Julia Gatermann is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Hamburg where she is currently writing her dissertation with the working title “Representations of Fluid Gender Identity in Contemporary American Culture.” She works as a researcher at the University of Bremen for the interdisciplinary research project “Fiction Meets Science II” with the subproject “Science in Postcolonial Speculative Fiction: Nature/Politics/Economies Reimagined.”
“Nostalgia for the Future”: Projecting a Post-Disability Image through Retro-Futuristic Aesthetics in Viktoria Modesta’s “Prototype”
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Julia: Hi everyone, thanks for dropping by! I’m curious to hear your thoughts, comments and questions on my talk “Nostalgia for the Future”. I’ve only very recently started working/thinking on this (so everything is still very ‘early stage’ and new to me) – all the more I’m glad to get this opportunity to exchange thoughts and connect with you guys! For everyone who’s interested in checking out the music video for Viktoria Modesta’s “Prototype” (it’s about six minutes long):
Graham: I thought your presentation was great and I liked in particular how you worked with the neon elements in the prosthetic as a way of re-envisioning the neon trope common to cyberpunk. I do a section in my SF course on Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, but I think I might also add this video to the course, particularly if I do Blade Runner again.
Julia: Oh, wow, thank you! Funny that you should mention Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer because that is what I worked on immediately before starting into this! Both are excellent example for intersectionality and resgnification of stigmatized/marginalized groups as both employ a striking audio-visual language for that. Your course sound amazing!!!
Graham: The course is a challenge in some ways because I teach at a college designed around diplomas and degrees with specific applicability to job sectors (i.e., no Bachelor of Arts, for example), so students have their core courses and they have to take electives to round out their education (which some hate, some begrudgingly take, and some love); as a result, I can’t do a strictly text-based sf course (which is my training … PhD English Literature with the specialization in sf), so I work in as much visual stuff to counterbalance and keep up their interest and engagement. I also made a concerted effort to strive for diversity in the course, so the “straight, white men” factor is quite low, but I don’t really have anything related to “Disability Studies” and SF, until now!!!!!
Julia: This really does sound engaging, but I imagine that finding the right material is tricky – especially as the ‘long form’ might not be ideally suited. What pops up in mind is anthology series such as Black Mirror or the animated Love, Death, and Robots (some of the episodes are quite short). I’m not sure about disability as such specifically, but with the latter I had to immediately think of the episode “Good Hunting” which is takes prosthetics to some quite interesting places and problematizes (subaltern) female embodiment in really interesting ways…
Graham: I’ll have to take a look at the “Good Hunting” episode as I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it. I use the “U.S.S. Callister” episode and contrast it with the Lost in Space film that starts the course to address toxic masculinity, sf, and fandom.
Steven: Julia, I haven’t watched the entire video yet (bookmarked it), but Viktoria is amazing, I really loved your discussion and the stuff you showed
Julia: Oh my, thanks so much!!!
Alexander: Just wanting to state that I also loved this talk, and I found the use of a Music Video especially useful as the perfect nexus of form to discuss all these things
Julia: Thank you! So far, I’m still pretty new to music videos as a form and haven’t really had the time to get into the respective discourses yet, but in terms of identity politics it does seem very productive. Especially when looking at the audio-visual language – a music video is a very condensed form, and details seem to be very on point! Before Modesta, I was taking a look at Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer (concept abum turned into a ‘movie’), and here, too, you can find many layers (e.g. intertextuality in clothing, music, set design, and so on) that combine a lot of different discourses (and genres). This helps complicate them, maybe even subvert them. And through these intertexts, allusion, associations, they also, in way, join past and present in order to project a utopian vision into the future.
Esko: That is so well and succinctly put on Dirty Computer. I taught it last year and got a good reception from students, the multiple layers of visuals, storytelling, and song-lyrics make it a very interesting SF text. Incidentally, we just published Cheryl Morgan’s essay on the Monáe in Fafnir.
Julia: Thanks so much! Janelle Monáe’s entire oeuvre is very interesting in this respect. The android Cindi Mayweather of her earlier works, the different periods those albums reflect, all of this is very intelligent stuff that negotiates intersectional identity politics in an (adequately) complex way! Outing myself as a fan here!!! Also: I’d already spotted Cheryl’s article and desperately want to read it (didn’t have the time yet) – it’s no. 1 on my weekend reading list!!!
Alexander: It certainly seems that the Music Video has become one of the primary modes of expression given to minority communities an artist like Blood Orange, for example relishes in it. Certainly, as the latest font of Afro-futurism I think there’s a good case for the Music Video
Lars: for all kinds of expression, if you think of “Lemonade” by Beyoncé or “This is America” by Childish Gambino
Carmen: I was actually going to mention Childish Gambino, yeah
Julia: Thinking of Beyonce’s Lemonade, for example! It’s also a concept album, with beautiful videos, and very much concerned with identity! … Oops, lagging behind here.
