A Sept. 12, 2016 essay in the Guardian by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Addie Wagenknecht, Camilla Mørk Røstvik, and Kathy High discusses the festival’s top prizes and the preponderance of male winners (Note: Links have been removed),
Today [Sept. 12, 2016] is the last day of the annual Ars Electronica festival, held in Linz Austria. Over the past 37 years it has aimed to provide an environment of “experimentation, evaluation and reinvention” in the area broadly defined as art, technology and society. Its top award, the Golden Nica, honours forward-thinking work with broad cultural impact, in an effort to “spotlight the ideas of tomorrow.” However, the prize, hailed by many in the field as the top honour for artists working with science and technology, has a gender problem.
This was uncovered by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg after she received an honourable mention in the Hybrid Arts Category last year. The prize’s online archive showed that throughout its 29-year history, 9 out of 10 Golden Nica have been awarded to men.
It was only weeks before the festival and her work was already shipped. Unable to withdraw, Heather began discussing the problem with other artists to develop a plan. A painstaking review of the statistics confirmed that more than 90% of winners self-identified as male. Although fewer women had applied, there was no shortage of great female artists among the applicants: the archive included internationally recognized women such as Rebecca Gomperts, Lillian Schwartz, Mariam Ghani, Pinar Yoldas, Daisy Ginsberg, Holly Herndon, Kaho Abe, and Ai Hasegawa. In response, Heather and the other artists developed a social media campaign: #KissMyArs.
There was an interesting response to the campaign (Note: Links have been removed),
… While many were supportive, some voiced disagreement, including 2013 Golden Nica winner Memo Atken. He commented on what he viewed as the campaigners’ misrepresentation of statistics, focusing only on the winners rather than diversity of submissions. After being confronted with a significant backlash to these comments on social media, pointing out among other things that the prize was not a lottery and there was no shortage of impressive female applicants, Atken apologised.
On the flip side artists Golan Levin and Mushon Zer-Aviv critiqued the campaign as not being radical enough for their liking and calling for a “feminist revolution across media arts.”
The two artists criticizing the campaign are both male and far less likely to suffer the kind of repercussions that women do. From the Sept. 12, 2016 essay,
In an insular field like art and technology, making a statement means that you risk your career. Heather Dewey-Hagborg writes, “My participation in this campaign stemmed from a frustration that this highly esteemed prize was one designed for men, and others need not apply. As women in art and tech we are consistently under-recognised, under-funded, and written out of history. We are made to feel that our work must simply not be as good as that of our male peers, and if only we made better work we would attain the same accolades and accomplishments as they did. Last year I finally realised that this was bullshit.”
Addie Wagenknecht, a collaborator on the campaign, became aware of issues of gender bias in the tech industry when she joined a game development company out of college. Constantly surrounded by “a few thousand men” at game conferences started to feel suffocating, although a decade later she felt a shift in attitudes, not only toward women but also people of colour and from LGBTQ communities.
Nevertheless, Addie sees Ars Electronica’s top prize, as “the perfect metaphor of how women are represented”. It is a golden sculpture of an idealised female form, with her head cut off: “I find the irony in the ‘award’ being of a headless woman, to speak volumes towards how we commodify women within the communities in which we claim to be honouring.” She sees the male-bias of the prize as connected to a larger systemic problem which excludes women from exhibitions, under-cuts and discounts women’s work in galleries, and ultimately cuts women out of the larger canon of contemporary art.
The systemic issues mentioned by Dewey-Hagborg and Wagenknecht can also be seen in the world of film. A July 12, 2016 article by Nico Lang for Salon.com discusses film criticism in the context of the ‘all women Ghostbuster’ reboot (Note: Links have been removed),
After months of fanboys arguing over a movie no one has even seen, critics finally got a peek at Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot, in which comedians Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy suit up to fight the supernatural. And much to the relief of everyone who has spent months preparing themselves for the worst, the consensus is mainly positive: The film currently holds a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
There is, however, a growing gender divide over the film’s reception. As of the time of writing, the film’s scores from female reviewers are considerably higher, with 84 percent of women giving the movie a thumbs up. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek comments, “The movie glows with vitality, thanks largely to the performers, who revel in one another’s company.” Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis writes that it’s “cheerfully silly” and Kate Muir of U.K.’s The Times says it’s a “rollickingly funny delight.”
On the flip side, 77 percent of the critics who gave the film a thumbs down are male.
Roger Ebert’s one-time sidekick, Richard Roeper, called it a “horror from start to finish,” while David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter referred to “Ghostbusters” as a “bust.” That disparity has hampered the film’s reception: Currently, there’s a 10 percentage point difference between male and female opinion on the movie. If reviewing were left up to male critics alone, “Ghostbusters” would have a 74 percent approval rating.
What gives? As Meryl Streep pointed out in a 2015 speech, this discrepancy is likely due to the fact that in a way, these critics are watching two different movies.
“Women are so used to that active empathizing with the active protagonist of a male-driven plot,” Meryl Streep said during a 2015 panel. “That’s what we’ve done all our lives. You read history, you read great literature, Shakespeare, it’s all fellas. But they’ve never had to do the other thing. And the hardest thing for me, as an actor, is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like. That’s a really hard thing. It’s very hard thing for them to put themselves in the shoes of female protagonist.”
Because men are commonly treated as the default in movies—the everyman who stands in for the audience—they rarely are forced to empathize with others’ perspectives. If cinema does not reflect men’s experiences, it can, thus, be difficult for male audience members to see themselves in the picture in the way women are forced to. That affects not only the way that men interact with movies but also how they review them.
I wonder if this same type of bias, the man’s perspective and approach to art and technology as the default might also affect the Ars Electronica prize system?
In any event, there’s much food for thought in both the Guardian piece (which offers some suggestions for positive change) and the Salon piece (which has some fascinating statistical information on how female critics and male critics differ in their judgments).