FACES is a mailing list for women artists and professionals working in the field of media and technology. Founded in 1997 with an aim to give space and visibility to women-digital workers, such as artists, programmers, theorists, designers, curators, activists & DJs in a male-dominated society, FACES has become a fundamental network that for 20 years now has been allowing women to connect, network, share and discuss in a space designed by them and for them. FACES, administrated and curated by Diana McCarty, Kathy Rae Huffman, Ushi Reiterand Valie Djordjevic, is a channel where subscribers from all over the world can exchange information about projects, find collaborations and discuss events, a potent network of women that work with various areas of new technology.
I recently had the chance to talk to two of the founders of FACES, Kathy Rae Huffman and Valie Djordjevic, and reconstruct the history of the mailing list’s creation, as well as discuss its present value and its possible future. In the interview Kathy Rae Huffman and Valie Djordjevic talk about how the world has changed for women in the last 20 years, place FACES into the current historical context and explain why the mailing list such as FACES is still as relevant and valuable as ever.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: 2017 marks an anniversary for FACES, 20 years since it was founded. What was the initial purpose of the project when you created it in 1997? How did you realize that such a platform for women was absolutely necessary?
Valie Djordjevic & Kathy Rae Huffman: At the time, we probably didn’t understand how important a communication platform like FACES would become. We were responding to a direct need of the people around us and had the idea to create an online community that would complement the existing offline community of women we were already part of. As active participants inside of the first wave of net.art, each of us was active in many levels of the online scene. Diana McCarty was living in Budapest, was a co-founder in 1994 and co-organizer of the Meta Forum conference and was a contributor to and editor of NETTIME, a mailing list on critical thinking on networks. Kathy Rae Huffman was living in Vienna, had curated several programs for Ars Electronica, EMAF, DEAF, and was collaborating with the Vienna based media collective HILUS.
She was also working with Eva Wohlgemuth, and in 1995 they created the online project Siberian Deal (available on Rhizome). Valie Djordjevic was working at the Internationale Stadt in Berlin which was an online platform for social and artistic groups – one of the first internet providers in Germany for private citizens and at the same time a hub for the German net.art community. We had our ears to the ground so to say, attended festivals, conferences and were often invited to speak, organize and were generally very active members of the internet community, which at the time was quite small and like an extended family.
Media Art Festivals started to recognize artists working digitally and online, but we observed that women didn’t seem to emerge in a prominent way. Festival directors said that they had no way to find out where women were active. There was only the male-dominated art scene and/or the male-heavy tech scene to draw reference from (both were disappointing for females). Because we were so intertwined with the festivals we often challenged them to bring more women into the scene.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Because of my early (and for the time excessive) online access at HILUS, I had been aware that there were online forums for women, especially in academia. For example, there was the huge female presence online in 1995, organized by Muriel Magenta, Univ. Arizona, for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and there were early initiatives for training and girl centered information, like gURL in NYC, started by two NYU students.
I was still in contact with feminist media artists, many who I knew since the late 1970s as well as members of the Van Gogh TVgroup who I worked with at the 1992 documenta project. But in the net.art community, on the popular listservs, the theoretically oriented discussion list Nettime, and The Syndicate mailing list connecting artists throughout Eastern Europe, men seemed to dominate, although there were a few strong female participants.
When Eva Wohlgemuth and I decided to work on a second online project together after Siberian Deal was awarded the main prize at the 1996 International Video Festival in Berlin (it changed its name to Transmediale in 1998), we decided to follow our passion and focus on women and cooking, and called it Face Settings. We already were making a lot of dinner parties together, and had done workshops training artists how to create websites (Eva) and navigate the web (me). Eva was employed by the ORF (the Austrian TV broadcasting service) as a specialist for what we would now call streaming video, and I had curated the first online exhibition for Ars Electronica, called Dar-Links (it has since disappeared from their website). I had also started the online column Pop~Tarts for the Telepolis online journal together with Margarete Jahrmann, where we regularly wrote from a female perspective about net culture.
When Eva and I thought about how we wanted to continue to work online together, and taking a hard look at the net.art scene, we felt women who lived outside the main cities, where internet was less available, could benefit from connections to the wider world. We also liked to travel and had developed many friends outside the main European cities. We chose five cities to engage women with internet communications, in St Petersburg, Glasgow, Bilbao, Belgrade/Bielefeld (Germany) and of course, Vienna. We set up streaming and cooking conversations. This experiment was also a research into communication between men and women, and we were convinced that Internet offered something women would find empowering and that it was a place where men could not shut you up!
