Rapping it up

BMoCA exhibition reframes technology from a feminist view

The Monico representation of Stupid Hoe by Nicki Minaj
Courtesy of BMoCA

Kelly Monico, Nebraska native though she may be, has always been a fan of rap — old school rap. Then the Metropolitan State University of Denver art professor encountered her first Nicki Minaj video on a student’s blog.

“I was disgusted, I was like, oh my gosh, there is so much self-objectifying and twerking,” she says, laughing at the word Miley Cyrus most recently popularized. “I thought, well, before I really judge here, I want to listen closer to her lyrics and see what the metaphors were that were happening, because I could tell there were some language layers and sexual politics. … And, I think, you know, her beats are really good.”

So Monico, who’s always looking for ways to represent data visually — for example, picturing a pie chart at a dinner party where someone is dominating the conversation — started looking for a way to create a visual sound score. She wrote a program that, when a song is played, represents the various lyrical components in different colors or shapes or patterns.

In the final product for Minaj’s “Stupid Hoe,” a swirl of black and gray semicircles is punctuated with semicircles in hot pink in a giraffe-like mottle and yellow and black tiger stripes — patterns drawn from the rapper’s decorative fingernails. The pink shapes are for uses of the word “hoe” in Minaj’s lyrics, the tiger-striped shapes for the word “bitch,” and all of them play out amid a backdrop of black and gray representations of Minaj’s self-aggrandizing lyrics.

“I really enjoy this idea of getting people to think about language and how you can give words power or take power away from specific words — you know, this idea of using ‘bitch’ so many times that it loses its sting, or it actually has a positive association just based on the adjective that you’re using before it or in that same sentence,” Monico says. “These hip-hop artists have reclaimed this misogynistic language and they’ve kind of flipped the script on it and taken ownership of these words.”

This year, on commission for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art’s Craft Tech/Coded Media: Women, Art & Technology, Monico completed “Bitches n’ Hoes,” a triptych of works addressing songs by female rappers, adding to Minaj’s with Azealia Banks’ “212” and Brooke Candy’s “Daz Me.”

“Kelly’s very interested in technology, and she uses technology in a sophisticated way to visualize what’s going on, but it’s this broader cultural theme that some people love, some people hate, some people don’t know anything about,” says Deanne Pytlinski, curator of the exhibition and associate professor of art history, theory and criticism and Metropolitan State University of Denver.

That tendency of female digital artists to engage in something a lot bigger than the medium at hand is the driving pulse behind Craft Tech. The galleries show women putting technology at work in delivering messages about, yes, how we use technology and how it shapes us and our view of ourselves, but also about the urgency of discussions about broader social issues, sexism and racism among them, as well as violence and environmental change. It is, arguably, a feminist take on predominantly masculine technology.

The exhibition moves from Monico’s work to Lynn Hershmann Leeson, who engaged more with the concepts of the potentially gender ambiguous, or at least gender neutralizing, cyborg and the distorted body image issues built by the media. Her photo montages attach television sets to female body parts, with the screen displaying a heavily mascara’d eye. Then it’s on to works by pioneering video artist Beryl Korot, who was creating some of her seminal works about the time fellow exhibition artist Krysten Cunningham was born, and returns to themes she started delving into decades ago about language and the relationship between ancient technologies, specifically weaving, and video technology, and the interconnected and, at times, cautionary tales associated with the embrace of technology.

From Korot it’s on to Marina Zurkow’s works on the environmental effects of oil and gas development and climate change.

They are, more than anything else, cautionary. Confident in their artistic choices, but a bit hesitant about the ways in which that same technology has been implemented to affect our world.

“The thread that I think collects a lot of this is these women artists all are looking at the theme of technology in a way that’s an alternative to that wholehearted celebration of the machine, this kind of progressivist attitude that was really strong throughout most of the 20th century and that’s been analyzed as being a very masculinist paradigm,” Pytlinski says.

Take the 2012 piece by emerging Denver artist Susan Hazaleus, “Nature Automated”: a platform scattered in black river rock with bird-like machines that flap tissue-paper wings as the viewer approaches, a futile attempt at taking off, or a final flap at landing or even death.

‘Nature Automated,’ 2012, by Susan Hazaleus | Courtesy of BMoCA

“Getting into digitally based and technology-based art, she was really struck by learning about the history of it, how this often manifested in these kinetic sculptures that were hard, shiny metallic sculptures and were very powerful, very masculine,” Pytlinski explains. “So she wanted to subvert that with these purposefully organic, delicate and even these frail and fragile little machines.”

Every screen, every text, every drink of water, is another way in which we engage with technology in our daily lives. But while it pushes into every day, the exhibition reminds us to not let the technology shape the mold into which we pour our lives, but to carve that shape ourselves and merely allow the technology to fill the space we provide.

“It’s a generalization, but I see a lot of media art done by male artists that’s about the medium itself — it’s this fascination with the technology and what they can do with the technology, and you don’t see any of these women artists just fascinated with the technology for its own sake,” Pytlinski says. “It always says something, does something, comments on something, or it attempts a more kind of humane connection.”

It’s attempting to reconcile the impossible, at times.

“Being a rap fan and being a feminist are two identities that are frequently in conflict with one another,” Monico says.

Her work is, at least, exploring the idea of merging equality for women and the rap world — it’s a probing analysis, she says, if not a statement.

At an expert talk at the museum on Nov. 14, Monico will be quizzed, Inside the Actors Studio-style, by fellow rap fan and self-proclaimed Kelly Monico expert Matthew Jenkins, and interrupted by the rap videos that sparked her work. It’s a chance to view the exhibition in a way that may make the experience more meaningful and more memorable, she says, in addition to allowing audiences to break down a few expectations.

Given the chance to curate, Pytlinski says, she knew she wanted to return to a study of women and technology that began with her dissertation on lesser-known women producing video art in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Women had been sort of socialized in the U.S. away from high tech, away from engineering, computers, so I wondered what it was like for women artists to work in this milieu when generally women had been socialized away from technology,” Pytlinski says.

The source for technology-based careers — math, science, engineering, computer programming — are still dominated by men. Even the art world, Monico says, is probably as disproportionately male as the computer programming world.

“So what happens when you open up the conversation to more players?” Pytlinski asks. “By opening that conversation about science, technology, so that we have women artists who talk about technology through the body, through the senses, through fiber, it makes a lot of us interact with science and technology in a much more intuitive way, where we might have been alienated from it with those very abstract kind of hard, masculinist approaches.”

Craft Tech/Coded Media: Women, Art & Technology is on view at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, located at 1750 13th St., Boulder, until Jan. 26. Tickets are $8. Kelly Monico will be speaking about her work at an expert talk at 6 p.m. on Nov. 14 at the museum. She will also participate in “Femcee: Lyrics decoded,” a panel discussion with hip hop artists and scholars, at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 23. Tickets are $15. Additional information is at www.bmoca.org.