A Tender Hex

Melinda Rackham 2018

we, the Daughters of Fury
gather a coterie of xenolalic assemblages
from the futurepast
crypto, xeno, glitch and gut
to code a tender hex for the Anthropocene

VNS Matrix, 2016

VNS Matrix have performed a collective hex against Capital for many years1. Having laid down the Matrix mantle as their primary purpose in the late 1990s, Virginia Barratt, Francesca da Rimini, Julianne Pierce and Josephine Starrs pursued both individual and other collaborative practices which broadened their earlier focus on art, technology and feminism. Consorting on occasion; responding to academic, curatorial and publishing requests; remixing the Matrix oeuvre; building and maintaining archives; they had no intention to ‘reform the band’2 to create new work.

However, in 2016 on the 25th anniversary of A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, they were invited to participate in FemFlix, an event celebrating the manifold screen cultures and ‘infectious, subversive energy of 90s feminism’.Under a strict procedural cut-up process they plundered their 1991 Manifesto, 1996 bitch mutant manifesto, Barratt and Da Rimini’s 2015 Hexing the Alien and incorporated beloved borrowed texts. The resultant assemblage A Tender Hex for the Anthropocene speaks in tongues of aesthetics, poetics, theory and magic.

Reaching into the commons and crevices of their individual intelligences, practices and sensibilities, in nine verses A Tender Hex cunningly embraces feminisms and technology, erotics and anarchy, code and capital, gaming and witchcraft, the abject and the vulgar, performance and production. Circulated, iterated, sectioned, processed – raw words and composed phrases are crunched into stanzas. Then nestled, nested, coaxed and tickled, swapped in and out, or broken then honed3, Zen koans knit together to unravel certitudes and falsehoods on life and self.

The resultant Hex compresses and extrudes many of the surges in thought, technology and threat that have manifested in just over one human generation.While the virtual utopias of early cyberfeminism are long gone, VNS Matrix still burn with a desire to disrupt the informatics of domination. Interrogating today’s ecological and species crisis, reiterative, looping texts press tender swellings, exposing the raw realities of planetary demise.Both bird watching and blood-letting, they roam ‘fracked informatic wastelands’ where ‘creatures slough their particularity and walk in the skins and casings of other kin’.4

And now they get to take what they have given. Alone and collectively the Matrices have, over a quarter of a century, tendered both sustenance and challenges to feminists, artists, thinkers, writers, coders and academics. Suckled on the Cyberfeminist Manifesto, All New Gen, Bitch Mutant Manifesto, CorpusfantasticaMOO and Bad Code, tender minds revered, regurgitated, rejected and remixed their texts and images.

The VNS effect is felt from the unmoderated and often offensive 8chan5 to the emoji crusted manifesto of the cybertwee collective6, who explore ‘femininities, feelings, and technology with a focus on community and education’:

The singularity is dear. Far too long have we succumb to the bitter
edge of the idea that power is lost in the sweet and tender.
Romantic is not weak. Feminine is not weak. Cute is not weak.
We are fragmented and multifaceted bbs.7

Meaning multiplies and shifts over a generation as in the early days of Cyberfeminism, BBS was a Bulletin Board System, whereas today bbs is a cute form of address – either babies or babes.8

VNS’s Intersections9 brings intercourse with other ectogenic cyborg progeny – the gender abolitionist, anti-naturalist, technomaterialist xenofeminsts. Joining voices they both declare ‘the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular’. Working as a ‘multi-taloned tetra headed’ collective Laboria Cuboniks10 substantial manifesto Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation approaches our ‘world in vertigo… [one] that swarms with technological mediation, interlacing our daily lives with abstraction, virtuality, and complexity’11 from a transfeminist perspective.

