In 1998, the Guggenheim awarded its first web commission to the artist and sci-fi filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang. Brandon was a groundbreaking cyberfeminist artwork in which a nonlinear narrative of trans identity, gender and technology unfolded in pop-ups, livestreamed conferences, and chat rooms. The work has recently been put back online. By Claire L. Evans
Brandon is named after Brandon Teena, the trans man raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993 after his anatomical sex was uncovered. In a cluster of java applets and digital performances, Shu Lea Cheang and collaborators explore Teena’s story, the techno-body, and the mournful Nebraskan plains of gender in cyberspace.
“No one, including myself,” Cheang said in 1998, “can claim to have viewed the entirety of the work.” In 2016, the same applies, only more so. Although Brandon’s web-based components are back online after intermittent disappearances (at their original url, brandon.guggenheim.org), the work also involved offline installations, events, and real-time digital interactions that can only be partially archived and cannot by their nature be recreated. It’s easy to be nonplussed by the website, too: I was, until I realized I was blocking popups. Box unchecked, they bloomed like spores. We’re less than twenty years out from Brandon, but the fluid physics of the Internet have changed.
Brandon has several interfaces, including roadtrip, which unspools along the broken yellow line of an information superhighway median, conceived to “upload Brandon onto the cyberzone where he would surf across Nebraska’s Route 75,” bigdoll, a “recombinant social body” of images that flip and reveal themselves like an untethered game of memory, panopticon, a prison whose cells contain jailed hermaphrodites and castrated sex offenders, and mooplay, a live chat interface which triggers texts commissioned from art writer Lawrence Chua, cyberpunk author Pat Cadigan, and Francesca da Rimini, a founding member of the Australian art collective VNS Matrix, who gave us the word cyberfeminism (I’m “a closet cyberfeminist,” Cheang confessed in 1998).
Even the most linear among these interfaces, roadtrip, branches and doubles back, with pop-ups prompting detours to digital pills, historical profiles of transgender people, a sliver of a search window (originally AltaVista, now Google) pre-populated with the name “Brandon Teena,” even an appearance by Venus Xtravaganza, Paris Is Burning’s tragic heroine, who was also murdered. A sign along the side of this road reads NO PASSING and leads to the panopticon, where clinical profiles lay bare stories of those who didn’t, in fact, pass. The mooplay interface is equally hypnotic: text scrambles and rescrambles with every click, words issuing without clear assignation; a cut-up automation of the persona play found all over Multi-User Domains in the 90s that augurs the bots populating the modern social web.
Designed to be collaborative, online and offline, multi-site, the work contains interactions, performances, and telepresences netlinking institutions with an online public. A major site was the Waag Society’s Theatrum Anatomicum in Amsterdam, where the bodies of criminals were first unpacked in front of a gallery of onlookers – a version of what happened to Brandon Teena. At the Theatrum Anatomicum, public forums on gender, crime, and the “digi-social body” were simulcast on a 75-screen videowall at the Guggenheim Museum as well as online, where spectators held court in live chatrooms.
catolu: *Where do we draw the line if the line is not linear or circular, but
catolu: spirals into cyberspace
catolu: and beyond.
Cheang’s inspiration for Brandon came after two pieces ran in the Village Voice: one, Donna Minkowitz’s coverage of Brandon Teena’s murder, and the second, Julian Dibbell’s canonical essay “A Rape in Cyberspace,” which chronicles the fallout in an object-oriented Multi-User Domain, Lambda-MOO, after a hacker uses a script to control other players like “voodoo dolls,” forcing them into degrading textual sex acts. Dibbell wrestles with the line between cybersex and cyberrape, but comes to understand that gender identities performed online are as deeply felt as anything in meatspace, that having those identities revoked without consent is a violation that cuts to the quick. This is precisely what happened to Brandon Teena: he was robbed of identity with a brute act of sexual violence. “Perhaps,” Dibbell suggests, “the body in question is not the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads – and that whether we present that body to one another as a meat puppet or a word puppet is not nearly as significant a distinction as one might have thought.”
As well as a moving and radical memorial to a murdered 21-year-old, Brandon mirrors, if not anticipates, the complexity of the Internet as medium – a distributed network with human beings at each terminal – and recursively, the complexity of the individual body, in relation to it all. By proposing an implicit analogy between the self-representational “psychic double” we all incant into online space and the one we carry with us, Cheang clears the path for a profusion of doubles, triples, and multiples, all in conversation. Not linear, not circular, but spiraling into cyberspace and beyond.
CLAIRE L. EVANS is co-author of the pop group YACHT. Her first book, a feminist history of the Internet, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. She is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles.