March 27, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Gabby Resch: micha cárdenas has one of those really rich, descriptive bios that looks great on paper and screen, but is so much more interesting and revealing when you peel back the layers and discover this really rich map of consistent, thoughtful, activity: artist, activist, poet, performer, student, writer, educator, mixed-race, trans-fem, Latina, PhD student and media arts and practice and provost fellow at USC, member of the art collective Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0, former fellow at the Post-Media Lab at Leuphana University, New Directions scholar at the USC Center for Feminist Research, MacArthur Foundation/HASTAC scholar. These are among the myriad descriptive terms one might admire in micha’s bio. Additionally, micha holds an MFA in visual arts from UCSD, an MA in communications from the European Graduate School, and a BS in computer science from Florida International University. So micha has a really extensive CV, but it’s far from fluff or padding. One descriptor that doesn’t appear as frequently in micha’s academic bio is the generic “activist” or more specific “community builder,” but it is because of this emphasis on community-building engagement in micha’s work that I’m so happy to have the chance to introduce her today.
I’ve had the fortune of seeing micha present a few times, and what inspires me about hearing her speak is the seamless way she gives direct, tangible examples of new technologies and also highly theoretical concepts. Another strength to micha’s presentation style—arguably, it’s endemic to her work—is that it fuses applied technical engagement with critical, deeply considered theoretical approaches, experimental tactics, and an unflinching tendency to approach thought with a focus on whom it might benefit and how. This research inhabits research technology and how it treats movement, not just as a topic of research interest but as a technology of change. I hate to use a patronizing term like “emerging,” or those sorts of things, to describe people like micha, as it tends to do two things. First, it implies an emergence from a state of academic infancy, when—judging by micha’s very prolific recent scholarly activities, coauthoring books and articles on a really diverse array of subjects—this can in fact be a truly fruitful period for the development of long-term projects, as well as an opportunity to establish unique documentation and research demonstration practices about conventional trends; but more importantly, it diminishes pre-academic or non-scholarly or extra-academic work. And micha’s “activist” work, such as the brilliant Transborder Immigrant Tool that she helped develop at UCSD—it should be noted that no less than Glenn Beck called for America in general to turn off the taps of the universities towards scholars like micha, which is a badge of honor, in my opinion—is just as interesting as the more formal academic work that makes up micha’s scholar outfit, so to speak, and is in fact tied into micha’s work in the first place. In these sorts of terms—and isn’t it already the responsibility of all of us to be doing this?—micha really is pushing the envelope with how she incorporates technologies and paradigms, such as wearable computing artwork and body interaction. While so much wearable computing seems focused on making blinking hats or personal surveillance tools, micha uses wearables to explore how inhabiting space in artificial binaries—male/female, digital/material, empowered/disempowered, natural/unnatural—often requires mixed, multiple, or blurry modes of interaction, an alternative multi-voiced logic. While others might also complain that movement is a technology of change, they’re busy waving their hands at gestural censors to trigger predictable responses—control of an onscreen avatar, for example. micha dashes away from the trivial, shifting to be critical of the so-called revolutionary technologies, raising a middle finger at the connect wall, while at the same time questioning what it means to inhabit the avatar through embodied, gestural, or other modes. In this spirit, micha’s work on local autonomous networks—which was selected for the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose—will be the subject of discussion today, and I gather, among other things, upends how network engineers, information theorists, and policymakers might imagine networks, where community information infrastructure moves away from questions of access and towards decisions shaping new technologies for technical enhancement strategies. micha embodies the sort of critical–relational approach that I hoped wouldn’t die with the same dream that builders who trade secrets with electrical engineers might have, or DIY book publishers, who get information through these and then go and build their own presses in order to challenge and disrupt the capitalist publishing industry, might also have. For this and for many other reasons, I’m really excited for micha’s presentation today, as I think we have the chance to recognize a scholar involved in technical practice, theoretical engagement, boundary-pushing research, as well as political action, in equal measure. I’d like to turn it over to micha now.
micha cárdenas: Thank you so much, Gabby and Patrick, for those generous introductions—it will be hard to live up to. And oh, awesome. No. It’s back, OK, awesome. Well, so, I decided to change my topic a little bit today, to be in dialogue with the series, and Shannon was here and mentioned my work, and she’s such an inspiration of mine, so I thought that we might start with some sexually explicit performance art first. Oh, internet. Confounding the networks. OK.
So that was from an older series of work that I did with my former partner Elle Mehrmand that was called virus.circus, and so it was after I did Becoming Dragon and before my current work—you can turn the light back on. So virus.circus was an episodic series of performances exploring a speculative world of queer futures, of latex sexuality, and DIY medicine in resistance to virus hysteria. Performances used wearable electronics, soft sensors, and live audio to bridge virtual and physical spaces. The performances were thinking about how the history of queer politics shows how the rhetoric of viruses such as HIV are used to control marginalized populations, and how the present transnational politics of viruses such as H1N1—or, at the time, H1N1 hysteria, especially living on the US–Mexico border—unearthed the militarization of medical authority, microscopic migrations, and global inequities. This particular piece, virus.circus.probe, imagines the DIY medical resistance engaging in their own viral testing techniques as foreplay and sex. A lot of my work has been concerned with imagining futures of technology and gender and sexuality, and thinking about ways that technology changes gender and sexuality every day and also potentially in the future. And so previously I was really interested in this kind of post-digital horizon being something like biotech, like computers that we would grow, and DNA computing. A lot of my work, like Becoming Dragon and virus.circus, is really interested in thinking about these things. But also at the time I was much more invested in making what Rita Raley calls tactical gizmology, or making lots of devices that I thought actually had to work. So for that performance we actually made a thrust-sensing dildo, so that the amount of thrust that a person put on the dildo would give them a proportional amount of vibration on their genitalia also. In that performance, and in that series, we used a lot of biometric sensors or bioinformation sensors like heart-rate monitors, and visualized them in different ways and played the sound of our heartbeats through our Second Life avatars. So we were thinking about creating transreal performances in multiple ways. One way being merging fiction and reality, but another way being merging things like the virtual world in Second Life and the physical world in different ways. One was through linking our avatars to our bodies through biometrics. OK.