One of the first objectives of the FACES list was to keep in touch with women we had dinner with after an especially memorable dinner in Nov 1996 in Vienna (that dinner also celebrated Diana’s birthday). Although FACES and Face Settings are two completely different projects, they share this early link, of dinners, women, and discussion. Initially, it was a very modest majordomo list, organized privately, and in keeping with a kind of urgency, what was being talked about around Europe at the time: it seemed that everyone wanted to be connected to each other. Lots of festivals, events and meetings during these early years overlap, and we all have different memories of them.
I clearly remember when Eva Wohlgemuth and I presented our female only Face Settings concept (the presentation also included the FACES mailing list) at the Liverpool LEAF conference in April 1997, to the loud protests from several of our male colleagues. We simply wanted to have a women-only lunch, to try and understand what issues women were dealing with. We found out something very important when we were surrounded by men who wanted to overhear our conversation. We had already decided that we needed a private channel to discuss projects, needs, and to celebrate successes and bring up issues that were vital to all women online.
In fact, Diana and I had eagerly searched for a female partner who could administer a more professional listserv, when we attended the Backspace meeting in London, and we were really happy when Valie Djordjevic eagerly came into the project in Berlin. Another important stepping stone in the development of the FACES community was the decision to use the list to organize the first Cyberfeminist International, a weeklong meeting at the Hybrid WorkSpace project at documenta X in 1997. This expanded the list membership and it became known widely from this association. So, a large mailing list from the documenta participants, along with Face Settings, and combined with the contacts from Meta Forum and Internationale Stadt, FACES had the widest contact list and knowledge about “where the women were”.
During the Cyberfeminist International, Diana and Valie were strong participants in the week-long meeting, hosting discussions and making history with their presentations. Eva Wohlgemuth and I created the opening dinner reception, for women only, as a Face Settings event (but unfortunately each of us had to depart early, because Eva was teaching already in Vienna, and I had co-curated the main exhibition for Steirischer Herbst with Silvia Eiblmayr (which was opening the following week in Graz). But after documenta X, FACES became an established, vital link between women working online, around the world.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: Often in your interviews you mention the question that often came up in 1997 in regards to women and technologies and media. The question was “Where are the women?” Is the question still relevant today? How have things changed?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I believe that things have changed considerably over the past 20 years, and especially the online world. Connectivity is now fairly widespread, and smartphones can do amazing things (like streaming and multi-location chats) what once required technical skill and a tremendous amount of patience to achieve. Celebrity is now a goal of many young online women, how many hits, how many friends, etc. can be translated into some kind of income stream (how this works in the long run, I’m not sure, but there is quite a range of personality-based blogs, websites, and initiatives). We still have young women coming to the list, who are grateful for the connection to other women, even if they are not vocal, or known. There is a great respect for the longevity of FACES, and of the legacy it has earned over the years. Just staying alive is pretty amazing.
Valie Djordjevic: I totally think the question is relevant today. Looking at the participation quotas of women at conferences no matter if you look at art or media it’s still that the visible people are men. In the German internet, there are initiatives like 50 Percent which just count the speakers on panels – and it is really rare that you really have 50 percent female participants. Also there is the website speakerinnen.org(the “-innen” denotes the female form of a noun in German) where volunteers collect female experts on all kinds of topics – all to increase the visibility of women. And this is just Germany! It is a bit frustrating that 20 years later you are basically dealing with the same questions. It seems nothing has changed. But on the other hand, of course, things have changed.
The repercussions of the #metoo movement are felt throughout society not just in the US but throughout the world. Sexism and violence against women of course still exist unfortunately but a consensus seems to be forming that this is not okay. But there is still a lot to do. Just looking at the statistics: women are still not visible enough compared to their part, they earn less than men, there still is a glass ceiling that prevents girls to rise according to their talents. Also we shouldn’t forget about the backlash in the form of conservative politics that tries to turn back time and propagates an ideal of the 1950s gender politics – not just in the US with Trump but all over the world.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: Let’s talk a little bit about FACES target readership. In my previous question, I used the term “women”, but the members of FACES often specify that the declaration of a gender position and not a biological condition allows one to be accepted to the list. Could you expand a little on your understanding of the term “women”?
