XX marks the spot for women on the Internet

by Catherine Solyom

Given the sheer number of "adult" sites online, you might think the only women on the Web are naked. Any keyword with a remotely sexual connotation leads to one of thousands of pornographic Web sites offering immediate gratification at the click of a mouse.

Punch in "Studio XX," and you may be surprised to find a women's digital media collective based in Montreal.

"Someone once showed up at the door saying he wanted someone for half an hour," recalled Valˇrie Lamontagne, Studio XX's programming co-ordinator. "Obviously, pornography is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name. But it's important that there be other representations of women and other roles that women play on the Web to counter it and subvert it."

"XX" actually refers to the chromosomes, explained Lamontagne, a Master's in Fine Arts student at Concordia. This week those chromosomes were hard at work with the third annual Maid in Cyberspace festival.

Held at the Cinˇmath¸que Quˇbˇcoise, which co-sponsored the week-long event also known as "Les HTMLles," the festival featured 10 Web-art projects by women around the world.

Take Carnages by Montreal web artists Eva Quintas and Mitsiko Miller. Subtitled "Alice and other Cannibal Stories," the project is an ode to flesh-eating, past and future, using sound, animation and modern fairy tales to critique the Web's culture of consumption.

Then there's Machinate by Vancouver-based writer, artist and curator Laiwan. Dual projectors and microscopic images call into question the superiority of machines and the obsolescence of the body, the relative importance of DNA code to computer code.

Like most of the projects at the festival, Machinate is interactive so when you want to escape, you can choose from many routes: "Love" leads to Web personals, "Information" to the Disinformation site, "Guardians" to the CIA homepage.

But the festival, like Studio XX, is about interaction in a wider sense. Not just push-button interaction, but actually participating in digital culture as it emerges. For Kim Sawchuk, a Communication Studies professor at Concordia and one of three women who founded the collective in 1995, it was this desire not simply to embrace technology but to question it that gave rise to Studio XX.

"We wanted to set up a space where we could talk about our relations to technology," Sawchuk said, "not just to address and assess the impact of technology, but to say, listen, this stuff is happening now and the sooner we start intervening and asking ourselves what we want, the sooner we can get what we want."

Since then, Studio XX has held many workshops and monthly forums, known as Femmes branchˇes, where knowledge gleaned over the years is passed on and translated into ever more sophisticated projects.

This year's Maid in Cyberspace for the first time also included four installation pieces combining new media with "non-Internet" technologies. Vancouver-based Diane Burgoyne used a simple lead pencil to complete an electronic circuit so when people drew on the paper, they created "sound drawings," drawings for the eyes and ears.

For Sawchuk, online does not replace offline. On the contrary, she says, "you'll never leave behind the need or the desire for people to gather." This year's festival brought a virtual community of Web artists face to face.

To see the this year's Maid in Cyberspace Web-art projects, visit the Studio XX site at www.studioxx.org

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