So now the real talk starts. First I want to thank Patrick for bringing me here and organizing this amazing speaker series. I’m really honored to be alongside the other people in the series. Also, I want to acknowledge that we are on unceded and unacknowledged Mississauga–New Credit territory, and you should consider that this talk comes in the context of colonization, and I myself am recently a settler here in Canada, so very much an active participant in that violence. Let’s see, we were going to do this—we’ll do that later. So virus.circus was a series of performances, and then at the end we did this piece that’s on the cover of my Transreal book that was called virus.circus.laboratory, where we took all these artifacts from the performance and presented them in a gallery setting all together, in this augmented-reality installation that was an imaginary computational system that relied on female ejaculate fluid to work, to run. So this is thinking about the affect in computing, thinking about why is it that our affect is supposed to be sitting at this typewriter and doing this business, automatons who are so bored with our lives, and why not have computers that rely on pleasure. So yeah, we presented these artifacts that we used in those performances, like this distance-sensing bra. And we had this augmented-reality view of the installation through which viewers could see a 3D video of the same table and the same instruments being used by the two of us, masturbating and ejaculating on the table, which we performed in Toronto, also at the Toronto Free Gallery—it was my first time there, it was pleasant. I don’t have that video for you because it’s only a stereoscopic video.
I don’t show that work that much because my body’s really different and I feel weird showing it. But a lot of my work is about the subject in transition anyway, so I guess that’s part of the deal. OK, so, today I want to discuss my two current projects—get my timer to work—the Transborder Immigrant Tool and Local Autonomy Networks. I’ve collaborated with the Electronic Disturbance Theater since 2008 to create the Transborder Immigrant Tool. We have described it as—so when I say “we,” these quotes are from the collective; I’m not attributing the people; we all have different motivations and desires and requirements from that project, but we do often write collectively—“a poetic gesture and safety device equipped to identify water caches on the US side of the Mexico–US border.” The Transborder Immigrant Tool repurposes inexpensive, used mobile phones that have GPS antennas. Not intended to resolve the long histories of fear, prejudice, and misunderstanding on both sides of the border, the Transborder Immigrant Tool is beholden to the often-overlapping traditions of transcendental and nature writing, earthworks, conceptual art, performance, border art, located media, visual and concrete poetries. Our project represents both a conversation piece, a reminder that people are dying, and an ethical intervention, a hand extended to those who are lost and dehydrated. Based on the key technical question “Can some $20 phones be made useful for emergency navigation?,” it learns equally from the efforts of humanitarian aid organizations like Border Angels and Water Stations, Inc. As poetry in motion, the TBT navigates the borderlands of GPS (Global Positioning System) and what in another context Laura Borras Castaner and Juan Gutiérrez slyly misread as a “global poetic system.”
The Electronic Disturbance Theater, which I’m a part of, has referred to the TBT as an example of Science of the Oppressed, an approach that is informed by forms of knowledge production that are marginalized by the rational focus on the digital. The fundamental operations of digital technology—“and,” “or,” and “not”—are derived from George Boole’s development of Boolean logic, which was first described in the pamphlet Mathematical Analysis of Logic, published in 1847. While the Boolean logic that’s the basis of digital technology is based in Western systems of reason, Science of the Oppressed includes concepts such as Femme Science and Mayan technology, which was proposed by Ricardo Dominguez to signify nonlinear causalities in technologies, such as the stick the little Mayan boy waves in Mexico at the helicopter and says, “Garoom, Garoom, Garoom,” and makes the helicopter go away. Science of the Oppressed also takes inspiration from Methodology of the Oppressed and Theater of the Oppressed and a number of other traditions. I propose that a related method that I will talk about today for both theory and practice can be found in trans of color experience, which I refer to as trans of color praxis.
So in this global poetic system, the phone included poetry, so that users, when they turned on the phone, would have the option of hearing poems. We displayed the phone in galleries and museums with the poetry sometimes. This is one of the concrete poems that went with it—certainly, part of the project was thinking about the transborder, thinking about transgender migrants, thinking about how nationality or the status of being undocumented potentially destabilizes one’s gender. Displayed in galleries and museums, it looks like this and it shows these poems and also plays the sound of the poems. The poet who wrote most of the poems on the phone, Amy Sara Carroll, who’s part of Electronic Disturbance Theater, wrote a series of poems, designed to be distributed on the phones, which were encoding desert survival information. So these were poems that would tell you how to collect water in the desert or how to determine what a cactus looks like that is poisonous versus a cactus that has drinkable water inside. So those were the poems that were intended to be distributed on the phone.
This project never went beyond the beta stage, despite—oh, so this is the picture of what the interface looked like, we called it a witching interface because we used this vibration, when you were facing the right way it would vibrate, when you arrived at the water it would vibrate, in case you didn’t understand the language of the interface. But yeah, it received a lot of media attention, a lot of right-wing media attention. Glenn Beck actually said our poetry would dissolve the nation, which I thought was quite a good review, as an artist. And it resulted in multiple criminal investigations—a police investigation, a university police investigation, and an FBI investigation—which slowed down the development of the tool quite a bit, and which found that we did not misuse any of our measly $5,000. It probably took them $100,000 to find out that we didn’t misuse any of our money, but that was the outcome of those investigations into our project. Currently, we’re still displaying it, and we’ve still been testing it, but it’s not quite clear if we’re going to distribute it, partly because of the cost problem. We envisioned this project to work on like $20 Nextel phones that you find on eBay, and then once the software was written and developed and tested by the collective members and a few artists, we found that the cheapest $20 phone is very slow and not entirely reliable. So the ethical question of giving somebody something and saying that this might help you is very questionable, and also another part of the conclusion of the investigation was that the legality of actually giving the phone to people in Mexico who plan to cross is very different than the legality of testing our project. So we have not distributed it yet, nobody but us has used it yet, which I’m not sure a lot of people know given that there’s been a lot of hoo-ha about it. OK.
