In her paper, presented at the online Cyberpunk Culture 2020 conference (the recording is available here), Julia Gatermann explores the re-signification of disability via cyberpunk aesthetics and posthumanism in Viktoria Modesta’s art.
Self-labeled bionic pop artist Viktoria Modesta uses her own physicality – she had her leg amputated below the knee at the age 20 – to achieve a re-signification of disability. In her performances, she presents an image of empowerment that derives from her particular embodiment, overthrowing any notions of victimhood or stigma that are pervasive in our culture’s understanding of disability. She stylizes her leg prosthesis as a fetishistic object that becomes the symbol of her subversion of normative beauty standards and the female body. In the 2014 music video of her song “Prototype,” directed by Saam Farahmand and recorded for Channel 4’s #bornrisky campaign that aimed to tackle preconceptions and prejudices about marginalized groups (the video is available here), she uses retro-futuristic aesthetics to promote her agenda: she visually marks a cultural context based in normative thinking as a thing of the past, calling for more fluid understandings of embodiment.
The contrasting backdrop for Modesta’s subversive aesthetics is what looks like a totalitarian regime – a society that demands conformity and suppresses individualism. In the video, Modesta’s character has become the face of the resistance against oppression, a utopian icon in this bleak, dystopian world: she even has a superhero like cartoon alter ego, with long, black pin-up-style hair, a black corsage and her signature weapon, a black spike leg. Consequently, the video’s overall style is noir. Nearly all of the shots are kept in dull and muted colors, highlighting Modesta’s figure in beautiful chiaroscuro, and largely follow 1940s aesthetics that is reflected in the video’s costume and set design. This noir style carries several subtle visual references to cyberpunk urtext Blade Runner which exudes a very similar retro-allure, combining notions of futurity and past to arrive at a perceived a-temporality that makes it all the more transferrable to our here and now. Modesta’s style even evokes the iconic fashion of Blade Runner’s gynoids, Rachel and Zhora, which ties in well with the posthumanist discourse her leg prostheses already emphasize. Posthumanism, in short, challenges normative notions of what is considered to be “human”, and comes to a consensus that the “category” as something originary does not exist. It promotes non-anthropocentric thinking, and argues for a more holistic view of the nature-culture debate, regarding it as a continuum as opposed to a binary opposition. Donna Haraway in her seminal “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) introduces the concept of the cyborg as a hybrid, transgressing boundaries between human, animal and machine.
The futuristic design of Modesta’s prostheses emphasizes exactly such a position of liminality by merging her body with technology. And doing so in such a deliberate and visually stunning way, they highlight rather than mask Modesta’s non-normative embodiment and celebrate deviance from the norm. Her artificial limbs project a post-disability image that casts Modesta as something more-than instead of a less-than. How much this cyborgian empowerment relies on her physical beauty and sex appeal is symbolized in another visual feature prominent in cyberpunk – neon-light. Modesta’s electrifying physical attractiveness metaphorically manifests in a prosthesis she is wearing in this shot: a translucent leg that glows intensely from within gathering a swarm of moths around it. Modesta attracts, but she is also dangerous – those who come too close might get burned by her light. Modesta’s leg prostheses are turned into a fetish in this video – they stand for her strength, set her apart from the lesser ‘normal’, and add to her sexual allure. As Pawel Frelik notes about the importance of neon-light in this respect: “Cyberpunk’s ocular romance with neon is, more often than not, a retro-futuristic gesture in itself. […] The totemic position of Blade Runner , particularly with regard to its visuality, seems to reinforce this diagnosis—after all, Scott’s classic film crucially relies on the collapse of historicity and marks science fiction’s (re)discovery in the 1980s of the noir aesthetic and its reinterpretation into the Technicolor future noir” (Frelik 2018, 93).
This collapse of historicity through a noir style that spans from the 1940s through the 1980s to 2020 is exactly what the video for “Prototype” is trying to achieve. This becomes visually particularly striking in the scene where Modesta is arrested for inciting rebellion and brought to court. The contrasting backdrop of the cold war with a menacing totalitarian regime, keeping a close eye on everyone in order to suppress any deviation from state-imposed conformity, serves Modesta’s agenda well to promote individuality and fluidity, be that of embodiment or sexuality. In a scene that is reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s infamous ‘leg uncrossing’ in Basic Instinct, Modesta features a prosthesis covered in ‘diamonds’. With her leg crossing she redirects the laser beams that hold her captive to target the security officers – once more becoming a weapon of liberation. Here, if not long before, Modesta’s status as a femme fatale becomes established, not only through the visuals of the redirected deadly beams by means of the fetishistic, highly sexualized object of her crystal leg, but also through the visual reference of this other beautiful and sexually provocative femme fatale from the 1990s. Modesta’s video plays on nostalgia on many layers, attempting to give her utopian vision a sense of atemporality.
