In celebration of Queer History Month 2023, Nxt Museum is proud to invite Art Writer and team member Matti Sturt-Scobie to reflect on the relationship between technology, art and the queer body and our current exhibition.
‘A Queer Reading: UFO – Unidentified Fluid Other‘
by Matti Sturt-Scobie
Nxt Museum is the home of new media art in the Netherlands. As the name implies, its fascination lies in what comes next. They explore the relationship between technology and how it is shaping society. Their goal is to use art to imagine, to question and to anticipate: what opportunities and challenges lie in our future?
For some, technology today is becoming so advanced that it seems hard to understand how it works without a degree in computer science. However, through their awareness of the problems we face and the strength of art as a tool for communication, I believe Nxt Museum can play an important role in overcoming this. This Queer History Month, I’ve created this guide exploring the relationship between technology, art and the queer body.
1. What Queer Hands Built: 6 pivotal figures that made the computer science we know today
2. A Legacy Under Threat
3. Big Tech, Small Hands 😉
4. Memory & Power
5. A Queer Reading of UFO: Unidentified Fluid Other
6. Harriet Davey’s Viatrix’s Odyssey
7. Ksawery Kirklewski’s ENTER
9. Lu Yang’s Great Adventure of Material World
8. Jacolby Satterwhite’s Birds in Paradise
9. The Gathering Place
10. Julius Horsthuis’ Foreign Nature
11. OSEANWORLD’s Nu Radio World Tour
12. No Tomorrow or New Tomorrow
— What Queer Hands Built: 6 pivotal figures that made the computer science we know today
From the birth of the first computer, through to the web we know today, the minds of the marginalized have been integral to the creation of the tech we take for granted. We see this in figures like Alan Turing, a pioneering mathematician – often called the “father of computer science”. Alongside his contribution to decoding Nazi communication during world war two, Turing is thought to have been the first to articulate a firm concept of the computer algorithm, creating some of the earliest research on neural nets: the theoretical foundation of machine learning and artificial intelligence.Further than Turing, many queer figures living and past have contributed to the technology we know today.
Sofia Kovalevskaya (b.1850)
A Russian mathematician denied formal education due to the social rules of her time concerning women in academia. She is remembered for her contribution to differential equations and mechanics. These mathematical principles are core to the workings of today’s computer vision, machine learning and numerical analysis.
Edith Windsor (b. 1929)
Computer programmer and physicist Edith Windsor was a key figure in the arena of systems architecture, the implementation of operating systems and natural language processors. She became a significant ambassador in the civil rights movement in response to her employer IBM not allowing her partner to receive her insurance benefits. This resulted in Windsor being made the lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, whose landmark victory helped overturn the homophobic Defense of Marriage act in the USA.
Peter Landin (b.1930)
Peter Landin was a British computer scientist who made history when he realised the mathematical logic system the lambda calculus could be used to model a programming language. This was an essential step in the development of programming as a practice, because it showed how abstract mathematical equations could become computer instructions, later influencing the now widely used Python and F# coding languages.
Lynn Conway (b. 1938)
The American computer scientist Lynn Conway invented generalised dynamic handling, a new way to command a computer to run the instructions it is given. Today, this process is used by most modern computers to improve efficiency. Later, she would contribute to a revolution in our understanding of microchips that would allow for much greater participation in their design by students at universities across the world as well as various important tech start-ups of the 80’s and 90’s.
John “Maddog” Hall (b.1950)
John Hall is credited as a significant figure in the success of the Linux operating system. Working with Linux’s founder Linus Torvalds, it was Hall that helped obtain the equipment and resources necessary for Linux’s success today. Hall continues to work as a prominent advocate for the development of open source hardware and software internationally.
Sophie Wilson (b. 1957)
Sophie Wilson is a computer scientist who wrote pioneering new programming languages for micro-computers whose architecture would later become popular in smartphones. Alongside Steve Furber (b. 1953), Wilson designed the BBC micro: a series of computers that used her “Acorn” programming language. These computers were adopted by most British schools for teaching and learning. As one of the earliest and widely adopted computers, it brought computers into the hands of the public for the first time.
