Paul Stewart: In this conversation, we are wanting to pull together a narrative around digital communities through perspectives you've looked at around domestic space and the Xenofeminist Manifesto. The aim is to link social effects of the digital into creative practices. The thematic of the conversation is around digital communities and whether URL (Uniform Resource Locator, colloquially used to represent the web) and IRL (In Real Life) are one and the same in terms of creating and producing works and objects. So, I want to develop with you an idea of—what does community mean in that context?
Helen Hester: I am interested in your proposition of how the manifesto translates into artistic practice, but initially I want to pick up on the differentiation between URL and IRL. One of the things that, for me, is a need (within some camps) to consider the issue of IRL as a way to refer to the non-internet-y thing. The idea is that you don't create this, at the level of semantics, a division between what is your real life and what is you on the Internet, because all of them are part of the same thing. What I am trying to reinforce is the fact that the digital is material, both in terms of its infrastructure, in terms of the fibre-optic cables that make it happen and the data centres. For instance, Bitcoin is arguably a highly energy-consumptive form of practice rather than something that's immaterial; there is an importance in highlighting the physical acts that are needed to generate digital spaces. The fact is there are bodies both behind the interfaces that we use and in front of them. We are people at all times when we are engaging online; even if we feel more ostensibly cyborg at that point, there's still a level of embodiment that's operational. So, there isn't a URL and an IRL, everything is IRL. I have a tendency to always question the way these categories get formed as strict divisions, because it is murky and quite blurred between what IRL is needed to make URL. If dividing things up means that you can do something at the level of activism or practice that you couldn't do if they were blurred together, then that's helpful, but you should always be aware that you're making political distinctions when you make categorical differences. Sometimes it's always better to crash these things together than to pry them apart.
PS: I completely understand what you are reinforcing—it’s only interesting to use semantics if it is politically beneficial. Considering the URL and IRL as blurred, maybe it should all just be IRL, as then it is seeing a web platform or a digital community to still have a physical way of acting or consuming energy in the world. For Laboria Cuboniks, I wonder if the process of writing the manifesto begins in this blurred environment? The form of a manifesto itself is interesting—its manner to be able to be a call to action, a statement of intent.
KA Bird: For me, what you are saying is leading towards the act of doing, and in that, Helen, I was hoping you'd make a link with the act of writing the manifesto being itself the act.
HH: The manifesto is a very interesting form to use if you're thinking about the way information is received and the way that we engage with things. There is an element for some of us, I think, in terms of gendered expectations to actually engage in an active process of demand-making. It was really interesting, going through that manifesto with seven different perspectives, seven different disciplines, a mixture of Cis women and Trans women, a mixture of women who had children and didn't have children, who had care responsibilities and didn't have care responsibilities. The process of negotiation and wrangling that happened was very interesting to go through, and a kind of microcosmic re-enactment of a lot of wider political struggles around political organising. For instance, how you can say something on behalf of a ‘We’ that's as diverse as even seven people and to understand the reality of how difficult that is whilst still insisting upon the necessity of articulating a collective ‘We’ as a political act. It is understanding how important it was to say ‘We’ and to have that as an interpolating gesture as well, because the ‘We’ in the manifesto is not just the six people in Laboria Cuboniks, it's the people that we're interpolating into xenofeminism.
KB: The political act here being the WE. Still not probably agreeing with everything that was said but still accepting that you're a collective WE.
PS: Yeah, definitely, and I think it's a brilliant point to go onto that I felt emerged from the manifesto, the point of collectivity. More so, the space to collectively mobilise around, which is very difficult at the moment because there are so many disparate groups and moments that are all existing...
HH: That is definitely something that we were thinking about, finding a point for us to move around. It is about the manifesto being a platform rather than a blueprint. How you can create something that can allow other things to propagate whilst being conscious of the danger of talking in terms of platforms? The danger is it just becomes a bit nothing-y… content-less. How can a manifesto be a platform that's going to allow new things to happen? There's a lot of content in my new book which is about how you can create possibility for scale in political activism. It is a real struggle because it's part balancing individuality with replicability or the balance between uniqueness with adaptability. It's definitely not easy; in the book, I approach it in the end through the idea of the protocol. The idea of the protocol being defined as a relatively broad set of guiding principles that can be taken up to become context-specific points of negotiation in themselves.