So, moving on, so towards the end of working—not towards the end, but after many years—after five years of working on the TBT, I started this new project, Local Autonomy Networks. I was at the Allied Media Conference in a workshop, and this amazing, inspirational Black feminist scholar of time and space travel, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, said in a comment in her workshop, “I have a vision of a post-digital future where the kind of communication we have today, with cell phones and the internet, seems like an ancient relic, and a memory that supports that vision is that my ancestors could communicate telepathically.” This really spoke to me as an inspiration and as a way of thinking about possible horizons of wearable electronics and of sensing networks, because I was working on developing these—OK, I’m going to go back to this text. So my work on the TBT led me to Local Autonomy Networks, a project being developed in collaboration with community-based organizations, including Gender Justice Los Angeles, Allied Media Projects, Detroit Represent, and 0,29 in Bogotá, Colombia. So from the temporary shut-down of ThePirateBay.org and Wikileaks.org at the DNS level, or the common shutdown of the DNS level of virtual sit-ins, to the shutdown of cell-phone communications to prevent protests from Egypt to San Francisco, corporate communications infrastructures are obsolete, increasingly, for resistant communities. In contrast, people in resistance are imagining new post-digital futures—namely, Alexis Pauline Gumbs. So this is one of my main inspirations for this project. So Local Autonomy Networks is an art project focused on creating networks of communication to increase community autonomy and reduce violence against women, LGBTQI people, people of color, disabled people, sex workers, and other groups who continue to survive violence on a daily basis. The networks are both offline and online, including handmade wearable electronic fashion and face-to-face agreements between people. The networks are being established through a series of workshops, performances, presentations, and discussions at art, activist, and academic venues in the Americas and Europe. Autonets is the main example of trans of color praxis that I’ll be discussing today.
Autonets started with a line of mesh-networked electronic clothing—I’ll come back to them in a moment—with the goal of building autonomous local networks that don’t rely on corporate infrastructure to function, inspired by community racist—community-based anti-racist [laughter] prison abolitionists’ responses to gender violence. The Autonets garments, when activated, alert anyone, everyone, in range of the local mesh network who’s wearing another Autonets garment that someone needs help, and they’ll facilitate that person’s direction and distance. This is one of them that I’m wearing, I guess I should show it, like, on. So I started early on in this series making hoodies because it was recently after Trayvon Martin’s murder, and the first series I made was for folks in Detroit—and hopefully, the battery is going to still have power. Ha! Maybe not. Yeah, OK, well, you don’t get to see the blinky lights and the techno gizmology, but I’ll pass it around anyway. Have people seen wearable electronics? Raise your hand. Have people made wearable electronics? OK. Cool. So yeah, so I started with hoodies and dresses because those were things that I wanted and I thought people might want. But then, let’s see, so these technologies were developed through workshops and collective design processes, inspired by existing networks of horizontal knowledge production in queer, trans, femme, survivor, and diasporic communities. I’ve been in collaboration with groups wanting to use Autonets to prevent violence against genderqueer and trans people of color in LA, which is actually why I started this project. I was thinking about how could I spend my time making art, making myself feel safer, because I feel in danger on a daily basis. Being a trans woman of color means being part of a group in which there’s one of us killed every month in the US, or globally, there’s basically one of us killed every day, for being a trans woman of color.
So at the time, especially transitioning in San Diego—it was a very racist, military place, the whole affect of the place is really shaped by the border—I started this project when I lived there and I felt in danger every day. So I started thinking, OK. I started feeling a little itchy about the Transborder Immigrant Tool being a project that’s supposed to be for the safety of somebody else, like for this community that we’re not really a part of. I think Shannon’s proposition that you should not write about something that you haven’t done is really interesting and provocative and something to think about. And so, yeah, I wanted to start making this technology that would be more for me and my communities instead of other people’s communities. But also, over two years of work on this project—oh, I guess it’s three years now, or almost three—it’s become clear that the nondigital social networks are far more important than the digital technologies involved because even if the technology worked perfectly flawlessly—and it’s still a prototype with lots of technical issues to be solved—it would still rely on the human will to respond and social agreements as to what to do in case someone in the network needs help.
So my first prototype was the hoodie, a political symbol I felt needed attention, given the dialogue around Trayvon Martin’s murder by a neighborhood watch participant, and CeCe McDonald, who is another main inspiration. CeCe McDonald is a transgender woman who, in the US, was the target of a racist, transphobic attack in 2011, who fought back against her attacker and saved her life, but as a result was forced to serve a multi-year sentence in a men’s prison. So I also didn’t want to reproduce this dynamic that often happens in social-practice art, where artists come up with a solution and then they drop into a community and are like, “look, I have the solution for you, I’ll see you later.” Yeah, I’m not so into that. So as soon as I made the prototypes, I started doing workshops with people, and one of those groups was this collective in Detroit for women of color called Strong and Beautiful. They—I met them at the Allied Media Conference—are mostly teenagers, and they expressed the sentiment that, yes, a hoodie’s nice, but especially in Detroit you can’t wear a hoodie most of the year because it’s like 100 degrees in the summer. And they wanted something they could wear every day, so they said maybe I could make bracelets. So I made these bracelets as the kind of more simple version of Autonets. This bracelet just has a battery and a wireless transmitter in it. The XB wireless transmitters are mesh networked and you can get versions that transmit up to a mile, and so with their mesh network, what that means is that they communicate to each other instead of communicating top-down to a phone company. Like, your cell phone relies on a connection to a cell-phone tower and all that—the XBs just communicate directly to each other, but since they’re mesh networked, the more of them you have the wider the signal reaches. So if you have a one-mile range with one XB, then you could double it by having two, or if you have three the size of your coverage area would be larger.
