Riffing off the market domination of the hand-held Game Boy2 console, VNS Matrix introduced All New Gen to the world at the Third International Symposium on Electronic Art (TISEA) in Sydney in 1992. Four lightboxes and a sound track established core characters and settings that would proliferate, evolve and mutate over the following five years. This speculative vapourware became a series of installations in gallery and public realms; was performed in hard space and online; and produced and developed into a cyberfeminist game prototype.
The first interactive video games were designed to appeal to masculine aggression, destruction and dominion – countering a concern that boys and men were becoming too ‘feminised’ through consuming the (seemingly) passive mode of television. With a vision to create a new world order where girls and women could equally participate in online and game cultures, the Matrices sought to change womens’ beliefs and relationships with technology through mythic fantasy and immersive gameplay.
The seeds of All New Gen were germinating pre-VNS Matrix when Velvet Down Under were posing and posting porn photoshoots. da Rimini recalls ‘we started giving names to ourselves… Pussy Galore, Pussy Demure, Her Luna Blood.’ Pierce continues ‘Mistress Beg, Bitch, Snatch, and Dentata, which then of course became the names of our DNA Sluts and our Sheroes.’3 The Sluts amalgamated into Dentata, Patina de Panties and the Princess of Slime – white, brown and black women warriors digitally reconfigured from hard plastic Barbie-esque dolls.
Humour and audacity prevail. The seductive Venus flytrap of Dentata’s head is an obvious phallus eater; with fins, gills and scaled thighs Patina de Panties flourishes in fluid environments; while Princess of Slime will suck you into the chaos of her vortex mind. The unseen but omnipotent All New Gen and her infamous posse then set forth to virally infect the white capitalist patriarchy – Haraway’s ‘informatics of domination’, across multiple imaginal and textual platforms, gallery spaces, LambdaMOO, internet chats, bus shelters and cinemas.
As a promiscuous polymorphous project All New Gen sought to disrupt a cultural moral code through confronting the user with gender’s construction and relations with biology and the machine. ‘She willingly slid into the other she had always been, she could use her body to connect with the networks of her choice’.4 The game plan was for the gender disruptive virus to jump the gap back from the machine into the social body – then through technological interaction reality would be altered. It was a brave line to walk in a world hyperaware of viral metaphors and body fluids at the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
mercenaries of slime
Their myth was made flesh in 1993, when All New Gen computer art game installation debuted at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. With videos, sound files, light boxes, and a Bonding Booth, VNS extended the work beyond the predominant point-and-click interactivity of the time, inviting players to record a dream or message for other. Yet the most unexpected aspect of the gameplay was that, instead of shooting bullets from guns, the DNA Sluts slimed their opponents with virulent mucus spurting out from their cunts5.
Feminist artists, writers and theorists of the later 20th century had revelled in the rediscovered political power of the cunt. Monique Wittig routinely exposed Les Guérillères’ ‘genitals so that the sun may be reflected therein as in a mirror’ creating a brilliant, blinding glare. In 1975, slightly squatting on a table, naked beneath a layer of mud, Carol Schneemann read a dialogue from a long strip of paper while pulling this Interior Scroll6 from inside her vagina. The passive pussy had passed. The cunt became a potent player – an active central imaginal and textual force in the quest for social and gender disruption.
Much was written on VNS’s slimy sluts at the time, binding them in an array of feminist techno/science/fiction herstories. Best read in the original form, Zoë Sophia asks us to abandon commitments and embrace the slime in her analysis of the messy/sexy female body in technologically constructed matrices. Jyanni Steffensen traces literary and filmic constructions of the cyborg from Mary Shelley’s original 1818 Frankenstein to the replicants from Ridley Scott’s 1982 Bladerunner, taking cunt metaphors beyond abjection and psychoanalysis to become a clitoral spanner in the works.7
Kay Schaffer writes of the mercenaries of slime representing an ‘Irigarian metaphorics of feminine alterity – a space conjured up by gaps in the narrative, holes in the social fabric. Their bodies call attention to the ‘slime’ of eroticized female genitalia’8 which challenge the solidity of male power. Maria Angel and Anna Gibbs have recently revisited much of this first-generation analysis, tracing a thread from Liz Grosz’s 1994 theorisation of the body as ‘a moment of organisation in an open-ended process of connection that spans both the corporeal and material, and the symbolic realms’ through Xenofeminism’s infinity of difference, to the body as enwebbed in mycelial networks and great chains of being.9
Back in the game, the mutant Sluts reside in the Contested Zone guiding players and, through bonding, enabling them to replenish their G-slime supply levels. While slime is currency, metaphorically enabling the quest, lubricating and erasing boundaries, it can also pit surfaces and decompose codes. In this way All New Gen tarnished clean circuits, dislocated hard edged ideals and mucked the pristine parameters of cyberspace.