The leg prostheses, being artifacts that signify far beyond their mere functionality as artificial limbs, are the core component of her public persona, of how she styles and stylizes herself – after all, it is her looks she attempts to achieve change with. I argue that these artworks, while being part of her costume, simultaneously trouble and complicate the impression of her clothes, hair and make-up, that conform to – and, unfortunately, also re-inscribe – conventional beauty standards. Stina Attebery notes about costume in science fiction, especially sf with a noir inflection, that the “‘classic silhouette’ for suits and dresses […] runs the risk of re-inscribing a 1940s gender politics for how the bodies within these costumes can move and present themselves” (Attebery 2020, 228). Looking at the scenes discussed above, Modesta has been an ‘icon for revolution’ solely by conforming to normative beauty standards. Her tight dresses and high heels restrict her movements and prevent her from any of the actions her cartoon alter ego displays in her fight against oppression. What has been revolutionary, so far, is not a confrontation of gender expectations or beauty standards, but that she, in a way, employs her physical deviance to enhance her sexual allure by fetishizing her artificial leg.
The last leg prosthesis, the spike leg, signifies a shift: her so-far passive beauty gains a new fierceness and transgresses the boundaries of what we expect from a “classic” human, female, embodiment. This scene marks a break with the aesthetics of the rest of the video: In an abstract, featureless room with sheer, reflective surfaces, the domineering element is the sound of Modesta’s steps, sharp stabbing sounds, accompanied by occasional metallic screeching.. She is wearing a black glossy high heel (for the lack of a better expression, since the shoe lacks the very heel) and a matching black glossy spike prosthesis (maybe complementing the missing heel). The image is startling, and not just because it breaks with our expectations, it is an image that evokes fear because it looks vaguely predatory. The movements, at first a languorous and seductive walk, becomes threatening when Modesta forcefully stamps down the sharp point of her leg, thereby turning it into a lethal weapon that can puncture and wound. To add to the effect, Modesta is wearing what vaguely looks like a fencing mask. When the lighting shifts to an alarming red, her outfit changes into the tutu and pointe shoe of a ballet dancer, but her movements, while graceful, are menacing and threatening, the soundscape amplifying the sensation. She is suspended from wires and her motions seem insect-like – she appears to have morphed into a spiderlike creature, or maybe a praying mantis – the mask adding to the post-human, hybrid, cyborg effect of the image. To draw on Haraway, Modesta has become-with with animal and technology.
Modesta’s performance relies on her particular non-normative embodiment, on the intimacy of her body’s becoming-one with the prostheses that, being works of art designed to express individuality and thereby perform identity, radically change the silhouette of her body, her movements, the way she engages with her surroundings. Modesta’s fetishization of her leg-prostheses achieves a re-signification of non-normativity and disability that promotes a sense of empowerment and agency, of taking control of one’s own body, and, in Modesta’s case, even turning it into a weapon for social change. Modesta’s emphatic embrace of her amputeeism allows her to conceptualize her body in new ways, present a post-disability image, and become an architect of her own identity, one that fuses physical deviance with sexuality and empowerment. Modesta’s subversion of normativity relies on powerful images. The audio-visual language of the video employs an iconography that subconsciously runs on a cyberpunk code which serves as an unfailing visual shorthand to signify futurity. Through these associative connections, by casting Modesta as a ‘prototype’, it clearly marks normative understandings of embodiment as a thing of the past: the future is not only female – it is fluid and diverse!
Attebery, Stina. “Fashion.” In The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, pp. 228-237. Routledge, 2019.
Haraway, Donna. “A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s.” In The postmodern turn: New perspectives on social theory, pp. 82-115. Cambridge UP, 1994.
Channel 4. “Viktoria Modesta – Prototype.” Youtube, uploaded by Channel 4, 12. Dec., 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA8inmHhx8c. Accessed 8 Apr. 2019.
Frelik, Paweł. “‘Silhouettes of Strange Illuminated Mannequins’: Cyberpunk’s Incarnations of Light.” In Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, pp. 80-99. Routledge, 2017.
About the Author
Julia Gatermann is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Hamburg where she is currently writing her dissertation on representations of sexual and gender fluidity in contemporary American culture. She works as a researcher at the University of Bremen for the interdisciplinary research project “Fiction Meets Science II” with the subproject “Science in Postcolonial Speculative Fiction: Nature/Politics/Economies Reimagined.” She was a member of the board of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (German Association for Research in the Fantastic) for ten years.