life that our behavior shows signs that there is no center, no male or female position in the field of motivations, and that we are relatively free in the choice of esthetic.

 

AM: I like the question, because it moves you into the center of our problems: Why the body? The body is the last concept that could be renovated among those that we have as a heritage from the big philosophical discourse. The body is a concept. We cannot talk of pure materiality, because pure materiality does not exist without conceptual, visual, functional structures and so on. So there is no pure materiality but there is a concept of the body that includes images, medicine, language, which rules our existential acts, etc. Only in such models can we function as bodies. It means that if different models of representation of the body were taken, the whole concept and also fysical materiality would be changed. It means that in different cultures you will have a different body. For example in India a person has a completely different body then we have because it functions differently. They perceive; they act differently. They have different organs for example. They have chakras, we have something else: liver, heart. They work through chakras, through energy. A Chinese person for example thinks from his navel, not from his head. The navel is a center of empathy and comprehension. Their concept of thinking is not based on a cognitive (in Europe) but on a perceptive interface. The European concept is that thinking is based on reason, on logos.

 

JB: Can you explain the role of the game you created inside your magazine?

 

OS: Its a kind of example of how we can move in our body image, how we can use various fragments of historical and cultural discourse for our needs. It shows how our body image now can be composed of these fragments. We can freely operate from a great number of cultural archives.

 

JB: Do you have a goal with your magazine? Are you trying to give certain ideas a kind of push? Or are you simply experimenting and exploring?

 

AM: We are simply reflecting. Of course we have our own experiences, but as reflectors we have to use the collective experience. We are searching for the experience of different people to try and analyze emerging representative and existential practices. Of course we avoid generalized conceptions and strategies, thats a professional tactic. We have to make a conception on the base of the experience of people that we consider an effective and joyful one.

 

JB: But if your work is a reflection that means you have a question in mind, usually. What was the initial question or problem that made you take the body as a theme for the magazine? Maybe you have already answered this.

 

OS: The main question for me is how and where can the modern body work as a pure possibility. How can we create new body practices? Are we free in a choosing of them or not? How can we escape oppressive systems of representation? Are we really caught by culture, hierarchy and the system of dispositives that operate the body practices or can we create experiments, a freedom of body position.

 

JB: This is always a bit of a sensitive question, but is there a relation between you being female and the fact that you got these questions in mind?

 

AM: In many ways yes, but not only. As a woman I successfully avoid a lot of social and political paranoias (usual traps for men). The most radical theoretical and practical thing I did was two years ago: I got babies. Now I could say that it was a way to extend body, to finish with existentialist axiom that we are isolated in the body and produce inside/outside conflicts. It was the end of my subjectivity based reflective paranoia. Now I have the experience to switch my subjective mode from one to many different directions, which is not paranoia anymore, but probably schizofrenia. But being schizofrenic in this way I found that I produce new problems, kind of body based survival problems. When you direct your subjectivity and body in many different directions, you should leave something inside your body that could renovate your existential ability. You cannot learn it from the European tradition.

 

The European tradition prescribed us to have a body that is totally agonized through language, through medicine, through politics etcetera. So you have to go somewhere else and for example steal something from eastern tradition and you should build a kind of uncultural or unconceptual, but also culturally open space to set up your personal existence, to keep your body. I cannot say subjectivity because subjectivity is a concept that is very much based on social and cognitive representations in the European tradition. Body as a concept is a more productive mixture. If your body as an operative system is too heavy, it does not work. So you have to build an alternative model to centralize your body without being conceptually organized, you should learn to live in an (conceptually) empty stream. Your personal existence should be your energetic motor.

 

Thats why we started the magazine, to develop the strategy how to keep pure existence without cultural prescribtions how it should be. We try to grasp a body not as an image, an object or signifier order, but as a multi functional operative ability.

 

JB: Its funny that you don't make a distinction between identity and the body. At least, thats what it sound like...

 

AM: Identity is a lost concept for me, because identity should be an open operative system akin subjectivity, body. Identity is a temporal assemblage of concepts; it should be different in any event. With flexible this identity we have a lot of freedom now, for example in the Internet identity is a game. Identity is not given, but a freely chosen representation mode. Identity could be seen as a database of possible representations, which you could easily remix as you like. I don't see problems anymore here. The problem goes deeper: how to make your existential operative system more independent and more useful. The problem is how to survive being an individual body in a multitude of identities.

 

JB: Do you think the Internet is the tool 'par excellence' to explore this way of thinking? Do you think that because of the new visions that the new media communications gave, you were able to think the way you are thinking now?

