“À la recherche de l’information perdue” was a performance that Cornelia Sollfrank contributed to the ‘Post-Cyber Feminist International’ event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.1 The event in November 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the First Cyberfeminist International (documenta X, Kassel, Germany, 1997) organized by the Old Boys Network, paying homage to its productive format and legacy. In her own words, Sollfrank set out to offer an “one-hour lecture performance that makes a (techno-)feminist comment on the entanglements of gender, technology and information politics,” with the rationale that “with the technological landscape vastly changed since the first Cyberfeminist International, we are living in a time well beyond the imagined future of the early cyberfeminists. Expanding upon this particular genealogy, this convening purposefully constellates thinkers to consider a new vision for “post-cyberfeminism” that is substantive and developed, without being exclusionary of contestation.”
I was surprised at the invitation of the charismatic woman I came to know as “Coco” to attend her performance. My surprise, which I bet is going to surprise Coco in turn, was due to two reasons. I had published two academic papers on WikiLeaks (2012, 2014 with Robinson), later included in a monograph charting on digital activism from 1994-2014 (2015), and at the time I was working on another paper on ‘Leaktivism and its Discontents’ examining the DCLeaks, CIA Vault7Leaks and DNCLeaks (2018). Although I took a critical view of the ideological and organizational conflicts within WikiLeaks as an organization internally, and examined the impact of that organization externally on academic debates in three disciplines between 2010-2012, and followed the leaks religiously in my scholarship, I had not written or commented on the rape allegations against Julian Assange.2 The related legal requirements, however, were what forced him to be stranded in the Ecuadorian Embassy from the 12th of June 2012 to the time of writing in 2018, in the first place. On March 6th, 2016, I was one of the signatories urging Swedish and UK Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in Geneva, to respect the United Nations’ decision to free Julian Assange. Moreover, as my work almost in its entirety has not focused on gender aspects of technology, or gender studies (apart from say examining ethno-patriarchal racist ideologies in anti-migrant discourses on digital networks in 2010-2013 for the Project, see et al. 2018),3 I felt rather intrigued by the invitation to the event, and its technofeminist context and agenda. If Coco was brave enough to invite me to watch her performance and trust me to comment on it, considering both my research (see references), and critical but supportive stance to Julian Assange’s quest for freedom, then I had to also be brave enough to take up the challenge!
As academics we are encouraged not to write in the first person. In fact, “do not use the first person in your scholarship” is served up in higher education establishments around the world, bar in certain sub-disciplines who take a certain pride in reflecting on the situated knower and their reflective positionality. In my own scholarship, I have used the first person sparingly. Here, in this text however, I feel obliged to do so, as I watched an artist perform and I would like to convey the thoughts aroused in the internal empire; and also understand whether and if so, how it has transformed me. After all, that is what art is for, right?
Sollfrank’s performance consists of her reading a text, overlaid by electronic sounds, and the projection of changing images behind her. There are nine images: orange font capital letters on a black and white pixel background: INFORMATION, ORGANISATION, ZEROS+ONES, BINARY WORLDS, PURE DIFFERENCE, CYBERFEMINISM, GENDER+TECHNOLOGY, NAKED INFORMATION, TRANPARENCY. The first image background is a very close zoom in to a black-and-white image and each image background zooms out to the final one. Only the last two images reveal the subject of the image: the photograph of the ripped condom used by Julian Assange during sexual intercourse with one of the women that subsequently accused him of rape, table by the Swedish police and published in their report. This was the final image of her lecture below.
The structure of the lecture is an assemblage really of separate elements she uses to launch her critique. In introducing her performance, she asks:
“On the road to freedom, one has to make sacrifices; but what remains when the way gets swampy and forks into affective structures? Rape can be performed in many ways.
So, what is missing? What are we looking for?
Has it been lost at all? Maybe it just multiplied, and stayed a much as it has gone away? Who knows?
We all create reality collectively and long ago have become zombies of transparency.”