gender is a shufflable six-letter word
Pierce suggests that although the initial characters and scenarios developed for All New Gen in 1993 partially relied on a sex-role reversal strategy, VNS became more sophisticated in their thinking about characters, narratives, desire, and subjectivity over iterations of the work.10 In affective oscillation between virtuality and reality their characters, creatures and cyborgs evolved in text and online at CorpusFantasticaMOO, to make their way back into the latest game version.
The Matrices received a $100,000 grant from The Australian Film Commission in 1995 to develop a prototype All New Gen CD-ROM game for international distribution. With enhanced characters, animations and video sequences, the quest of the newly titled Bad Code, would play out over seven re- and co-created 3D graphic zones. With women comprising only 15% of internet users at this time, gender and power relations were at stake. There were no children to save in Bad Code, only patriarchal rationales to ruptured ‘from within’11.
Perhaps their real audacity was laughing at the phallus. Circuit Boy, a chrome techno-bimbo and right-hand man of Big Daddy Mainframe, has a very large penis which must be unscrewed in gameplay – transforming into a mobile phone to accesses the womb/brain Matrix. Like all tools of Power, the phallus is not biologically fixed, but, as the male subject of the 1993 pop song Detachable Penis,12 who accidently loses his (prosthetic) penis at a party discovers, one needs to know it is at hand and can be utilized at any time. However, a strap-on can be harnessed into service by anyone.
Tantamount to Continental feminism, Bad Code played with the politics of language and culture, creating a game that pragmatically encouraged women to play with machines. It’s a psychedelic, cybersquatted, rave world of Data Deviants and Cortex Crones where gender has many options; bodies are both biologically and mechanically constructed with organs available for purchase as one needs or desires them. Eclectic characters help the player monitor their Karma levels, while All New Gen’s intimate presence is announced through green mists, trance music, and viral intelligence. Reading Bad Code’s Synopsis post Gamergate, it encapsulates potential and parallel universes for which subsequent generations yearn. It’s no wonder that following her investigations of early cyberfeminisms, Claire Evans invokes ‘the howling future cunts to come along and rattle some sense into the servers.’13
Many colleagues and friends and were employed to create the Bad Code prototype and to star as characters in the videos that were part of the game. Barratt muses that artist/coder John Tonkin ‘deserves an honorary sisterhood’ for his work on 3D graphics. Sound engineers Deb Shaw and Fiona Martin played a big role, David Cox project managed, and Leon Cmielewski worked as designer to create the 3D interactive animated gadget that players used to solve puzzles, access koans and generally navigate the gameplay.
Da Rimini fondly recalls those who brought generous interpretations and skills to their characters: Pearl from Club Bent was the magical giver of Zen koans; older indigenous actor Noel Tovey fleshed out cyborg surgeon Dr Orlon; DJ Holdin Hope queered space in and out of the game as skater/dj/maker; dancer/stripper Glitter enlivened the disco queen; and Maj Green and Ewan Cameron from Theatre of Hell brought a Berlinesque panto noir aesthetic to multiple roles.14
But Bad Code was playing in unknown territory. In almost a parody of its aim to infiltrate and sabotage big Daddy Mainframe’s domain, the game’s development battled with the omnipresent entrenched informatics of domination. Despite Pierce talking to producers in Los Angeles, Starrs taking the CDRom to Millia and da Rimini demonstrating the work at Graz, Bad Code’s realisation took many dead-end turns. In both email archives and contemporary interviews, the Matrices are transparent in their split opinions and tensions in the group over time and resources.
However intrepidly VNS collectively had embarked on their disruptive quest, it was not personally sustainable long-term. Starrs reminds us that ‘we began by making up playful narratives around our female protagonist All New Gen and her DNA sluts. This was 1990… when the idea of a female hero in a computer game was unheard of’.15 Rachel Greene speaks in Internet Art of VNS Matrix’s post binary cyborg All New Gen predating the early 21st century vogue for game art,16 but being ahead of the pack often means that breaking through heavily guarded gateways is a never-ending mission.
suck my code
Lauded as a ‘feminine coded cyberspace of fluidity and mutation, an in-between world of new possibilities; a generative space of new feminist imaginings’17 Bad Code unsurprisingly wasn’t assimilated into mainstream gaming. The offline frustrations and roadblocks were definitely not fun. In 1996 Barratt left the labial fold; Tomb Raider birthed gamedom’s most popular female character Lara Croft; and massively multiplayer online games were gaining ground. By 1997 da Rimini, Pierce and Starrs were primarily working on other projects in different countries, while still holding the VNS Matrix space open.
