Guest blogger – Lewis Webb: #DigitalGender2014 @HUMlab – An Australian Story

Lewis Webb
Postgraduate Student, Discipline of Classics, The University of Adelaide.
Assistant Dean, Lincoln College, North Adelaide.

“Provocative. Inspiring.

HUMlab @ Umeå University is a space like no other. It is a digital h(e)aven for artists, activists and academics to meet, debate, and collaborate; it is international, interdisciplinary, and interconnected.

How did I, an Australian postgraduate student, find myself at HUMlab?

It all began with a chance meeting at a conference.

Beginnings

In October 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting HUMlab’s Anna Foka at the University of Adelaide’s Subversion and Censorship Conference 2013, which was convened by Prof. Han Baltussen. Anna and I bonded over our mutual passion for wine, (ancient) women and the digital.

lewisbild1Jakub, Anna, Timothy and I at Eggless Dessert Café, post-conference.

After the conclusion of this conference, Anna spoke with me about HUMlab’s Digital Gender Workshop 2014, an interdisciplinary workshop with the theme of “gender research in the digital sphere”. I was intrigued – what might an ancient historian bring to such an event?

As ancient historians and digital explorers, Anna and I employ diachronic lenses to examine women and the digital; that is, we use a comparative historical approach to explore static and dynamic elements of the female experience over time. I thought I could bring this marriage of the analogue and the digital to the Workshop.

In my research, I explore the experiences of Rome’s women in the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BCE), a conflict that led to major social upheaval in Ancient Rome. During this war, men and women publicly interrogated, criticised and suppressed female sexuality. This ancient suppression of female sexuality in the public sphere finds a modern parallel in the public “slut-shaming” of women in the digital sphere. I decided to produce a paper for the Workshop on these parallels, and, to my delight, the abstract for my paper was accepted.

In Jan/Feb 2014, I began to prepare for my adventure to Sweden. I am forever indebted to Emma Ewadotter, Karin Jangert, and Elin Andersson from HUMlab for their generous assistance and advice during this process (and throughout the Workshop). After a passport was procured, (2 x 26 hour) flights arranged, grants applied for, and accommodation organised, I was ready for Scandinavia.

Arrival

I arrived in Umeå on Monday 10/3, and I was met by two wonders: snow and Swedish hospitality. After exiting the Umeå Airport terminal, I stood outside, giddy as a child, enjoying the snow. Mid-giddiness, I was met by Anna and Viktor Arvidsson, who bundled me into their car, and drove me to Viktor’s apartment.

lewisbild2Snow!

Once there, I enjoyed that greatest of Swedish rituals: Fika. This ritual is roughly equivalent to a coffee break, but it includes coffee, pastries and conversation, and is performed multiple times throughout the day.

This ritual seems to be a synecdoche for the Swedish spirit: life is to be shared and reflected upon.

On Tuesday 11/3, Anna gave me a tour of HUMlab at Umeå University, and introduced me to many of the staff and researchers there. The facilities are striking: the spaces are carefully considered, flexible and fluid; technology is organically integrated within.

lewisbild4 lewisbild3HUMlab

Two of HUMlab’s technicians, Jon Svensson and Jim Robertsson, were wonderfully obliging, and they helped me to ready my presentation for the following day. Tak tak!

While at HUMlab, I was fortunate enough to hear from one of the Workshop’s keynote speakers, micha cárdenas, who delivered a pre-Workshop seminar on “Post-digital Media: from the Transreal to Decolonization”. Micha is an artist, activist and theorist who uses hifi/lofi/nofi techniques to explore identity and intersectionality. She spoke about three of her projects: Becoming Dragon; the Transborder Immigrant Tool; and Local Autonomy Networks. Her projects are powerfully mimetic – they capture and reflect complex issues of gender, race and technology.

lewisbild5micha cárdenas teaching us to breathe.

Following this wonderful seminar, Anna took me to the apartment where I was to stay during my time in Sweden. Once there, Karin helped me to orient myself in the neighbourhood, and gave me instructions for decoding the public transport system.

lewisbild6 lewisbild7Apartment at Hagmarksvägen 2.

That evening, while navigating the local shops and restaurants, I learnt the value of the phrases “hej hej” and “tak”. It was surprising how far these simple Swedish phrases got me. I had a delicious Swedish-Italian fusion dinner at Pizzeria-Ristorante Taormina, and spent a significant amount of time rehearsing my presentation for the morrow.

lewisbild8View from the apartment.

Workshop

Day 1

On Wednesday 12/3, the Digital Gender Workshop was opened at HUMlab by Anna and Prof. Patrik Svensson. We were promised a wonderful programme, colourful debate and copious amounts of fika. I cannot mention all the presentations at this Workshop, but I will explore the ones that resonated with me.

Wednesday started with a keynote address from the wonderful micha, and I was struck by her proposal that the digital is wedded to Western logics, that new media could/should be post-digital, and that embodied movement can act as a pre-/post- digital technology of communication.

Maria Carbin, Eric Carlsson and Anna Croon Fors spoke about their proposal to explore Online Hate Discourses. Their collaboration across gender and media studies seemed thoughtful and timely, given the recent rise in gendered online hatred.

lewisbild9Anna Croon Fors and Maria Carbin.

The marvellous Nishant Shah spoke of slutty digitality, online promiscuity, and stealth computing. He masterfully reinterpreted the USB acronym as “Universal Slutty Being”, and championed the reclamation of the term “slut”.

lewisbild10Nishant Shah and “digital sluts”.