Here, already I am baffled by the sentence “Rape can be performed in many ways.” I hadn’t thought about the “performativity” of rape. I make a mental note of this. Who “performs” during a rape? Can you perform before, during, or after a rape? What are the “many ways” a rape can be performed? This thought grabs me immediately at the start of her performance. But I relieve myself of it, thinking I got to be self-policing: this is the kind of thought that gets you into hot water: she must mean either literally the various categories of rape in Sweden, or this is some kind of allegory on reactive affect, discursive violence, a form of sexual misconduct, or again literally the case of broken trust found in a broken condom? I don’t have time to think, as Sollfrank swiftly moves on to the first section “INFORMATION,” where she talks about theoretical approaches to information: structure, knowledge, signal, message, meaning, process. In the sentence,“Julian Assange is accused of rape,” the information is coded in words and letters, the meaning of that structure is conveyed and at the pragmatic level, the receiver finds value in that information depending on whether he/she is interested in this person, his organization, what he represents, subjectively decoding this information to create meaning. The next piece of the puzzle is, of course, “ORGANISATION.” Sollfrank quotes the WikiLeaks organisation mantra: “One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Assange faced criticism for his centralised style of leadership in the organisation, which caused people to leave it. And obviously his political aims are somewhat inconclusive. Here, in this part of the lecture, I recognise my own writing, when Sollfrank says: “Maybe, the man and his organisation are an empty signifier, filled ideologically to reflect the discursive mood of anyone.” I had made that argument in ‘WikiLeaks Affects’ (2012), analyzing the diverse actors who supported Assange and the public feelings of him as a traitor or hero, the overflow of affective structures and the acceleration offered by digital networks (digital materialisation of the revolutionary virtual that may or not happen in the real).
But Sollfrank extends this argument by asking: “Why do they all express their particular feelings, even though these are uniformly rooted in their own individual causes and systems of belief?” Yes, what is at stake when Assange’s organisation jump-scaled globally after the release of the Collateral Damage video in 2010? Would the strong tradition of the women-protective Swedish state have taken on the same exact legal process for someone less than Assange? Letting him leave for the UK, after a police station visit, but then after the leaks occurred, recall him for further questioning? The saga between the Swedish government and Assange,culminated in Swedish prosecutors dropping their investigation into Assange, bringing to an end a seven-year legal standoff on May 19, 2017.4 In February 2018, a judge, nevertheless, upheld the warrant for his arrest. On 28 March 2018, Ecuador cut Assange’s Internet connection at its London embassy refuge “in order to prevent any potential harm,” caused by his social media posts denouncing the arrest of a Catalonian separatist leader, which Ecuador officials claimed “to put at risk” Ecuador’s relations with European countries. Assange might well be an obnoxious bastard to whom rape charges might be thrown at and dropped, but he becomes a target for Sollfrank for another reason…
This is where the performance goes SURREAL. Of the ONE and ZERO, Sollfrank makes beautiful poetry of this, in her “BINARY WORLDS” section:
“The man is the ONE, and ONE is everything. And the female has nothing you can see. Woman functions as a hole, a gap, a space, a nothing that is not the same, identical, identifiable, … a fault, a flaw, a lack, an absence outside the system of representations and auto-representations. Lacan lays down the law and leaves no doubt when he syas: ‘There is woman only as excluded by the nature of things. She is not “all,” “not whole,” “not-one,” and whatever she knows can only be described as “not-knowledge.” There is no such thing as THE woman, where the definite article stands for the universal. She has no place like home, nothing of her own, other than the place of the Other which,” writes Lacan, “I designate with a capital O.”
And it remains up to us, the audience, to make the association she would never express herself: the ONE mal god, is it him?
In “PURE DIFFERENCE,” Sollfrank finally gets irritated herself! “ONE, the definite, upright line; and ZERO the diagram or nothing at all: penis and vagina, thing and hole; a perfect match… Now the only thing that counts is whether there is something to see, and there seems to be something missing with the Zero. What makes the <woman> in this respect? …Why not admit that we are as blind for the invisible sexual difference as between a Zero and a ONE, because we always have to see pictures and that means something else?”
