Cyber Sisterhood: Introducing Bunny Collective

Over the past few months, I was involved in the curation of an exhibition at Soma Contemporary Gallery Waterford. The exhibition titled, Bunny Collective: The Young-Girl’s Gaze, was the second group exhibition organised by the members of the all-female art collective Bunny Collective, based at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. Established by Samantha Conlon in September 2013, the collective has since gained international interest from the likes of Dazed and Confused and Brooklyn-based zine, The Le Sigh, and has expanded its membership to include a number of UK-based artists. In particular, Bunny Collective is interested in how the ‘Young-Girl’ – a term borrowed from Tiqquin’s seminal text, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl – present themselves online and in a world increasingly governed by digital technologies.

In addition to assisting in the curation of the exhibition, I also wrote a catalogue text about the nature of the collective in relation to the growth of ‘internet’ or ‘Fourth Wave Feminism’ in recent years. The catalogue, featuring artists’ statements, artworks and my essay, can be read here. I have also posted my essay in its entirety below along with accompanying images and notes.

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‘The figure of the Young-Girl is a vision machine…’ [1]

The Young-Girl has moved from her bedroom to the screen. Where once she wrote in her glitter-speckled, sticker-studded diary, she now types on Tumblr. Her blog is a scrapbook: a mosaic of re-posts, Youtube videos, and quotes torn from their original context. Via webcam she photographs herself; eyes wide, lips open: the perfect profile picture. She slithers among the wires and climbs the cables, slinking onto the screen like an electrical impulse. She crawls and clings to the web.
The Young-Girl invades the internet.
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‘Girls need modems.’ [2]

Since the early 2000s, young women have harnessed the internet as a space of self-expression and subversive potential. While the internet is still widely considered to be a ‘boys club’ and statistics prove that women, on a global basis, lag behind men in computer use and internet access, women’s online presence and participation is rapidly increasing.[3] In particular, young women and teenage girls are turning to the internet as a means to explore, develop and concretise their individual identities. Social media websites, such as Twitter and Facebook, and blogging platforms, for example, Tumblr and WordPress, are increasingly utilised as a means to spread and promote political agendas, and specifically, within this context, those of a feminist nature.

Stacey TeagueStacey Teague

From its earliest beginnings, feminism has been criticised for its inadequate universalism that favours the white, educated middle-class. The technological specificity of this new wave of feminism, which has been tentatively termed Fourth Wave Feminism, can be considered to further widen the gap between the experiences of women in the Third World and in developing countries, and those of the First World. However, it equally can be argued that the internet, despite its obvious shortcomings in terms of global access, is a much more democratic means of disseminating information and knowledge than traditional mechanisms. This is where the internet possesses revolutionary potential for feminism: where in the past, feminism was largely confined to academic theory, pamphlets and the lecture theatre, the internet renders feminist discourse available at the mere click of a mouse. In this regard, feminists can mobilise the internet as a ‘tool’ for creating a communicative space in which to discuss and publicise ‘women’s issues’ and even more so, as a support system in which to resist repressive gender regimes. Of this, Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone writes:

‘…Cyberspace is a liberating territory of one’s own…The virtual nature of the internet the structure of interconnection in cyberspace that draws participants into ongoing discourses on issues of feminism, patriarchy, and gender politics, and the textual process of self-expression without the prohibition or limitation of physical space offers new possibilities for women’s agency and empowerment.’[4]

In evoking Virginia Woolf’s seminal feminist text, A Room of One’s Own, here, Nouraie-Simone establishes the internet as a space in which women can escape the confines of patriarchy, and embrace the potentially transformative and transgressive possibilities of the web.

