By Kelsey Christensen
Content Warning (CW): This blog post deals with a pornographic art object. While the pornography of the piece is, arguably, didactic and purposeful, the content may be too graphic, lewd, or otherwise triggering for some readers. Images will be visible after the kick.
Milk, Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang 2004 website, opens with simply a banner in the center of the screen that reads “1 AFRICANS HAVE DIED OF AIDS SINCE YOU LOADED THIS WEBSITE,” presumably connoting the aesthetics of visitor-counters found on online porn search engines. What follows, is a very slowly-loading image of a woman mouth and breasts covered in white liquid underneath a collage of different images returned from the program, which searches the internet for images under the tag “porn.” When the piece is “over,” or completed, about forty minutes later, the image dominates the screen, loaded in full. It ends with a heading that reads “”MILK is the white fluid for the 21st century what the white powder was for the 20th century high.” In “Milk,” Shu Lea Cheang proposes a parallelism between the fetishism and consumption of commodities with the consumption and objectification of women’s bodies, as within a pornographic encounter. Additionally, the counter of AIDS related deaths throughout, seems to posture the health crisis as inseparable from consumption–an indirect symptom of capitalism in the non-Western world. Ultimately, at least two ethical issues (objectification of women’s bodies and the AIDS crisis) are foregrounded within this web-based porn collage and Cheang seems to highlight an ethical anxiety about what repercussions pornography’s marriage with interactivity and the internet will incur.
Eve Oishi has already made great gains on establishing “Milk” as an object that ruminates on sexual satisfaction in conjunction with the computer-mediated experience associated with browsing for and watching internet porn.
“The effect is a distillation of the visual and psychological experience of interacting with the World Wide Web, in which total access is simultaneously promised and frustrated because of bandwidth limitations and in which pornographic representation is both liberated and domesticated through its mundane and endless availability and repetition” (Oishi, 21).
Oishi does well to locate Milk as metacommentary on the effects of the internet age on pornagraphy, but Oishi does little to locate the effects of Milk within the specifics of interactivity. In order to access the stakes of Milk, the issue of its object-oriented interactivity, as well as its connotation of the aesthetics of glitches and lags are paramount to an investigation of Milk.
The image of the bare-breasted woman loads at “dial-up”-esque pace, marking the distinction between live experience and mediated experience, as with the dichotomy between sex and porn, given that “repetitive glitches and lags… mark the software as different from our biological processing of audiovisual information” (Hassapopoulou, 9). In Milk, however, as a programmed art piece, we can understand the ongoing “glitch” of the loading image not as an incidental symptom of the media, as with Lev Manovich’s Soft Cinema, but as intentionally postured by the author. In Milk’s case, the continuous lag of this image to load connect Milk to ideas of consumption: we hunger for the image to load just as society progressively hungers for more and more, (or worse and worse) pornographic images and videos, which is underscored by the ubiquity of pornography that the return of “porn”-tagged images the piece generates. This is one way in which Cheang articulates an anxiety about pornography and the internet age: Cheang underscores the effect of acceleration and consumption. With access and availability comes ubiquity, even over saturation.
Also key to Cheang’s point is Milk’s use of object-oriented interactivity. The interactivity in Milk comes from the software’s interaction with the internet itself: returning different images from the set tag each time the page is loaded. The audience is still ethically complicit, even participating in the objectification and domination of women’s bodies in the images. But, as with Bucy’s model which dictates that, “full interactivity cannot begin until the third message in an exchange when the initiator has the opportunity for follow-up,” the implications of objectification are not compounded by, say, a piece in which the audience can manipulate the images, or interact with a pornographic piece (Bucy, 375).
Additionally, the object-orientation of the piece might serve to highlight objectification as a process of porn viewing. Barker’s advocacy of a model of interactivity that doesn’t marginalize a technology’s agentive role in the individuation of a piece can seem reductive, given the grave need for media that successfully avoids marginalizing actual people. However, if viewing Cheang’s Milk through object-oriented philosophy, Barker’s conception that “we cannot separate aesthetic processes from the objects that have an agentive influence on the way we come to grips with the world,” and “interaction with digital technology… involves a common operation between human and non-human processes,” could serve another mode of commentary for Cheang’s piece. Perhaps it is significant that Cheang draws on a model that liberates “marginalized” non-human processes as she attempts to liberate objectified bodies. Cheang may be underscoring the subordinate positions that objects take in interactive models and women take while acting in the patriarchal system in which their bodies are commodified as objects.
Time, duration, satisfaction: these are all concepts which unify the issues of deaths in a health crisis, the over saturation of pornographic images, and the commodification of women’s bodies. Shu Lea Cheang’s Milk uses the aesthetics of the glitch and an object-oriented model to implore audiences to confront the effects of interactivity, internet access, and insatiable consumption on women’s bodies, and other marginalized bodies.
Barker, Timothy. “Objects and interaction.” Digital Creativity 22.2 (2011): 65-77.
Bucy, Erik P. “Interactivity in society: Locating an elusive concept.” The information society 20.5 (2004): 373-383.
Hassapopoulou, Marina. “Reconfiguring film studies through software cinema and procedural spectatorship.” NECSUS. European Journal of Media Studies3.2 (2014): 21-42.
Oishi, Eve. “”Collective Orgasm”: The Eco-Cyber-Pornography of Shu Lea Cheang.” Women’s Studies Quarterly (2007): 20-44