Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms

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Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance in Media Art

In Audre Lorde’s widely influential essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” she refers to “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women,” which, in her writing, includes “those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older,” but I propose may also provide a space for trans women of color in women of color feminism, or may foreshadow a trans of color feminism.[24] She is referring here to the tools of language and academic institutions used to isolate people from one another, yet her formulation is deeply important for anyone setting out to make technological tools in the service of social justice. The artists and designers I discuss in this section create objects with the intention of transforming oppressive social relations.

Many artists and designers today are responding to the news about widespread NSA surveillance with tactical responses aimed at countering and stopping that surveillance. Adam Harvey and Zach Blas have created artworks that specifically respond to these issues. I see these projects as related to projects I have worked on that take a similar political approach to changing social relations by creating new technological objects, such as the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) by the Electronic Disturbance Theater, an art group of which I am a member, as well as my project Autonets.

One may see Adam Harvey’s project Stealth Wear as an act of stitching that enacts a cut in the field of surveillance by drones. Harvey, in collaboration with a number of fashion designers, uses fabrics with metal woven into them to disrupt the thermal imaging used by unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The anti-drone garments—a hoodie, hijab, and burqa—are priced between $475 and $2,500. Harvey has stated in interviews that these projects are intended to generate conversation more than to be practically functional. Stealth Wear makes visible the ways that bodies are increasingly monitored by algorithms, such as the algorithms that control a drone, that determine who is to be the target of surveillance or violence. Harvey’s project demonstrates the work of an artist imagining an object to solve a social problem, apparently without any discussion with affected groups or any social effort made to facilitate the usage of the tools.

Another artwork with the intent of disrupting surveillance is Facial Weaponization Suite by Zach Blas. The project, exhibited from 2011 to 2014, consists of a series of masks designed to disrupt biometric surveillance by digitally scanning the faces of multiple workshop participants and stitching them together in a three-dimensional modeling software. Blas’s website describes the collective aspect of the project as “making ‘collective masks’ in community-based workshops that are modeled from the aggregated facial data of participants, resulting in amorphous masks that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition technologies.”[25] In an interview with Newsweek, Blas points to the ways that biometric tools such as facial recognition software “are being developed by police and the military to criminalize large chunks of the population.”[26] In another article, Blas describes his particular concern for “queer people, people of color, transgender people, broad sets of minoritarian populations.”[27] The project eschews visibility as a political strategy for queer people, people of color, and feminists and focuses instead on a politics of opacity, informed by the writing of Édouard Glissant. Blas sees Facial Weaponization Suite as “speculative proposition and practical experimentation,” “an opaque practice, producing variations on how to become informatically opaque.”[28] Again, the act of stitching is used to create an object that enacts a cut in a field of mediation: in this case, the algorithmic stitching of data is used to create masks that disrupt the mediation of bodies through biometric surveillance. Blas’s project operates in the practice-based research mode of speculative design, since only a few masks were designed, as prototypes, and are sold for practical use. While speculative design has been critiqued by Brazilian theorists Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliviera for “willingly ignor[ing] struggles other than those that concern the intellectual white middle classes,” Blas’s work does not reproduce this limitation.[29] Similarly, the Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 / b.a.n.g. lab (EDT) describes its work as speculative, but keeps its distance from speculative design.

I am a member of the EDT, and our project the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) has been described by one of our group’s founders, Ricardo Dominguez, as a “speculative disturbance” and “contestational design.”[30] The TBT is a combination of cell phone and software that intends to provide both physical sustenance, in the form of water, and poetic sustenance, in the form of recorded audio of spoken poetry, to people attempting to cross the Mexico/US border. The project began with the research question “can sub $20 phones be made useful for emergency navigation?”[31]

While one goal of the project was to develop a way for people crossing the border to access GPS service without being tracked by cellular networks, enacting a cut, the project enacts the stitch in the form of collaboration, writing software and building solidarity. Collaboration was central to the project both within the EDT and without. The phone worked by mapping water caches placed in the desert by humanitarian organizations in San Diego: Border Angels and Water Stations, Inc. As such, creating the phone involved a collaborative process of accompanying members of those organizations into the desert to place water in the caches in order to create a GPS map. Additionally, the code, as a J2ME Java application, can be seen as an act of stitching that combines many code libraries in order to function. Lastly, my own writing on the TBT pointed to an affect shared by transgender people and migrant people, that of hope, the hope for being somewhere else, whether that place of inhabitation is another country or another body. Highlighting this shared affect is intended to build solidarity between immigrant justice movements and gender justice movements, which are often separate, despite the need for collaboration evidenced by the continued detention of transgender migrant people such as Marichuy Leal Gamino, a trans woman held in a detention center near Phoenix, Arizona, for over a year who was sexually assaulted while in custody.[32]

The TBT has been described by the EDT as transforming the Global Positioning System run by the US military, commonly known as GPS, into a global poetic system, using a term created by Laura Borras Castaner and Juan B. Gutiérrez.[33] Consider the following excerpts from the poem “net.walkingtools.Transformer,” which I wrote as part of the TBT project and which I will use to demonstrate algorithmic analysis.