Though the contents of this article focuses specifically on queer individuals, the contributions of people of colour throughout history are equally immense.
— A Legacy Under Threat
We see above that the history of computer science is incredibly queer. The work and advocacy of these figures created both the legal protections we have today: from the homophobia, misogyny and transphobia they experienced in their time; and the very technologies we hold in our hands. Though, there is work to be done. Diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries continues to be sorely lacking1. In terms of class, race, gender and sexuality these industries are still dominated by a class of wealthy, straight and white men. We can see that beneath the success of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates lies a foundation laid by queer hands and people of colour, largely forgotten to history. This centralisation of power, deference to these figureheads and the young men that idolise them, has led to a culture of ultra-productivity, misogyny, racism and hubris2. At Meta, Google and Microsoft among others, there have emerged countless instances of whistleblowers highlighting the toxicity of the workplace for women and minorities. Frighteningly, even instances where concerns over the implementation and consequence of new technologies are either ignored or silenced 3,4.
1.STEM’s racial, ethnic and gender gaps are still strikingly large, Science News
2.The details behind Google’s toxic workplace culture, Axios
3.The Facebook Whilstleblower Frances Haugen, Time
4.I’m the Google whistleblower. The medical data of millions of Americans is at risk, The Guardian
— Big Tech, Small Hands
This is largely the cause of the challenges we face today: the power of big tech creating escalating social problems.
When many voices become few, when datasets used to train computer vision are dominated by cis-gendered, white faces: those who are different become (sometimes literally) invisible..
At this very moment, people of colour are being denied jobs because a CV reading algorithm (in spite of their qualifications) attributes undesirable characteristics to a racially coded name. This same process denies them placements at university, while inaccurate facial recognition software accuses people of crimes they didn’t commit. Along similar lines, under the guise of “protecting childhood innocence” Google and Meta have created frameworks where queer individuals and queer creatives are silenced or banned altogether without recourse 5,6. Artwork featuring nudity, sex-education platforms, even Instagram posts celebrating queer love find themselves “disappeared” from the internet. Stringent safe-search algorithms are often poorly trained and thus “adult” content filters do not know how to process queer content. The problems within these technologies are first and foremost the result of the homogenous pool of perspectives that designed them: from highschool through to the job market, STEM subjects and industries having become both inaccessible and inhospitable to marginalised voices that could inform more inclusive decision making.
For more reading around this, see:
I’m a Queer Feminist Artist. Why Are My Paintings Censored on Social Media? Hyperallergenic
An Investigation into Algorithmic Bias in Content Policing on Instagram Saltyworld
For a deep dive on how overactive sex-censorship impacts our experience of the internet see Violet Blue’s article How Sex Censorship Killed the Internet We Love Engadgement
— Memory & Power
I believe museums can use their voice to overcome this. It is museums that write history – what we choose to remember and what is left to be forgotten: what stories are told. Museums have the power to shape cultural and national identity, often weaponised by whatever government is in power to write the history they want to present. At Nxt Museum we seek out and platform diverse and outsider voices: precisely those voices often rejected from this arena. These creatives (often self-taught) work at the front lines of these technological debates. Where elsewhere they might be denied representation because they are early in their career or deemed too avant garde for conventional spaces, Nxt Museum gives them space. By doing this, they not only revive the queer history that is lost, but show through art that it continues to thrive today: it is still being written. To avoid a future of technologically exaggerated inequality, we need to inspire and educate a generation ready to tackle these issues.
— A Queer Reading of UFO: Unidentified Fluid Other
Technology seems to evolve so rapidly that as soon as we feel we have understood a concept, a new one comes along. Nxt Museum, seeks out ways to immerse the audience in this seemingly inaccessible world and leave with a sense of curiosity and power. The current exhibition UFO – Unidentified Fluid Other, is composed of artists and collaborations working to explore the impact of new virtual worlds on identity. Identity, being a patchwork of concepts including (but not limited to) gender, sexuality and class: that which defines individuals and the communities they belong to.