While Bad Code did not come to fruition in the heady 1990s, core beliefs about women and technology have shifted into the 21st century. Programmers Ada Lovelace, Grace Hooper and Katherine G. Johnson may be household names today – yet, while women do hold up half the internet as socialisers and consumers, they do not necessarily author virtual space. The informatics of domination has evolved – persistent in Big Daddy Mainframe’s data surveillance, biometrics storage and government instigated cyberattacks; the socially, biologically constructed self is reauthored and reimaged into Insta, SnapChat hyperreality.
Pierce speculates that perhaps the time for Bad Code’s anarcho cyber terrorists is now; while Barratt sees the arc of the project as ‘a hyperstition, it was drawing a door in a wall in order to pass through it. It was hyping and hacking a skillset, it was setting a series of traps for the future that would be triggered when the correct confluence of happenings aligned.’18
All New Gen’s magik is potent – remixes erupt as spores. Decades on, these characters and texts are replicating throughout networks, infiltrating gender, feminist, queer, philosophy and software studies; informing artists, academics, geeks, coders, poets, gamers, sci fi and spec fic fans, curators and electronic writers; instigating collaboration and co-creation; popping up in galleries and museums and manifesting at art and technology conferences and festivals. For some it’s a matter of sacred irreverence – at a 2018 exhibition of All New Gen artefacts in Brisbane, delicate offerings were left anonymously on the Altar of Oracle Snatch.
This is the myth-remaking that Haraway and many others encourage: ‘the self feminists must code’.19 While firmly established in art and internet mythology, cyber-histories and herstories of many persuasions, they continue to adapt, modify and revise texts, objects, bits and bytes. From near and far, from the past and the future, the ‘weird, angry, hilarious and staunchly defiant’20 Trojan voices of All New Gen and her DNA Sluts shout out:
- VNS Matrix, “G All E New N,” in Photocopy (Adelaide and Sydney,: VNS Matrix, 1992)
- Released in 1989 by Nintendo in Japan Game Boy featured 8-bit graphics, was packaged with the cross generational appeal of Tetris and could be played anywhere
- 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
- VNS Matrix, All New Gen, 1993. multi-media installation at the Experimental Art Foundation
- Francesca da Rimini quoted by Bernadette Flynn, in VNS Matrix Interview in “Electronic Arts in Australia’, Continuum, Vol 8, No 1 ,1994, p420
- Interior Scroll was performed at Women Here and Now, East Hampton, New York, 1975. Carol Schneemann read an imaginary dialogue with a dismissive male film-maker at the Telluride Film Festival
- Jyanni Steffensen, “”Slimy Metaphors for Technology: ‘The Clitoris Is a Direct Line to the Matrix'”,” in Discipline and Deviance: Technology, Gender, Machines (Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 1998)
- Kay Schaffer, “The Game Girls of Vns Matrix: Challenging Gendered Identities in Cyberspace,” in Virtual Gender: Fantasies of Subjectivity and Embodiment ed. Anne O’Farrell and Lynne Vallone (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999).p 156
- 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)
- Zoë Sophia (Sofoulis), “Of Spanners and Cyborgs: De-Homogenising Feminist Thinking on Technology,” in Transitions: New Australian Feminisms, ed. B Caine and R Pringle (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995). p158
- King Missile, Detachable Penis, Prod. BMG Records, UK, 1993
- Claire L Evans, “‘We Are the Future Cunt’: Cyberfeminism in the 90s,” (2014), https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/4x37gb/we-are-the-future-cunt-cyberfeminism-in-the-90s
- Melinda Rackham and VNS Matrix, “The VNS Matrix Interviews 2018,” (2018)
- Claire L Evans, “An Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists,” (2014), https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/z4mqa8/an-oral-history-of-the-first-cyberfeminists-vns-matrix
- Rachel Greene, Internet Art (World of Art), Thames and Hudson, (2004), p63
- Schaffer. p156
- Virginia Barratt, “From C to X: Networked Feminisms,” in Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria 2017)
- Haraway Donna J. Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 15, no. 2 (1985). p163
- Evans, “‘We Are the Future Cunt’: Cyberfeminism in the 90s”