/* Fields */
private java.lang.String lifeLine;
private boolean maleOrFemale;
private boolean citizenOrMigrant;
private java.lang.String genderDesired;
private java.lang.String genderGiven;
private java.lang.String oldName;
private java.lang.String newName;

publicAndPrivate TransCoder theSoftBody;

/* Constructors */
public Transformer(net.walkingtools.j2se.editor.HiperGpsTransformerShifting , java.lang.String) {

if(genderGiven != genderDesired || birthPlace != destination)
{
walking = true;

/* attempt to enter into a queer time and place via the
transcoder library */

while(theSoftBody.qTime(GogMagog)){

dancing = joy;
transforming = hope && pain && fear && fantasies && uncertainty;

//is the assignment operator, that of identity, binary in itself?
//try some other methods like becoming serpent through poetry

nepantla.open(imaginedWorld);
nepantla.shift(towardsImaginedBody);
uploadMyBody &~& resistLogicsOfCapital!

The poem uses the actual code of the TBT and transforms it into a poetic meditation on the intersections of transborder and transgender, inspired by cyberfeminist poetry and codework. While following the format of Java source code, the poem exceeds the bounds of computational logic that would allow it to function, instead using the syntax of the algorithms that control the mobile phones that shape so much of our lives to express emotional experience. In the poem, I describe elements that may be considered to make up an identity, such as name and birthplace, with variable declarations, creating a place in memory for those elements. Then I place those variables into an algorithm in which one can see the specific ways different parts of an identity may move and operate within trans people of color and migrant people.

There are multiple levels of meaning at play in this algorithmic poetics. The poem opens with a long list of declarations of variables, which is standard in code, yet when read as a poem, particularly when read aloud, involves so much repetition that it hints at the ritual space of performance, or becomes poetic. The poem uses standard Java keywords such as “private” or “public,” yet to describe the body invents a new category of publicAndPrivate. Some variables here refer to aspects of an identity, such as genderDesired, that may reproduce a problematic modularity, as Tara McPherson has described is an element of racial logics.[34] Yet variables are dynamic processes in memory, maintained by electrical charges, performative in that they only exist at run time. If one imagines algorithms to be open source, they are available in a public repository, and can be modified to suit one’s particular uses. Perhaps the danger of modularity of code can be offset by its mutability and potential for collaborative editing. This example is presented here to show that there can be both precision and poetic ambiguity in an algorithm.

Flow-control statements in the poem are used to express commonalities between transgender and migrant experience. The line

if(genderGiven != genderDesired || birthPlace != destination)

reads, to readers who know Java or C derivative languages, as “if gender given is not equal to gender desired, or birthplace is not equal to destination” and the code that follows inside the { brackets is executed if this statement evaluates to true for the subject in question. This line imagines elements of my life experience as a trans person encoded into Java language. One could also imagine such an algorithm being used within a video game about transgender migration, or in a Transportation Safety Administration algorithm for deciding outcomes for airline passengers. Other lines in the poem depart from coding conventions and imagine code libraries that execute the functions of Chicana feminism, taking inspiration from Zach Blas’s transcoder library. Lines such as

nepantla.open(imaginedWorld);

indicate an object that is not described here but is left to the imagination of the reader. The “nepantla object” refers to Gloria Anzaldúa’s usage of the Nahuatl word nepantla, referring to a space in between worlds, a space of transformation, a liminal space often accessed through ritual.[35] Yet in this imagining, the space is part of a code library that can be accessed when needed by a function call. One may read this as a decolonial usage of code, attempting to stitch together Aztec traditions, Anzaldúa’s queer, disabled, trans of color feminist poetry, and contemporary trans experience, through Java code on mobile devices.

Local Autonomy Networks / Autonets

Autonets was motivated by a desire to create autonomous communication networks for trans of color safety that do not rely on prisons, police, or corporations, inspired by the prison abolitionist movement. I originally built prototypes of these networks in the form of a line of clothing and accessories with conductive thread and wireless transmitters capable of forming autonomous mesh networks. Mesh networks may offer one of the few ways of avoiding the NSA’s surveillance nets that capture all internet traffic at the DNS level of communication because they route traffic between devices locally, instead of sending all data through phone companies and international DNS backbones. Using these prototypes, I held workshops and presented performances in thirteen cities in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Germany. I focused my attention on three cities: Toronto, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

One performance of Autonets titled ‘Local Autonomy Networks: Find Each Other’ at the Zero1 Biennial in San Jose, California, used speculative design prototypes in performance in public space with participants from Gender Justice LA (GJLA). GJLA is an organization of trans and genderqueer people of color who I collaborated with on Autonets for one year. The performance built on months of Theater of the Oppressed workshops in which participants looked at prototypes of networked Autonets garments I had produced and discussed how they might use them. In these workshops, people used both verbal dialogue and embodied gestures to express how safety and violence felt in their bodies. In this case, practice-based research intersects with transgender studies as described by Susan Stryker, who states that “transgender studies considers the embodied experience of the speaking subject, who claims constative knowledge of the referent topic, to be a proper—indeed essential—component of the analysis of transgender phenomena.”[36] In this performance, trans people of color are not the objects of study, but the subjects of knowledge creation. Together we created the gestures in this performance: a visual, embodied, affective research outcome of the question of how to use technology to reduce violence against trans people.