During the years of the corona pandemic, Nxt Museum Curator Bogomir Doringer noticed an uptake in the volume of people participating in these new virtual worlds. This was evident in the numerous ways the public and its artists gravitated (often by the necessity of social distancing) to the metaverse and to social media. Technologies such as 3D modelling and animation, gave these artists a new palette of tools that have only become widely accessible in recent years. Through UFO – Unidentified Fluid Other, we can begin to examine the social consequences of this engagement: the opportunities and challenges presented with this intensified immersion in digital realms.
— New hybrids: Harriet Davey’s Viatrix’s Odyssey
As soon as you enter Nxt Museum – if you’re reading this whilst visiting, your eyes will likely gravitate to the living monument guarding the exhibition hallway. This is Viatrix, the gender non-conforming avatar of artist Harriet Davey. Viatrix lives in a hybrid state: neither male nor female, humanoid yet alien. This towering modern faun is much like other creatures we are familiar with: the centaur, harpy and the chimaera. These creatures were made to tell stories; to express the duality within people and the power of nature. Here, we can see how CGI offered Davey the tools to create a new mythology, one where the possibilities of new technology have provided us new ways to manifest the multitudes within the self.
Where we might experience discomfort or dysphoria in the ways we are alienated from society, digital space frees our imagination to create worlds where we exist without constraints of society and the body. Further than fiction on a screen or page; video games and VR allow us to live within these spaces and become the creatures that inhabit them.
Throughout Nxt Museum, ‘Transition Rooms’ punctuate the exhibition route. These provide a space to inform and refresh after viewing each artwork. Within them, you’ll find Viatrix, who presents you with a new chapter of an explorational tale, with Creative Writer Julia-Beth Harris narrating Viatrix’s journey. The story speaks to a world where technology dissolves our notions of identity, here becoming fractal and fluid. Using face and body-tracking software to animate 6 iterations of Viatrix, Davey inhabits them. In doing so, identity becomes cyborg: physical and digital tied together through new interfaces. In writer Donna Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” it is argued that the cyborg will save society. It is only through a melting of social boundaries: human/animal, male/female, human/machine, that we can begin to truly understand one another and emancipate each other. In doing so, we can solve the various social, economic and ecological crises we experience today. In this way, Viatrix is a cyborg to their core.
On this odyssey, “IRL” (in real life) and the digital coexist, the freedoms of the digital becoming an extension of the analogue and vice-versa. Video games, like storytelling in any medium, help us to manifest our hopes for ourselves. The character building stage of video games allow us to create the version of ourselves we want to see. Whilst progress has been made for the trans and non-binary community in certain game studios, many games still operate on a heterosexual and binary sex-based character model, erasing queer people from their worlds. Viatrix explodes this palette and speaks to the creative potential for self-design when these gendered limits are abolished. Having self-taught many of her skills, Davey shows us that we could do the same.
— The Machine Evaporated: Ksawery Kirklewski’s ENTER
ENTER, by artist and motion designer Ksawery Kirklewski, is a call to remember that whilst the web of systems governing the internet and tech industry might seem intangible – they are very physical. This is a chance to see behind the curtain. ENTER is inspired by an era of technology that was far more analogue: when computers and video game consoles could be easily dismantled to their component parts, autopsied and understood.
Taking shape as a tall screen of LEDs that go from an arranged flat surface, to a dismantled web of cords – we are reminded that the structures of the screens we stare at all day, though much more intricate, are still just a series of smaller components.
Kirklewski, as one of the key technicians behind such a work, shows us that each of us can learn or collaborate with others to understand and build such outsider technologies. Today, as smartphones become thinner and the infrastructure of the internet is sent outside of view: under the earth, the ocean and up to space – we have entered an era where the internet seems to have evaporated into the air. This intangibility and growing sophistication has led to a sense of public powerlessness: that we could never truly understand what goes on behind our screens.
Kirklewski reminds us that in our pursuit of technological justice, the technology we know today is just another product of human ingenuity. In acknowledging this human factor, we can be confident in our power to influence its outcomes.
Using infrared cameras, ENTER captures your moving image and displays it on its surface. We are presented with a glitching, retro version of ourselves. This speaks to the enchantment we experience with ourselves online: in the lenses of our phones, our social media feeds and all forms of surveillance equipment our image lives within.
