Archive for » November, 2008 «

Politics and Practice of Designing it Yourself

The most recent issue of Ambidextrous is themed “Getting It On.” As part of a issue largely themed around desire, sexuality, taboo, intimacy, and kick starting things — Ambidextrous chooses intentionally ambiguous themes — I wrote about what’s at stake in DIY design. The article is written in conversation with Julia Lupton, co-author of Design it Yourself: Kids, design-your-life blogger, and Shakespearian expert extraordinaire.

We try to explore some of the boundaries that get reiterated and defended distinguishing “real” design from what people do in everyday practice. I’ve heard some designer colleagues half-joke that the role of a designer is to save people from themselves — a need evidenced by flashy MySpace pages that are the modernist designer’s equivalent of eye cancer. One interaction designer expresses some of these anxieties in a post about participatory design techniques. Prominent design critic Steven Heller does the same in an interview with Ellen Lupton. At stake are the professionalism of designers, the individual as a innovative author, and the specialness of creativity. After all, if everyone is creative or capital-d-designers aren’t the only ones crafting elegant, clever solutions to everyday needs, what then is the role of the Designer? If designs are recognized as emerging through participatory practices and reappropriation in context by mere “users” (“artful integrations” and “articulation work” as Lucy Suchman might call them), then who should really deserves credit for those big design awards?

Often cast as the opposite of design, I suspect, are crafting, decoration, tinkering, and collective wandering. Design by committee is held up as the mediocre opposite of Jobsian master vision (though historian David Turnbull counters this idea when he argues that Europe’s great cathedrals had no single master planner or vision). This debate has gendered dimensions as well. Crafting, engineering’s opposite figure, is often gendered feminine: take Make: magazine’s sister magazine Craft: as evidence.

Julia and I explore these issues in greater depth in “The Practice and Politics of Designing it Yourself” »

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where women aren’t

An interesting discussion has been taking place on the ‘faces’ listserv of women in media and communication arts concerning the continuing underrepresentation of women artists in galleries and other exhibition venues. Artist Deborah Kelly started the discussion off with a post entitled “Are there any women artists in France? At all?,” writing:

“I just received the regular newsletter from the Palais de Tokyo, which has a very active program which seems to show male artists exclusively. Not that the curators ever feel the need to mention or notice or highlight (OR EXCUSE) such a thing….

Women are ‘mysteriously’ vanishing from public life and art— perhaps partly because we stopped counting and calling to account.”

In the deluge of responses, many different aspects of this frustration were articulated: that when the issue is raised in public forums, men don’t see a problem or a need to participate in the ensuing discussion; that women curators don’t show enough women artists; that the need for Guerrilla Girls style activism never seems to abate. The writers are calling the situation bad everywhere, and some participants voiced concern that the situation is actually getting worse (and I would guess that it is likely to continue doing so, given that the poor state of the world economy will tend to make people behave more conservatively in general).

From artist Anne-Sarah Le Meur:

“I began to boycott exhibitions with 100% [male] participants. In France, if you have 10% women, you should be happy.”

From artist and writer Martha Rosler:

“In 2005 or 2006 a young male German curator working in England told me that a young male French curator had proposed a show for the English institution, and the curator says he exclaimed in shock, ‘But there are no women!’ The French guy stared at him and replied, ‘We don’t have to think about that any more!’….

Guerrilla Girls are still working hard here in the US because things are slipping back back back… And women artists are still disrespected by most critics.”

From artist Perry Bard:

“I just came back from Beijing where I’m in a show with 10 male Chinese artists and 10 artists from US male and female. When I asked the curator why no women he said they weren’t ready yet.”

Not to pick on China, but—over half a billion women and none of them are ready?

For a look at some recent statistics for Australia, check out the CoUNTess blog (“women count in the artworld”), which features a spreadsheet summarizing the poor situation on that continent.

In new media, digital media, computer art, techno-art, and related “hot” areas, a number of observers (myself included) have noted a closing down just in the last decade or so. That is, in the early 1990s, when the web was new and hardly anyone knew what “new media art” or “internet art” or “interactive art” or any of those other neologisms might be, women were much more visible and exhibitions were more inclusive than they are now. (It would be interesting to see some research nailing down this anecdotal evidence.)