PS: The protocol is an interesting way of considering points of negotiation; for me, this is similar to what I spoke about in my last book chapter for Sense Publishing (2016), “Art and Commitment: Galleries without Walls,” about a group forming a collective commitment to the involvement of negotiating with each other rather than to the topic itself. It really makes me think about the possibility of developing tools for galvanising a collectivity towards an action. What I think would be interesting in this conversation is to connect these points of action that we have discussed in terms of URL to the process of art production. In my eyes, this has three simultaneous conversations from where we started:
1. As just mentioned, the galvanising of collectives through web platforms that can harbour commitment and protocols for activism.
2. I think there is an important point that we haven’t addressed yet around our own genders or our own sexualities, or our social conditioning that genders our environments, and whether this space for action we are ideologically conceptualising was a space in which objects in an online context can become genderless through this collectivity?
HH: Ah, sounds really interesting! I think I'm very curious as to why you are attributing greater potential to the digital than to the non-digital. If you're looking at the early cyberfeminist work, you sometimes see the sense of, well, when you're engaging online there is a greater scope for gender fluidity, for self-representation in different ways. Then, of course, that was the ‘90s, and you're talking about MUDs, chat rooms or forums. Since then, there have been very radical moves away from that towards platforms such as Facebook. These social media contexts have strict ways it expects its users to present themselves; for example, its real-names policy, you can gender yourself any way, but there's a checklist. Also, there's been a dramatic shift towards online spaces as spaces of self-presentation. This means it's anchored, not in this sort of potential for a free-flowing identity, which theorists have always said was extremely limited anyway—what does it matter if you know you can pretend you're a cat on a forum, when in real life you know you are still very much enmeshed in a body that's socially readable? There has been a move away from thinking about the online space as being particularly…having a lot of promise for that, which is not to say that the potential for that whole horizon has been shut down. I don't necessarily think it has, but it's just interesting that when you're talking about it in the digital realm, we've got the opportunity to think of things differently and I just wonder why, for you, they seem to be so tangible?
PS: I think I was connecting it to something you have said before, where “there's no porn without the cum shot.” So, the idea of the immaterial doesn't exist because it's an obsession with the material—an uber material. It is about the space for deviance online, not necessarily through social media platforms, where—you are completely correct—they have become a place in which we present ourselves to the world. But possibly through platforms like Chat Roulette or Chat Random, or these other spaces that allow for different forms of social interaction online. My point is directly about how we are obsessing about our physical in the digital. I feel, though, that there is still a disconnection between applying what is done online back onto the physical, if that makes sense?
HH: Deciphering what you are trying to present, even though you know that the digital is also material and that it's not an immaterial space (it's fundamentally material), you are hinting that it has got its own set of conventions that are particular for that space. Are you suggesting that you adapt to those and you don't necessarily bring them into the world away from the keyboard? If so, I think you know there is a dependency on context. From this position, there are definitely interesting questions about whether those convictions become self-contained in the URL platforms you use. They are miniature micro-projects that have no implications beyond themselves, or whether there is some source of opportunity for generating new logics that are more widely disseminated. For example, Chat Roulette, where you don't know who you're going to speak to and you're perhaps exposed to people that you wouldn't normally ‘seek out’, there is a development on these platforms through Grindr (or other hook-up/meet-up apps). The development is the categorisation of use; for example, Grindr has the option to choose Masc for Masc and actually closing down the opportunity for multiple interactions. It is closing down the potential for difference very radically. There was a lot of debate about this in the noughties in relation to porn and whether the increasing availability of internet pornography was going to create newer, queerer sexualities because there was a mushrooming of content. What happened was rather the opposite. Obviously, you have this emerging tendency with things such as big porn aggregate websites to absolutely throw themselves into information management processes, so the tagging, coding, indexing of this porn becomes this form of categorising in itself.
