“Can you fuck it?” — The Fembot Phenomenon takes as its title one of the prevailing online comments made each time a newly developed female-appearing robot is introduced in the media. “Fine, nice work there, but can you fuck it?,” say the anonymous legions on the internet. In some ways, the question makes sense: if there’s no obvious or logical reason a robot should be gynoid (gendered female), yet it is; if the robot presents the passive, recognizable demeanor of a love-doll; if it is portrayed in media as titillatingly “creepy” and subhuman, yet programmed to please; or if the reportage intimates that everybody might have such a robot in the near future, for private use behind closed doors. In such cases, many minds are conditioned to imagine a techno-erotic situation that may or may not live up to the fantasy. Many people are lonely, seeking antidotes to social isolation and malaise. We approach technology within a matrix of instrumentality and attachment; that these sensationalized androids are actually meant for A.I. research, hotel reception, or eldercare duties, for example, runs counter to our own cultural programming.

Should a robot be sexy? Why do humans make service robots in our own (idealized) image? What dictates the development of technology, and who “redesigns” the status quo? To properly address these questions, women’s ideas must begin to be acknowledged alongside those that present objectified feminine embodiment as a fait accompli. Lately, women-identifying artists who complicate this embodiment and assumption are “entering the comments,” so to speak.

Lin Xin, I'm What You Wish Me To Be no.2, 2010, oil on canvas

Lin Xin, trained in Wuhan in traditional Chinese painting, paints humanoid robots that are always explicitly “feminine.” Her robots are similar to each other in appearance, suggesting kinship, or perhaps an original progenitor no longer discernible from its replicants. They pose and lounge in various scenes—domestic spaces; dystopian un/natural landscapes; even in virtual settings, brush-painted as if modeled in 3D on a computer screen. Such settings have developed in Xin’s recent work as a bid to disconnect her horde of fembot simulacra from linear time and physical space: Xin is fascinated by the virtual world and has stated that she “seeks for a certain romanticism” within it.

Xin’s romanticism has a strained quality, and the ideological baggage of the fembot archetype is nonetheless shouldered by her elegant mechanical creatures. Their forms, though robotic, evoke nudity, vulnerability, and sometimes sadness. The fembots are often presented in relationship to, and in eye contact with, an invisible viewer, assuming mutual connection. Often, they hold masks, or remove faces as if they were masks, suggesting a social artificiality and versatility that can be brandished by even the most passive interactant. Questioned as to her robots’ inner lives or attitudes, Xin points to the often plaintive titles of the works: I’m What You Wish Me to Be; Sadness Never Seems To Have Had; Beautiful Misdeed; You Would Miss Me; Metal Mask. Hardwired for emotion and desire, and cognizant of their capacity to arouse these things in the viewer, the fembots projected in Xin’s massive oil paintings deliver a cool blast of contemporary alienation in which, as she says, “our longings are clearly reflected.” The contrast of these consummate oil paintings with their high-tech subjects grounds the canvases with antithetical warmth.

Lin Xin, Don’t Tell Me no.1, 2009, oil on canvas

In terms of style, Xin’s superreal fembots are reminiscent of those conjured by famous illustrator and designer Hajime Sorayama, who drew erotic, charismatic feminine humanoids for his cult book Sexy Robot (1983). These gynoids emulate Playboy models, serving performative distance and professional allure. Sorayama has kept drawing gynoid pin-ups throughout his celebrated career, and can be considered a cultural contributor to the reflexive question “can you fuck it?” in reference to the service gynoid now made manifest in silicone and metal.

Xin’s drawn gynoids are not directly objectified. They are either self-objectifying, or their subjecthood is ambivalent. Though their poses might evoke sex and fetishism, unlike Sorayama’s gynoids their internal workings overflow and spill out their bodies, and they are often seen communing together: over tea, in conversation, or in the outdoors. Notoriously, feminine comradery is elided in most men’s depictions of conventionally- desirable women, as it complicates the message of ubiquitous availability (which is maximally important in a fembot).

Xin’s fembots also recall Juno, Augustina, and Juliette (2019), intricate full-body pseudoscientific drawings of female cyborgs by biochemist-turned-artist Angela Su. These “fierce futurist femborgs” (as Su describes them) have skin pared back and innards on show, but their guts are those with which we’re more familiar: wet, soft organs of the female human. By this wetness, which is politicized as too leaky and messy for the taste of the patriarchy, Su defuses the severity of the femme-machine. Xin, conversely, fixedly depicts the practical inner workings of her subjects as cold/hard/dry cables, capacitors, and connectors. With their knowing stares and occasional malfunctions, they are a complex collective force that powerfully progresses the gendered-robot conversation.

