Aleksandra Domanović: Mother of This Domain
by Monika Vrečar
One of the best views of Aleksandra Domanović’s show Mother of This Domain, while it was featured at Plug In ICA, in Winnipeg, wasn’t from the inside of the gallery. On pitch-black winter afternoons, accidental passersby could experience the piece Things to Come (2014) curiously spilling out of big glass windows on the east side of the exhibition space. From the sidewalk, a set of futuristic images printed onto thin sheets of polyester foil seemed ghostly, and appeared to be violating the familiar physicality of space. Inside, the installation gained some materiality. Hung from the ceiling, about 40 inches apart, soft transparent panels completely filled the room, and allowed just enough space for visitors to walk in between them, and get disoriented by the strange environment. Despite being presented in familiar formats – namely, as installations, sculptures, and video – all five works featured in Domanović’s show possess an uncanny digital dimension, allowing for unexpected connections between facts, probabilities and improbabilities, and generating a rich hypertextual interplay of perspectives.
Named after a 1936 sci-fi film written by H.G. Wells, Things To Come features carefully selected allusions to significant portrayals of women and technology in popular science fiction. One such allusion reproduces an image of the MedPod – a device for automated, generalized surgical procedures that the patient himself operates – from Ridley Scott’s 2012 Prometheus. And I do mean himself, for when the female protagonist tries to perform a life-saving caesarean on herself, the interface informs her that the machine has been programmed for male bodies only. In Domanović’s work, this notorious enmity between human and machine in sci-fi is rewired back to socio-cultural reality, and exposed largely as a gender tension. This makes sense, considering that not only are most sci-fi films directed by men but most devices are also indeed programmed by men. This tension reaches a culmination in a superimposed detail from the MedPod image, which places a woman quite bluntly in the role of a technological extension, and comes, alarmingly, from a real-life historical document. Sticking out of a slot in the MedPod, as if from a giant typewriter, a copy of a 1938 rejection letter, typed on letterhead adorned with Snow White imagery, confronts the viewer. This letter from Walt Disney Productions advises an aspiring animator, Miss Mary V. Ford, that “women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen as that work is performed entirely by young men.” Apparently, the only acceptable work for women consists of tracing the lines and colouring in, “according to directions.” This precious information-fossil resonatingly conveys the often-neglected aspects of modern knowledge production. Throughout modern history, and still today, women in the technological realm are widely abased to positions of automatic labour, commonly associated with robots. In fact, the word “robot” derives from the Slavic “rob,” meaning slave, and “robota,” meaning forced labour. At this point, the MedPod as typewriter – a technology that introduced women as extensions into the male-only business environment – sends a far-reaching intertextual message.
Aleksandra Domanović was born in the former Yugoslavia, the federation of countries best known for its largely popular form of communism, and brutal wars following the decline of the political system in the ’90s. I was born in Yugoslavia myself, and can confirm that this largely androcentric metanarrative is pretty much all that ended up in history textbooks. In the documentary video From yu to me (2013–2014), Domanović again digs up unexplored archival rarities, this time in connection with the little known establishment of Yugoslavia’s first Internet domain: .yu. Slovenia – the country where the domain was registered – exited the communist party just a few months later, and claimed state independence, precipitating the federation’s breakup. The mother of this domain, honoured in the exhibition title, is Borka Jerman Blažič, who along with another female computer scientist, Mirjana Tasić, was one of the administrators of the domain. Blažič later explained that the domain had to be set up virtually, guerrilla-style, as she was “fighting a war” with the political establishment. Yugoslavian officials were strongly in favour of setting the Internet server either in Belgrade, the federation’s political centre, or in its geographic center, Sarajevo. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the .yu domain lived a turbulent and politically charged life all the way until 2010, when it became the most heavily used top-level domain ever to be deleted. Contrary to common belief, Domanović shows again and again how the web was never a medium detached from systemic corporate and political realms. Furthermore, within such a mass of information created interactively, there are no trivial items. Highly personalized, culturally and contextually specific information constantly resists the standardizing process of so-called globalization.
This theme is restated in Domanović’s The Future Was at Her Fingertips (2013–ongoing), a simple document in the style of museum captions that presents a personalized timeline of locally consequential events and underrepresented turning points in the history of technology. For instance: “1843: Ada Lovelace writes what is considered to be the first computer program,” and “1963: Rajko Tomović develops one of the earliest artificial limbs with a sense of touch known as the ‘Belgrade Hand’.” Domanović often recontextualizes disregarded information with an aim to revive and preserve.Untitled (30.111.2010), is a monument to the terminated .yu domain. The relics of the domain’s online life are printed on the sides of tall stacks of office paper, forming embellished cuboidal columns. Appropriately, the piece is available in a downloadable digital file, so that anyone with an ordinary office printer, and a willingness to tinker with the settings, can create their own copies.
During an event in which she was invited to respond to Domanović’s exhibition, artist and academic T.L. Cowan – or rather, her performative alter-ego, Mrs. Trixie Cane – ironically quipped about the Untitled (30.III.2010) that women have finally learned how to use a printer. On a deeper level, however, she was right. By resetting the printer, Domanović manages to use its program in a highly improbable way, subverting the most expected, automatic outcomes embedded in the machine. I can’t think of a better way to resist the increasing tendency towards the standardization and automation of human creativity and knowledge production.
Mother of This Domain was also exhibited at Oakville Galleries at Centennial Square, Oakville March 20 – May 29, 2016