fiona lynch Fiona Lynch

Defined by its use of technology, Fourth Wave Feminism actualises many of the key ideas of cyberfeminism since its emergence in the 1980s. Published in 1985, Donna Haraway’s pivotal essay, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, pre-empted this moment of pronounced technological advancement when the barrier between humankind and technology would be broken down. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ proposes that if scientific and technological ideas and perceptions be embraced, ‘a way out of the maze of dualisms that have explained our bodies and our tools’ may emerge.[5] In other words, technology may provide a way in which to evade traditional and essentialist modes of thought that have been particularly detrimental to women. Although Haraway’s image of the cyborg is in many ways highly problematic, it does serve to account for the ways in which technology engenders a space in which to explore the multiplicities and fractures of lived identities as opposed to monolithic conceptions. 

vanessaFrom Vanessa Omoregie’s CamGirls project

Therefore, the proliferation of ‘Young-Girls’ on the internet can be thought to result from this desire to investigate the multivalency and dynamism of female identity, and consequently, to intervene in how women are presented in culture and mass media. In the past number of years, feminism has moved significantly into the mainstream with websites such as Jezebel, The Hairpin and XO Jane, and more 0vertly-politicised websites like Feministing, providing honest and opinionated alternatives to conventional discussions of women’s experience as prevalent in the mainstream media. In 2011 teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson established Rookie as a quirky and spirited alternative to sugary teen magazines, and offers everything from ‘Advice from a Grown Man’ to DIYS to alternative playlists to candid personal essays. In January 2012, The Vagenda launched on the other side of the Atlantic, explicitly aiming to ‘call the bullshit on the mainstream women’s press’. Later that year, Laura Bates founded the hugely successful Everyday Sexism Project as a means to document online women’s daily experiences of sexism, harassment and assault.

Each of these initiatives are united by their mutual wish to utilise the internet as a way in which to create solidarity amongst women, and to challenge typical images and ideas of woman/girlhood. The expansion of this computer-centric, feminist conversation eschews the stereotypical notion of women as ‘technophobes’ who are associated more with the home and the natural world as opposed to ‘the machine’. Indeed, this new technological strand of feminism disproves the validity of such suffocating stereotypes, and demonstrates how new internet technologies have provided self-identified women an autonomous realm in which to articulate and explore their individual identities across a transnational network.

In cyberspace, the Young-Girl is the protagonist of her own revolution.

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‘I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.’[6]

bc

Bunny Collective emerges at this intersection between feminist thought and internet technologies. Immediate, provocative and multifaceted: this is art for a moment of technological and feminist progress. However, at the same time, Bunny Collective presents art that is highly personal, intimate, and complex. This is art operating on multiple levels; of contradiction, ambiguity and uncertainty, where seemingly insignificant things are magnified; where high meets low, and online and offline identities collide; where URL and IRL merge in dazzling indeterminacy.

Established in September 2013 by Cork-based visual artist Samantha Conlon, Bunny Collective arose from a desire for a collaborative space amongst female artists. Although the collective was initially formed at Cork’s Crawford Art College, Bunny Collective now includes a number of UK-based artists, and is, in its very essence then, a sort of ‘cyber-sisterhood’, stretching across geographical and technological landscapes. Indeed, Bunny Collective embraces Nouraie-Simone’s conception of cyberspace as ‘a liberating territory of one’s own’. Social media platforms are essential to how the collective promotes and publicises its work, and are equally important for communication amongst members and possible recruits. The majority of the artists in the collective display their work and inspirations in fluid, flickering Tumblr blogs, and contribute to similar feminist collectives and zines, such as The Coven, SALT, Illuminati Girl Gang and Girls Get Busy also. For Bunny Collective, the internet offers a democratic alternative to the hierarchies of the established art world. Much like the internet of tradition, the art world too is an infamous ‘boys club’ where work by women artists is frequently ignored, undermined and described solely in terms of reductive, essentialist rhetoric. In contrast, the internet, as a shifting, rhizomatic web, allows women to organise themselves in opposition to hierarchal and patriarchal structures, to challenge stifling dualisms and binaries, and to exploit the internet as a heterogeneous connective tangle allowing for rapid and diverse conversation.

