The Great Gender Hack
British/Japanese artist/engineer Sputniko! thinks it might be possible to hack gender in a future where biology can be overcome.
Sputniko! is in a league of her own, cross-examining multiple genres in technology, science, art, biology and society in creating her avant-garde artworks. “For feminism to spread in Japan, we have to reach a bigger audience and prove it’s not about how you look. It’s the way you think and act,” she explains. Ironically, Sputniko! uses superhero storylines and anime outfits in order to foster awareness. British/Japanese by origin, she has presented her film, performance and installations internationally in museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. As an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, she feeds into a discussion about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of emerging technologies. Billionaire caught up with her.
You are known for your film and multi-media installations inspired by how technology changes societies and people’s values, focusing on gender issues.
Even though stereotypes have slowly begun to subside and women have gained more rights as equal counterparts to men, there is no denying that men and women are different. Women have menstrual periods, we are fertile, we give birth. Biologically, we can’t alter these facts. No matter how we dispute gender roles, biological identity cannot be challenged. Or, so we thought. I have been studying science and technology, and have begun to think it is possible to hack gender. One example is taking birth-control pills; some are even designed to completely eliminate menstruation. Through my artwork, I want to express how with the power of science and technology, biology can not only be modified, it can be overcome. This is what inspired me to create my artwork Menstruation Machine. In order to be ‘genderless’, it is crucial to first create equality. I wanted to nurture empathy among men to better understand women. The device attaches to the user’s waist and uses electrodes to stimulate a dull pain in the abdomen while also dribbling blood between the legs. I also made Cybernetic Penis: an artificial erection machine connected to a heartbeat. When the heartbeat rises, the artificial penis erects. This is a way for a female to experience the sexual arousal of a man.
Art and science are considered polar opposites. You are both an artist and a professor working with engineering students. How do you balance the two disciplines?
I’m an accidental artist. I never thought of becoming one. My aim has always been to explore concepts in alternative ways. There is no clear boundary between my experimentation and artistic expression — both are ways of investigating the world. Artists don’t need to prove anything, that’s why we can free the mind more efficiently than researchers. An artist with ‘illogical’ ideas can inspire a scientist to think outside the box. It’s quite fascinating when you combine the two fields.
When discussing equality between the sexes, some perceive a need for women to be more like men. In your artworks, you have often played a male character to convey your message. How can women empower themselves in society as women?
The penis project was about trying to experience having a male organ. I don’t particularly want to be become a man and women shouldn’t have to become like men. How should we aspire to exist in society? We should celebrate who we are: man, woman, and the LGBT community. The mission is about having fair rights to have dreams. I want to encourage women to find their own way to attain goals. It’s not a man’s world anymore.
Do you think as women we have innate and special traits compared to men?
Yes, definitely. We have the ability to balance things and think in parallels. Even to start the day, we need to consider make-up and etiquette, which would not be the case for men. Also, getting our period is not a great feeling but it’s an exercise to remind us that we are human. I think men have a tendency to be overachievers and feel like ‘superman’.
Could you tell us about us about projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on a project called Cultured Meats. There are researchers working to create meat from meat cells, eliminating the need to kill animals — an ethical alternative for animal rights and vegetarians. NASA is also thinking about building a huge tank on Mars that can produce meat cells for astronauts to consume. Even in the fashion world, I want researchers to create garments and materials to wear using meat cells. Then the issue with wearing ‘leather’ will be resolved. My ultimate goal is to use my own cell to recreate human meat. Also, I want to be a cyborg. I guess realistically it will be more like a hybrid: a man-made machine of a human. We are all partially cyborgs already with all the technological gadgets we carry on ourselves. A day will come when we customise and build in appliances to our bodies, such as prosthetics and interchangeable body parts. It will be out of choice when we upgrade our bodies as we do our mobiles.