Patricia J. Reis and Anna T. in conversation with Andrew Newman
Andrew Newman from the RIAT Research Institute for Arts and Technology speaks to Patricia J. Reis and Anna T. from Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory about the series of exhibitions that have taken place at Artistic Bokeh in Q21 and concluded on December 15 with the finissage of the exhibition “Seduction at a Crossroads” of Pêdra Costa at Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory.
Tell me about Mz* Baltazar’s Lab. How did it come into formation? Why was it required? Why was there demand for it within Vienna?
Anna: Well, the comment section of several of our online posts would indicate a lot as to why there is a necessity for such spaces. Stefanie Wuschitz started it in 2008, seeing the need for a space that would act as a safer space for women and trans* people to experiment with technology, especially in the intersections of feminism and art without being mansplained or intimidated and share knowledge in more horizontal hierarchies. It seems that while a few years have passed, still the necessity is quite present, and women and trans* people of a wide age range join our workshops to be able to experiment and learn things. Either skills that they can use in their work, or just as a hobby and a way of connecting with other people with similar interests.
Patricia: It’s also a lot about building community and sharing what they know about all these topics. It started more as a hackerspace, and then we kind of extended also for an exhibition program, and we tried to build up a community within this intersection of art, feminism, science and technology.
Are there a lot of artists involved in the program, in the workshops? Do you think there’s artists that were previously too intimidated or not felt comfortable in exploring certain technology practices within other spaces in Vienna, that are now working more with technology because of Baltazar’s? Or were there always people that were already working with technology?
Anna: We’re hoping that this is happening. I personally don’t… I can’t say that this is indeed the case, but what I can say in my experience is that through Mz Baltazar’s people have become aware that there are women and trans* people who work on technology and who are very competent and whose help is asked in other projects, so it kind of brought these people in a more prominent position to share their knowledge and be asked to give their advice on projects with technical aspects. Perhaps that wasn’t so easily accessible for them before.
Would you say that in a broader context of the media arts, that it is balanced in terms of gender, race and class? This is despite the long history of feminist collectives, hacker groups and gamer groups etc?
Patricia: I think that the participation of female and trans* people in the field of technology, is still of course, imbalanced and we are a minority for sure. From participation in online communities, such as Wikipedia, to hackerspaces the percentage of people who are women* is close to 5%. In particular in hackerspaces, that’s why we came up with this alternative, but also in the field of art in general. If you go to media art it gets even more complicated, especially in the field of art, of experimental music, for instance. But there are for sure initiatives that are creating awareness of this problem.
Anna: But it’s also not just that there is lack of representation of women and trans* people, it’s also, as you say, a race and class issue. These spaces are predominantly populated by white cis European men and perhaps that’s why we also think that hacking and giving people simple tools to experiment with things and reappropriate or reclaim them is such an important strategy politically as well.
How can this be broken down within larger institutions, other than setting up alternatives, like for instance Baltazar’s, how can organisations try to work towards breaking this apart without enforcing quota systems?
Anna: I think there are two separate issues. I think that primarily it is our target how to empower people, and how do you help them, as Patricia said, get emancipated? Then the second issue, which I don’t know if it’s something that we want to tackle, is how do you educate the larger population in order to be more attentive to the different social hierarchies.
I think that what Mz Baltazar’s is trying to do is cater to the first part of that problem and provide the tools and knowledge for people to feel confident enough to then find themselves in those larger pools where the ratio is not very balanced. But we still hear about incidents. It’s not just the ratio, it’s about incidents of… I don’t know how to express that, exactly. Intimidating behaviors at least, towards women. Even in education there have been several cases where women have been excluded or treated in a disadvantaged way, anyway.
Patricia: I think your question, it’s a little bit more complex, which is like, “Which are the strategies that we choose to address this?” For instance, in a festival. I think this is a little bit more complex. For sure it helps a lot to have invitations that are extended to all genders, that they are addressing minorities. They’re encouraging, at least.
Sometimes the way the text is formulated could make all the difference. I agree with Anna, it’s two different jobs. One is the preliminary job you have to do, when you have to work in order to build up platforms where women and trans* people can actually flourish.
I think what’s interesting about the program that you’ve just set up with Artistic Bokeh is that you have three nationalities, three very different practices, and I’m interested about how you draw the overarching concept of the program.