So we’ve used these prototypes to start conversations in workshops—as Grant Kester talks about, contemporary art as conversation pieces—and developed movement in workshops through conversations about these prototypes. Through my collaborations with queer and trans people, who are most often survivors of violence, I really began to question the usefulness of wearable electronics, given their high costs. I’m currently in dialogue with members of Gender Justice LA and 0, 29 in Bogotá to consider other low-fi or no-fi approaches to creating communication networks to enable safety. That’s a good point, to say that I feel like this knowledge is not necessarily mine, that this knowledge really comes from communities. And I feel like more than communities benefit from exposure to the art world or from research. Actually, Shira Hassan of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project at my Chicago Autonets workshop said that oftentimes research is another form of violence against marginalized communities. She was talking in particular about youth who were sex workers and how often researchers would interview them and talk to them and then write research that was actually really harmful to them. So instead, yeah, what I’m trying to do is have more long-term engagements with communities and retain an iterative dialogic process, where I’m making prototypes, talking to people about it, making modifications, talking to more people about it, sharing that work and continuing the dialogue. I’ve been working with these groups in LA and Detroit and Toronto for over a year each and have done lots of workshops in each of those places—Toronto probably the fewest, where I’ve only done like three workshops. There’s the fashion shoot for a magazine. OK.
There’s the obligatory code shot. You can see some of the code that makes the prototypes run. Initially, I was thinking about making GPS transmitters—these devices have GPS transmitters that when you enable your device, you would be able to find directions to the person who needs help. But very quickly, upon talking to groups who might want to use the device, like sex workers, they were like, no, thanks, we’ll pass on the whole GPS coordinate transmission. Or working with 0, 29 in Colombia—they’re trying to prevent the fact that students are commonly disappeared by the government. The government of Colombia gets more money depending on how many bodies of guerrillas they produce, so they just kidnap students and dress them up like guerrillas, and then, yeah. So that group there was trying to prevent that, so they were like, we do not want GPS transmitters bracelets that we could get from a police state anyway, just by being on parole. The prototypes that I’ve made so far, as far as they’ve got with direction is just determining proximity, using really rough—for all of you electronic savvy techers in the room—approximation of distance, using the XBEE RSSI signal, not very specific at all, not very accurate at all. Oh, wait, let’s go back to that. OK.
Thinking about the limitations of these technologies and the expensiveness of them, in particular with this group in Bogotá, who were like, that’s cool that you can make a $100 networked hoodie, but if we had $100 we would buy a cell phone, and lots of people in Bogotá don’t have cell phones. So then I worked with them to start thinking about other modes that we could use for networking and communications—like, what are other nondigital safety techniques that people already use on a daily basis to keep themselves safe? What are specific actions of nonverbal communication that you could use if you were, like, with friends at a bar? I’m sure a lot of us know how to do that—when you don’t want to say out loud, hey, this guy is a jerk, let’s leave now. Sometimes you need a nonverbal way to get yourself out of a dangerous situation. Yeah. Also, a lot of these interventions are site-specific—in Los Angeles, a lot of the participants had cell phones and smartphones. So part of what we did in Los Angeles was just have really a social agreement to keep each other safe using existing technology. For iPhones, there’s already an app called Circle of Six that lets you set up a contact list of six people, and in case of emergency you can just hit one button and text them all your GPS coordinates. So it’s really similar, except that it relies on corporate infrastructure.
OK. So wanting to move away from these technologies and digital technology in general, let’s talk about that. Digital technology, I would say, or many people have said, is the basis for a worldview or an epistemology often referred to as the digital, which is wrapped up with Western logics. In fact, in Race After the Internet, Lisa Nakamura talks about the digital as another form of colonialism, as a mechanism of colonizing the world. Authors such as Wendy Chun in Programmed Visions and David Golumbia in The Cultural Logic of Computation point to the depth and breadth of claims that digital computers operate on the same logic as our minds, our bodies, and even reality itself. I would propose that working towards post-digital networks is participation in a decolonization of technology and allows us to imagine possibilities that both precede and follow the digital. subRosa, in their book Domain Errors, talk about how this conflation of technology with digital technology and digital network technology is actually a form of racism that ignores the last centuries of technology developed by people of color. The development of the number system, right, by Arab people, or “The Real McCoy,” the development of the lubrication system for trains by this person named McCoy, African-American—anyway, that was a good essay I recently read.
So my intervention into media studies is to try and make a trans of color critique, taking inspiration from and critiquing queer of color critique authors such as José Muñoz and Roderick Ferguson, rejecting the binary logic of the digital, and looking to oppressed communities for alternative logics with which to theorize my work. In Grant Kester’s The One and the Many, he describes in detail many of the reasons leading to a widespread practice in contemporary art of privileging the knowledge of the artist, as validated by an autonomous separation from social reality that simultaneously discredits the knowledge and agency of the participants in and viewers of contemporary art. Kester attributes this both to the history of aesthetic autonomy and its association with religious concepts of purity, as well as to the canonical acceptance of poststructuralism, which views all real political action as necessarily flawed and encourages experimentation to remain within the aesthetic realm.
