Feminist art hiding in plain sight

Design, Architecture and Digital
November 13, 2023

Patric Prince: Digital Art Visionary is currently on display in gallery 102. Prince was an important collector and curator who began working in the 1980s to research and document the history of digital art, and champion contemporary practitioners. The display tells the story of Prince’s impact on the early digital art scene. It includes works from her archive, and collection of over 250 artworks which entered the V&A in 2008.

Patric Prince: Digital Art Visionary display, Room 102. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the best parts about working on a display, is the opportunity to dedicate time to research. It’s an essential part of the role of an Assistant Curator, but with the demands of collections management it can be hard to dedicate extended time to research without a specific goal or project planned.

Part of the process of my research was to study the archives, combing through the works in Prince’s collection. I was looking at the details of artworks, aspects that are not always easy (or possible) to see in photographs, like notes on the back of prints or techniques used in the production – like the lenticular quality of Art(n) Laboratory’s Virtual Implants.

One work that caught my eye was attributed to Troy Innocent and Dale Nason. As part of the display, I wanted to explain how Prince would collect modest works – objects others (including artists themselves) may have discarded as part of their process or considered not worth holding onto. The fact that Prince preserved these objects enriches our understanding of the history of digital art. This print fitted well within that narrative. It is a black and white print on A4 paper and looks like the kind of thing that might have come out of your home printer. Another element that appealed to me was how political the work appeared to be, with a manifesto quality, making bold statements about technology and the female body. Prince collected a wide range of media and themes, including works with a political slant.

A Cyberfeminist Manifesto, print, by artist collective VNS Matrix, about 1991, Australia. Museum no. E.1013-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When I looked a little closer at the text, it had the hallmarks of 90s Feminist Net Art. The orb at the centre of the piece, covered in writing includes phrases such as ‘a future c***/cyber c***’ and ‘pussy software’ (I’ve censored the words here, as they are considered particularly strong language! If you’d like an uncensored version, you can look closely at the images, or on Explore the Collections where I’ve transcribed the entire text under the ‘physical description’).

The text, as well as the distinctive oval shapes (which I later confirmed symbolised vulvas), reminded me of an Australian feminist collective that I had written about during my studies, VNS Matrix. The collective, formed in 1991, challenged the role of gender in new technologies, or as they put it with characteristic flare, they wanted to: ‘hijack the toys from the technocowboys and remap cyberculture with a feminist bent’. They drew attention to the word ‘matrix’, and its entomology with the Latin for ‘womb’, arguing for the femininity of internet technologies. They are also credited with coining the term ‘cyberfeminism’, independently but at the same time as English cultural theorist Sadie Plant.

A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, by VNS Matrix (Virginia Barratt, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini, and Josephine Starrs), 1991. © VNS Matrix

Having drawn out the similarities between the V&A work, and their 1991 Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, visually with the text-filled orb, the vulva symbols, as well as with the content of the text, I contacted the collective. They responded affirmatively that the work was theirs, and in fact an early work-in-progress version of what would become their Cyberfeminist manifesto. What’s still a little perplexing, is that they have no idea how the work entered Prince’s collection! Prince was highly connected with artists and institutions related to digital art, and was known to ask for copies of work, and to preserve prints, copies, or even handouts and giveaways – still, the story of how she acquired this work remains a mystery.

While it might seem surprising that the work had remained misattributed for 15 years, it’s easier to understand when looking at the process of bringing large collections into the museum. When an individual work enters the collection, it will typically be attributed to an artist, or movement, and we will do additional research verifying these facts and completing ‘due diligence’ on the provenance of the artwork. For larger collections that enter the Museum, in this case Prince’s of over 250 works, we still complete research and due diligence, but it’s not possible to spend as much time on individual artworks. The works were individually catalogued, photographed, and researched where possible at the time of entry. This one had been reasonably ascribed to Troy Innocent and Dale Nason, given the similarities of the works. For example, their Cyber Dada Manifesto, was similarly produced (in this case a double sided photocopy) and includes similar language describing technology and the future. There was an acknowledgement of the assumptions being made while cataloguing this work, with the previous attribution being listed as ‘possibly’. What’s especially exciting about this new attribution, is that it’s the first work in the V&A collection by the ground-breaking feminist collective VNS Matrix.

(Left and right:) Black and white doublesided printed paper, part of photocopied booklet, ‘Cyber Dada Manifesto’, by Troy Innocent and Dale Nason, 1990, Melbourne, Australia. Museum no. E.1111:1 & 2-2008.

It’s projects like this one that give us the chance to expand research into our collections, where there are always new discoveries to be made. It’s even the case that works have been identified by users of Explore the Collections, who recognise images and get in touch. If you fancy doing your own investigative work, there are still some works in Prince’s collection by unknown artists. From clues in the archive, some are possibly by a Russian artist and may have been acquired by Prince while travelling to the Soviet Union as part of the SIGGRAPH travelling art show that she curated. They’re the next mystery waiting in Prince’s collection!

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