Patricia: As Mz Baltazar’s we have to do two actions that are intertwined. We have the technical aspects which is addressed through the workshops (all of which are for free), and then we have the exhibition programme where we try to give visibility to women and trans* artists in the form of a solo show, because it’s usually more difficult to penetrate the gallery/exhibition space bubble. Alongside these, and with the opportunity your invitation gave us we selected three artists that were somehow working with language, because we were also interested in language as a form of hacking.
Anna: We also thought of it as a technology. A technology of communicating or building bridges or tearing them down, and especially living in Vienna and situating ourselves in a political situation with the big migrant and asylum seekers inflow and talking about multiculturalism, we thought that language as a technology could be the overarching theme, as you said.
Patricia: The second one was also how to think about language in a specific space, because the space in itself has a specific architecture, which of course is already my perspective, inviting for site-specific interventions. On the other hand, also, what we tried was to bring these three artists together to a common discussion on language from different perspectives, and understand how they really connect. What do they have in common? I think, for instance, with Mariel, she brought this topic of the legal and illegal, and the language of colonialism, that I thought it was really also very interesting.
Anna: Also she found it very useful to work on it in that specific space, and found it not only a challenge to work in this specific art space, but also the dialogue that the Museumsquartier has with the Museum of Natural History and the background of botanical imperialism that her work is exploring and is of course an ongoing research, which was another thing that, as Patricia said, we wanted to focus on. Then, the next artist, Isabella Kohlhuber, presented a more technically savvy, let’s say, installation project.
Patricia: Yes, and she was very interested also about this little play between the viewer and the space and the architecture of the space, and how this interior space could be a showroom and also transport a little bit of these issues of privacy and being a display creating this dialogue with the public, with the outside. Isabella has been working with language for a long time already, focusing on typography. Since the beginning she was really interested in creating this kind of rupture with the space, like there’s no access to the interior of space, so she created this interaction which is like a contradiction between something that is there to be displayed but when the viewer approaches the light switches off, so it’s creating this sort of frustration to the viewer.
Anna: There’s also a negation in it being accessible, which also resonates with the feminist notion of “no means no” and how you gain agency by not allowing something to be seen, or to be shared. She was bringing to the foreground issues of privacy and agency.
Patricia: I think what she brings more into this topic is related to oral language, and the multiple layers of meaning.
Anna: Then Pêdra, the last exhibition which is currently in the space and whose upcoming finissage ill take place on December 15th at Mz* Baltazar’s is a performance artist that primarily works with her body. She draws basically from Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion, and uses her own body as an agent of sexuality and spirituality. As a queer migrant person she brings those notions together and she navigates a world of bringing together linguistic elements from Umbanda and Yoruba languages, like Afro-based, again, linguistic elements, but somehow localizing them and blending them with German.She creates what she calls Travesti-Deutsch, or Pajubá-Deutsch and through embodying those languages or the blend that she has created she takes us through a journey of spirituality and sexuality.
Patricia: Her work is always a little bit of a surprise. But what is interesting is also that she’s using mainly her body as a language, and she’s using also the body as the medium to communicate with other contexts.
Anna: With spirits, with other bodies, with institutions. In the wider framework of the three shows, issues of feminism and colonialism and different forms of oppression become the real overarching theme somehow. What these three artists are bringing are different issues of calling out oppressions and asymmetrical power dynamics, basically all through expressing themselves in different forms of communication and language.
Language, then, as you described it at the beginning as a form of technology. It’s often mistaken that technology is a neutral, non-value practice. But technology itself means that there has to be someone with a technology, a technology doesn’t exist outside of the other. Language as well, it’s entirely not a neutral action. For instance, we’re doing some research on the blockchain right now for cryptocurrencies, and the idea is that the blockchain is a distributed legend that works with smart contracts, and it’s like programs, and so the computer is the law. The computer is the arbiter of what is true and right. Because the program’s set up like that.
The thing is, it isn’t a neutral entity because the computer or the blockchain began with a programming language as well, which sets up certain types of archetypes, certain ways of approaching things. Also, which could be argued in a way completely, is that the whole form of computing, the digital versus, for instance… You guys know the idea of analog computing?
