In Collaboration with Renee Rhodes
This in-progress project focuses on the intersection of women, computing and technological innovation in popular culture. Specifically, the project takes a historical perspective by considering the way woman-as-symbol has been appropriated as an interface or cultural buffer between cutting edge technology and the broader public since the early nineteenth century. This exhibition asks questions such as, what meanings are generated for our technologies through such an interface? Is such iconicity empowering or oppressive? What kind of woman do we see in these interface/representations, and is she modern? What kinds of women do we not see in the machines that we use everyday?
The project is made of two parts:
The Difference Engine: A looped, single channel video, takes Charles Babbage’s imagined calculation machine of the 1830s as its starting point. This machine is regarded by many as the world’s first computer. Working with artist and performer Renee Rhodes, the video documents Rhodes using different parts of her body to perform a series of movements based on various moving parts of Babbage’s machine. The machine itself, while the inspiration of the video, is visually absent, figured only through the interpretive performance of Rhodes, and the techniques that make her body and its interaction with the camera, the engine in question.
The video is accompanied by a suite of drawings, Olimpias, inspired by German author E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story The Sandman (1816). In Hoffman’s tale, a diabolical scientist builds a woman automaton called Olimpia. The story was subsequently adapted to become the comic ballet Coppelia, in which the technical performance of the ballerina is reflected in her imitation of the automaton. Olimpias compares this ideal image of woman with the history of the profession of the female computer. These drawings act as gateways to access a series of short videos accessed through visitors’ smartphones via an augmented reality app. These videos each reveal a story about a real computer. These individual histories range from the 17th–20th century, and include the following women – Nicole Reine Lapaute, Mary Edwards, Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson, Mary G. Ross – amongst others.