Kathy Rae Huffman: For us, it is clear. If a person identifies as a woman, lives and works as a woman, biological or not, we accept this person to the list. This doesn’t seem to be very confusing to me.
Valie Djordjevic: We discussed this on the list so our policy today is a result of a decision-making process of the whole FACES community and reflects the belief that gender is a social construct and an essentialist characteristic. Gender is fluid and there is one characteristic that all women have or agree on – we are all individuals. But on a social level there are certain hurdles we all face. We as moderators didn’t want to impose our own ideas on the list so we had an extensive discussion on how to define our “membership”.
That said we were always very inclusive in our policy of who is allowed on the list. On the one had – like Kathy said – we wanted to have a safe space for discussions and exchange but that isn’t supposed to be a cage. Even in the beginning of the list, we had trans women as members – I think Sandy Stone was one of the first members on the list. And that wasn’t even a discussion. But as we became more aware of issues around trans rights we decided that we had to formalize this policy together with our members.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: What is the role of feminism (or should I say “feminisms”) and intersectionality in the FACES project?
Valie Djordjevic: We never defined ourselves as a feminist mailing list – and we did that on purpose. In the first years we had a strong group of Eastern European women on the list and some of them didn’t feel very comfortable with the term Feminism – for whatever reason. That was also the case with some younger women throughout the time. These days the term “feminism” is becoming fashionable again what with Beyoncé wearing a shirt on stage with the “f” word or feminist issues discussed on TV shows (e.g. I love Dick, a show after the seminal book by Chris Kraus). Even in the moderation team, we have different opinions about this – some of us declare themselves publicly as feminists, others work in their own way towards the same goal.
I think using the word is not as important as having the same political aims of increasing the visibility of women, same money for the same jobs (that is even true for freelancers in the art world), getting rid of male bias, including other topics that were seen as female and there for less valid in art etc. Especially in the beginning of the list we talked explicitly if we should call ourselves “a feministmailing list” but agreed that it was more important to be inclusive than to get hung up on a term.
Regarding intersectionality – we have a diverse group of women on the list of all ages and from all over the world. Of course there is always room for improvement as the people working with technology tend to be the more privileged ones but you can’t generalize that.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: What are the problems that the members of FACES have to confront in the world of technologies? What strategies do you apply in order to provide the members with support and opportunities, in order to increase their visibility?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I don’t think we are trying to increase any visibility of anyone, support comes from the communication process with other women. Opportunities are offered among those who subscribe to FACES…as moderators we don’t do much in general.
Valie Djordjevic: I don’t really agree with Kathy that we are not trying to increase the visibility of anyone. That was in a way from the beginnings one of our first goals, in my opinion – and she wrote it in the beginning “Where are the women?” So I would say that by networking and communicating and supporting each other we are increasing the visibility of our members in the sense that people learn about each other’s work and invite each other for events for example. Of course this is not something we as moderators do but a result of the coming together of the whole list, something that the community does, not the moderators.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: Has your purpose as a project changed a lot over the years? Do you feel that there are new problems you are currently tackling?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Perhaps the biggest problem is that there are definite needs that women still have, and this list is not set up to help anyone, rather it is a place to share, ask for collaboration, and sometimes to promote opportunities. As moderators and founders of FACES, we have each moved on to do other things, are all very busy with our personal and professional lives, and the internet community has expanded so vastly that we don’t have the same personal connection to each of the subscribers to FACES that we once had. It’s now a much more dissipated scene, not centered between three cities (Budapest, Vienna and Berlin). As moderators, we have not spent much time thinking up new ways to use the list.
Anna Gorchakovskaya: During the gathering in Graz in 2017 you announced an upcoming manifesto that is supposed to be released in 2018. Could you anticipate some of the positions of the manifesto?
Kathy Rae Huffman: The manifesto was suggested by Marina Griznic, one some of the women at the gathering. But, it is not our role to impose any manifesto on the list.
Valie Djordjevic: The manifesto is more like a result of the dissatisfaction about the fact that the position of women is changing so slowly. We (some of us at least) would never have thought that 20 years after founding the list there would still be a need for a women-only space. The representation of women is still lacking – in art, in politics, in all kinds of areas. The #metoo movement in 2017 and 2018 showed the embedded sexism of society even in countries which consider themselves developed. There is still so much to do to achieve the same kind of representation, economic power and just acknowledgment. Things are moving though, just very slowly.