KB: The categorised areas draw people straight to their desired requests, rather than necessarily seeing a spectrum…
HH: Yeah, exactly, i.e., you want “furry foot fetish porn” that's “girl on girl,” this narrowing down of content and more specificity. This dissemination and distribution is creating new combinatorial kinds of possibilities. You are also getting this refinement of fetish that's about a closing down of what you get exposed to, so then those moments of a surprise encounter become something that's not really about queer sexuality at all. It's very often in the form of unpleasant meme surprises! The rick-rolling of porn. This could be in extreme insertions that you weren't expecting, the two girls one cup phenomenon—all of that stuff is about something that's not about an interest in precisely what quote unquote “virtual content” does at the level of the body, because what they are trying to induce is a corporeal paroxysm, but that paroxysm is not always a sexual one. It's not like the shudder of orgasm or the sort of bodily recognition that comes with arousal—it's about disgust, nausea, the gag reflex. The orgasm essentially is a physical, corporeal embodied reaction that is triggered by the virtual content. There's a real interest in how the material has a form of resonance with the body, but I don't necessarily think that scales up into anything which is a political reorientation, or something that has really any traction outside of itself. So, figuring out what sort of digital interventions have traction is quite an interesting process. What would it mean to re-gender an object on the Internet? In terms of—what can you do with that as a political intervention? It might be interesting aesthetically, it might produce really interesting work, but the next question is to ask, why and what is involved in that. Did you have specific objects in mind when you were thinking about that?
KB: I was reading a bit about gendered tech. For example, in Tesco (UK supermarket), the self- service machines that have a nice disembodied voice of a woman who tells you that you've got the wrong thing in the bagging area. She's very nice and she's there to help you, and that female voice, specifically female, is also associated with the service industry and caretaking.
HH: She's also very stern as well, isn't she? “Unexpected item in the bagging area!” Yeah, there's an element of it where it's like slightly a villainess that you get in Indiana Jones movies. There is a strictness and a coldness that's conveyed in the voice that's very particular to that voice, partly because it is…it's feminized.
PS: Also, on the London Underground, the main voice is a female voice, telling you what stop you're going to be at, but as soon as the train or the Tube gets to the end of the line, which you may remember from falling asleep on it, it's a man that goes “ALL CHANGE PLEASE” and then becomes very authoritative like it's the masculine voice that could make people leave the train.
HH: I think there's a lot to explore in terms of the behavioural psychology of how people respond to different kinds of voices and the fact that maybe it's the difference in between the familiar Tube voice and that final stop voice is what makes you notice it. Whilst you've been sleeping on the Tube, that voice that tells you that you're on your way to Seven Sisters or wherever; it's been there in your sort of oneiric landscape and then you need a different one to make you go like, oh! Actually… time to take action now!
PS: I think the gendering of objects in a digital space was in reference to sound or navigation, not necessarily static pages or interactions. I think you mentioned a bit about mobility very briefly when you were talking about mobility, to kind of move something forward through a protocol system, which you have discussed in your new book. There is a lot to be done within the way in which we navigate and can hear and sense our surroundings. Particularly in all our contexts online, if we can activate or utilise how that functions, it could really shift the displacements between gender roles in daily life but also how a capital structure forms us to navigate a route in a certain way. I was thinking about it in terms of Mark Fisher, possibly as your term “domestic realism” mirrors his ideas of capitalist realism. Fisher talked about capitalism, using the example of Children of Men (film) and the relationship between values. As in the film, there is a scene where the government army is protecting and storing Guernica (Picasso) and completely allowing humanity to fall into despair. I'm jumping a bit, but I am trying to get to automation—what will happen after full automation of our labour and post-work? What will happen in that free time, and what things will exist in terms of objects and gender? I just can't comprehend it.