After fika and lunch, I delivered my own presentation entitled “Sexual virtue exposed: ‘Slut-shaming’ in cyberspace and on the streets of Ancient Rome”. I argued that time had not greatly altered the focus of the suppression of female sexuality, but the Internet has vastly increased its scope. I closed by demonstrating that the Internet can be used as a tool for/against this suppression. The feedback I received was wonderful and thought-provoking.

lewisbild11My presentation.

Later that afternoon, the artist/visionary Carl-Erik Engqvist led us in a workshop on Gender and Gamemaker concepts. We were broken into two groups to discuss and develop our games. Our group included Nishant, micha, Jenny Sundén, Annette Markham, Anna Johansson, and myself. We developed a simple game entitled “Drawing It Out”. The premise of this game was that art could be used to build empathy amongst 8-10 year olds around emotions such as fear and anger etc. In our example case, each player drew an image of something that scared them, and the other players then helped to reclaim each image, by adding positive or disempowering elements to the fearful image. The development process for this game was, in and of itself, drawn out, as we all wanted to develop a game that didn’t privilege or disempower individuals from different backgrounds. The rules we developed by the end of the workshop were simple and salient, building on micha’s and Annette’s work with the Theatre of the Oppressed.

lewisbild12Our group presenting “Drawing It Out”.

Day 2

On Thursday 13/3, the second day of the Workshop began. It was held at HUMlab-X, which is situated under the Bildmuseet at Umeå Arts Campus. HUMlab-X is full of screens, including a mind-blowing floor screen and a large screen for presentations. The variety of furniture in the room facilitates different forms of communication and reflection.

lewisbild14 lewisbild13HUMlab-X.

On Thursday morning, Anna spoke about digital representations of gladiatrixes, and proposed that we can evaluate gender in games by assessing the internal and external agency of characters (PCs and NPCs).

After fika, Jenny delivered a presentation entitled “Transdigital, Transgender”, where she explored the temporality of gender and sexuality by examining the transition of a steampunk automaton performer from Rabbit (M) to Bunny (F), and the fan responses to this transition. Jenny envisions transition as movement and re-inscription, and suggests that we could read “the feminine spark in the (Rabbit’s) hardware as a way of imagining and igniting the future differently”.

lewisbild15Jenny Sundén and Annette Markham

Roopika Risam then spoke about how discourses of toxicity have been constructed in online feminism, that this attribution of toxicity is generally ascribed to women of colour, and that hashtags such as #NotYourAsianSidekick have been used as a space for healing in response to these discourses.

After lunch, Oliver Bendorf explored the transgender hand, proposing that it is synecdochic, that it has the potential for agency and betrayal, that it may/may not transition along with a trans person, and that (trans)bodies can be conceived of as integrated circuits.

16Oliver Bendorf and “(trans)bodies”.

Our keynote for the day was delivered by the sublimely animated Annette, with micha “digitally jamming” during the presentation. Annette explored remixing as a metaphor for thinking about thinking, and, controversially claimed that “we don’t need new methods, we need new ways of talking about what we do.”

17Annette Markham and remixing.

On Thursday afternoon, we had a wonderful critical making workshop with ginger coons, where we explored online gender and Turing tests, and asked how we might identify or obscure gender online.

18ginger coons and critical making.

Day 3

Friday 14/3 was the final day of the Workshop, and we were, once again, in HUMlab-X. I was struck, in particular, by two presentations, that of the artist/theorist Camilla Hällgren, and Viktor’s.

Camilla explored art as research and intervention, assessed constructions of “girlhood”, and proposed that crowdsourced identity may be a metaphor for the development of young girls. Camilla uses model train figures in her artwork to explore existential issues through visual contrast; her artwork explores big issues on a small scale, and asks what it might mean to be human in this big world. I was fascinated by her work entitled “A woman’s work is never done II”: it depicted female figures stuffing olives and rolling them towards an olive bowl. I thought it looked positively Sisyphean.

Towards the end of the Workshop, Viktor assessed the concept of a “thing”, and how the doing of things makes us do things in the way we do. He proposed a non-dualistic approach to conceptualising things, drawing on Taoist thinking, and argued that we do not do things through things but with them. Viktor claims that this approach allows us to re-construct what it is to be “human”.

19Viktor Arvidsson “thinging”.

If you’d like to know more about individual presentations, follow the Twitter conversation for the Workshop at #DigitalGender2014.

Post-Workshop

I spent the remainder of my time in Umeå with Anna and Viktor. They were wonderful hosts, and took me the Rex Bar & Grill, where I had my first taste of reindeer meat (delicious), and to Västerbotten Museum, where I learnt a little more about the Sami people.

20Sami Rock Art at Västerbotten Museum.

On Sunday 16/3, I left Umeå with a strong desire to return.

Reflection

Several provocative themes emerged from the Digital Gender Workshop:

  • Remixing (the old/new, methodologies, knowledge)
  • Fluidity and Temporality (gender, sexuality)
  • Intersectionality and Transformation (praxis)
  • Post-digital Strategies
  • Debunking Digital/Analogue Dichotomies
  • Art/Activism/Academia as Symbiotic Trinity

The Workshop provoked us to indwell our praxis, to question our digitality, and to abandon our dichotomies.

Such provocations, stemming from interdisciplinary interactions, would not have emerged concomitantly without HUMlab and the demiurgic Anna Foka. Many thanks – tak ad infinitum.

Fin

In March 2014, I found myself at HUMlab. I left enriched in heart, mind and friendship.

To remix Julius Caesar: Veni, Vidi, Vixi (I came, I saw, I lived).

21Post-Workshop Collective Selfie!”

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