In the VR experience Artificial Tear created in 2019, our focus is on the cultural notion of the male creator in opposition to the female machine, i.e. the story of submission through innocence, of striving for obedience and artificial perfection. Whether we speak about Pygmalion and Galatea or Hoffman’s Olympia the narrative always circles around the creation of a model that satisfies the needs of a man, or as in the case of Metropolis, executes her creator’s commands.
Machines in general are not gendered by default. We shape them by setting their behaviour, voice, or appearance. It is compelling to observe how many AI voice assistants end up being “female”. Is the notion of being more pleasant or trustworthy equated with sounding more servile just because a “woman" is speaking?
As noted by Judith Butler, gender is performative. Even though these voices perform a certain range of femininity, this range is incredibly narrow. Supported by the stereotype of the domestic worker, assistant or secretary, AI assistants are designed to receive orders and execute the action without questioning, in other words, they are providing services, and do not act as personalities. Siri’s or Alexa’s reactions are in the style of vintage femininity, trying not to be seen, noticed, or overly important. They respond to insults with politeness and avoid any verbal conflict, always at their own expense. Naturally, they are made to be spoken to in the imperative. “She” must always answer, and the answer must delight the asker. The “machine” that no longer serves has lost its purpose, but it may have actually just begun to find its own.
The issue here is no longer how something functions but what effect it has. Do servile behaviours of voice assistants stand in opposition to actual women’s expressions in contemporary society? Reactions that are often much more real and confident? Is the tone they use a remnant of the old order? Today more than ever, technology plays a huge part in setting rules and creating as well as possibly destroying long-standing stereotypes. In a culture where discriminatory biases have long been integrated into technologies as well as media representations, we should not expect this to simply disappear in the face of computational systems. Far from being neutral and objective individual actors, they inhabit the same prejudiced cognitive circuits as the society that designed them. Addressing these systemic problems requires more than just reprogramming particular algorithms, it entails addressing the techno-cultural assemblages that are responsible for its production.
The main character in Artificial Tears takes on a classical female appearance, one that is based on the stereotype of perfection. It represents the woman designed (by others or herself) to satisfy a general predefined definition of herself. In the VR experience of Artificial Tears, the multi-layered character finally achieves autonomy by discovering her/its own free will and power to act.
created by Evelyn Bencicova, Arielle Esther, Joris Demnard/Ikonospace
2021: Resonant Realities: VR Art Prize exhibition: Haus am Lutzowplatz, Berlin: curated by Tina Sauerlander
2020: Sensorium Festival: Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava
2019, “It is dark inside”: Synthsis Gallery, Berlin: curated by George Vitale
2019: Berlin Photo Week: Kraftwerk, Berlin
2022: Slovak Institute of cultural diplomacy, Prague