HH: Something that has become such a luxury for so many people is seen as being the opposite, because this idea of a work ethic is so tenacious. What do you do if your life doesn't have purpose? To even articulate it in that way is to assume that work is the only thing that can give a life purpose, which is a very interesting perspective to start from. I think full automation is a utopian demand that is obviously never going to happen, as there’s like a lot of, first of all, political dis-incentives, but also there's work that depends upon human interaction. There will be some elements of care work, for example, that will be best done by a human because it's about companionship, and talking, and collective memory. I can't see why AI (Artificial Intelligence) would be bothered with such a parochial, human concern! I think that would still be there; it wouldn't necessarily be transcended. So, I don't think all work will be obliterated anyway, but if there's a more specific kind of concern about what do we do after work? I think that is a really radical space of opportunity for thinking about what it means to not have a life that's anchored in work, because for a lot of people work itself, the content of work, is not fulfilling at all.
David Graeber talks about the rise of bullshit jobs—people are becoming aware of the fact that their work has no meaning, that what you're doing doesn't count for anything, that nobody would notice if you didn't do your job. My first job was for a local council dealing with domiciliary care in admin which is something where you think… well, that sounds quite meaningful… like you're making sure that care is provided to vulnerable people in their own homes. The role itself was just not enough work to fill the day; that was when I was at my most substantially miserable, I would say. There's a kind of affect that comes from stress, and that's one I face much more in my daily life now; it's this feeling of being overwhelmed, and it corrodes something inside of you—constantly being pumped full of fight-or-flight hormones because you're so busy, but then there's another kind of affect associated with boredom, and that for me was the most soul-destroying. Knowing that nobody would care if I was productive or not, I just had to be there, not contributing.
I've often found that when I talk about post-work, that there's something of a generational disparity. I've noticed that some people who are maybe at a particular point in their career, who have had very enjoyable and personally meaningful work lives will ask, “What's the point of life without work? Work gives you a sense of meaning, work is about human endeavour and drive.” For a lot of younger people, people of my students' age, and of my age as well, there doesn't seem to be quite that same sense because the work they've done has always been inconsequential. There is no need to overcome a resistance to this idea that work is frustrating and immiserating, because it's already there. They are already starting to make a distinction between work in terms of wage labour, or drudgery, and work in terms of meaningful human endeavour; a lot of the time they're finding that sense of meaningful human endeavour elsewhere, but it might not be recognisable to everybody as meaningful. I don't necessarily think that work is any less meaningful because it's not culturally legible. It’s more about what possibilities open up when you have autonomy, and at the moment we have no sense of what free time is because everything that we count as free time is recovery from waged work, or domestic drudgery, and caring responsibilities. Our free time is essentially the recovery… the short recovery periods we have before we have to do something else.
PS: I can really see what you mean, and I think all of us can resonate with your experience and real feelings in that particular work role—does it have more to do with what free time is defined as?
HH: Yes, completely. But that's because free time doesn't mean time when you're not working. It means work that's autonomous and self-directed.
KB: Is there any real motivation to change this landscape?
HH: For people who are actually in charge of making it happen?
HH: Not at the moment, I think, and I think if there's going be change it's going to come from political pressure and demand-making from the working-class, and that has to be happening more and more. I think we are in an interesting moment politically because there is an increased sense of the dissolving of the neoliberal consensus and a move towards alternative opportunities. Obviously, that's also a time of intense risk; as you can see with the rise of Trump and some of the discourse around Brexit here is that, as the consensus breaks down, it could be we could get something much worse arising in its place.
PS: What about art practices within the realm of politics?
HH: It is for the Left to try and create more emancipatory futures from this moment. There is a new opportunity to try and steer things like domestic design in a different direction, to put things like care work on the agenda in a new way.
In terms of art-making as a point of political organising, work (post-work) is a very useful concept because everybody has a relationship to work. If you're out of work, if you're an unemployed carer, if you're in work, if you're part of the gig economy, if you've got a full-time job, if you're on a pension—everything is defined through your relationship with work. Everybody understands work as a politically and personally important territory. So, it has a certain utility in that sense. But I also think you know given my interest in domestic realism, I think actually the home and housing are very similar, in terms of the fact that everybody has a relationship to space, to domestic space, to where you live, and to the social relations that take place within that space.
