Feminist Infrastructure as Metamorphic Infrastructure


I’m one of five women on a panel about Feminist Infrastructure at the Digital Humanities annual conference taking place now in Krakow, Poland. Due to other obligations, I’m here in the states, but my virtual presence will be manifest with little movie presentation. Related: not keen that this panel and so many others have been put on a “diversity” track, but happy everyone is there and doing the work.

Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities

Susan Brown1,2, Tanya Clement3, Laura Mandell4, Deb Verhoeven5, Jacque Wernimont6

1School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph, Canada; 2English and Film Studies; Humanities Computing, University of Alberta, Canada; 3University of Texas at Austin, USA; 4Texas A&M University, USA; 5Deakin University, Australia; 6Arizona State University

Here’s my presentation

And here’s our abstract

This panel considers how gender and digital infrastructures shape each other. It will be a hybrid of the panel- and multiple-paper session with three sectioned themes:

  • Training and pedagogical traditions;
  • Examples of feminist technical infrastructure;
  • Infrastructure, collaboration, and credit.

The panel aims to improve understanding of:

  • 1) the extent to which even something as apparently neutral or apolitical as infrastructure is imbued with gender and other socio-political considerations;
  • 2) the impact of systemic gender and racial discrimination in a range of infrastructural contexts, notwithstanding the extent to which so many DH practitioners work hard to overcome the biases embedded in our cultures and our discourses; and
  • 3) current and prospective strategies for countering those biases.

We will seek to engage the audience throughout this session to include in the panel’s discussions a broad range of perspectives on and positions in relation to infrastructure.



Working Bibl: Ethics of Care

UC Santa Barbara Humanities Center series “Value of Care” (podcasts incl)

UNESCO Women Philosopher’s Journal Vol 1 (focus on issues of ‘care’ and ‘difference’) http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0021/002131/213131e.pdf

Adams, C. and Donovan, J. The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. New York:  Columbia University Press, 2007.

Bailey, Moya. #transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics (DHQ 2016)

Bourgault, Sophie. “Beyond the saint and the red virgin: Simone Weil as feminist theorist of care” Frontiers: Journal of Women’s Studies

— and Julie Perrault, Le Care : Éthique féministe actuelle

Clement, Grace. Care, Autonomy and Justice: Feminism and the Ethic of Care. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice

Hamington, Maurice. Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Feminist Ethics. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Held, Virginia, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Kittay, Eva Feder. Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.

Koehn, Darryl, Rethinking Feminist Ethics: Care, Trust, and Empathy

Laugier, Sandra “The Ethics of Care as a Politics of the Ordinary,” New Literary History 46.2 2015, pp. 217-240 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/589904/pdf

Larrabee, Mary Jeane, ed. An Ethic of Care: Feminist and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993.

Mahadevan, Kanchana, Between Femininity and Feminism: Colonial and Postcolonial Perspectives on Care

Mclaren, Margaret A. “Feminist Ethics: Care As A Virtue” in Feminist Doing Ethics, Eds. Joanne Waugh and Peggy DesAutels, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Nowviskie, Bethany, “on capacity and care”

“everwhere, every when”

Perrault, Julie, “Le care et le féminisme autochtone. Éléments d’un dialogue à construire, et Le féminisme autochtone à la croisée des concepts du care et de l’intersectionnalité”

Richards, David A. J. Resisting Injustice and the Feminist Ethics of Care in the Age of Obama

Robinson, Fiona, The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security (Temple University Press, 2011)

Sander-Staudt, Maureen. “The Unhappy Marriage of Care Ethics and Virtue Ethics.” Hypatia 21.4 (2006): 21-40.

Slote, M. The Ethics of Care and Empathy.” New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.

Taylor, Chloe, “Levinasian Ethics and Feminist Ethics of Care” Symposium Journal http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/symposium/files/original/46b79257165a7c21b50d4b004581bfcc.PDF

Tucker, Judith Stadtman. “Care as a Cause: Framing the Twenty-First Century Mother’s Movement.”. In Hamington, Maurice and Miller, Dorothy (ed.s) Socializing Care, New York: NY, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.

Tronto, Joan,  Moral Boundaries

Walker, Vanessa Siddle and Snarey, John, ed. Race-Ing Moral Formation: African American Perspectives on Care and Justice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2004.

West, Robin. Caring for Justice. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000.

Work in Progress: Eugenic Rubicon

I’m currently working on a number of different ways to present materials from the Eugenic Rubicon project. This is my first attempt at working with a TimelineJS – it’s imperfect because time is actually not the critical factor here for me, but I appreciate the way it allows me to lay out the material and then for users to move through it. I’ll be integrating media etc as time allows. Feedback is always welcome.