There is an uncomfortable question here as with the other examples, of what this image will be used for? Where will it go? As the apps we use gamify the process of self-expression, even dating, so that we become addicted to their circuits – who wins? Here, ENTER acts as a crossroads. Every day, we upload more and more information, training algorithms to better serve us ads or sway our political opinions. Later down the line, without proper legislation, the information we give up willingly today could be used against us. Decisions on whether we qualify for insurance, loans and housing can be made using risk assessment tools based on our online behaviour. Certain AI has even been trained to correctly identify queer individuals (closeted or otherwise) that would be detrimental in the hands of oppressive governments. As ENTER’s aggressive synth sounds jitter and swell in darkness, the work becomes ominous and evokes these dark possibilities: behind the enchantment lies a dark potential.
— ▲, ◼︎, ➜ ,● Cheat Codes to Infinity: Lu Yang’s Great Adventure of Material World
In Great Adventure of Material World, Lu Yang has created a massive and imaginative world. Each of the characters within and the stories they are used to tell, draw from Lu Yang’s Buddhist upbringing. Yang’s installation takes us through a chaptered story. Within each chapter we are introduced to new perspectives on what the body and identity are made of from a metaphysical perspective.
From Yang’s perspective, understanding the body from a biological point of view: as tissue, organs and a brain puppetting it all from within isn’t enough. We are part of an infinite universe, and we contain an equally infinite universe.
Lu Yang demonstrates to us that in the virtual world these degrees of infinity can be explored more freely. We can evolve beyond a fixed body and be infinitely reincarnated into any form we choose. Within a game engine, Lu Yang is given the freedom to live a genderless existence, a consciousness without a body – something they look to achieve in real life. Borrowing from the visuals of anime culture, for both the film and the interactive game on show, Yang has built new heavens, new hells, new gods and monster-infested city scapes to encounter. As we explore, the creatures within relay to us new ways to understand the body and the universe it passes through. We leave with the urge to ask these same questions in our own lives.
In video games, there is always a tension between playing a game and being played by the game. We embody a character while we play, controlling their actions and movements. Though, the game mechanics themselves place limitations on this, on what actions we can accomplish. Thus, there is a tension between the promise of freedom and the game-world’s limitations: the rules made by the game designers, or other players. As we perform with our online avatars, especially in online multiplayer games we see friction between cultural expectations surrounding the body and the mind governing its movements.
Video games create a space full of moments that could be deeply queer: demonstrating the performativity of gender; any mind living in any body freely. In spite of this, your constructed body, depending on the way other players read you can experience difficult social outcomes. In online video game communities, even women playing as female characters are often assumed to be men because gaming is assumed to be a predominantly male pastime. The social aspect of online games contains all the problems of the social sphere ‘IRL’. Despite the vast number of women and queer players, there are still consequences to your identity IRL: to be a woman, to be queer or even express an inclusive attitude is enough to make you a pariah in game communities. Here, the role of Great Adventure in Material is twofold: a call to break down our understanding of identity in the world around us and demonstrate the power of queer creatives to create their own games free of these limitations.
— Rejecting Old Futures: Jacolby Satterwhite’s Birds in Paradise
In Birds of Paradise, Jacolby Satterwhite introduces us to an explosive CGI world. Within this realm we encounter abstract, living architecture bursting from the earth, curious biomechanical machines and an expansive cast of club goers (both CGI and green screened performers). Amongst these scenes Jacolby presents rituals of cleansing and rebirth. Throughout, sexuality and celebration, life and death become important themes. Past and future here seem to merge. Many of the mechanical forms are 3D renderings based on Satterwhite’s mother’s old drawings, the soundtrack too contains many lyrics and melodies she wrote herself. Many of the rituals taking place are based in ancient Nigerian myths of water spirits. Here, identity is linked to ancestry and legacy, though it is projected far into a fantastical future, where the body merges with machine and CGI demons vogue in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
The work is a rich Afro-futuristic tapestry. Afro-Futurism is a concept developed as a remedy to the whiteness of sci-fi media so far, to witness the African diaspora in a vision of the future. Much criticism of sci-fi media, whether it’s startrek, star wars or the marvel cinematic universe is the lack of diversity, of the racial and sexual sort. This lack of marginalised voices in our collective vision of the future implies a kind of eradication: that anyone not meeting the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual framework will cease to exist. In this way, by proudly incorporating once invisible voices, Satterwhite creates a vision of the future where these voices can exist boldly.