With Autonets, I’m trying to reverse this common hierarchy and find other theoretical supports, such as decolonial thought, queer of color critique—like I already mentioned—and Latin American traditions, such as Theater of the Oppressed and border consciousness, and instead to engage in an open, collective design process with the organizations I’m working with. And with you. But I should also say that these ideas are certainly in process and I’m happy to have your feedback, including your constructive criticism. Looking towards the decolonial: Diana Taylor states, in The Archive and the Repertoire, that rigid binary gender categories were a construction of colonists used to control populations, and that “from the sixteenth century onward, the Spanish administration in New Spain”—well, Mexico—“established the casta or caste system to clearly demarcate bloodlines and racial categories produced by miscegenation… Visual and performance strategies accompanied discursive ones to produce the newly racialized and gendered subjects they merely claimed to portray.” In contrast, she describes the Nahua indigenous people’s practice of “what Mexican anthropologist Alfredo López Austin calls ‘mythic’ thinking… that connects different social and natural processes ‘to find equivalencies… in an attempt to discover… absolute congruence and a total order of the universe.’” Taylor names this pre-digital thinking as a kind of network, saying, “her nonlinear way of thinking, usually associated with a semi-literate realm of the past, ironically resembles the digital concept of networks, circuits and interconnectivity.” Yet where Taylor applies the label of the digital to the concept of networks, one can also see from this example how the conceptual mapping resulting in a spiritual connection between beings and objects can be seen as a kind of pre-digital and post-digital network. I think we can all say that networks predate and postdate the digital.
What are some other examples of post-digital or nondigital networks? In queer of color critique, I find some interesting examples. In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson describes as decisive intervention that racist practice articulates itself as gender and sexual regulation and that gender and sexual difference vary against racial formations. In the book he critiques Marx for Marx’s disparagement of sex workers and talks about the racial operation in capitalist economics. And so that’s one way that you could see race as a network, in that it affects economics, and economics are necessarily a network. But also another transfer from the digital to the nondigital can be seen in the operation of race online. So like I already mentioned, in Race After the Internet Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White argue for a “re-envisioning of race in digital technologies as a form of code, as well as a visual representation of a raced body.” They quote Wendy Chun saying, “race is more than its representation, more than ‘screen deep,’… it’s part of the algorithmic logic of games and digital media themselves.” Building on these arguments, I would say, if race can be understood as a form of code, it can also be understood as a form of communication, and so we can understand the operation of radicalized markers—such as dress, bodily characteristics and racialized clothing—as a system of communication that creates a nondigital network. By taking this theory out of its digital context, one can see how racial identification operates as a nondigital or post-digital network of communication. So what precedents do we have for the kind of ubiquitous sensing of our friends and loved ones that Alexis Pauline Gumbs promised, way in the beginning, would make our current digital networks seem like ancient relics and instead provide something like telepathy?
So I would point here to Alicia Arrizon’s book, where she describes Gloria Anzaldúa’s idea of the “new mestiza consciousness” as “an important Chicano/a postcolonial knowledge” and as a theory of racial mixing and border identities of many kinds. It’s performed an influential role in the development of women of color feminism, often cited as an inspiration for queer of color and now also trans of color critique or praxis. Arrizon writes, “the queering of mestizaje further represents the body as a border dweller capable of constructing its own space or la facultad that resists negation and subordination.” Yet where Arrizon quotes Anzaldúa is where one can see this “new mestiza consciousness” as a kind of network; she states, “la facultad is the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities… it’s an instant ‘sensing,’ a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning.” Which we might call gaydar, or you might interpret that another way. Arrizon describes Anzaldúa’s consciousness as “positioned against poststructuralist theory” and theories of decolonization. Walter Mignolo has described what he calls “border thinking” as a method of decolonization, which he says was inspired by Anzaldúa’s “border consciousness.” Anzaldúa’s idea of “conciencia de la mestiza” is also strongly influenced by Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, a main inspiration for Science of the Oppressed.
OK—so we’ve talked about what are some post-digital/pre-digital networks, and then I would say, how do we use or intervene in these networks? In Joanna Zylinska and Sarah Kember’s 2012 book Life After New Media: Mediation as Vital Process, they articulate a vision of human bodies existing in a field of mediation, intertwined with and becoming nonhuman bodies. Zylinska and Kember propose the act of the cut as an ethical act in this field. They describe the cut as a “[process] of temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations, and networks.” In public performances of this social-practice project Autonets, in São Paulo and Los Angeles, I’ve invited queer and trans people—and allies—to use their bodies and express concepts of safety, violence, and community-based responses to violence. In these workshops we use Theater of the Oppressed, and I ask people, “What kinds of violence have you faced, do you face on a daily basis? And how could we use technology to reduce or stop those forms of violence?” Which early on totally blew my original thinking out of the water because the whole original concept of this thing with the wearable electronics is based on this narrative of stranger danger. As if most sexual assault happened by random strangers in the street in a dark alley, which is a really radicalized narrative, when in fact, you know, maybe like 97 or 98 percent of sexual assault happens in your home by someone you know. Part of the inspiration for this project was learning that I was a survivor of childhood sexual assault, so even in my original thinking, clearly I was not really thinking, because I was like, I want to spend my time stopping sexual assault, but the method that I used to start thinking about it didn’t actually respond to my personal situation. So my first workshop in Autonets was with this group of teens in Riverside at this event called “Punk Ass Queers,” and they invited me to come and talk, and when I asked them what kinds of violence do you face on a daily basis, they were like “the violence of images, the violence of lesbophobia, the violence of cisgender privilege.” So immediately they were thinking about different kinds of violence than I was thinking about. So what I’ve asked people in these workshops is “what kinds of violence do you face?,” but also we use performative embodied exercises—which you’ll see in a moment, I swear—to ask people to demonstrate with their body, “what does violence look like?” or “what does safety look like?” or “what does safety feel like in your body?” or “what could safety feel like in your body?”—if it’s something that you never feel. And then we took those images and added movement and made performances out of them, which you’ll see in a moment. OK. I would say that these performances demonstrate Zylinska and Kember’s concept of the cut as an act which creates relations and networks, and they also reveal forms of mediation and open the possibility of a post-digital cut. I’ll consider how movement can act as a form of communication that can offer the possibility of decolonizing digital networks, moving from the ideas embodied in digital networks toward an embodied network, which is nevertheless still mediated, via technology. Nonverbal embodied forms of communication in this context become a form of relation enabled by the experience of violence and the skills learned in negotiating that violence on a daily basis.