For now – please know that this presents notes from 20th century California medical records to authorize sterilization (legal under eugenics laws) of children between the ages of 8-14 and that it’s not an easy experience to sit with some of these words.


DataPLAY Debuts


FemTechNet’s signal/noise conference, held in Ann Arbor (MI) this weekend, hosted the debut of Vibrant Lives’ DataPLAY.

Below is our playbill, which evokes early American playbills that were used to advertise formal theatrical events as well as technological experiences and new medical practices, like those at the World’s Fair or in smaller traveling techno-operas and shows.Slide1

In many ways the bill and the notion of a debut suggests a polished performance received by the audience. Instead we were working toward an experience that would bring together our datasets, everyday objects associated with play, and audience interaction and engagement, effectively engendering the performance in real time.

We created a playful space, the informal and cheerful aesthetics of our materials and signage were designed to invite participants into a communal engagement with sonified and haptified data (we might think here of a lineage of feminist play theory including Celia Pearce, Mechthild Nagel, Mary Flannagan, and Elizabeth Losh). Rather than the sometimes intimidating spaces of theatrical performance, we were working in the more quotidian open space of Hatcher library. In the tradition of feminist keywords, we were, in effect, playing with the word “play.” On the one hand, using it to evoke the idea of a thing, a performance to be consumed, and, on the other, as an action, the activities of play-time, the kind of noodling that is often thought of as a prelude to more formalized modes of production, or the play-acting of dress-up and theatrical performance.

This Play/playing was also an exercise in”Exquisite Engendering” a framing that draws on Erin Manning’s sense that”to engender is to undertake a reworking of form. To engender is to potentialize matter. Engendering involves potentiality at its most fertile: it calls forth the link between the incorporeal and the material, between the virtual and the actual” (The Politics of Touch 2007, p. 90). We were playing in order to activate matter. Everyone there were playing with data (so often rendered incorporeal despite our mantra that there is “no data without bodies”) in order to engender linkages between virtualized and non-virtual modes of being and knowing.

Here are our 6 play stations, or in Manning’s terms potentiality machines:

What did this mean in practice? It meant holding a large hand-crocheted net that resonated with data shedding in real time from a cell phone, or stepping into a dress that vibrated with the wearer’s data shed – suddenly feeling the ghostly but oh-so-plentiful emanations of one’s digital identity. DataPlayDressImage


It entailed people cradling beach balls as sonified histories of eugenic sterilization transformed them into singing, tingling orbs.

People dipped their hands into sandboxes that were alive with the data of global warming – both hearing and feeling a warming planet. And they braided bright cotton ropes that trembled with the Iraq Body Count numbers -plaiting and noting the steady beat of lives lost in a seemingly never-ending conflict.


While technology shows and fairs, both historically and today, tend to be about a spectacle of mastery and the creation of communal consumer desires, DataPLAY functions differently. Collectively, we performed many of the acts of care – braiding, dressing, cradling, and holding – that have so long been a part of feminized labor. We drew on this embodied vernacular as a way of engaging differently with data about the many violences to which too many human bodies and habitats have been subject. We performed feminized roles as a way of re-embodying the data, both to give ourselves ways of knowing it differently and as a way of expressing care for both the data and the bodies the data are meant to represent.

It was serious play to be sure; to hold data about sterilization and death close to your own body is no small gesture. It requires a willingness not only to hold space, but to allow your body to be a vector for the violated bodies held in numerical abstraction. It is an act of generosity and vulnerability and often it was expressed in poses of deep concentration and gentle handling. Similarly, to step into an awareness of the promiscuity of our digital devices as described in Wendy H.K. Chun’s work is to perform a willing encounter with the ways that commodity cultures harvest the actions of our everyday lives as labor and capital. Both required our participants to let go of the comforts of critical distance and to sit with the murky ways that textiles and objects remediate technical and archival information. I am immensely grateful to our players and it was, I think, a rather exquisite performance – beautiful in its articulation of the potentials of radical care in our engagements with data and the bodies that it always represents.

For more, check out the Storify of the event (and an earlier one this spring) and look for future posts with additional media materials!



The data playground we sort of knew we were making

all photos by Jessica Rajko

A quick overview

Last weekend Vibrant Lives premiered three new sculptures commissioned by the Mesa Arts Center. The sculptures, created in collaboration with local artist Bobby Zokaites, were designed to give people a larger-scale experience of real time data shed than we had done in previous events.