Redressing the lack of intersectionality in early cyber and other feminisms, Laboria Cuboniks’ aims to dismantle gender and destroy ‘the family’ by constructing ‘a feminism of unprecedented cunning, scale, and vision… cutting across race, ability, economic standing, and geographical position.’12 Like VNS they refute submission to the drudgery of productive and reproductive labour and conclude with the tweetable ‘If nature is unjust, change nature!’ while VNS remain savagely ‘unfaithful to the end’.

a bestiary of We becomes
a collective nuisance
–a differencing engine for
divining weaknesses
and carving fault lines
–ecological, biological, hexological–13

An overlooked but pivotal aspect of VNS practice has been the centrality of collaboration – bringing together artists, writers and thinkers in their wider community. For Future Languages at the 1994 Adelaide Festival Artists’ Week, they assembled bold presenters and participants including cyberfeminist theorists Sadie Plant and Zoë Sofia (Sofoulis); performer and A Posttranssexual Manifesto author Sandy Stone; and media artist exploring the psycho sexual domain, Linda Dement. Again, a feature of 1995’s Spiral Space in Toronto and online at LambdaMOO, was the inclusion of a cybertribe of internet luminaries14, making revered spaces and dialogues playful and accessible to anyone who wanted to join in.

In producing A Tender Hex for the FemFlix performance, assumptions arose that VNS had formally reformed, bringing requests from around the globe for exhibitions, interviews, speaking and writing engagements. Many of these invitations were issued without any offer of artist fees, and, for VNS Matrix it seemed that nothing had changed in 25 years. Women artists were still being asked to work and exhibit for nothing.However one venture VNS collectively chose to pursue was to guest-edit an issue of the online journal Runway – Australian Experimental Art. Strategically their RE/PRODUCTION15 Issue focused on those abiding tenets of feminisms – labour and reproduction.

Haraway speaks in A Manifesto for Cyborgs of the dual meanings of reproduction for women in socialist and radical feminisms – ‘one rooted in labour, one in sex, both calling the consequences of domination and ignorance of social and personal reality false consciousness.’16 Destabilising ‘family’ Haraway reposited reproduction in an industrial era with regeneration in a ‘polymorphous, information society’. Reproduction then decouples from gender to become replication.

With RE/PRODUCTION, VNS sought to broaden the pool of prominent voices by inviting both known and less obvious ‘queered artists/poets/philosophers/big brains with virtuosity to burn.’17 It is beyond the scope of this essay to critique both the breath and specificity of RE/PRODUCTION’s texts, images, thoughts and interactive experiences which unfurl feminisms’ conundrums of reproduction and labour. Please read, listen to and play with the diversity of art/work they elicited. Some include:

Cigdem Aydemir ironically labouring in careful listening while Amy Ireland and Linda Dement digitally generate a poetic refusal to begin.Quinn Eades re/produces Gertrude Stein’s 1914 prose poem Tender Buttons; Helen Hester and Zahra Stardust muse on the banality of everyday labour in sex work and adult fantasy. Teri Hoskin blogs on the unforseen snake catching obligations of an artist residency and Melinda Rackham memorialises in stone the reproductive labour of women who have lost children to adoption.

Amongst the assembled, A Tender Hex is proffered in multiple modes including a video compilation from the performance at FemFlix, a pdf, and online in plain text. My preferred version is laid out over nine hyperlinked web pages, which da Rimini describes as ’ye olde hypertext with loads of glorious links that we all found… totally 90s…’18 This retro format is a feast of sound and vision – librettos based on the writings of Medieval female mystics; Maria’s Transformation in the original 1927 Metropolis; Pussy Riot’s gig at Christ the Saviour Cathedral; Mykki Blanco reciting I Want A Dyke For President; and many more intertwined with potent documentaries and monstrous stills underlining the majesty and demise of our planet.

VNS Matrix deal in a currency where disruption is legal tender. They dissect the expectations of gender, the savagery of capital, the psychopathy of ecocide, the vanishings of familiars. While A Tender Hex unfurled rich dialogues and collaborative ventures with other artists, thinkers and writers, it also reopened a question regarding the Matrix collective itself. Having adapted to holding labour19 for the ongoing matter of their collaborative practice for almost two decades, it is time to decide whether or not to decommission the VNS Matrix juggernaut. It isn’t simple – as Barratt surmises: ‘VNS Matrix isn’t who we are anymore, but it’s who we’ll always be.’20