So how does this performance enact a cut in the field of mediation—do I go on to this? OK, fine—as Zylinska and Kember claim that art can’t? Zylinska and Kember describe photography as a kind of art that creates a cut by temporarily stabilizing an image. In the case of digital photography, this is a digital cut. I propose that movement makes a cut. Embodied physical movement—a part of dance but a broader category than dance per se—enacts a cut and defields a mediation, which can be digital but can also be nondigital or post-digital. Also, like, a week ago I was in Sweden at this conference and somebody talked about transdigital and then I felt really silly and regressive. So I plan to revisit this and think about the transdigital in more detail but have yet to do that. In an effort to describe a relation to new media and methodology that accounts for both human and nonhuman, Zylinska and Kember articulate a broader concept of mediation, yet foreclose it at the object of their study. They cite Couldry’s description of the range of the concept of mediation across disciplines from psychology, education, and media research to sociology, where “the term ‘mediation’ is used for any process of intermediation (such as money or transport).”
So thinking of movement as a cut, consider any intentional movement—hold your hand in the air for a second—gestures such as this one create a cut in the flow of daily utilitarian movement. Movement involves a change in speed, a slowing or quickening, which differentiates the body from bodies around it moving at the socially accepted speeds dictated by particular architectures. Movement also acts as a rich form of communication, as an activation of an archive of previous gestures. Holding your hand in the air in public space, like while sitting on a plane, may communicate to a steward to come to your seat, while in a classroom it may indicate a desire to speak, while on a sidewalk it may indicate a gesture out of place. Movement makes a cut by creating a relation between time and space, bodies and architecture. Repetition is a kind of temporality, which allows movement to create a cut in the rhythms of daily motion. I claim that movement is a technology; it’s a concept applied to materiality and materiality of the body, which creates a change in the world. Repeated movement creates a relation between movement as a technology and the procedurality of digital technology. Choreography or even improvisation parameters can be described as a series of instructions. While they can be described in words, the richness of movement would require a great deal of linguistic work to be described accurately in detail, which indicates that this is a highly complex series of instructions, akin to semantic programming languages, which use human readable code to describe many machine-level assembly language commands. Incorporating language for specific movements—as in the case of dance traditions such as ballet, colonial dance traditions, in which one may learn over time to do jeté or relevé—begins to achieve a level of abstraction on the order of object-oriented programming languages. Consider that such moves can have multiple parameters, such as a relevé and plié at a particular speed; one can see that echoes of function calls on object-oriented languages. There are various methods for scoring dance movements—I’ve used some of these for other performances—but in We Already Know, we rely on visually showing each other the gestures instead of writing down scores.
Oh, OK my voice is tired. Let’s stretch. I invite everyone to have some embodied participation. Stretch upwards—if you don’t feel like standing you can just imagine standing or do whatever upwards movement you feel like doing. And then stretch downwards, you might want to touch your toes. Ahh.
So with all this talk about embodiment, hopefully that little stretch tells us something about all the kinds of knowledge that are evacuated in this situation, in which I’m supposed to talk to you for 45 minutes or two hours, and the way that privileges verbal communication. And also maybe, hopefully, that also puts our bodies a little more in sync, since we did a similar action. OK. So let’s see one of these performances in the Autonetseries, the one that we did in Brazil specifically thinking about nonverbal communication. One such performance in this series was titled We Already Know We Don’t Yet Know. It took place in São Paulo, Brazil, at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics 8th Encuentro. The performance was the outcome of a three-day workshop using dance, performance, and Theater of the Oppressed exercises. So as of November 20, 2012, at least 265 transgender people had been killed that year, but the most murders, 126, occurred in Brazil, which I did not know until after I arrived. The US-based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported in 2011 that the murder rate of LGBTQ people was at its highest point ever, with transgender women and people of color and transgender women of color, therefore, being the most likely targets, most common targets. So the gestures in this performance physically express the participants’ ideas and memories of safety. After three days of conversations about prison abolition and community-based responses to violence, the prompt to create the gestures in the performance was simply the word “safety.” In We Already Know, the bodies of the eight performers created a cut in the field of mediation created by transnational art contexts by moving in a public space with a shared speed. The fields of mediation being engaged with in this context include digital video and photography as well as networked media. As can be seen in the photo—well, in the video—audience members, potentially international art festival attendees, and potentially street bystanders are engaged in photographing the event with their digital cameras. This video itself was taken by an audience member, in the form of a digital video shot with an iPhone— thus it’s not that good, sorry—and was later uploaded to social media. The existence of this photo demonstrates that the performers, by moving in this context, cut into multiple fields of mediation. What I appreciate about Zylinska and Kember’s intervention is that they’re saying that to talk about a new media and to make new media art, we don’t have to make devices and we don’t have to talk about iPhones, or iSchools, or iPods, or whatever i-devices; we live and exist in multiple fields of mediation already, and the question is how to ethically cut through those fields, how to intervene in those fields.