PS: I want to bring in Ivan Illich's “Useful Unemployment” discussion in Tools for Conviviality. He writes about the idea of useful unemployment as a social tool. To paraphrase, the institution no longer being the purpose for education, education is the purpose for the institution, which suggests the position that any university doesn't exist to educate people, education exists so the university can exist and it will profit x, y and z. But what Illich talks about is ownership, re-owning a learning context, re-owning your knowledge transfer, which I think really connects to what we're probably talking about in terms of post-work.
For example, Ahmet Ògüt’s Silent University is a really interesting way of distributing knowledge exchange by using the tools of an institution. It is an example I have used many times to restate the point and ability of art practice having a possibility to create ownership for space and particularly education. In a previous article for OnCurating (Issue 31), when in conversation with Alistair Hudson, Jeni Fulton and Sam Thorne, Fulton mentioned that Ògüt saw architects as the better activists, where she stated, “The right to freedom of assembly is, after all, a universal human right, and by circumscribing public space, one automatically infringes on this.” Maybe this is where the art practice can be seen in this conversation, between politically activating the categories and definitions we are presented by our digital engagements, by private companies and corporate capitalism?
Following this framing, I wanted to ask you how we could, through maybe curatorial practice but also within art practices, infiltrate our institutions. How could you see a way in which we can navigate those spaces?
HH: That is an interesting question, and I am unsure how to answer it. On the one hand, I think institutions do some elements of what they are supposed to do very well; for instance, the NHS, when able to function properly in its funding restraints, it does what it needs to do. On the other side, I think it's very difficult to crack them open. What I mean is you've got the space to allow the dissemination of different kinds of knowledge through this material base, but that is a little aperture of potential freedom that the institution has kind of embedded within it. There's very little scope for coming into a university and creating a radically different form of course, for example, at the moment, because it's all driven by how many students can you recruit, how much research funding can you bring in, you know, it's the financial elements that are attached to the marketisation of universities, which means there isn’t the freedom in that.
So, I think a lot of it happens in terms of content, in terms of what you talk to your students about, what they talk to you about, trying to create opportunities for students to pursue knowledge in different ways and doing what you can within the limited framework. But then I think the more interesting endeavours are happening beyond the formal institutions, like the Sex Workers Open University and the Anti-University.
KB: So, it’s taking the idea of what the university used to mean, and creating within it autonomous spaces?
HH: Yes, in terms of self-organised radical learning. It's about creating a more inclusive sense of what art can be and who artists can be. It’s about creating a space for different kinds of artistic practice to emerge outside of a kind of production line of people from art schools and institutions. What would it mean to have free time for your artistic practice? Because even the parts where you do get to do what you want, very often it's according to a framework that somebody else has decided for you so it's not truly autonomous activity. So how can art become a more autonomous phenomenon? And I also think there's a really interesting discussion to be had about art's role in articulating current political positions because obviously the manifesto form is getting a lot of attention right now; I sort of wonder about the resurgence of visual propaganda. Propaganda is seen as being the antithesis of art—the visual equivalent of a manifesto. Like xenofeminist propaganda! It’s operating according to a very particular sort of visual rhetoric that's very openly politically engaged.
The idea of the visual manifesto is coming from many different political positions, and I think it's so important, because a lot of questions that I know the accelerationists get asked and the xenofeminists get asked is, “Oh how does this relate to art?” And I don't really necessarily think it's our place to tell artists what to do with the ideas, because again it's this idea of creating a platform. But I think it would be interesting to see what a resurgence of that sort of aesthetic would look like. It's been a very long time since that's been on the agenda in any way. Like you know, what would it mean, what would it look like now? It is a microcosm of the very close relationship between politics and aesthetics.
PS: I think the reason why you get invited to talk about art practice, or aesthetic sensibilities or creative practice or design or architecture and so on, is because of how the topics expressed through the manifesto are resonating at the moment within art.
HH: I think theoretical, philosophical, or cultural studies conversations are almost like raw material for a different sort of processing. There's something to be taken up, and you do get some more direct responses to xenofeminism, Ryan Hammond's “Open Source Gendercodes” project being one of them. And there have been musical projects that take up xenofeminist themes, which is really interesting to see. But otherwise I think it gets digested in different ways, right? It is not always a literal thing; it's more taking the manifesto as a provocation and then like trying to tease that out in a different sort of language.