We consciously chose materials and shapes that would invite bodies to lay, stand, sit, and stretch across the pieces, allowing people to locate the vibration of their data output in different places. The idea was to let people play around with the ways they might feel the data being shed from their cell phones. We had a local wifi connection for participants and custom software that temporarily captured everyone’s outgoing data and transformed it into a song of sorts that was then played on our subsonic system to create vibration in the structures.

We chose the Mesa Arts Center event in part because we wanted to reach a broad range of people in terms of age, race, ability, and also experience with both art and technology. The event traditionally hosts 10,000 people per day over the two day event, so this was a really wonderful opportunity to expand our range of audience-participants.

What surprised us a bit and delighted us a great deal was the way that the space became a data-infused playground for kids. We watched as they played a variety of games on the structures, pulled bodies out when they got stuck, and prayed a few times when kids tested the strength of the pieces. I personally love that the idea of “play” that we had built in was robustly manifest in ways that brought exuberance, laughter, and exploration to the fore. We also really loved the moments when the kids asked parents or other adults why the structures were vibrating and little personal teaching moments emerged. Or, the moments when the vibrations became significant enough that whole groups of kids sat still, quiet, listening and feeling the flow of data from the devices around them. Those moments of stillness in the midst of huge data flows were really interesting.

The glorious hot mess

Our feminist methodological and political commitments manifest in being open about the glorious hot mess that is putting on an event like this – we aren’t about mastery. Jessica, Stjepan, and I were with the installation at 9 p.m. on Thursday night just 13 hours before opening when the hot mess got real. We managed to crash the server by visiting YouTube and then we somehow burned out our amplifier (too small a wire? too much muchness?). However it happened, we were doing real-time fixes then and there.

Hardware in process. Photo: Jessica Rajko

When those failed us, Stjepan and Jessica packed up the electronics and took them home where they worked on them later that night – including a last minute run to buy a new amp and an 11th hour code-fix to keep our processors from having to run both incoming and outgoing data (thereby fixing the YouTube crash issue). Jessica was putting in the new set up early Friday morning and our hot mess became our beautiful, well-run installation once more.

Data shed made visible. Costume: Eileen Standley, photo: Molly Schenck

The dance, generated as a realtime composition lasting an hour, grew out of a score created in collaboration with not only the dancers (all ASU dance students + Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley) but also with the audience. Audience participants were tearing sheets of paper with the dancers to create yet more data shed, flocking with other dancers, or flowing through the performance in ways that blurred the boundary between dance performance and interactive participation.The realtime, improvised aspect of the choreography allowed for a kind of porous relationship with the audience – inviting more play and interactivity than we ever could have anticipated. This is a unique approach to dance making and the performance of research. It not only requires the fine-tuned awareness of the performers to be able to share the dance in the moment, but also the ability to respond in realtime to the unknown, the unexpected and as always, the unpredictable behavior of an on-site audience.

Mess is a them for us and when I returned early the next morning a fine layer of dust covered everything. As a mom, I took one look at all that shed “data” and despaired for the parents whose children would be covered in data dust. It’s an interesting idea – that we shed all over one another, that we’re everywhere dirty with other peoples’ data – but not so interesting if you’re a parent trying to get your kid from morning activity to lunch or another event not looking like a green cheeto. With some brooms, baby wipes, wet towels, and a few minutes, Jessica and I got the space back into kid frolicking friendly shape. But it’s an interesting site of tension in an installation like this – the balance between encouraging creative use and trying to keep in the good graces of our participants.

As I said, we aren’t about mastery and we had to flow along with our installation’s needs and the uses that our audiences wanted to make of it. I’m delighted by the play that happened, in part because it gave us a different view on data shed, which can often feel frightening and disempowering. Instead, the data here was turned into toy, into relaxation device, into mess – lots and lots of mess – and we and our audiences were able to revel in it even as we learned just how plentiful it is.

Jessica Rajko compiled a 3 minute highlight reel for those who would like to see it in action!

Our amazing team of collaborators

-Research: Jessica Rajko, Jacque Wernimont, Eileen Standley
-Sculpture Design: Bobby Zokaites
-Software: Stjepan Rajko, Michael Krzyzaniak, Kruthika Tanikella
-Dance: Sharon Ranieri McCaman, Yingzi Liang, Brianna DelRosal, Rebecca Olson Witt, Sandy Schoenewald

Our outstanding supporters, to whom we are very grateful!

Mesa Arts Center

Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

Global Security Initiative at ASU

Synthesis at ASU

ASU Institute for Humanities Research