 

AM: I would not say that the Internet is for thinking, if we use thinking as a analytical and descriptive mode. If thinking is an operative system, we have no difference between thinking and practicing. The Internet came not through thinking, not through concepts or images; it came through practice, through functioning. The Internet works in the contemporary existential model in the same way as politics for example. Being Russian I have had a wonderful personal experience of the total destruction of the whole political narratives, which were very strong before. Now I see that all narratives, all describtive models as models are not useful in our society. I am lucky to have an experience of self-liberalisation from narrative, images, and concepts. Still they exist but there is a distance between the existential stream (pre-conceptial level) and formal representations. It is good to live in a period of radical changes.

 

JB: Do you think that there should be things like v2 east? Do you think it is wise to keep in presentations the difference of background and gender, to make choices for certain artists to be in an exhibition purely based on their background?

 

AM: You could have the most interesting answer from our curator, not from us. We are kind of seperated, segmented. We are not able to keep an idea of East/West, background and figure. It doesn't matter for me where to work, it is cleaner here. Irina Aktagonova rules a politic of group/east/west/high/low/thick/thin representation in the gallery 21 in St Petersburg. I am a part of their network.

 

JB: Are you sympathetic to feminism?

 

OS: In the mode of cyberfeminism.

 

AM: I call myself a cyberfeminist. I think cyberfeminism is a step from feminism, keeping some important terms. I mean gender-sex devision and other operative terms, but we are not associated with political and social descriptions of political feminism of 60th and structuralist feminism concern mostly with defining gender in structura of social and psychic presentations. Our gender could be simply multiplied like any narrative. If necesary I function as man, or as a woman. Playfull gender, pre-conceptual body studies, developing a discourse of the sexual body which is shadowed in our traditional philosophy - that is, what we included being cyberfeminist. Gender is no longer a political repressive concept or social prescription and restriction, it is a database of images and functions to use freely from, because the whole narrative of classical European filosofy and imaginery and of the social legislative system now is broken into many pieces. Those pieces mean freedom of representation.

 

JB: Fragmentation of classical philosophy means freedom?

 

AM: When classical philosophy was contained in one long narrative, it was dangerous for indiviuality. The big narrative of classical filosofy, of European imaginary, told you: You have to be like this, because the world is described in that manner. But now with the situation of the broken line we have a lot of fragments of models of representation. It means that we could be free in our political and gender choice in images. If you know that, you can act freely. If you don't know you will still be trapped in that long oppression of cultural tradition.

 

JB: What are specific cyberfeminist issues then?

 

AM: Generally speaking the Internet reality is a specific cyberfeminist issue. I think that net communication could easily show this freedom of presentation mode: freedom of images, of roles, of subject-concepts. Cyberlife is our new reality. I enjoy hearing from different places of computerbased life about initiatives to express "net feminism", "post-feminism", "schizo-feminism". I think an idea of multiple formalization is placed in the cyber creative and reflective tactic. Of course I constantly hear that there are a lot of problems, with human rights and so on, but I see them as a fight between narratives. If you want to be associated with one of them you automatically should fight with the opposite one. That could keep you busy and falsify your activism.

 

In Russia we have a hugetradition of feminism. One of the most radical things was in the times of the October revolution of 1917. They legalised abortions, provided good medical governmental payed service for it, there were holidays for pregnancy, payment for baby delivery and other laws that gave legal freedom to a single mother, to give her time for social and political activities. Gender stricture was totally destroyed in a few years. A painful experience was when people in the thirties tried to restore gender, they tried to return to the social practices of the bilinear family, but governmental law still avoided social gender stricture. This revolutionary law created a political possibility for free love, so that people did get married until the middle of the 1930’s. They thought about free expressions of sexuality in the early twenties especially. Having this experience of feminist radicalism in our past, we don't need to fight for our future. We already have our future in our past.

 

JB: Are you saying now that cyberfeminism is to act from the freedom you have as a woman? To realize you have this freedom and to act from it?

 

AM: Mostly I have a freedom or unfreedom as a social and political person, but social and political roles and identities are peanuts compared to my whole existential task. As a woman I have not enough formal expressions, in discourses there is no cultural expression of the body and the sexualised body. Motherhood and pregnancy are totally hidden under medical and pedagogical discourses. We have silence in the most productive existential experiences. Having freedom we have kind of strong creative obligations to produce more formal expressions in a poetic way. That is what cyberfeminism and other extravagant self-articulations are about.