Hannah Le FeuvreHannah le Feurve

Thematically, Bunny Collective presents work that investigates the complexity of female experience in the twenty first century, particularly in relation to how women and girls present themselves in a society governed by new digital technologies. Inevitably, this covers a wide terrain of topics and ideas tethered together by a common thread of Young-Girl-hood. The fusion of the public and the private is imperative to these artists’ visual explorations: how the Young-Girl creates a public space for herself in the virtual sphere, and a cocoon of comfort and private reflection at home in her bedroom. For example, Ayesha Tan-Jones’ Samsara is the stuff of teenage-girl dreams: a magical fort of soft, billowing walls and luminescent lighting. Samsara offers an immersive experience whereby the viewer crawls into the soothing, pre-natal glow of the tent, lies on his/her back and watches video projections dance across the soft structure. This is an otherworldly experience; a dreamy escape from the humdrum of daily existence echoing and amplifying that feeling of clambering into bed after a particularly long and tedious day. Hannah le Feuvre wants to make work that ‘looks cute and boring’ and her girlish, sentimental butterflies clinging to walls resemble those of pre-teen girl bedrooms; of samey saccharine femininity; of Claire’s Accessories and butterfly clips and eagerly awaiting transformation into womanhood.[7]

Beth Siveyer (1)Beth Siveyer

Indeed, an exploration of femininity in the internet age lies behind many of the artists’ work with the signifiers of teen-girl cuteness co-opted and appropriated in unnervingly-sparkly complex ways. Beth Siveyer presents a plastic weekly pill or vitamin box decorated in smiley-face stickers and multicoloured stars. At once, this piece suggests childhood lunchboxes, 1990s rave culture, contraceptives, and the secret world of feminised medication. Meanwhile, Rosemary Kirton parodies internet shopping websites, such as Asos and Boohoo, by presenting a row of smiling models in tight, clingy dresses and party wear with the statement, ‘Member of Really Nice Toxic Environment’, unfolding beneath their uncanny cropped forms. Here, Kirton appears to be making a wry comment on girl-cliques, fashion-fuelled peer pressure, and how women’s internet use is commonly reduced to browsing internet shopping malls: ‘The Young-Girl lives at home among commodities, which are her sisters’.[8]

samantha conlon Samantha Conlon, ‘The Young-Girl Declares War’

Similarly, Samantha Conlon’s work concerns the ubiquitous presence of the Young-Girl within the mass media, and as commodity spectacle. Her work features former child stars such as Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes, now notorious for their highly public falls from grace, in Warholian repetitions that serve to satirise contemporary celebrity obsession. Clichéd phrases, pop lyrics and kitschy ‘girl-speak’ – ‘You’ll always be my boy. I’ll always’ be your girl’ – are juxtaposed with selfies and cryptic imagery of private girl-worlds. Fiona Lynch engages more explicitly with the notion of the ‘Young-Girl on the internet’ by presenting photographic images of her own face projected against internet search engines that list results for ‘how to be a perfect girl’. Her work also investigates how social media websites such as Instagram operate as archive, and how they serve to document and perform personal histories.

Caitlin Hazell (2)Caitlin Hazell

Inevitably, questions of identity, subjectivity and embodiment inform Bunny Collective’s work on both conscious and unconscious levels. Like many of the collective’s members, Caitlin Hazell works in a variety of mediums, including illustration and self-portraiture. A particularly compelling work features the artist taking a photo of herself in a round shaving mirror. The shadowy composition, psychological intensity of her facial expression, and the symbolic use of the mirror bring early examples of female self-portraiture – primordial ‘selfies’, if you will – by artists such as Ilse Bing and Germaine Krull, to mind. As the principle prop in Lacanian identity formation, the employment of the mirror here is particularly significant for this discussion in terms of how the subject comes to be realised. Equally, the mirror, as narcissistic reflective pool, is a pivotal object in the day-to-day experience of the Young-Girl. Yet, in the digital era, as Jean Baudrillard has stipulated, the screen and the network have replaced the ‘reflective transcendence’ of the mirror bringing about a radical transformation of the subject.[9]