Jiré: very good ones! In this context I also work on The Carters – Ape Shit and Zebra Katz – Ima Read. Also Arthur Jafas “Apex” is an amazing example.
Steven: Arthur Jafa just did a music video for Kanye West… I’ll just say, as a scholar whose two main fields are science fiction and music videos, I like that more people are paying attention to the latter.
Julia: Your article on Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” was actually a great help for me to get a better grasp of how to work with music videos. Very excited to dive deeper into this!
Esko: Echoing Steven’s note, I must comment that, Julia, you did an excellent job with reading the Modesta video – the details gleaned from, e.g., the movements of her dancing with different versions of the prosthesis were very enlightening.
Steven: There aren’t that many music videos that are as science fictional in content as Janelle Monaé, but a lot of music videos really push the technology in interesting ways (that could therefore be called sf-nal) Also, Saam Fahramand, who directed Viktoria Modesta’s video, has done really interesting work with other musicians/artists as well (excuse me, I know I am the world’s only music-video-auteur nerd)
Julia: I will definitely take a look on his other work!
Alexander: I think there aren’t many that are as explicit, but I do think the cheap and ready access to visual fx software has allowed for the proliferation of sci-fi imagery (particularly of interfaces, as in the Minority Report film) to pop up very frequently
Steven: yes definitely.
Graham: This is a basic question, but what is Viktoria Modesta’s saturation level? In other words, is she an up-and-coming artist? a well-respected niche artist? Value is certainly not measured by album sales (how archaic of me … album sales!) or “likes” on Facebook, but I’m just wondering where Modesta is placed as part of the larger artistic enterprise (or industry).
Julia: As far as I know, the ‘saturation level’ so far is not overboarding. She works as a (goth) model, and the video for “Prototype” that was made for UK#S Channel 4 (they had an entire campaign going on to raise awareness for marginalized groups) made her gain some traction as singer, as far as I know (but I’m not an authority on that). By now, she is also colaborating with Hugh Herr from MIT Labs to promote his interesting and cutting edge work on high performance prosthesis. And, I believe, she went on tour for another album where her prosthesis even feature as musical instruments (or form an aesthetic whole with them)…
Lars: She had this thing with the Moulin Rouge in Paris, right? That must have gone under with the whole Corona thing…sorry, not the Moulin, the Crazy Horse
Emily: Really enjoyed your talk. I was really struck by your analysis of the prosthesis as a fetishized object and how Modesta gains power from this. Do you think there is something problematic about her fetishization of her disability at all? It seems amazing to me actually that she uses this as a means of subversion and rebellion when the fetishization of the other is usually a method of oppression.
Ren: Very well-put. I’m interested in this, too.
Julia: This is definitely something I’m still debating myself. The way I see it, she isn’t really fetishizing her disability as such, though, but she attempts to achieve a resignification of disability in order to turn associations away from victimization and towards an empowering position. The fetishization is happening with the prosthesis (a big difference in my view), and through this process the former signifyer for her disability is turned into something beautiful highly individual. (Just think about how prostheses used to look in the past and how they, in a way, de-individualized the wearer’s in the eyes of a normative society…)
Steven: I have to think more about this, but what I took from Julia’s paper is that — precisely because of how fetishization is usually oppressive – it is an affirmative strategy to turn it inside out as Viktoria is doing
Emily: Fascinating. It’s very much fetishization under her control and on her terms though. Perhaps that is what is so empowering about it. It is alluring because she has made it so, not because of the influence of the male gaze othering her.
Jiré: thank you very much for this fascinating presentation. About the fetishization: I think the important point here is that she is creating the fetish herself whereas for example in psychoanalytic theory and general belief I’d say fetishisation is something that is done by men – in these contexts women are always the object. But here she is clearly the creator and by that the subject
Alexander: almost like an act of détournement
Julia: In a different context I’ve written (am still writing) about the cinematic viewing position of this video which I would characterize as masochistic: Modesta is controlling our gaze at all times. This is especially striking in the scene (which I am not showing in my presentation) where she is seating on this throne and three surgeon-like figures clad in red are operating on her (there’s huge needles and a bloody bone saw involved). All the while, she is looking regally straight into the camera – controlling us with her gaze, almost looking back at us! There’s definitely something there, I believe…
Alexander: I was struck by the red surgeons too, and then realised it is clearly a reference to the film Dead Ringers, directed by David Cronenberg!
Julia: Great hint – I have to check that out!!!
Emily: It IS really hard to argue against the video when there is so much that is deeply pleasurable about it in terms of defiance through feminine beauty…but with a masculine, brutal edge.