Again, sort of sets up a certain dynamic that people feel is the neutral, logical way to things. Digital. Whereas there’s this whole alternative idea of the analog, which changes whole power structures and perspectives, mainly. I can understand this much better than in the context of the first artist, Mariel.
Patricia: Also how all these technologies that were developed on purpose to exploit something that’s supposed to be natural. I think it’s interesting to think about… People have very often this idea that technology is something very complex. That’s is related with myths and a certain mysticism very often associated with the word technology. That’s why we Mz* Baltazar’s want to use all these hacking strategies of breaking things apart and looking inside and destroy this myth that everything is difficult.
But of course it become complex whenever people don’t question it anymore. With these strategies we aim to emancipate our viewers and the outside community — lead them into this process of questioning their own apparatus and technological tools in a even broader sense as a political system for instance and so on, and subvert it and hacking it and questioning it.
I always describe technology as a way of doing something. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a device or tool, it could also be a method, and it could also be a language. It’s a way to get from one point to the other. For instance, a political system is also a technology. A social system, like a dinner party, can be a form of technology in a sense. This is the broad way that I like to approach technology.
But in this context, when you’re mentioning about hacking and breaking open things, it kind of made me think about the early feminist discourse and critique, where you would … That was basically hacking and opening up language that was being used dominant throughout things, and that was a form of-
Deconstructing was like hacking in that context, as well, so hacking isn’t necessarily always related to computers, gadgets or machines.
Patricia: It’s not related with a machine, of course, and it’s open to our social relationships and to our political background and to the market structures, to everything. When you think about hacking, we think about more has a perspective of looking into things, right?
Anna: Gaining knowledge from that.
Patricia: I think that the best example here would be the very popular difference between a consumer and a maker. We are devoted to motivate makers, not consumers and users, so we want that all the workshops and the exhibition program to somehow follow this politics of hacking in general. In the same way that Mariel, I think she approached it really well, in her project.
Anna: Speaking about consumer culture. Mariel’s project also has such strong connections to capitalism and how something that was illegalized was then used in a different way in order to produce capital but not for those who actually initiated the process, but for its oppressors. They’re all interconnected somehow.
To go back to technology, I think the logically thinking of the word technology, it has to do with techne and thinking about how to obtain the skills to do something, to create something, as you said, to get from point A to point B.
You’ve got a new space, and you’re going to continue the program within the new space, an exhibition program. Will it follow the same model as the series at Artistic Bokeh, focusing on the solo exhibitions?
Anna: That’s what we’re thinking. Maybe solo exhibitions but maybe some two-people exhibitions, so that the works can create a dialogue between them, and we want to focus not only in international artists but also local artists and make small collections perhaps to the Viennese art scene. But we always welcome, of course, every opportunity that people are traveling through and want to have an impromptu exhibition or an artist lecture. We try to accommodate all these.
Patricia: But so far we are right at the moment finishing the next year program, and we plan six solo exhibitions. We invited artists that are dealing with questions across art, science, and technology, but at the same time feminism, hacking, and multiculturalism, postcolonialism and the multiple possibilities that can be derived from those intersections.
It’s going to be, we hope, a very rich program, but at the moment we are still waiting for the financial support to be able to commission the artists.
Anna: We want to be able to pay a small fee to all participating artists because we believe that work should be rewarded financially as well, and we wouldn’t want to fall in the trap of asking for free labor, especially from women and trans* people who have been burdened with unpaid labor, in terms of emotional labor or domestic labor and so on.
Patricia: In our last space at Sechshauserstraße, we were already since 2013 until 2015 we ran a very rich exhibition program that was taking place mainly at the window shop. We had the inside space but that was most of the time occupied with workshops, and with our hacking workshop.
Anna: But now the new space we have available a more larger show, a more typical gallery space.
Patricia: We have 35 square meters indoor and also a window shop that we like to think of it as an interface between something which is a feminist collective which exist in a private form space towards the outside and public space which is the 20th district at the Wallensteinstrasse. We had yesterday the first workshop and I think in the next month or two we’re going to have an opening party, so the exhibition program will start therefore in January there.
Anna: The last exhibition finissage from Pêdra Costa will be held in our new location on December 15th as a sort of initiation of the exhibition activities and then the formal opening will take place later.
This interview was originally published at: http://www.mqw.at/blog/andrew-newman-in-conversation-with-patricia-j-reis-and-anna-t/