For Satterwhite, desire is “a rhizome of preceding experiences and information” and manifestations of queer desire feature heavily in his work. For queer individuals, love and desire is often tied to shaming from broader society. In Birds of Paradise, dancing and moving with unapologetically sexual energy is the antidote. In projecting these black, queer worlds into the future we carry the past forward and celebrate the impact of its legacy. Voguing, club culture, and much of the electronic music we enjoy is at its root black and queer. If you trace the music history of techno, it stretches back to the queer underground: the sexually liberated music scenes of Detroit and New York in the 70s. By incorporating these elements, Birds of Paradise not only maintains the legacy of a loved one, but celebrates black queer culture – insisting on its future.
— Coded Markings Adorn Your Skin:The Gathering Place
The Gathering place welcomes us into a space somewhere between a futuristic shopping mall, mysterious temple and an alien spacecraft. Several screens are arranged in a circle, where digital fashion house The Fabricant displays their latest releases. In the centre of this catwalk stands the monumental, glistening and organic sculpture The Waters in Between, by Audrey Large. A suggestive soundscape by musician Adiel drips into your ears, part religious chant, part textured, ambient soundscape. Using the same principle as a face filter, The Fabricant displays a variety of imaginative, futuristic garments that we can try on as they map themselves to our bodies.
Dressing oneself has always been key to communicating what tribe you belong to; whether you were a punk, mod, or rocker; it has even been used to secretly transmit messages to others in your community.
In the 1890’s wearing a green carnation was a symbol and signal between gay men. Later, wearing certain piercings in specific ears or the 70’s “anti-fashion” movement of lesbian feminists showed that fashion has long been a means of communicating under the radar. This legacy was similarly adopted as soon as avatars came into use during web 2.0’s spread into the home. Where apps and websites used avatars as one’s display image, it offered us similar opportunities to express our tastes and allegiances. When the communication app QQ became popular in China, it monetised itself by selling digital assets with microtransactions. At this point, your avatar started to represent your social class, how much money you could or were willing to spend to dress your character.
This ability to curate your online persona or create a whole new one entirely has accelerated and enhanced our ability to explore ourselves without social pressure. In the anonymity of our bedrooms we are free from the glares one might receive in the “wrong” section of a store. We can cycle through infinite patterns and styles in a moment and no matter your assigned gender or measurements, the pixels will be mapped to your form. The sculpture The Waters in Between, here becomes a totem to this idea. It is an object created in 3D character modelling software, and printed in this reality. The work demonstrates a shifted relationship between the digital and the physical: these worlds can now slip between one another. The freedom we have to explore identity online can manifest itself in our lives. We can create community, find partners, imagine new and exciting ways to express ourselves and explore aspects of ourselves we didn’t even know existed.
— Cultures of Nature: Julius Horsthuis’ Foreign Nature
In Foreign Nature, Julius Horsthuis uses computer generated fractals. Fractals are the result of visualising specific kinds of mathematical formulas. He visualises them using Mandelbulb3D – a software whose creator remains a mystery, codenamed “Jesse”. Fractals are ‘natural’ objects, and can be seen in everything from plant biology, crystal growth and in the formation of galaxies. Human beings have often looked for divine significance in these shapes and patterns – creating “sacred geometry” that has informed churches, pyramids and standing stones built to connect our world to higher powers. Though, we have seen throughout history that in looking for patterns, humanity is prone to projecting their own biases upon nature’s abstractions.
Whilst these shapes exist and emerge all the way from the microscopic to the super-object, it is still us human beings that give them meaning. Further than this, to try to hold these patterns in one shape is to limit the beauty in their evolutionary potential, we see this in the way social principles have limited our understanding of nature. “Nature” has been used throughout history as a weapon against those who are different. We see this in various instances, from horrifically ill-informed scientific racism, eugenics and the oversimplified understandings of human biology leading to violence against trans people. These are instances of humanity trying to hold nature in the way it wants to see it, using it as a pseudo-truth to justify prejudice and violence.