OK. So by having a shared position and being separated in space from the audience, it’s apparent that these movements are a performative gesture. Additionally, by moving with a shared appearance, wearing similar kinds and colors of clothing, the performers in this video differentiate themselves from the audience and call attention to their movement. Gestures can cut fields of digital mediation by entering into an engagement with their temporalities, but they can also cut into other fields of mediation. I propose that gender, race, sexuality, and ability act as fields of mediation intervening directly in the perception of bodies, into the efforts of social conditioning, and that these fields of mediation can also be cut in the way that digital fields can. While cuts in digital fields of mediation may create relations between digital objects, I would hold that cuts into fields such as gender and race create relations which are nondigital, opening up space for the concept of a pre-digital and post-digital cut. The danger here is that the definition of a field of mediation may become too broad to have any meaning. My interest in this talk is to work towards a decolonization of the digital, a post-media and post-digital configuration, which can still abstract and learn from digital technologies to consider concepts such as a field of mediation, which start with digital technologies but move beyond them. Given that Zylinska and Kember’s definition of mediation includes “a thesis that mediation can be seen as another term for ‘life,’ for being-in and emerging-with the world,” it seems within their scope to consider gender and race as fields of mediation, especially given claims that gender is a technology, by Halberstam, and that race operates as a kind of code, by Nakamura and Chow-White. Both of these fields of mediation, as well as sexuality and ability, can be seen as material fields constituted by such matter as clothing, skin, hair, and gesture. Also, considering Karen Barad’s notion of the agential cut—which considers how to engage with the agency of matter and how to raise questions in a world which is relational, durational, and constantly becoming—the use of gesture in dance and performance to express particular, radicalized, gendered forms of embodiment emerges as a usage of duration, which may create an agential cut. Zylinska and Kember state that “the practice of cutting is crucial not just to our being in and relating to the world, but also to our becoming-with-the-world as well as becoming-different-from-the-world.” This last pair, of becoming-with and becoming-different-from, seem particularly relevant to a trans of color analysis, which considers the place of people whose modes of being take as a necessity a gesture of becoming different from one’s assigned gender at birth, even in a radicalized context, where such a choice adds to an already precarious existence. So towards a trans of color praxis, one can ask how the performers in We Already Know create cuts across the fields of mediation created by gender, sexuality, and race simultaneously, which intersect the considerations of ability and class as well. I will try to wrap up in ten minutes.
Using movement to bring attention to their bodies, the performers’ particular forms of embodiment become part of the content of the work of art. This is a photo from one of the workshops in Brazil. Additionally, choosing a context in which the artwork is made up only by the performers’ bodies, their clothes, and the public space of the street further creates this emphasis on the performers’ bodies, giving their bodies a temporary ability to cut into the flow of genders and races of bodies on this particular street. In this performance, there’s only one trans person of color performing, yet their presence in this group of other performers indicates its own cut internal to the piece, which creates a relation between the performers, allowing the audience to look at and compare the embodiments of different bodies, at times doing the same gesture, at other times doing different gestures. This is the website for 0, 29 group in Bogotá, which helped me plan that workshop in Brazil. The content of the gesture adds to the distinctness of the cut that the performers are making in these fields of gender, sexuality, race, and ability. One gesture is led by a Black woman and involves a hand folded into a pointing gesture, possibly referencing the shape of a gun. This gesture proceeds into her placing her hands behind her head, making a clear reference to an arrest. The gesture is performed by everyone in the group simultaneously. The gesture invites the watching audience into a consideration of two different forms of violence, yet when performed by the multiple bodies of these performers, it becomes a consideration of violence against and violence perpetrated by women of color, men of color, and transgender women of color. When this moment is enacted in the public space of the street, it becomes a consideration of these forms of violence as they may occur in public spaces such as this one—which is actually a very frequent site of police violence against skateboarders. The temporal and spatial coincidence of these particular movements of these bodies in this space creates a cut that establishes a relation between eight bodies on the street and previous and future moments of violence and incarceration. Additionally, considering that most of the performers’ bodies are operating under pharmaceutical modifications, such as prescribed hormones or mood drugs, which require diagnoses of illness to acquire, these bodies are also operating in fields of mediation that are unseen. Cuts into the field of mediation of concepts of ability may reveal the operation of ableism, the assumptions of trans people’s status as mentally ill, or the workings of medical surveillance. The meanings of these cuts and their ethical status changes based on how each performer’s body is read by the audience, as a straight Black man, a queer Latina, or trans person of mixed race. To further elaborate the ethical status of each gesture, one would need to consider the cut as a transversal cut through multiple simultaneous fields, having different operations in each of those fields, yet what they share is that they’re examples of one operation in a trans of color praxis that is using survival skills learned by never forgetting violence in order to create art and technology.
As bodies acting in public space and therefore subject to police surveillance, these gestures potentially make a cut in the records of police databases. One field of mediation which can be understood to be operating on this street in Brazil is the field created by police surveillance technologies, be that the presence of officers’ eyes radioing in their position and writing down their activities, or the video cameras embedded in the traffic lights in close proximity to this performance, or embedded in the cars of police driving by, under the watching mechanisms in overhead helicopters, or in the permit mechanisms which art festivals must apply for to request usage of a public space. Transgender theorist Dean Spade writes, in Normal Life, of some of the states existing in multiple, simultaneous mediation. His work in many ways reproduces the writing of Viviane Namaste in Invisible Lives, who considered the ways that indigenous, HIV-positive, and sex-working trans women in Quebec are multiply erased by corporate media, the medical–industrial complex, and the prison–industrial complex. Yet Spade’s discussion usefully brings in a consideration of database technology and a focus on interventions on the level of the law. Although, I would qualify that I’m not endorsing a broader usage of Dean Spade’s theories—I think that endorsing a politics of impossibility and failure from a position of white masculine privilege is indeed problematic, yeah, but let’s just talk about this specific thing. So not only do the movements of people in public space enter into a field of mediation by being recorded by police with the means described above, some of these recordings are remediated into larger databases. For example, in—oh gosh, where would I have put that example?—for example, another performance in the Autonets series called Autonets Los Angeles, with Gender Justice LA, took place on the sidewalk just outside of the University of Southern California campus. In this performance, a police officer approached the group and asked to speak to me, as I was the artist on record for the performance, and asked for my government ID. Surely interactions such as these are recorded, written down, and entered into digital databases. This form of mediation invites a consideration of Spade’s larger analysis based on a critical trans politics. So, yes, I should take this out or replace it with something from Namaste, but I’ll do that later. Spade writes about the ways that IDs are used as a means of causing harm to trans people and reducing their life chances by increasing their risk of violence—he says, “the declaration of the War on Terror ushered in a range of policy reforms… New practices have emerged and various agencies now compare their entire data sets and seek out mismatched information.” The practice of recording people’s movement into multiple databases and then comparing the data in those databases can be thought as a mediation of multiple mediations, which reveals some of the ethical stakes and dangers of living in multiple mediations.
