Big Questions

Article by Anna Weisling
June 29, 2017

Photo: Still image from LADY EFFULGENT “THE UPRISING” by Tabita Svane.

One of the questions we are tasked with asking ourselves at Women in Music Tech (WiMT) is, “Will ______ bring more women into the field of music technology?” This is a simple question, but one which is worth thinking about with fresh eyes whenever possible, so as to prompt new ideas and shake up a system which might become stagnant. As we discover and acknowledge some of the sources leading to this problem (e.g. the lack of role models, age of exposure, etc.), some of the more conventional phrases we test against this condition include:

Will
…bringing female speakers to middle and high schools…
…organizing mentorship programs…
…featuring women in the field in our outreach material…
…building up campus organizations which work to address these issues…
…reaching out to underrepresented communities when publishing calls for works…
bring more women into the field of music tech?

These are courses of action which fit nicely and neatly into our phrasing and our practice, and does the work of changing the climate by small, comfortable degrees at a time. It’s not difficult to speak at a high school or join a campus club. They are important foundational elements of what we and others do in organizations tasked with pushing forward important cultural changes. There are other phrases that push at the edges of our comfort, of course:

Will
…non-blind reviewing practices…
…implementation of gender quotas…
…women-only organizations…
bring more women into the field of music tech?

Unlike the previous examples, these questions niggle at the back of our minds, because regardless of whether the answer is yes or no, there are consequences involved that we might put us in a situation which does more harm than good. They raise topics of discussion regarding empowerment, gender balance, identity, social tribalism, and exclusion—issues which raise the collective temperature by many very palpable degrees if we don’t treat each situation carefully.

Both sets of questions, which can seem equally simple on the surface, have different levels of controversy wrapped up in them, one which I would propose can be measured by a simple followup question. “Will this negatively effect a number of people which is likely equal to or greater than the number of people it will positively effect?”

The answer to the followup question for the first set of propositions is, in all likelihood, no. Speaking on the topic of music tech in the classroom will be beneficial for all parties involved. For female students, it might help dispel some doubts or insecurities about their possible choices in career. But it’s not going to do that at the cost of general interest-building along all points on the gender spectrum. On the other hand, establishing organizations which allow only women to join might very well impact the male student population in a way which does damage or builds resentment. WiMT has taken a very open position in these regards, encouraging any and everyone who is interested in the topic to join.

And then there are questions which arise in surprising situations, which could not have been predicted or prepared for:

Will
…programming a burlesque dance at a major music conference…
bring more women into the field of music tech?

This question arose in my mind at the 2017 New Instruments for Musical Expression (NIME) conference, where the last concert on the first day featured a burlesque piece called Fereal by Lady Effulgent.

There are many compelling arguments for the positive value of the performance—it featured a strong, confident woman on the stage (effulgent means, in fact, “emanating joy or goodness”), with musical support provided by her male counterparts. Questioning our conceptions of female sexuality, entertainment, and art on the stage are certainly cornerstones of contemporary art which resonate with many of us. The playfulness and intimacy of a burlesque performance can reflect some of the less exemplified values of a community that explores an experimental practice which can sometimes seem sterile or cerebral to those new to the community. In short, burlesque is a unique performance art which, in the right contexts, can be wonderfully empowering.

However, we have to consider that, with every piece we program, we say something about who we are as a community and what we value in ourselves and others. It is a particularly difficult situation to navigate, as women in male-dominated fields often find themselves simultaneously overlooked and exploited, underrepresented and objectified. Our value can seem to vacillate between the lows of worthlessness and the highs of veneration, at all times driven by whatever the needs or desires of the majority are. Even when we are programmed for work that is not highly sexualized, that takes no stance on gender roles or femininity or equality or any other topic, there can be a question of motivation: were we selected because of our work or because of our gender? Does it matter? Should it matter?

I can’t speak for all women, I can only speak from my personal experience, and even for me these answers aren’t entirely clear cut. These issues don’t touch us all in the same way, and that can make things even more difficult to figure out as a collective group. I can say that I firmly believe every piece programmed at NIME this year was done so in a genuinely positive spirit. Taking a big risk, making a change, playing to shock and awe—these can be effective techniques for disrupting a system which is unjust or imbalanced. I wonder, though, whether a piece such as this is shocking the majority or the minority. Did we cause a change in those who needed it? Or did we push those on the outside even further away? In the pursuit of increased representation of women and minorities, is the value of a performance at an experimental music conference in its portrayal of women, or its inclusion of them? Are we sending the message that women are here, or that they are talented musical composers and performers? These important questions of negative and positive impact need to be carefully considered in a field which is slowly striving for more balance and equality.

There is no easy answer, there very rarely is. But we need to keep asking the questions.

Acknowledgments: I am extremely grateful to the Georgia Tech School of Music, College of Design‘s Diversity Council, Women’s Resource Center, and Digital Media Program (School of Literature, Media, and Communication) for funding my travel to the NIME 2017 conference.

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