Even though communication platforms and gaming worlds enable their users to perform certain identities, they also offer a stage for racist and sexist discourse and behaviour to emerge, grow, and be consumed. Actors who operate against this “racio-visual logic” and its violence are at the core of Lisa Nakamura’s research interest. Nakamura is a Professor of Screen Arts and Cultures and American Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an author of four books on race, gender, and the internet. In her recent work, she studies the role of call-out culture, vernacular pedagogy, and protest against online misogyny and racism. Her keynote lecture at this year’s transmediale festival and conference in Berlin addressed the importance of critical race and feminist theory.
Here are some topics, ideas, and thoughts from her lecture that I chose to follow. These footnotes, as I would like to call them, are meant to not only give a brief review of this lecture’s content (for those who could not be there) but also to offer further reading and context (for everyone).
Kim Kardashian and Sarah Baartman
Jean-Paul Goude’s cover photo of Kim Kardashian for Paper Magazine in 2014 got a lot of attention. Many people even saw it as a reason to celebrate: A woman of colour who is so “successful” that a picture of her is even shown on the cover of a magazine and who, with that cover image, “breaks the internet”. In his introduction to Nakamura’s lecture, Nishant Shah showed how the visual language of Jean-Paul Goude’s photo is similar to the one used in illustrations that depict Sarah Baartman. A language that does not empower women of colour, but instead objectifies them in a racist and sexist way.
Sarah Baartman was a South-African woman who, due to her large buttock, was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe. Even after she had died in 1815 her body was displayed for more than a century and a half. Her remains only returned to South Africa in 2002. Comparing Jean-Paul Goude’s photographs of Kim Kardashian (and other women of colour) with pictures that were made of Sarah Baartman makes the link between them very obvious and alarming. Goude’s photographs, the celebration of his “genius” by fashion magazines, but also the way that women of colour are often portrayed in mainstream culture are all aspects of the racism and sexism that are so much embedded in our Western society. These systems of oppression shape art, design and photography – and vice versa, this visual culture reproduces sexism and racism.
(We have decided not to show the pictures of Kim Kardashian and Sarah Baartman, since we do not want to offer a stage to the racist/sexist gaze. The images have been made from a specific point of view and they will always objectify the women who are depicted. Paper Magazine’s cover photo shows Kim Kardashian in a long gown, balancing a champagne glass on her rear and holding a champagne bottle in her hands which just popped open. The champagne splashes from the bottle to the glass, creating an arc above her head. Many illustrations that were made of Sarah Baartman showed her naked body from the side, directing the view of a spectator to her large buttock which is even often depicted in an exaggerating way.)
- Bethonie Butler, “Yes, those Kim Kardashian photos are about race”, Washington Post, 21 Nov 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/11/21/yes-those-kim-kardashian-photos-are-about-race/?utm_term=.fca720c08ae6
- Sally Kohn, “How the Kardashians exploit racial bias for profit”, Washington Post, 18. Nov 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/18/the-kardashians-arent-just-trashy-theyre-dangerous/?utm_term=.25ac3bf18e33
- Naima, “Who put Grace Jones in a Cage? A Reflection on Black Womanhood and Agency”, Medium, 29 May 2017, https://medium.com/@navigating/who-put-grace-jones-in-a-cage-c86e7c5eb795
In her lecture, Lisa Nakamura made clear that not only visual culture but also communication platforms and the gaming world are interwoven with systems of oppression. The name of one of the first handheld devices for digital games, Game Boy, is only one indicator of the fact that many products in this field are gendered. Almost all technological gadgets are “invented” and designed by white, privileged men. This is also a reason why the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality (VR) headset, turns out to be sexist: As researcher Danah Boyd writes in her article for Quartz, there are two methods of how the eyes and the brain of a human being work together. Because of hormones, the eyes and the brain of men are more likely to rely on one of the two methods, and the ones of women on the other method. Most likely the Oculus Rift was designed by men without involving women because they only came across one of these two methods – and focused solely on this one. So the Oculus Rift that they developed uses a technique that stimulates the method that is mainly used by the eyes and brain of men. As a result, the Oculus Rift makes a great percentage of women become nauseous. This “problem” would most likely not have occurred, had the team of researchers and developers of the technology been (more) diverse and used an approach to design that is more inclusive and takes into account different bodies.
(Palmer Lucky, founder of Oculus VR and designer of the Oculus Rift.)
But also when it comes to the actual production of devices like the Oculus Rift, we see inequality and systems of oppression: Most electronic gadgets are assembled by women of colour in precarious situations, like at Longhua Campus in Shenzhen (China), also called “Foxconn City”. After the devices have been assembled, they can only be purchased by those who are wealthy, who are allowed to and can afford to escape from their daily life: white men.
Let us briefly revisit Sarah Sharma’s talk from last year’s transmediale, “Exit and the Extensions of Man”. She said: “For most populations on Earth, you might say that living in a world of human constraint and limited conditions is just part and parcel of living.” Exit and escape, in contrast, are “an exercise of patriarchal power, a privilege that occurs at the expense of cultivating and sustaining conditions of collective autonomy”, she explained further. So for Sharma exit “stands in direct contradistinction to care”. She continues: “Care is an opposing political force to exit. Care is that which responds to the uncompromisingly tethered nature of human dependency and the contingency of life, the mutual precariousness of the human condition. Women’s exit is hardly even on the table, given that women have historically been unable to choose when to leave or enter inequitable power relations, let alone enter and exit in a carefree manner.”
