I’ve just come up for air again, after a long period of dedicated art production. And boy did I feel the burn out this time around. Most of us know how that looks and feels, in one way or another. I tell myself it gets easier as I get older, but that might be a little white lie I tell myself in the shower, so I don’t end up in my dressing gown instead of my overalls. It’s not quite the apocalypse, but the house is indeed a mess, the loved ones are neglected, the body aches, and there are bills that still need to be paid, even if the art isn’t selling as fast as it needs to be. How did I get here?
Something in my mind is telling me I need to slow down or even stop, but something in my heart says that I absolutely cannot. I have been here before. I will be here again.
It’s not a secret that I am a feminist, because I am not the kind of feminist that can keep something like that a secret, if there is any such thing as that kind of feminist, at all. As an artist, I can sometimes get frustrated that I constantly find myself returning back to the question of gender and sex, when there are plenty of other topics I’m interested in exploring. I’m actually interested in a lot of other things, yet here I am, years out of university, far away from any cultural or gender studies department, still a feminist artist, making work about what it means to be and to look like like a woman. And then I find myself, after all these years, still talking about that. Why is that?
Some time ago, I started writing a thesis, and there is a story about how I came to settle on my topic. I will aim to keep it short. Although I couldn’t recall what it was at the time, something very terrible happened to me, that my brain hid from me, and I suffered something that people had a tendency to call a “mental breakdown” back in those days. Nowadays we are calling it “trauma”, and it is a bit more acceptable to actually talk about it at work - a bit.
I went to see the doctor. I was fortunate, being a student, that I could see one for free at my university campus. Well, that is what I thought at the time, whether or not it turned out that way. I told him how I was feeling, how I had been behaving, and that I was not really sure what had happened to me or what was wrong. He looked perplexed and said that it was best that we tested me for syphilis. A week later I went back to get the result. Alas, it wasn’t syphilis, funnily enough, and he offered me another explanation. He looked at me frankly, without batting an eyelid, and asked, “Do you believe in fate?”. Too dissociated to be surprised, I said that I wouldn’t say that, but it as it turned out, I was writing a thesis about it, and I’d get back to him in three years. A lot of things happened in those three years, but one thing that sure as rain didn’t, was me going back to see that doctor ever again.
That was also only a decade ago.
A decade ago a few technologically savvy people were dating online, but it was hardly the mainstream practice that is has become nowadays. The more common way of meeting sexual partners was going to gigs or parties or pubs. These were the old days, when people did that. Now, when talking to people in my generation, those days seemed to be missed, and we seem to long for them even more whenever it comes up in conversation the dangers and pitfalls of meeting people online first. But, a decade ago, there were still rapists, and ghosts, and narcissists, and sociopaths, and psychopaths, and players, and fuckboys, not to rain on anyone’s pre-Tinder parade.
A few years ago, I was reminded of what that free student clinic doctor had diagnosed me with again: my fate. I met a man online, and when we met in person, things quickly went awry. It’s a long story, but the short version is that he drugged me, held me captive, satisfied his own perverse desires, and then left me in a traumatised state. I remained alone in this state for almost a week. It took me some time to realise what had happened, and by then it was too late. I went to the emergency department of the hospital, had some counselling with a social worker, and then the police were there. I was tested for drugs and by that time there was no trace, and nor was there DNA evidence either. I left the hospital, too scared to go home alone, so I stayed at a friend’s house. The next day I was at the Spencer Street station giving my statement. It was my word against his, and unfortunately for me, I was not making myself very clear.
Coincidentally (depending on who you talk to), when this happened, I was in the midst of working on a project about dating, using the Tinder interface to produce fictionalised, humorous profiles of various personas I had observed and I was sharing them on social media. Although some of these same, usually educated, people were laughing at this time, I was also told by some of them that this is why this happened to me. Apparently, I had brought this on myself. If I hadn’t been 1. using an online dating app and 2. making intelligent commentary about dating, making myself stand out as a feminist, this never would have happened. As my good friend and colleague, wisely said, feminism was the new mini skirt.