Foreign Nature provides a fully immersive vision of nature’s dynamism and volatility, not held or read in one static moment. It surrounds the body, evoking the same visuals as those described by people reflecting on altered states of consciousness: the psychonauts of the 70’s and spiritual shamans across the globe who seek higher planes of existence. Many have attested to the therapeutic potential of these experiences. Thoughts can become static, ceasing to see alternative ways of looking at the world around us. It is hypothesised that hallucinatory experiences occur when different areas of the brain begin to communicate in ways they usually do not. In this way, new constellations of thought take place leading to various forms of revelation we were unable to have before. In ‘Foreign Nature’, we can have our own revelations – see how foreign nature really is.
— PlayRebel: OSEANWORLD’s Nu Radio World Tour
Within Nu Radio World Tour we are invited to enter a hyperactive, kaleidoscopic new world and play various games laid before us. This world bursts out from artist Osean’s enormous catalogue of comics, visuals and characters. The artist, Osean is heavily inspired by comic books and the way their stories and characters seem to spill into the 3rd dimension in the form of figurines, toys and plushies. In the same way, Osean uses 3D modelling and toys of his own design to manifest his drawings further into our realm. Here, the scale of Nxt Stage (the room you find yourself in) places you firmly inside this world, further dissolving our sense of real versus virtual by surrounding your whole body and field of vision. Meanwhile, interactive elements create moments to participate. We are invited to act: to leap, dodge and explore; to complete challenges and compete with those around us. This space seems like a world where we can have everything we want when we want it: we are bombarded with candy colours, commercials and calls to consume.
Play is rebellious. In adult life, the world of work and even fine art play is often frowned upon for being unproductive or silly. Though, play is essential to human life: it forms the basis of discovery through experimentation, storytelling and community building. As children we play dress up, we perform, we explore our identities and become who we are today. Here, we’re invited to play once more, to experience forgotten childhood states, before judgement and prejudice; wonder igniting our imaginations once again. However, as we move into Nu Radio’s “Dark Reality”, we see that within this world of excitement, our minds can be hijacked by product placement and false promises.
Comic books have a legacy of progressive storytelling. Marvel’s X-men was written as an allegory of the civil rights movement – today comics continue to frustrate the right-wing by confirming more and more central characters as gay or gender non-conforming. In these comic worlds, fantasy provides potential to imagine beyond what we know and unlock our sense of possibility, to see ourselves represented. However, there is tension: if we’re not careful we might pay for our euphoria by becoming the product. As technology becomes ever more immersive, or even part of us in the form of wearable tech and Neuralink chips in our brains, our means of expression could be locked behind paywalls as we wait for advertisements to stream in our minds before we can join our community in dance. We need to be vigilant. In this hypnosis of possibility we must make sure to protect these freedoms, before they become pay-to-play schemes or branded goods sold through microtransactions.
— No Tomorrow or New Tomorrow
There is enormous friction between the queer history of technology and the challenges it presents to our future. It was once dreamed that the internet would create a garden of possibility for expression, communication, research and discovery. As power is shared between fewer and fewer hands we see this vision shrinking out of view. Resistance might seem like an insurmountable challenge, but we can see the work being done in creatives across the globe. If we want to stay seen and stay free we can not be intimidated by the challenges that stand in our way. Across Nxt Museum, we can see the fundamental power of technology to shape society and to unlock our imagination.
We must imagine, and then insist on the future we want to see. The technology we use today could not have come to be without the queer minds that helped shape it. In knowing this, we know that we can shape it too. If not directly through engineering or coding, through educated advocacy. For me, the role of art here is two fold: to reveal problematic truths and to envision new possibilities. The artists of UFO – Unidentified Fluid Other, present us with a vision worth protecting and the threats to it. At Nxt museum, we will never stop seeking voices who demonstrate our power to imagine and to act – we can put the future back in our hands.