- Danah Boyd, “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?”, Quartz, 28 Mar 2014 https://qz.com/192874/is-the-oculus-rift-designed-to-be-sexist/
- Sarah Sharma, “Exit and the Extensions of Man”, transmediale 2017, https://transmediale.de/content/exit-and-the-extensions-of-man#footnote2_63ba61q
Google’s “Exploring Race” Format
Lisa Nakamura also spoke about a format that Google created as a reaction to the criticism it had received for the fact that tools like Google Image Search are racist and sexist. “Exploring Race” is a 60° VR video format that can be accessed on YouTube. With this format, Google aims to “investigate race, diversity, and identity by exploring how real people interact with the world and how the world interacts with them”, as the company states. However, rather than creating experiences that foster empathy the company uses this format to present itself as “diverse” and open-minded, and a safe space for women and people of colour. – On YouTube Google does not even allow users to comment on their project.
One of the stories presented by Google is “Dezzie’s Story”. The 60° VR video shows a woman of colour who guides the viewer through a small village in France where she used to live. With tears in her eyes, she recalls the racism that she experienced in this place. Because of these experiences she left and went to Paris, where she started working at Google. The video makes users think that Dezzie found her refuge from a hostile world at Google and presents the company as a place where many people of colour work in a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
The format was obviously made for PR purposes. Apart from this, it presents the life of people of colour as realities that can be visited by users (or shall we call them “tourists”?). These users are assumed to be white. Even though it seems as if people of colour are here offered a platform “to tell their story”, this story is presented from a very specific point of view: In Dezzie’s case, for example, the focus lies on her pain and trauma. Instead of showing her own strength and let this empower other people of colour (for whom this format way clearly not created), Google is presented as her rescuer. It becomes clear that this video reproduces the power-relations of the Real Life (RL) and also constructs a white saviour / is based on a white saviour.
The 60° VR videos can be found here:
- Google, “Google Immerse VR | Racial Identity: Exploring Race 360º VR Video”, YouTube, 28 Feb 2107, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCbm0RffkuQ&t=37s
- Google, “Google Immerse VR | Racial Identity: Dezzie’s Story 360º VR Video”, YouTube, 23 Feb 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogBxn9a_6R0
- Google, “Google Immerse VR | Racial Identity: Clayton’s Story 360º VR Video”, YouTube, 2 Mar 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvdQ3xaA3l8
- Priscilla Ward, “Black Pain isn’t a Video Game: The possibilities and pitfalls of virtual reality in the Black Lives Matter era”, Salon, 14 Aug 2016, https://www.salon.com/2016/08/14/black-pain-isnt-a-video-game-the-possibilities-and-pitfalls-of-virtual-reality-in-the-black-lives-matter-era/
Hyphen Labs: NeuroSpeculative AfroFuturism
After criticising Google’s “Exploring Race” and similar formats, Lisa Nakamura introduced Hyphen Labs and their project “NeuroSpeculative Afrofuturism”. Hyphen-Labs is a team of international female engineers, architects, multidisciplinary designers, artists and game designers who combine art and technology for and about women of colour. With their futuristic art and technology project “NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism”, the collective wants to create an empathetic, digital environment with a focus on black female experience. The main part of the VR experience involves sitting in a “neurocosmetology lab” – or: a hair salon. The setting refers to the long history of salons as safe spaces for women of colour and rooms for political and philosophical discussions.
(Hyphan Labs, NeuroSpeculative AfroFuturism: The Neurocosmetology Lab)
Here visitors can experience “The Octavia”. Its technology refers to a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that uses electrical currents to stimulate regions of the brain. In reality, this procedure is used for purposes like the alleviation of depression and anxiety in patients. In Hyphen-Labs’ VR, the electrodes are woven into the hair. The first view that a visitor of this VR has is a mirror that shows a woman of colour. This already allows people of all races and genders to physically see themselves as a woman of colour. “Although the viewer doesn’t actually receive Octavia electrode implants during the VR experience, the effect of the 10-minute art piece is intense”, as journalist Priscilla Frank describes it in an article for Huffington Post. “You are floating in a 3D hallucinatory dreamscape with mountains made of water and a giant eye hovering in the sky”, she says. “It’s the kind of fully transportive experience that can only occur in VR, a technology that allows you to float through a dreamed-up world.”
(Hyphan Labs, NeuroSpeculative AfroFuturism: The VR user sees herself/himself in a mirror of the Neurocosmetology Lab)
In addition to the VR experience, Hyphen Labs also designed Afrofuturism-inspired products to protect or aid the bodies of women of colour: earrings that record police encounters, a scarf that evades facial recognition technology (which could be useful to fight surveillance at protests), and sunscreen that goes on dark skin without leaving a white cast or making it purple.
The “NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism” project shows the potential that VR has, especially when it is used in projects created by women of colour. And even if it might take time until tools and devices are not only developed by white men, Hyphen Labs also shows the possibilities that the appropriation of the existing devices offers. Lisa Nakamura however, made clear that we urgently need a field in which gender/women’s/social studies, technology and design meet.
- website of Hyphen Labs: http://www.hyphen-labs.com/index.html
- about the project “NeuroSpeculative AfroFuturism”: http://www.hyphen-labs.com/nsaf.html
- Priscilla Frank, “Afrofuturist Artists Craft A Virtual World For Women Of Color”, Huffington Post, 23 Jan 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/virtual-reality-afrofeminism-art_us_587d0c39e4b09281d0ebe514
- Princess Ojiaku, “Women of Color Are Using VR to Imagine a More Inclusive World”, Broadly, 12 June 2017, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/vbgz93/women-of-color-are-using-vr-to-imagine-a-more-inclusive-world
 Nishan Shah is a co-founder of the Centre for Internet & Society in Bangalore and a Professor of Culture & Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Lüneburg