For the public performance, we collectively decided to do an evening performance in which participants would practice the skill of dispersing and coming together when signaled by the electronic garments. At a busy outdoor art festival, with hundreds of audience members, loud music from other installations, roving police, and spontaneous performances, our performance group was made up of cis and trans people, white and people of color, straight and queer, and we all wore Autonets hoodies or bracelets. After blending into the crowd, one member of the group would turn on their garment and they would do a physical gesture, developed in the workshops, which expressed either “protection’ or “resistance.” Upon seeing the hoodies enabled, and the gestures beginning, other members of the group would join, mirror the gesture currently being performed, and then perform their own gesture for others to mirror. This technique, borrowed from dance, is called flocking.

The performance had multiple levels of intention, including mine and those of the participants. One shared goal was to bring some of the affective violence felt by the participants into the space of an international art biennial, to exceed what was expected by a comfortable, affluent audience looking for entertainment. The participants were highly aware of the power differential between them and the art audience and curators, and of the multiple levels of mediation into which they were entering, as trans people, as people of color, and as gender-nonconforming people, who are already hyper-visible to the surveillance networks of the state. Another goal was to develop concrete skills for the participants, practicing ways of coming together at a moment’s notice to respond to violence. While the speculative design prototypes made visible possibilities for communication, participants had discussed the difficult realities of building responses to violence that, consistent with the aims of prison abolition, do not rely on police or prisons for safety. Ultimately, these performances were still performative, speculative gestures, as the strength of bonds needed to rely on others to protect them from violence cannot be built through a handful of workshops and performances. While I knew that stitching those affective bonds was of central importance to the project, I underestimated the multiyear commitment required to build fully functioning community-based responses to violence.

Autonets started with wearable electronics as speculative design prototypes, but continued as a research creation project over four years in which I discussed the prototypes with different groups experiencing violence in many different cities, and we collectively envisioned possible futures of building networks of communication. The project centered on the research question: can I, as an artist, build networks of communication that can reduce the violence that queer and trans people of color experience? Ultimately, the wearable electronics approach proved to have too many problems to be useful with the current state of the technology. The wearable transmitters were too expensive, and circuits sewn by hand were not reliable enough in the long term. Additionally, as with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, battery life was another limiting factor. These concerns, raised by participants in workshops, led me to shift the focus of the project to the possibilities of building communications networks that do not rely on digital technologies, such as embodied forms of communication and movement that can be used for safety, including signaling methods and practices of dispersing and converging.

Conclusion

I propose here that in order to work to end violence against trans people of color, the strategies that trans people of color use to survive should be centered and valued as knowledge and artistic production. Trans of color poetics offers new operations of thought and action. Using the operator of the stitch, I have elaborated algorithmic methods made perceptible through art, design, and media by contemporary artists, as well as through my own practice-based research and art projects. Trans of color poetics learns from the movement of trans people of color in digital media, in order to build new models for thinking race, gender, and sexuality in digitally mediated, networked environments, with the goal of reducing violence.

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Footnotes
  1. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984; Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 112. [Return to text]
  2. Zach Blas, “Facial Weaponization Suite” (October 2013), Eyebeam website. [Return to text]
  3. Kyle Chayka, “Biometric Surveillance Means Someone Is Always Watching,” Newsweek, April 17, 2014. [Return to text]
  4. Tosten Burks, “An Artist’s Pioneering Masks Shield Us from Future Surveillance,” GOOD, January 26, 2015. [Return to text]
  5. Blas, “Informatic Opacity,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest 9 (2014). [Return to text]
  6. Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliviera, “Questioning the ‘Critical’ in Speculative and Critical Design,” Medium, February 4, 2014. [Return to text]
  7. Lawrence Bird, “Global Positioning: An Interview with Ricardo Dominguez,” Furtherfield, October 15, 2011. [Return to text]
  8. Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 / b.a.n.g. lab, Sustenance: A Play for All Trans [] Borders (New York: Printed Matter, 2010), 4. [Return to text]
  9. David Schwartz, “Activists Say Transgender Woman Raped at Arizona Immigrant Center,” Reuters, July 31, 2014. [Return to text]
  10. “The Global Poetic System: A System of Poetic Positioning,” in Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces, and Genres, edited by Jörgen Schäfer, Peter Gendolla. (pp. 345—364. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld. (note transcript is not capped.) [Return to text]
  11. Tara McPherson, “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX,” Race after the Internet, ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012). [Return to text]
  12. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth ed. Aunt Lute Books, 2012. [Return to text]
  13. Susan Stryker, “(De)Subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Stryker and Stephen Whittle (New York: Routledge, 2006), 12. [Return to text]