Collectively and alone the ‘artistic ancestresses of Cyberfeminism’21 are ferocious and tender – queer elders, matriarchs, and crones. Powerful visionaries, curious collaborators and generous mentors, their work and legacy is, as Maria Angel and Anna Gibbs observe, transformative. Simultaneously daughters of fury, unforgiven sirens, and merchants of slime, they continue to confront propriety with ‘a performativity that does not just involve imagining another world, but actually bringing one into being, changing the conditions of existence.’22

in tongues of fire
singing the impossible into being
moresing new becomings23

  1. Virginia Barratt and Francesca da Rimini, “Hexing the Alien,” in CYBORG: Hacktivists, Freaks and Hybrid Uprisings (Berlin: Disruption Network Lab, 2015)
  2. Evelyn  Wang, “The Cyberfeminists Who Called Themselves ‘the Future Cunt’,”  DAZED (2016), http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/33703/1/cyberfeminist-manifesto-technology-vns-matrix
  3. I have drawn these processes from Francesca da Rimini, Virginia Barratt, and VNS Martrix, “Tender Hex: Rules in Progress,” (2016)
  4. VNS Matrix, “A Tender Hex for the Anthropocene,” Moving Image, Text, Hypertext, Pdf, Runway RE/PRODUCTION, no. 32 (2016), http://www.runway.org.au/32/tenderhex/
  5. Jake Connors, /mde/ – MILLION DOLLAR EXTREME https://8ch.net/mde/res/478.html
  6. The cybertwee collective are Gabriella Hilleman, Violet Forest and May Waver
  7. cybertwee, “The Cybertwee Manifesto,” http://cybertwee.net/the_manifesto
  8. Leigh Alexander, Cybertwee: the artists fighting male-dominated tech with pink cutesiness https://www.theguardian.com/technology/20bbs16/jul/18/cybertwee-artists-male-dominated-tech-pink-cute-girly, Mon 18 Jul 2016 17.30 AEST Last modified on Wed 22 Feb 2017 04.20 AEDT
  9. Earlier in 2016, Virginia Barratt reciting A Cyberfeminist Manifesto physically intersected with Laboria Cuboniks’ Amy Ireland reciting Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation in a performance at Artspace, Sydney – see Ilana Cohn: Firstdraft, Haunting Feminist manifestos converse RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 p55 http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue130/12141
  10. Laboria Cuboniks (b. 2014) is Amy Ireland, Diann Bauer, Helen Hester, Katrina Burch, Lucca Fraser, and Patricia Reed, working together online over three continents. See https://accessions.org/article2/alien-contagion-an-interview-with-laboria-cuboniks/
  11. Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation,” http://www.laboriacuboniks.net
  12. Ibid.
  13. VNS Matrix, “A Tender Hex for the Anthropocene,” Moving Image, Text, Hypertext, Pdf, Runway RE/PRODUCTION, no. 32 (2016), http://www.runway.org.au/32/tenderhex/
  14. VNS Matrix, “< . S P I R a L . S P a C E . >>>>,” news release, September 16, 11 am – 5 pm, 1995
  15. Re/Production, (2016), http://runway.org.au/archive/32-reproduction/
  16. Donna J. Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 15, no. 2 (1985). p78
  17. Editorial – VNS Matrix, RE/PRODUCTION.
  18. Melinda Rackham and VNS Matrix, “The Vns Matrix Interviews 2018,” (2018).
  19. See discussion on the concept of holding labour a term expanded on by Ariel Salleh in Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx, and the Postmodern, Zed Books, (2017) in ibid.; ibid.
  20. Wang.
  21. Cornelia Sollfrank, “The Truth About Cyberfeminism,” (2001), https://www.obn.org/reading_room/writings/html/truth.html
  22. Maria Angel and Anna Gibbs, “At the Speed of Light: From Cyberfeminism to Xenofeminism, Cyberfeminism, Xenofeminism and the Digital Ecology of Bodies,” in #Womentechlit ed. María Mencía, Computing Literature (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2017); ibid.
  23. VNS Matrix, “A Tender Hex for the Anthropocene,” Moving Image, Text, Hypertext, Pdf, Runway RE/PRODUCTION, no. 32 (2016), http://www.runway.org.au/32/tenderhex/