One question this raises is the degree to which the problem in the techno-arts is not just one of inadequate curating, but might also have to do with women leaving the field in discouragement (or not entering it in the first place). Speaking from my own limited experience as a curator in the United States, I would venture that both are at work. In 2000, I co-curated a show on computer games and art (SHIFT-CTRL) that included roughly 40% women (the numbers are difficult to count precisely since several companies and large collectives were included). Four years later, when I co-curated a sequel exhibition on independent and alternative games (ALT+CTRL), the proportion of women artists was much lower despite energetic efforts by all three curators to recruit women for the show—no more than 15%, a percentage that reflected the tiny proportion of women who responded to the show’s open call and to our recruitment efforts. If I had this latter exhibition to do over, I would handle it quite differently; I feel that we missed a real opportunity to take issue with the culturally embedded notion that games are a male domain.

The question, as always, is: what is to be done? Several listserv participants noted that some women artists, perhaps especially younger artists, don’t want to be included (or made to feel they’re being included) in shows as part of a quota of women. But as artist and writer Faith Wilding noted in her response:

“Maybe tactics of solidarity have to be invoked again—if you are the only, or one of the only women artists invited to an exhibition, conference, etc. then tell them you won’t participate unless they change the list (also make them think about needing to include differences in general).”

And Martha Rosler likewise noted that it is critical that women own the fight and not succumb to that maddening sense that it should have been won by now.

She added:

“In 2003 a young female French curator held a panel in Paris about this very problem and the audience was packed with young women. One asked, in anguish, ‘Why did we fail?’ I could only answer that history is not yet over…”

And this is really why the problem has to be addressed vigorously. Exclusion from exhibitions is only the first stage in a vicious spiral. If you’re not in the exhibitions, you don’t get bought by collectors, who later pass their collections on to museums, who draw on those collections for future shows. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t get included in the books that periodically emerge summarizing the state of a field. You are literally written out of history. (And don’t count on the rewrite—it’ll have its own inaccuracies).

If this sounds like a call to arms, it is. And I’m not just talking to you (whoever ‘you’ are). It’s myself I need to remind, as much as anyone.

What’s a favorite feminist technoculture writing for you and why?

I’ve been discussing this in email with a fellow Difference Engine reader and I thought it would be interesting to see what you all have loved reading. 

To be fair, I’ll start. I think I’ll pick Suchman’s book “Plans and Situated Actions.” (I almost picked Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges” though.) P&SA isn’t an overtly feminist book, but I think it did a very feminist thing — perhaps intentionally. It was a major part of a successful intervention to problematize Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI), which aimed to create computational representations of human intelligence. Some of these systems even aimed to encode “knowledge” statements for positivist processing. Suchman used ethnomethodological studies of human-copier usage to show how difference and the challenge of  seeing through another being’s eyes (technically, intersubjectivity) are the way intelligence is enacted everyday. She also took making copies, a feminized task at the time, reputedly menial, and showed the invisible, creativity and sensemaking it took to actually do that work. She even got AI heavyweights responding to her in journal pages. 

What works really did it for you?

Gender on Ice

Gender on Ice (great title) is an upcoming conference at Barnard College, New York (Nov. 20-21) focusing on “the intersection of science, policy, race, and gender in the way the Arctic and Antarctic are studied, represented, inhabited, and imagined.” Participants come from an unusually wide array of disciplines — photography, women’s studies, astronomy, filmmaking, philosophy, art history, geography, environmental studies, science writing — so it looks to be an interesting conversation at the very least.

The conference kicks off with a screening of True North, a film about Matthew Henson, the first African-American to explore the Arctic with Robert Peary in 1909. For more information, check the Gender on Ice website.

Networks, Resistance, and the Enemies of our State

Radars and Fences: an NYU Project

In an otherwise hip and interesting project on control and networks, one claim tripped me up and left me somewhat miffed. The authors imply that the US is networked, therefore has a will to transparency, while backward nations lie mired in uncontested control. I say “imply” because I am extrapolating here. The more specific claim is, I think, even more peculiar – China and Iran are singled out as “authoritarian states” within which there is no contestation of discipline and control ideologies. Here’s a quote:
Radars & Fences: Rationale

.. if in authoritarian states such as China and Iran such
integration of discipline and control needs little justification in
ideological terms (at least on the inside), in the West such a
co-existence is not frictionless ..