Allison de Fren, The Mechanical Bride, 2012, digital video (still)

Allison de Fren’s perspective on the fembot phenomenon is similarly permissive yet uneasy, with its eye on trajectories of representation. The video essay Fembot in a Red Dress, presented with Japanese subtitles in Can you fuck it?, is de Fren’s sequel to her 2012 feature documentary The Mechanical Bride. Filmed in North America, United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany, Mechanical Bride surveyed state-of-the-art artificial companions from life-sized sex-dolls to mechanized androids, basing its enquiry in the history of the quest to create a “perfect” artificial woman. A deep dive into technosexual lust that Wired described as “weirdly human,” de Fren’s film manages not to dehumanize the men who build and love these objects and machines, nor the objects/machines “themselves.”

This is a considerable accomplishment, achieved via a multi-layered approach buoyed by historicity and laced with salacious intrigue. In neither Mechanical Bride nor Fembot in a Red Dress does de Fren “pick a side” or reject the authenticity of the fembot phenomenon; instead, she deftly explains its social origins and functions, while provoking her audience to consider the limits of its stereotypes. She is wholesomely aware of the irony of the situation:

The fembot in a red dress is a reminder of the mating impulse as our most basic biological programming, programming that while necessary for the perpetuation of the species, is also where humans are most mechanical, most machine-like. By attaching this biological impulse to an artificial construct, the fembot provides a moment of critical hesitation.

This semantic framing casts fembots as classically self-sacrificing, useful, and two-dimensional—essentially unaffected by labor as compared to human women, whom de Fren calls “the real thing.” This exhibition expands the bounds of “real” to include potential robotic and transhuman entities, foreshadowed in Su’s anatomical drawings by messy, wet femborgs, and in Xin’s paintings by disillusioned, calculating, inconvenient femborgs. If the very idea of a fembot gives critical pause, how should we think about their real-world uses, abuses, and encounters with others?

Mika Kan, The Future Mother 04, 2017, inkjet print

While de Fren is concerned with the widely disseminated image of the fembot in media and culture, Mika Kan’s work often deals directly with figures designed to be fucked. Her video The Bride Stripped Bare adopts the strategy of point-of-view pornography (POV porn), specifically the Japanese gonzo subgenre hamedori, in which a male participant operates the camera and the resulting video shows the interaction from his subjective viewpoint. Kan’s camera focuses on the face of a human-size doll while a man (offscreen) engages it in copulation, recording the doll’s “reactions” to the sex act from the point-of-view of the sexual actor. We hear, albeit in slow motion distension, the sounds of his efforts, and may identify with either him, or the doll partner. It is a perspective seldom, if ever, recorded with inanimate companions and its immediacy is fascinating to witness. Intimacy with love-dolls is not new, but it is intensely private, and a precursor to robosex.

Kan’s photo series Do Love Dolls Dream of Babies? seems to reference the cyborgian aftermath of the robotic sexual encounter, as the dolls in these works sport signs of pregnancy: body extensions in the form of swelling bellies to go with their already big breasts. Slicing, customizing, and photographing the dolls in various poses, Kan brings a celebratory air to the large-format nudes: they are “glowing” with promise, gesturing from a female-only world. There is humor in basing the implied sex in this series so purely in the reproductive realm. But are they happy, submissive vessels? Or perhaps, due to the dreams referenced in the series’ title, these artificial women have figured out how to get pregnant by non-traditional means. Perhaps they did it all on their own?

In my own artwork I frequently imagine the destiny of transhuman beings, and their potential diversity. For example, will hybrid humans (be able to) reproduce in the same way as humans currently do? What happens if a cyborg becomes (some version of) pregnant, after a consensual, a non-consensual, or a service fuck? Would the offspring have rights? Would they belong to someone, or to a collective? For the video portraiture series Lamassu Kentaurosu Wagyu I created a composite animal of fembot and domestic cow, yet one of these hybrids has given birth to a bipedal frog-calf with even fewer humanoid characteristics than its mother—and there’s no froggy “father” in the scenario. Sex and reproduction are decoupled; the fembot evolves.

In my video Canny, a real, human-scale gynoid sits inside a data center, talking. It speaks aloud the page-1 results from its Google/YouTube searches for onscreen mental arithmetic performed by famously clever TV game-show hostesses (a rather retro-robotic occupation that used to infiltrate people’s homes via television sets). Most results retrieved by the robot are lascivious, unrelated to the women’s mathematical feats: rather, the online hive mind seems determined to find their conservative demeanor and attire “hot as hell.” It fixates on breasts, penises, and a certain red dress. It mostly asks, in a variety of different ways, can you fuck her?

The nuts-and-bolts fembot in Canny is seeking knowledge about “her” own condition: the historical and aesthetic context that de Fren’s artworks provide. But, like many constructs, she finds herself limited by how she has been conceived. The field of humanoid robotics is a prime example of how genuine enquiry can be overlaid with predetermined social bias. “Can you fuck it?” — The Fembot Phenomenon is a maiden voyage towards balance: a freshly themed exhibition showcasing women making art about fembots.

Elena Knox
Cover: Lin Xin, Windy Space no.2, 2016, 3-channel digital animation with sound

Open Call Exhibition
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