“CYBERFEMINISM” is brought in to help answer some of the questions here, but its focus has been how to use technology to fight “Big Daddy Mainframe,” technology as a way to dissolve sex and gender. The cyberfeminist techno-utopian expectations did not digitally or otherwise materialise, and Sollfrank asks: “What is between your legs NOW? Zeroes and ones? Liberated data? Digital slime? The warm machine still awaits your intention, but never forget the flesh.” What Sollfrank goes on to declare in “GENDER & TECHNOLOGY” is that “Big Daddy rules supreme.” That is my least favorite part of the lecture. Yes, engrained spheres of masculinity are still ubiquitous within all techno-cultures, and Sollfrank offers the GamerGate example with men harassing women, trolling, doxxing, cyberstalking, intimidation and policing experienced by women and queers are real. Indeed.
But here’s also where the binary lures to manifest itself. Extending Assange’s obnoxious techno-geek persona accused of rape and making him the master signifier of patriarchy reproduced in digital networks and especially technoculture would in turn reproduce exactly the same that fills the empty signifier Assange with the baggage of their own beliefs. Watch out and not fall into the same trap here, although it might be beautiful just to fall.
Sollfrank’s contribution here is really not on Assange’s signifier as a male God of ONE the personification of toxic masculinity, it is more her critique of his ideology of TRANSPARENCY, in the last section of her performance.
The inconvenient question remains, what information at which moment and from whom? If it is not related to a political goal, transparency becomes an end in itself – an ideology, and we: its zombies. With transparency as the new imperative: How do we distinguish … between accountability, surveillances and privacy invasion? Liberating public data and protecting private ones? All data are made of similar substance and follow the same logic; who might be able to stop the flow, once it is flowing? Who would want to interrupt the continuum, to crack and leak and disrupt the flow – of capital? No way!
The performance finishes with “Naked information is incapable of generating a myth, I live off that which others do not know about me. And will I ever know myself? In contrast to calculating, thinking is not self-transparent. There is nothing more intransparent than the subject to herself – no matter how much data I have and share. Information is just information, only once you know what you are looking for, the search can begin.”
Sollfrank’s performance approached information from all the sides she started with: structure, knowledge, signal, message, meaning, process. I had to reflect on why I never wrote about the Swedish case in all the scholarship I developed on WikiLeaks over the years. I felt Assange is an easy target to be used as a prop to talk about sexism reproduced in digital networks, techno-patriarchy and cyberfeminism, filling him in as an empty signifier to whatever the pet subject and the ideological discursive purpose happens to be. And yet, I think here Sollfrank does something brilliant, bringing a picture of the ripped condom as a background to her red-font words. Because she is connecting meanings to structures, material, affective, digital and interrogating trust, extending to the trust that a condom should not be ripped, interrogating the winner takes all justification register of transparency as an ideology, surveillance as the normal, and the end of secrecy, the quest of truth at all costs, even disrupting democracy, even the neoliberal capitalist kind. When there is no true self, even in itself, the search for lost information can be the point or utterly pointless, the same way as ZERO and ONE. This is what Sollfrank I think transformed with her art in my (post-cyberfeminist?) soul machinery.
Link to most recent performance at the hacker convention 35c3 in Leipzig:
Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester. Her work contributes to theorising cyberconflict, and exploring the potential of ICTs and network forms of organization for social movements, resistance and open knowledge production.
artist, researcher and university lecturer, living in Berlin (Germany). Recurring subjects in her artistic and academic work in and about digital cultures are artistic infrastructures, new forms of (political) self-organization, authorship and intellectual property, techno-feminist practice and theory. She was co-founder of the collectives women-and-technology, – Innen and old boys network, and currently is research associate at the University of the Arts in Zürich for the project ‘Creating Commons.’ Her recent book Die schönen Kriegerinnen. Technofeministische Praxis im 21.Jahrhundert was published in August 2018 with transversal texts, Vienna. For more information, pls visit: artwarez.org