Angela Washko is your next role model. The assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University is devoted to introducing women’s voices into the male-monopolized worlds of video games, the media and the tech industry.
“Women are taught early on that this is an inherently male industry, that math and science are not their strong suits, that they’re inherently not inclined towards those fields,” Washko says during a discussion about the decline of women in the computer sciences. “When you don’t have a lot of role models in those industries, there’s a [ripple] effect, because you can’t imagine you belong there.” She’s right. So I nominate her.
Washko has already assembled a copious body of work and serious professional recognition. A Pennsylvania native, Washko received her undergraduate degree at Temple University. She spent a few years working with the Flux Factory Collective in New York City, lived abroad in Finland, Denmark, Italy and Germany, and earned her master’s of fine arts at University of California-San Diego. At age 30, she’s on a tenure track. In the exhibit she curated for CMU’s Miller Gallery, Hacking/Modding/Remixing as Feminist Protest, Washko gathered over 40 years worth of work from women artists operating at the intersection of art and technology.
Suzie Silver, an artist and CMU professor whose 1993 video “Freebird” is featured in the show, emphasizes the breadth of the artwork amassed. “The show goes back [from] as far the ’70s to works that were made very recently,” says Silver by phone. “It provides a really inclusive overview of the field. I think it’s an incredible show, I think it should be touring all over the country. If it was a show in New York or Los Angeles, people would think it was just the best thing and incredibly important.”
The exhibit is arranged into two categories. Hacking/Modding focuses on artists who modify existing electronics and software, like Rachel Simone Weil, whose “Hello Kitty Land,” from 2002, hacks the original 1985 “Super Mario Bros.” so that Kitty’s the hero. The piece questions how things might look if the game had shipped with Kitty’s console instead of Mario’s. Remixing focuses on artists working with film, television and advertising, to create critical commentary about those fields. For instance, Dara Birnbaum’s 1979 piece “Kiss the Girls and Make them Cry” edits footage from the old Hollywood Squares game show, contrasting the gestures of the celebrity guests. The women gesticulate wildly for the camera, tossing their hair or grinning dementedly. The men do not. What’s revealed is the domination of human behaviors by ideology. It’s real-world evidence that we’re performing our genders, all the time.
Performing gender is an idea Washko tackles as a solo artist. In 2012, she created The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, entering the online game and engaging other players in dialogue about gender roles, as a performance piece. In one part, she asks male players why they use female avatars. They respond, “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day,” “because it would be gay to look at a guy’s butt all day” and so on. When Washko asks an obvious follow-up question, whether these men are attracted to their avatars, they reply “no.” Which suggests what they’re really doing is holding tight to masculine ideology, even during fantasy game-play.
Exposing the ways Americans constantly re-affirm the biases in our culture, and unnecessarily recreate them on the internet and in popular entertainment, is one of the ways in which Washko enriches our understanding of feminism. What elevates her work is her insistence on going beyond the echo chambers of liberal-arts circles. In 2015 she debuted “BANGED: A Monopoly on Truth,” a two-hour conversation with a notorious leader in the online seduction community that examines his detailed rationale for men’s-rights activism. Watching “BANGED” is a rare opportunity to experience real-world diplomacy. (That’s not to imply sympathy for Washko’s interlocutor’s opinions: Diplomacy negotiates hostilities, after all.)
“In a time when so many people have such stratified opinions and stakes in what women are supposed to do and be, it’s important to speak up against one-dimensionality and support a much wider and radical spectrum of what we as people are allowed to be, become and identify as,” she writes via email.
I asked her to articulate why she makes feminist art, and her answer illustrates what I respect so much about her work: “In [my] work, I try to learn about the motivations of those who feel threatened by women’s liberation (while also looking at the intersections of misogyny, racism, ecological injustice, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia and classism) and create platforms for visualizing those motivations while ultimately hoping to share tactics for fighting back.”