Cybertwee Artists Are Overriding the Patriarchy with Cuteness
If cyberpunk had a cute kid sister that was secretly better at coding, cybertwee would be it.
Image courtesy of Ellie Brown (@ellieeebrown)
Sometime in spring, I was invited to join a private Facebook group for artists called ♡♡ cybertwee ♡♡. Over the next few months, my newsfeed filled up with retouched images of pink Motorola flip phones, kawaii stills from the super-girly anime Paradise Kiss, and pastel-colored everything: Fur coats and platform boots and microchips and pearlescent dildos.
The group wasn't just an image dump for floating internet ephemera—as the months went on, distinct themes emerge on my feed. F Newsmagazine described it as an "infinite scroll of member-sourced posts conjuring digital sincerity, softness, and sweetness". Cybertwee founders Gabriella Hileman, May Waver and Violet Forest elaborate on it as "if cyberpunk had a cute kid sister that was secretly better at coding". In an increasingly hyper-linked world of surveillance and digital paranoia, cybertwee is a lo-fi and decidedly feminine balm to the soul.
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Hileman, a Chicago-based new media artist, first started musing on what would become cybertwee when she was developing her university thesis on "feminine cyborgs in the cyberpunk genre." But she found that most female androids—like cyborg detective Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell and the cybernetically-enhanced Molly from William Gibson's Neuromancer—were the inventions of men.
"Simultaneously, I was researching twee and indie pop music of the late 80s, a backlash to the punk and post-punk scene," she told Broadly. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was a twee counterblast to the cyberpunk movement?' So much of twee was about destabilizing the nihilistic and cynical ethos [of] punk, and replacing it with earnestness, an even more pronounced DIY aesthetic, and lyrics about feelings, like heartbreak or crushes. There was a need for those things in the cyberpunk genre and the masculine-dominated tech world."
May Waver and Violet Forest soon came on board after meeting Hileman online. Both artists work primarily in digital or virtual media—or, as Forest delicately puts it, they've stopped "manipulating tangible materials in exchange for computing" completely.
Taking their cues from the 90s cyberfeminist group VNS Matrix, the three got together to film their own manifesto, an updated take on their early feminist predecessors' work. "The singularity is dear," Forest declares, her head nuzzled into Waver's lap. "For too long," Waver continues, reading from a sheet plastered with floral stickers, "we have succumbed to the bitter edge of the idea that power is lost in the sweet and tender."
"Cybertwee always existed," Forest explained to me. "There was just never a term to describe what happens aesthetically when cuteness and technology and science combine. And although the fashion and trends in cybertwee fashion are quite tongue-in-cheek, we use this cuteness as a visual moniker to identify a hypothetical microculture that revolves around a deeper set of distinct values."
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Women have always been a thriving part of digital art, with artists like Petra Cortright and Bunny Rogers at the forefront of these new mediums. But this hasn't always been smooth-sailing. Private Facebook groups like Starwave, geared towards internet-friendly women curators and artists, are full of horror stories about sexist male gallerists and all-male lineups of the 'next big thing' in internet art. These stories exist parallel to wider-known incidences of misogyny in the tech world, such as former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao being harassed out of her job.
All three cybertwee founders can relate to tales of sexism in both industries. "I've been discouraged from taking tech classes in school by boys who've said that they 'wouldn't be my cup of tea' or implied that they would be too difficult for me," Hileman said.
"Someone on Tumblr asked me, 'Who did you have to fuck to get your solo show?'" Waver added. "There is an insidious notion that women making art with or about their bodies is inherently narcissistic, and popular culture is built on pressuring women to be sexy while simultaneously punishing them for performing so."
Cybertwee—despite and because of its sweetness and softness—is one of the most robust artistic rebukes to male-dominated discourses in technology and art. Think of Georgia O'Keefe's phantasmagorical paintings of blown-up flowers, or Kara Walker's devastatingly delicate cut-paper silhouettes. In art, femininity is maybe the most emotionally powerful thing there is.
"It's important to create spaces where a spectrum of emotional expressions, nostalgia for a gurlhood lived or imagined, tender interactions—things belittled by patriarchy's dominance— can be validated and celebrated," Waver told me.
They envision a world in which these spaces are for everyone, including non-binary individuals and men. "There is absolutely room for all genders and sexualities in cybertwee," May said. "And masculinities too, especially because we don't view femininity and masculinity as hard and fast binary categories."
"Men should be allowed to express cuteness, prettiness or emotional vulnerability if they want," Hileman said. "Cybertwee's culture is anti-sexism, so while obviously it's not going to be for everyone, as not all people are especially feminine, if some more masculine people can resonate with us and open up to our ideas, perhaps we can find ways to bring more women into the tech world or find ways to narrow wage gaps together. "
Hileman, Waver and Forest are now in the process of curating their first juried show in their 'Cybertwee Headquarters', a virtual gallery that will be accessible to everyone via a custom-built app. But they don't rule out the possibility that future work could be shown in the physical world, though all of them shrug off the idea that showing art in a virtual location is fundamentally different from one in an actual gallery. "We'd like to get away from the notion that there is a separation between 'real life' and 'digital life,'" Waver said.
But if the Facebook group were ever the transcend the internet and exist as a concrete space, Hileman has already come up with a vision for its 3D walls. "I always imagine it would be Memphis Group inspired, but less cluttered; something ultra sleek and minimal with lots of natural light [...] A bioluminescent algae tank would be cool. Loads of reclaimed LEDs and other refurb electronics. Isolation tanks for maximum self-care and recharging. Also a seashell bed. Definitely a seashell bed."