Live male seeks dead female: Women, technology and manufacturing

This essay is an extract from a text that has recently featured in Liverpool Art Journal. It comments on the performances of Mexican born artist Coco Fusco and her critical opposition to notions of ‘disembodiment’ that were frequently touted in late 1990s digital theatre theory. Highlighting the subjugated female workers who manufacture the computer hardware that powers our digital age, Fusco raises questions about the industrialized processes that underpin our highly technologized society and about the role of women within them.

In her persuasive essay, At Your Service, Latin Woman in the Global Information Network, Coco Fusco recalls an indent from the history of performance art which serves as an allegory for her entire output on the subject of the interface between the female body, technology and performance.

In 1980 a male artist from Los Angeles subjected himself to an act of physical mutation at the hands of medical science.He had a vasectomy procedure that was videotaped for public viewing, prior to which he confessed to having ejaculated into the body of a dead Mexican woman as a prelude to the operation.He declared that this act of sexual deviancy had been committed inside Mexico, where he had gained access to the woman’s body on the condition that he made no visual record of his violation of the corpse.He did, however, make an audio recording that was played as a soundtrack during his time in the operating theatre.

Speaking in response to this work Fusco describes

An artist exhibiting a portrait of himself on the operating table willingly turning himself into an object of medical science to express his desire to detach himself from his body’s procreative function, playing the tape of his transgressive rejection of his generative capacities – a gesture that required that another place and another person serve him in silence and then, disappear.1

Through this allusion to the ‘disappearance’ of the dead Mexican woman, Fusco references the physical processes that facilitate the existence of highly technologized society.She imagines the dead Mexican as a prototype for the kind of servile, hierarchical relationships that are inevitable within all of humanity’s interactions with technology.The abused corpse symbolizes the thousands of workers employed in the maquiladoras where the hardware of the digital revolution is assembled. In an interview with Juha-Pekka Vanhatalo, Fusco describes the maquiladoras in the border zones of Mexico where “female workers have no privacy, no time to go to the bathroom, no opportunity to talk during work, few breaks, and little control over their work situation”.2With no physical or social autonomy, these women represent the antithesis of all of the freedoms heralded by digital technology’s aspiration to ‘disembodiment’ and by the internet’s supposed ability to surpass physical and social boundaries.

Paul Virilio, in his book from 1991, The Aesthetics of Disappearance describes the link between manufacturing and the body as a corporal bond that can be observed as early as “Ford’s social project for the American Economy (that) announced already the synergy being formed between techniques of production, the manufactured object and corporeity itself.”3 Historically, mass production binds bodies and machines in a relationship of mutual dependency, which is as necessary now as it was for early Fordist production.In spite of the advanced state of modern manufacturing, machines still require operators and employers are at liberty to exploit bodies in sweatshops that we rarely see.Yet, as Fusco herself observes, the common supposition that globalized technologies such as the internet afford humankind the possibility of liberation from physical and social limitations, neglects not only the immediate history of the computer as a manufactured object but also the hierarchical relationships of exploitation over bodies that facilitate mass production on a worldwide scale:

The abundance of descriptions of net communication as structurally anti-authoritarian, decentralized, “rhizomatic,” open-ended, flowing, as if it followed some force of nature, are effectively diverting attention from the centralized economic formations that sustain it.In the same way that concentrating solely on what we see on the screen suppresses the status of the computer as a manufactured object, formalist fixation of the net we use as consumers or make a living off as designers obfuscates the political and economic realities out of which digital media and telecommunications emerge4

Dolores 10h to 22h:A Storey That No One Saw

In Dolores 10h to 22h, Fusco attempts to make the unseen realities of hardware manufacturing visible, by performing online, a story of exploitation “that no one saw.” Developed from a story about a maquiladora worker who was locked up in a small room at work without food, water or bathroom access and terrorized into confessing to trying to unionize her factory, the performance attempts to highlight the figure of the exploited female worker and her physical subjugation at the hands of her employer.Playing Dolores, Fusco was locked away under guard for a period of 12 hours consecutively; during which time none of her bodily needs were tended.She was denied food and bathroom access thus reaffirming the urgency of her bodily functions.Periodically her male guard, who relentlessly attempted to incite false confessions to fallacious crimes, subjected her to periods of physical abuse.Audience members witnessed Fusco’s gradual subordination to her guard: the manager of the maquiladora where her fictitious crimes had taken place.Events were filmed on four CCTV cameras positioned inside of her cell that streamed the images live to the internet.Here an online audience could observe the abuses in the moment that they occurred.Representing the habitual maltreatment of female workers that underscores the digital hardware industry, the performance was a very public manifestation of the virulent physical injustices that often underpin globalized mass production.

The internet user is confronted with the political realities that facilitate widespread use of the network in our global economy and with the figure of subjugated women who facilitate our ongoing consumption of this network. For most consumers who use the internet on a daily basis for working and socializing, the net may represent accessibility, visibility and freedom of information, yet as Fusco asserts:

In the recent rush to celebrate the expanded communication potential afforded by new technologies, we often assume that the increased circulation of information necessarily yields enhanced possibilities of substantive intercultural interaction.It is time to ask ourselves how much we want to know about what we ask to see.5

Featured image: Coco Fusco: The Incredible Disappearing Woman (2003)


1 Fusco, Coco, The Bodies That Were Not Ours p192

2 Vanhatalo, Juha-Pekka, Coco Fusco – Life Under Surveillance

3 Virilio, Paul, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p86

I must stress here that in Ford’s system workers existed as worker-consumers, thus making their relationship to embodied labour different to that of the maquiladora worker. In Ford’s social project the workers who produced the objects also used their wages to consume the cars that they had produced.Thus this manufacturing system is structured differently.None the less, the co-dependence of mechanism and body remains the same.

4 Fusco, Coco, The Bodies That Were Not Ours p191


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