While these dangers exist as a danger for everyone, they’re acutely present for trans people, who may have mismatching identifications, such as a driver’s license with a female gender and a passport with a male gender, as in my case, as in my getting to this talk today, which required dealing with an international—not today—but my getting to this talk in general required dealing with an international border for which I don’t have an ID that matches my current gender—so certainly, thinking about philosophy in action, thinking about all of the things that are required of us to do these things. Spade writes, “the use of gender as a category of data for sorting populations—something that is taken as neutral and obvious for most administrators—operates as a potential vector of vulnerability” for trans people. And further, the performance at USC was a response to the vulnerability created by the purportedly neutral gesture of asking for student IDs at the entrances to the campus. So—I’ll summarize some of this—in this performance at Los Angeles, at my university—I go to at USC—when I asked participants in Gender Justice LA, what kinds of violence do you face, are you facing on a daily basis, they said, the university is enacting violence on us because they enacted a new policy that says that to get on university grounds after eight pm you have to have a government-issued ID. For transgender people, or for undocumented people, this creates a situation where you cannot get on campus. So they decided that we would do our Autonets Los Angeles action at this little miniature checkpoint that the university sets up—it’s right here, they expand a border fence where they ask people for their IDs. OK.
I only have two minutes.
So Zylinska and Kember describe an ethical cut into a field of mediation, as I have described, and they describe the ethics of this cut, that an ethical cut is a cut that opens possibilities. I find this disappointingly Deleuzian and insufficient, and there are so many possibilities, as one can understand a security checkpoint as a cut into a field of mediation which opens possibilities for surveillance and control. There’s so many possibilities, right, possibilities for more prisons, all these possibilities, I don’t think those are ethical cuts. So my question is: is an ethical cut one that opens possibilities, or possibilities for what? The particular possibilities must be evaluated. Using Glissant’s concept of a poetics of relation in combination with Zylinska and Kember’s concept of the ethical cut, I propose that one form of ethical cut is a cut that opens possibilities for decolonization. Following Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang, I agree that decolonization in the settler–colonial context must involve repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land, and relations to land, have always already been differently understood as enacted. That is, all the land, not just symbolically. Basically, they are saying—the title of their article is “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor”—that when we’re talking about decolonization, part of that is talking about giving land back to the indigenous people it was stolen from. Along with this repatriation of land must come a dismantling of the mechanisms by which this land is held, including prisons. As Yang and Tuck state, “ghetto colonialism, prisons, and under resourced compulsory schooling are specializations of settler colonialism in North America; they are produced by the collapsing of internal, external, and settler colonialisms, into new blended categories.” In differentiating decolonization as a specific struggle to return land to indigenous peoples from a broader conception of social justice, Yang and Tuck make a crucial point about freedom, citing Audre Lorde, who states, “within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.” Yang and Tuck rely on Lorde here to point out that freedom is a possibility that is not just mentally generated, it is particular and felt. Which lends support to the idea that an embodied gesture can be a kind of cut that moves towards decolonization by offering a temporary stabilization of the feeling of freedom—although I would caution about the dangerous essentialism of Audre Lorde, which Sharon Holland discusses in great detail in The Erotic Life of Racism.
To conclude, I’ve considered how a trans of color praxis can work as a method of using the knowledge gained by navigating violence to make digital and post-digital art. What do I want to show with this conclusion? Ah, let’s show that piece. Through collective knowledge collection with Autonets, my collaborators and I have explored how movement can act as a technology of communication and how this can be extended to wearable electronics. These movements, developed in an international performance art context, or sometimes just on the street, or in train stations, as in this case, and distributed through global networks of mediated communication, can be said to enact the concept of an ethical cut proposed by Zylinska and Kember. Yet I wish to extend their claims of the ethical status of a cut to include cuts which specifically open possibilities for prison abolition, decolonization, and gender justice. The two performances of Local Autonomy Networks I’ve described are attempts at ethical cuts with these goals: working towards prison abolition and gender justice while relying on the decolonial strategy of opacity described by Glissant, which I didn’t get into in this talk.
Following Yang and Tuck, the decolonial claims could be made stronger by more explicit links to indigenous sovereignty, but as they were enacted, these works were in solidarity with decolonization movements and attempts to dismantle the structures which work to support colonialism; namely, prison abolition and the gender binary system. By specifically focusing on reducing violence against trans people of color, without relying on prisons and police, my hope for Autonets is to create cuts in the fields of mediation of gender, race, sexuality, ability, fashion, and police surveillance, in order to break with everyday demands for transparent political and technical efficacy—what I might call “techno machismo,” or the idea that better technology means better art. An everyday movement that instead uses opacity to open the space of imagination for decolonial, abolitionist, and group politics. So what’s the role of creative production, such as dance and poetry, which may seem not to be materially useful for a struggle to wrest our lives back from corporations? Present forms of network communications are dependent on corporate and state structures that are incompatible with the visionary politics of prison abolition, decolonization, and gender justice. What I’m proposing is to leave a binary of internal subversion over escape to an outside, and instead focusing on the conceptual work necessary to understand what digital networks provide and how those can be replaced with non-corporate tools, and also focusing on the affective work necessary in the process for healing, to support the work of transition, and as a means of prefiguring a world where we don’t put people in cages now, instead of waiting for it to come back. Thank you.