On the other hand, it is the very structure of the network society, with its
decentralization of tasks and constant multiplication of electronic eyes
that threatens the opacity of physical and immaterial bunkers. By
looking at the grey areas where control and discipline, transparency and
secrecy, democracy and the state of exception overlap and collide,
Radars and Fences provide a cross-disciplinary and experimental platform
whereby researchers, artists, journalists, and activists can negotiate
new and critical positions.

I’m curious about several aspects of this phrasing. First, the asserted opposition between societies with internal contestation (“friction”) and those supposedly without: clearly an untenable assumption. If there’s anything that the last 50 years of anthropology and cultural studies have taught us, it’s that no society is monolithically anything. There is always contestation – to deny it would be to assume the truth of propagandistic stereotypes such as the faceless grey masses of the USSR which were a staple of US Cold War rhetoric and imagery.

Second, while trying to provide evidence for such a spurious assertion, why chose two states that have been at odds with US foreign policy interventions: China a rising economic “tiger,” targetted for its Human Rights policy at a time when the US was running secret prisons and rendition programs; and Iran, long sterotyped by the US media and more recently threatened with George Bush’s threats of invasion? The authors come across as simplistic parrots of US foreign policy. It is especially jarring reading this after a euphoric election in which we finally are given license to be internationalists again, and it’s finally not embarrassing to have experiences of the world which don’t match right wing stereotypes. In that sense this sketch seems almost Palinesque – the bad people who are our enemies are so grey and dominated by discipline and control, they can’t even contest it. This is all sounding more like Solzhenitsyn than Foucault.

There are a ton of good histories of China and Iran that could offer the authors evidence of their erroneous assumption. Both China and Iran have long histories of peoples’ movements contesting dominating states and imperial ideologies; internal debates among supposedly homogenizing rhetorics, etc. If the authors are too hip to read boring old histories, they could try Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, it comes in easy-to-read comic form and even in an approved-for-US-audiences animated film. Even as a child Satrapi had more of a sense of history than these authors exhibit. And while the US media hailed Satrapi’s book as an unveiling of Iran’s scary past, I read it as evidence of a rich multicultural society of Marjane’s parents (interrupted by deeply contested global and local politics), while the really shocking intolerances were visited upon her by good Christians and cool bohemians during her sojourn in the hip European art schools.

In addition to being upset by the casual xenophobia of the digital cognoscenti, I am also worried about the creeping technological determinism in this manifesto. Because the west is networked, it is believed to offer friction to the forces of domination and control. So, in other words, hook up to the digital domain and you can escape the forces of evil who threaten to control us. In those other societies, their brains arent built like networks, so they can’t do this cool multi-directional non-linear stuff we do, and so they could never dream of contesting the forces of ideological domination.

There is so much new work to be done, but when I read this sort of thing I get tired because first we need to rewrite and re-argue everything already done at least since Edward Said wrote Orientalism.

Anyone going to CSCW or AAA?

Going to Computer Supported Cooperative Work 2008 in San Diego next week and interested in meeting up?

Going to American Anthropological Association in SF Nov 19-23 and want to meet up?

Email blogladies [at] and we’ll set something up! Exciting, nerdy, and hopefully productive conversations about feminism, technoculture, sts, design, and research awaits!

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National Center for Women and Information Technology meeting Nov 6-7 in Irvine

If you’re around Irvine, NCWIT is having their bi-annual meeting focusing on the multiplicity of pathways that can lead to successful IT careers. See the program and RSVP

The talks will mix research findings and practical anecdotes and its unlikely that the participants are reading much feminist theory, but this community is one of the places that is trying to think through and change access to higher education in technical fields so they matter and probably have some practice-based knowledge.

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Almost 40% of American women are sexually sick. Please help us.

According to the Washington Post story, research at Harvard Med School funded by a pharma company that makes drugs for female “sexual dysfunction” finds that “Forty percent of patients have sexual concerns, and 12 percent have enough of a concern that it’s a significant dysfunction in life. This needs to be addressed.” And it needs to be addressed with drugs and by medicalizing sexuality. Fuckin’ brilliant.

The survey included “problems” like “diminished sexual desire.” Um, why is not wanting to have sex as often as cosmo seems to indicate you should or maybe even your partner thinks you should your problem that you should fix by pathologizing your body?

This topic of medicalized sexuality has probably been touched on a lot in queer history, at least, but I feel like some sort of historical and anthropological intervention to place sexuality, sickness, sexual citizenship, medicine, and capital in their proper relations.