I knew it wasn’t true that is was my own fault, because a decade ago something similar had happened, as well. I didn’t remember it at the time, but after the incident of 2016, it all came flooding back. That first chapter I wrote in my thesis about fate, about trauma and repressed memory, all of a sudden made more sense to me than it had ever before, and I wondered how I had ever got to the end of a 50 000 word document without it ever coming up.
The brains of men are truly remarkable, equally so those of women, even if they haven’t exactly always been treated that way.
My memory returns to my thesis, my musings on fate, and I remember my Femme Fatalist, from my past. My femme fatalist subverts the figure of the femme fatale, the figure of male fantasy, and shifts her discourse towards that of a woman who exists in the world knowing she is both the object and subject of that fate. Whilst appearing fatalistic at the same time, in her knowing and owning of her own inevitable objectification, she is both empowered and, in being so, a symbol of female power. (Or, so I said, in my feminist thesis, back in circa 2009.)
Then, eventually the time came, around the same time that #metoo finally hit Australian’s Facebook feeds, for me to put what I’d written into practice, for real, in my career. For all I’ve done, including at least thirty-six years, and now some more, in a female body, decades of fighting for my place in the world, and a PhD thesis heavily peppered with theories of subjectivity, it still wasn’t enough. Despite me doing something obviously original, that no one else appeared to be doing, it appeared from what people said to me online that what I needed more than anything else, more than respect, more than recognition as a thinker, an artist and a scholar, was advice. Of course, as a feminist, I didn’t agree.
Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn are full of advice, so much so that they don’t really appear to be about anything else. How often do you see an article shared that isn’t some sort of how-to guide to success, written by yet another expert or influencer peddling their master class? I’ve even written those kinds of articles myself, and at least about things that I actually knew something about. What happens when we write about a problem that needs to be solved, and there isn’t yet a formula to follow? What happens whether or not we strive to present ourselves as experts when we put ourselves out there in the world?
In my book Tinder Lucida, which can be read as a catalogue for The Tinder Project as an exhibition, I capture a range of strategies to unpack the complexities of gender discrimination in a dating context. During the course of the project, I extended this discourse into the context of friendship circles by using Facebook as a platform to share my work. By doing this, as a professional artist, using a social networking platform to showcase my work, I further exposed the way we are discriminated at work as well. Some, if not many men want to believe that these issues are separate, that how they treat us in a dating context, as friends and in the workplace are different, that they can be separated, but as a woman I know too well that they are rarely separate at all. It is not a coincidence that women are generally paid less, and hold fewer of the highest paid jobs. It just is not. There IS a direct link between inequality in the workforce and the violence women are subjected to by men in our “private” lives as well. Of course there is. I am so sure of this, that I am not even going to quote facts or figures. I also know too well what great bait that is for misogynist trolls, but that is not my point.
A conversation is still happening, amongst women, amongst feminists, about how men with power (and also some women - but that’s another topic) are continuing to adversely impact on women’s careers, and affecting us financially, and it’s not only happening because women aren’t being hired to do the work. It’s still happening because women are being attacked for doing the same things as men, like commenting online and engaging in debate. What we are seeing happening online is what is still happening behind closed office doors, and in board rooms too. It’s happening because women are still expected to work harder than men, and when we do, and we succeed, we become targets to mob and bully and siege. What is happening online is still happening offline too, and it’s happening whether sexist, misogynistic men have power or not.
All these years later, I remain a staunch femme fatalist, a fatalist in the simplest and literal sense - someone who believes in fate. Fate is a story we use to make sense of our lives, and fate is also a word we use to denote significance to certain life events, as well. Of course, there is also the common use of the word fate that undermines the fatalist - someone who is seen as merely negative or pessimistic. I have been told that one likes a fatalist on social media, because what we expect from social media is endless reams of uplifting memes and motivational posts. As it turns out, not only am I a fatalist, but I am also a feminist, and knowing what I know about the world, I am more than happy to tempt my own.
Tinder Lucida, the book, launches in May and is available from Disruptor Press. It contains an edited archive of images from The Tinder Project and exhibition and a Q and A with independent curator, Kit Ball, who hosted me in Sydney at TAP Gallery.