Julia: It is seductive on many layers (depth of colors, texture, light, contrast…)!
Julia: Absolutely! When I took a look at the spectatorial viewing position, I contrasted it with the Canadian indie horror movie American Mary by the Soska sisters, which is also (in my reading) working to achieve a resignification of normative embodiment (here through extensive and extreme body modification). The surgery scenes are all portrayed with outmost serenity and beauty, pay much attention to texture, color, contrast, and all that as well. And from what Alexander just posted about the Cronenberg video: this seems to be an excellent fit in terms of visual strategy as well!!!
Alexander: I should also say that the costumes were designed by the famed (and sadly, recently departed) Denise Cronenberg, whose work is incredible
Julia: Oh my, these are really great suggestions – I will take a look at Dead Ringers AND Denise Cronenberg’s work in costume design!
Steven: AMERICAN MARY is a great film
Adam: Thank you for your analysis of Modesta, I encountered her only recently through looking into the Alternative Limb Project who she seems to have worked with for a few of her prostheses and your talk was really fantastic for picking up on how she actually acts on the kind of manifesto the Alt Limb Project also puts forward. I wondered what you thought about the contrast in limb and context she puts into the video you discussed. How her more threatening, and harsh persona is shown in this empty, stylistic space, whereas her initial context is much more socially controlled and powerful in a less visceral way? (For lack of a better phrasing)
Julia: This is a great observation that resonates well with my own reading of the video. In the fictional ‘real world’ of this bleak, totalitarian society, she seems to conform a lot more to conventional beauty standards and gender role expectations. Respectively, her prosthesis all look very much like acutal legs in their form, while the design, while stunning, mostly adds to her feminine attractiveness (in the conventional sense). As much as this helps to de-stigmatize the prosthesis (it does give her a sense of individuality, I believe), there is not really anything revolutionary going on in terms of gender politics. The fact that she has to be taken out of this society context, be abstracted in a sense, in order to achieve a re-signification of that as well – by giving her predatorial features – is rather striking and merits further thought!
Alexander: You make a really good point here! Perhaps it could be argued that a process of reclaiming the imagery and the subsequent act of fetishisation is a project that has been underway by female/femme-presenting people for a little while. It makes me think of the discourse around Nicki Minaji’s “Lookin’ Ass N….” music video from 2014 – Slate Magazine
Julia: Important work, I believe, by women to take back control over this ancient discourse…
Emily: Recently there seems to be a new fascination with female cyborg aesthetics and characters in mainstream sci fi, music, tv and film. Do you agree and do you think there is a particular reason for this? (Is it Haraway’s Cyborg figure idea filtering through into the popular imagination at last?).
DrFitz: a bit behind the time schedule, but thoroughly appreciated your talk! As I resonate with your reading, I wanted to offer a half-idea as invitation to share your thoughts about the levels of Modesta’s fetishization by/for in-video fans/lovers/followers, ranging from the animated TV watching child and the young student, the tattoo-body-modifers… (The ‘reveal’ of how even the pinup artwork is easily decoded / purposeful political statement is so good).
Julia: Thanks, that’s a great observation on which I’ve written in some more detail elsewhere. To put it very shortly: Her status as a subcultural icon for change, it seems, touches all layers of society, albeit with various inflections. With the child and the student, in my reading, utopian thinking is addressed in its most basic form (we want for those kids to grow up in a brighter future where they are free to be who they choose to be) – here values and ideologies clash maybe most clearly (Modesta corrupts the innocent youth). This might be a middle-class setting. The man in the tattoo parlor adds a different class (working class) as well as an erotic element to this, as I read it. Especially with a masochistic spectatorial viewing position in mind, we can see how the man revels in his exquisite pain – Modesta is under his skin! Here, associations to subcultures (especially in a 1980s setting) are called up (and reinforced through some of Modesta’s outfits) to the sado-masochistic scene, putting a slightly more kinky edge to her iconic status.
When we’re shown Modesta in bed with the couple (who seem to be from a distincly rich, upper class background), the video even goes so far as to challenge heteronormativity as well. To me, the video’s most powerful image is that where Modesta is shown without her prosthethis in bed with the woman of the couple. This is an extremely sensual image, I believe, and it stands in a stark contrast to the rest of the video where we are mainly shown fragmented images of Modesta (especially of her leg – part of the fetishization strategy) – here, we see her whole! And without the prosthesis the DOES seem whole (to me) – the ‘missing’ leg is no way an absent presence… Thanks again for this great question – and sorry that this answer got a bit excessive in length… It did give me opportunity to touch on a few points I had to cut for the ten-minute talk so… I took advantage.
DrFitz: I’m so glad you did! Thank you for sharing these articulate thoughts