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Shu Lea Cheang
1998 - 1999
Over the course of 1998 and 1999, Shu Lea Cheang and her collaborators created web compositions—bigdoll, roadtrip, mooplay, theatricum anatomicum, and panopticon—that acted as “interfaces” to a multi-layered narrative, which also played out online and off, across gallery installations, chatrooms, and networked performances.
View of Brandon on the Guggenheim Soho’s video wall, 1998
Brandon opens with the bigdoll interface, which features a cryptic grid of images that change as the user mouses over them; clicking reveals an underlying image, a color-separated composite drawing of a mechanically reconstructed knee.
Screenshot from Brandon (2016-17 restoration).
Many of the images portray parts of human bodies, particularly genitalia, which appear alongside fragments of newspaper clippings (“EXPOSURE,”“SHE’S A HE,” “DECEIT”), which reflect the inflammatory language often used by the press in describing Brandon Teena’s gender identity.
bigdoll: Jordy Jones
The roadtrip interface evokes the experience of driving across the Nebraska prairie. A highway’s orange dividing line scrolls over a black screen, accompanied by road signs and other icons that, if clicked, open to pop-up windows, which offer images of pills, stories of other trans people, and a web search for Brandon Teena.
Screenshot from Brandon (2016-17 restoration).
The roadtrip interface serves as a memorial for Brandon, but takes care not to speak for him. The user is made hyperaware of his story's place in a larger network of narratives of the lives and deaths of trans people. Its fragmented structure contrasts with the more traditional narrative of the 1999 film Boys Don't Cry, which has earned criticism for emphasizing his biological sex and for the lack of trans people among its makers, even though it was met with renown at the time of its release.
From the bigdoll interface, click the top center images to access roadtrip.
Jordy Jones / art design & script
Susan Stryker /script & consultant
Kimberly Saree Tomes /production
Drawing its name from the multi-user online environments known as MOOs, the mooplay section of Brandon was a recombinant narrative drawing on texts written by three authors: Pat Cadigan, Lawrence Chua, and Francesca da Rimini (aka GashGirl).
“Essentially MOOs are virtual spaces where users can log on...and, via text, communicate, create and play in real time...GashGirl’s MOO of choice is LambdaMOO because of its populist nature. It’s not unusual for 200-250 people to be logged on during peak MOOtime.”
—GashGirl's MOO tute for virtual virgins, 1996
Describing sexual and often violent encounters, the texts in mooplay evoke the case described in Julian Dibbell’s 1993 article “A Rape in Cyberspace,” in which a MOO participant, Mr. Bungle, assaults fellow users by temporarily hijacking their characters. The article illustrated the way in which online bodies function as a “psychic double,” closely identified with their users and therefore vulnerable to onscreen violence.
From roadtrip, click the “detour” sign on the right to enter mooplay.
MOOplay features text by Pat Cadigan, Lawrence Chua, and Francesca da Rimini.
This installation by Atelier Lieshout, which featured a revolving webcam, was used during Brandon’s launch event on June 30, 1998 to upload live images to Brandon from the Theatrum Anatomicum in Amsterdam.
In “A Rape in Cyberspace,” the MOO's users held an informal online trial and decided to banish Mr. Bungle, acknowledging the harm that was done and leveling punishment. In Brandon, the online trial was used as a framework for dialogues exploring gender codes, the criminalization of transness, and the internet.
Screenshot of interface for the Brandon launch event, June 30, 1998.
The theatricum anatomicum interface links to three events that took place as part of Brandon–a launch event, a "netlinked forum" called Digi Gender Social Body: Under the Knife, Under the Spell of Anesthesia, and a virtual trial, titled Would the Jurors Please Stand Up? Crime and Punishment as Net Spectacle. Linking Guggenheim Soho with De Waag Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam, these events took place both online and off, involving webcast and chat.
Digi Gender Social Body: Under the Knife, Under the Spell of Anesthesia, co-produced by Cheang, her collaborators, and the Guggenheim Museum, took place in the Theatrum Anatomicum of De Waag—a space that was used for public anatomical dissections in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—and was broadcast in NYC at the Guggenheim Soho and online. The event brought together critics, medical professionals, and technologists to explore the binary coding of gender and of the digital.
To access the theatricum anatomicum interface, click on the webcam icon (which looks like a pulsing circle) from the roadtrip interface.
Design: Mieke Gerritzen and Janine Huizenga
MorF title animation: Yariv Alterfin
Software engineer: Roos Eisma
Forum programming: Bram Boskamp
Theatrum Installation Installation: Joep Van Lieshout
Construction: Atelier van Lieshout
Documentation: Derk Jan Wooldrik
If the trial of Mr. Bungle represented a hopeful potential for the online courtroom, Brandon's panopticon interface reflected the history of criminalization of trans people.
The panopticon interface uses Jeremy Bentham's diagram of a prison optimized for surveillance as a navigational aid. Cells link outward to images and stories of the repression faced by trans and gender-nonconforming people at the hands of the state, including historical, contemporary, and speculative examples.
To access the panopticon interface, click on the No Passing Zone sign at the top of the roadtrip interface.
Beth Stryker on concept & construct
Auriea Harvey on art design & coding
In 2016, the Guggenheim Museum set out to restore Brandon. The restoration team sifted through tens of thousands of lines of code, meticulously rewriting outdated or broken links and code in ways that maintained the site's original appearance and function. The restoration is presented for the first time as part of Net Art Anthology.
Brandon was produced in association with the Society for Old and New Media (now Waag Society), Caroline Nevejan and Suzanne Oxenaar, the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, Anna Deavere Smith and Andrea Taylor (Directors), Banff Center for the Arts, and Sara Diamond