sasha cressdee Sasha Cressdee

While Bunny Collective’s members alternatively interrogate and embrace the impact of digital technologies on the female subject that is not to say that they are making art for a disembodied cyborg future, as imagined by Haraway. Rather, the pulsating vibrancy of the body is very much present in many of the artists’ work. In between her explorations of teenage obsession and witchcraft, Louise McKeown’s photographic work is marked by its extraordinary sensitivity to the human body. A female subject, alternatively bathing in a bare bathtub, or playfully doused in rainbow glitter, is treated with tender compassion under McKeown’s attentive rather than invasive lens. On a different note, Sasha Cressdee creates highly textural collages in pastel tones that recall those of Hannah Höch. The tactility of these unassuming works instigates a synaesthetic or haptic mode of looking that rejects the purely ocular-centric conception of contemporary vision.

sugar bae Louise McKeown, ‘Sugar Bae’

Ultimately, as the title of the show suggests, this is an exhibition centred on the Young-Girl’s gaze. It is about investigating what it means for the Young-Girl to look: to actively see rather than to merely be the passive object of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.[10] Yet, Bunny Collective: The Young-Girl’s Gaze is not just about reversing the hegemonic male gaze; more so, it is about celebrating the Young-Girl’s gaze on its own terms; as a dynamic force in its own right that is free to take a quizzical look at art history as Vanessa Omoregie’s work does, or communicate in terms of enigmatic visual poetics as Aoife O’ Dwyer’s photographs do. In feminist terms, Bunny Collective both queries and appreciates femininity, but femininity as a complex and shifting concept that does not only function as the binary opposite of masculinity. Instead, femininity, much like feminism, is a process, a conversation, a question rather than an answer, and the Young-Girl’s gaze is the driving force. On, before and beyond the screen, her gaze, gleaming in gold glitter, sees into those spaces that are overlooked or undermined, celebrated or ridiculed, and intervenes. The Young-Girl’s gaze is guilty, flirty, searching, seductive, difficult, dissident, confused, complicated, uncompromising, forgiving, forgetful, loving, loathing, assured, uncertain, contradictory, everything at once. One thing is certain though: the Young-Girl never stops looking.

Notes
[1] Tiqqun, Premliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, trans. Ariana Reines, Los Angeles (CA): Semiotext(e), 2012, 14. Throughout this text, I employ Tiqqun’s term ‘Young-Girl’ to describe young female figures who exist as a product of a late Capitalist, consumer-driven society, and as a term for teenage girls and young women in general.
[2] Feminist hacker and cyber-icon, Jude ‘St.Jude’ Milhon in interview with Rosie Cross for Wired, 1993.
[3] Angela Washko, ‘Out Of The Kitchen, Onto Your Screen: A Case For An Online Art and Feminism Social Movement’, 106. My ideas here on the democracy of ‘digi-feminism’ are indebted to Jessie Daniels’ insightful paper,  ‘Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s):Race, Gender and Embodiment’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1/2, Spring-Summer 2009, 101-124.
[4] Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone, ed., On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era, New York: The Feminist Press, 2005, 61-62.
[5] Haraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Haraway, ed., Simians, Cyborgs and Women: Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, 181.
[6] Chris Kraus, I Love Dick, Los Angeles (CA):Semiotext(e), 2006, 210.
[7] Hannah le Feuvre in interview on the Soma Contemporary Gallery Waterford Facebook page.
[8] Tiqqun, Premliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, 81.
[9] See Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’, trans. John Johnston, in Hal Foster, ed., Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture, Seattle: Bay Press, 1983, 126-129.
[10] The term ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ is borrowed from Laura Mulvey’s pivotal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Walls (ed.), Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Boston: Godine, 1984. 361-373.

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