SCAN | Feminist infrastructures

Posted on 17/09/2017


My PhD research examines sustainable infrastructure (socio-technical) transitions. When I started it, it seemed about as far away from arts and cultural writing that I could get. However, the infrastructural focus does lend itself to thinking and writing about technoculture and socio-technological dynamics in motile and multi-scalar ways – shifting from the local to the global to investigate situated practices and networked processes. A socio-technical transition cannot be a ‘just transition’, foundational for a sustainable transition (and therefore futuring) I would think, if gender politics, women’s experiences and feminist perspectives remain marginalised or excluded. In considering the cultural dimensions of infrastructures and ‘the infrastructural’ I am particularly concerned with the kinds of cultural and artistic practices that might be called ‘infrastructuring’ from a feminist perspective. Can an infrastructure be feminist? If so, what could it look like, what could it do? What story could we tell with and about it?

In this post, I am broadly interested in ideas of feminist infrastructures, feminist infrastructural practices, politics and processes, and infrastructures for feminism. The relationship between organisation and infrastructure is significant and to a certain extent iterative, even ontological, in that (a) organisation occurs around, through, with and in infrastructures and (b) infrastructures occur around, through and in organisation. By organisation, I mean a kind of structuring or unstructuring of social and institutional forms, actors, processes and practices – it is a body, a corpus, that acts.

Recent commentaries and shared experiences document the sheer difficulty of doing feminist work in diverse social networks – targeting and threats directed at feminists in these spaces and working in/with these communication infrastructures. A feminist infrastructure is so much more than gender inclusive, although that is a place to start. Many feminists have worked to create infrastructures like publishing houses and refuge spaces, or platformed from existing infrastructures to shape alternative forms of knowing, like gender studies programs.

These politics and acts become all the more important as robotics and artificial intelligence inflect in networked infrastructure decision making. These technologies are displaying patriarchal and gendering behaviours, indicating such technologies and the programming that shapes them is not devoid of ideology. That is, a feminist perspective still needs to be cleaved into these constitutive socio-technical and technocultural assumptions of the objective machine. For example, Rachel M. Magee, Melinda Sebastian, Susan Wiedenbeck and Jennifer A. Rode examine feminist design and the gendering of ‘smart closets’.

A keyword search reveals that Susan Leigh Starr’s work is central to discussions about infrastructure and ‘infrastructuring’. I have written about Starrs works on boundary objects and infrastructures elsewhere. She describes infrastructure as ” both relational and ecological—it means different things to different groups and it is part of the balance of action, tools, and the built environment, inseparable from them”. The keyword search also reveals that much of the discussion focused on technoculture tends to be about IT rather than other forms of infrastructure. This blogpost/podcast, featuring Carla and Fernanda from Marialab and Vedetas, Brazil, Geisa Santos from Periféricas, and Nadege who is part of Kéfir, about feminist autonomous infrastructures in Latin America raises the possibility of “redoing the politics of building community networks, of being distributed and decentralised nodes of power and allow people to be servers in the true sense, that is to allow them to make and serve their own content … It’s not about the range and power of the network – it is what we can do with them.”

My keyword search also repeatedly returned links to posts about a conference in 2013 on Feminist Infrastructures and Technocultures, which by all accounts sounded like a critical moment in processing these connections. Several definitions of infrastructure, particularly from the large technical systems literature, refer to it as having utility, as meeting a need. However, there are other ways of thinking about utility. For Angela Mitropoulos infrastructures are a binding force – “Infrastructure, after all, is about how worlds are made, how forms of life are sustained and made viable” – a kind of ‘undercommons’, through which ‘affinities take shape’. This sense of binding or bringing together in tandem with the broken is also addressed by Laura Berlant. She proposes that “infrastructue is not identical to system or structure, as we currently see them, because infrastructure is defined by the movement or patterns of social form. It is the living mediation of what organises life: the lifeworld of structure” (Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34 (3), June 1, 2016).

Artists have tended to explore infrastructural responses diversely in an art industry that continues to exclude and marginalise women and feminist artists. These infrastructural interventions have been strategic and catalytic. They include feminist artist run spaces, as a platform and mode of organising; feminist art networks, as a kind of feminist socio-cultural commons; and socially-engaged and relational art practices that examine the ethical, intimate and political forms of so-called ‘soft infrastructures’, the sort of infrastructures that have been grudgingly provided to ‘cushion’ women’s lives like health, hygiene and childcare services. Ara Wilson’s article ‘The Infrastructure of Intimacy’ traces the interplay of power, intimacy and infrastructure (Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 41(2), Winter 2016). Infrastructures shape not only how we experience space but how we encounter each other. The infrastructural space is more diverse and more informal than we might credit.

The 2013 conference also indicates that feminist conceptions and politics of infrastructure are still in the making and that’s an exciting prospect – feminist infrastructures binding the social, cultural and ecological futures of this place, this planet.