30 years ago, no one would have thought to put the words digital, media, and arts together in one description. Now, the combination of these seemingly disparate terms defines an entire course of study dealing with computer-based design and storytelling. At the inaugural Femmebit event, some of the most influential pioneers in the field of digital media arts gathered at Human Resources inside a former kung fu theater in LA's Chinatown to discuss the history and future of the still-forming discipline, see new digital shorts, and experience groundbreaking VR projects.
Given the title of the event, it should come as no surprise that nearly all Femmebit panelists, organizers, and more than 40 featured artists are women. A livestreamed VR demo of Casey Kauffmann’s robust yet user-friendly iPhone-based photo-editing app kicked off the immersive, three-day event. The initial experience was a reminder that livestreamed VR is currently reminiscent of online video content 20 years ago: glitchy, awkward, and at the mercy of internet connection speeds.
Apart from the films, Femmebit’s pièce de résistance was an academic panel on digital media arts, moderated by artist and Telefantasy Studios founder JJ Stratford and featuring Rebecca Allen, the founding chair of UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts and the founding director of Nokia Research Lab, along with Candace Reckinger, Professor of the Practice of Cinematic Arts and director of the Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab at USC. The digital media arts pioneers were joined by Holly Willis, chair of the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC, and Shelley Holcomb of Curate.LA. They discussed early experiences creating digital art in labs, and the struggle to reconcile the field’s nascent potential as art form and commercial tool. They speculated about the prospects for an incumbent paradigm shift in the field of digital media arts with the development of VR before a screening of another collection of shorts called “Heterotopias.”
Femmebit concluded with a mimosa brunch and a panel on artists as brand strategists with Samantha Culp of Paloma Powers, and Jenna Isken and Alison Greenberg of Siegel + Gale. The discussion was followed by screening Artists as Cooperatives.
Femmebit is the brainchild of Kate Parsons, associate faculty at Irvine Valley College's School of the Arts and a VR content creator herself. After moving to Los Angeles to attend graduate school three years ago, Parsons says she noticed that the field of digital media arts was dominated by women. So, she joined forces with Sharsten Plenge of We Open Art Houses (WOAH), and writer and founder of Gil’s Sanctuary, Janna Avner, to realize Femmebit. Together, the women aimed to make a forum for women to exchange experiences and share insights about where the field of digital media arts is headed.
One provocative theme Parsons hoped to foster conversations about is the relationship between art and commerce. “So many of the artists we were showing have ties with corporations in a way that enriches their practice,” she emphasizes. Parsons also notes the transformative effects of technology on the VR experience. She says, “All three pieces we showed in our VR installation were originally created to be watched on a screen. Each respective work adapted to virtual reality in a very unusual way.”
Adding to her colleague's insights, Plenge says, "Femmebit aimed to be a celebratory point of connection. We didn't foresee the political climate as it is today following the election. With that happening, I have to say this felt like such an important reason to unite and highlight female artists: I really believe the future is female—in art, in politics, and in and outside any marketplace. I think it's time we all look around more wide-eyed and ask questions and create platforms that are actively doing something to support inclusion without framing exclusive conversations."