There is a twentieth-century tradition of putting on an exhibition if you want to get somebody to encounter an idea. I think there's an acknowledgement that the footfall is not going to necessarily be a substantial portion of the entire population; it’s going be a self-selecting group of people who've decided that they're interested in this, that they're willing to spend money on this half the time. What I am stating is the idea of a truly mass exhibition is something that we have largely left in the twentieth century. So, maybe that trenches on ideas of the digital in terms of new spaces of encounter, it's definitely not artistic institutions any more—maybe it's possible to reconceive institutional spaces and where work is encountered.
There are different ways of propagating ideas now, and so much of it is happening below the line in the comments and on social networks. Those become new spaces of encounter where you don't necessarily know who's going to stumble across it. This is part of the traction gained by that sort of format; it’s this idea of investment to some extent—I don't want to say interactivity because that's such an exhausted word, but the idea that you can respond—and it leads to some interesting conclusions because sometimes the response takes precedence over the thing or article itself.
Look at the amount of times people comment on the headline and not an article, for example; it's an immediate response to something, a want to participate, you want to articulate something but you're not part of the frame, nobody's got time to read the whole article anyway, so it's a lot of very instinctive gut reactions.
PS: This is leading to something that you mentioned in the beginning of the conversation, on this idea of queerness being invisible. Growing up queer and using the Internet as a means of finding these spaces and communities that you just couldn't find in the real world allowed you to formulate some sort of identity. Invisible spaces being made visible is, seemingly, the same as shutting it down and closing it off and making it a reflection of real places. If our hiding places are being compromised, are fringe communities are at risk of becoming homogenised? The space has been de-politicised. It's no longer a subversive space anymore. If a light is cast on it, representation becomes susceptible to a kind of normalisation that dilutes the radical or the transgressive aspects of these communities.
HH: There have always been intense debates about visibility as a strategy. I think it has a sort of tactical utility, only in specific situations. You cannot be visible and not face some risks; it depends on spaces in which you are part of and the context in which you find yourself. I think it is important to acknowledge that any claim for visibility will be context-dependent. But yeah, I think there's a very important point in there as well about solidarity networks and digital communities. There can be a tendency to assume that forms of interpersonal support that you get from online communities is not sufficient, or that it's not as good or as valid as what you get in face-to-face interactions. So, it overlooks exactly what you're talking about, which is that having access to face-to-face affinity groups and networks depends on where you are. It assumes a sort of metropolitan subject a lot of the time; if you're growing up in a village, it might be much more difficult to be visible as a queer person and not face fairly intense scrutiny and oppression from the people that you co-exist with. You can get very real forms of support from online communities.
It’s almost like the second-wave feminist notion of the consciousness-raising group as being this sort of face-to-face network, which still dominates our conception of what real political community looks like. I think it is important to acknowledge, particularly for digital natives, that's just not the way things really operate any more. There’s a certain amount of agency that maybe comes with the increased anonymity of those online spaces, your ability to ask questions that you wouldn't want to ask even your close friends face-to-face; you know, there's much to be said about that, about those possibilities.
PS: I think that is a very good point to reiterate about agency and political communities and is a great place to wrap this conversation up.
KA Bird is a queer, visual artist particularly interested in the use of digital media in her practice. She received a distinction in her MA in Fine Art from Teesside University in 2018, and is currently a studio holder at The NewBridge Project, Newcastle.
Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communications at the University of West London. Her research interests include technology, social reproduction, and the future of work, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, September 2020, with Nick Srnicek).
Paul Stewart is an artist and curator based in Gateshead, England. He is a lecturer and course leader BA Fine Art at MIMA School and Art and Design, Teesside University. Completed a PhD (2018) titled: The Alternative Art School: Art, Hegemony and Critical Pedagogy. MA in Art & Politics from Goldsmiths College (2012), BA in Fine Art at University of Lincoln (2011)t. He was theco-founder of the Middlesbrough Art Weekender, Bad Spirits, and the Alternative Art College. He has exhibited work and published around topics sitting at the intersection between art practice, the digital, politics, and critical pedagogy.