What is a feminist server?

In the third call of A Fair New Idea?!, Flanders Arts Institute solicited submissions for a strong, fair and sustainable arts field that address the impact of digital technology. The jury – consisting of Miriyam Aouragh, Cristina Cochior, Tim De Paepe, Jara Rocha, Kristien Van den Brande and Jivan van der Ende – selected a proposal to further develop the idea of a feminist server.
But what exactly is a feminist server? Three people involved in the project agreed to have a conversation about the work they did on a feminist server with the support of Flanders Arts Institute.
The conversation deals with safe(r) spaces, the role of technology in certain societal issues and the role art plays in all this. This text shares a number  insights that we gained and would like to share, and some insightful quotes from the conversation.

Lightbulbs Kunstenpunt

Many people who identify with a non-dominant position need a safe environment in order to make their voices heard. Since the sharing of information and opinions happens (also) in digital spaces, these digital spaces are in the conversation referred to as “protheses”, extensions of the physical body. And just like bodies in physical spaces, the digital protheses of our bodies in a technological space have limitations and boundaries that we need to be aware of. Yet, these limitations – such as storage space, energy consumption, calculating power – are often hidden, minimalized.

As such, the concept of a safe(r) space is broadened to the care that is to be taken for the digital environment. A safe(r) space can be the sum of the trusted community, the physical spaces, and the digital platform, and this is referred to as an “affective infrastructure”. Within an affective infrastructure, there is also a buildup and transmission of knowledge. The challenge is to keep spreading that knowledge, to keep motivating people to adopt the values of an affective infrastructure, and to do this by collaborating.

Whereas the system administration of the feminist servers is an ongoing work, the importance of an affective infrastructure shows itself when the community organises larger gatherings. A concrete example is the organisation of the Eclectic Tech Festival /ETC. The /ETC started with a group of women who felt the need to learn technical skills in their own spaces, unimpeded by the typical competitiveness of male geeks, trying things out and working through all their questions together with an open mind. They are geographically diverse and they have varied experiences and expertise in computing, technology, art and activism. By covering as many aspects of the organisation as possible within the community itself, the emancipatory idea is beautifully demonstrated. 

In a wonderful motion, all this folds back onto itself: the feminist server as a shared digital space for information and communication, the safety of a community of trusted people, and the more visible punctual gatherings: all three need each other to exist.

But working like this clearly requires effort from everybody involved. Doing (maintenance and configuration) work together is one thing, building trust and connections through shared labour is another. Yet, people put varying degrees of energy in such communities. They may also leave the community. Every existence is one of coming and going. To make sure that a community thrives, it is necessary to also find new people that want to join in, do the work, share the values, organise gatherings, maintain the spaces, etc. For the collectives behind the feminist server, this was a part of the Fair New Idea call. Not only could they maintain the “affective infrastructure” and expand it with a peertube instance; they also organised their own call for “residencies” in that peertube instance.

To attract people, they chose video, as it is a popular and accessible medium. Knowing that this could gain some traction, especially in an artistic environment, they still agreed that trust and collaboration should remain above a service-oriented mentality. As such, the third call in A Fair New Idea?! was in itself a call on artists and art organisations to think through their use of digital technology, in the context of their artistic vision and values. The concept of an “affective infrastructure” challenges the art sector to apply considerations on accessibility, ecology, maintenance, fairness, security, transparency, etc. equally to our rehearsal rooms and our emails, our exposition spaces and our hard disks, our collaboration agreements and our communication channels. Thanks to feminist server, we are more informed about the considerations we can make in terms of safety, privacy, accountability, equity, commoning, censorship, (counter)archiving, etc. and which approaches there are to care about these considerations.

Some quotes from the conversation

On safe(r) spaces: fair, sustainable and careful ways of working together

  • oooo: We take an intersectional approach to feminism, and from a point of emancipation towards technology and machines. Emancipatory practices for minorities is the underlying approach. So, it is second wave feminism that sees the intersection with other identities  (class, ethnicity, (dis)abilities, age, ..) that are marginalized and oppressed. And this brings us to be aware that certain spaces are not safe. Safeness is also about: can we secure technically the infrastructure in which we meet.
  • Mara: It is very important to have trust, to be inclusive towards non-hegemonic identities. We can only start talking about technological issues after we establish trust and shared inclusive values.
  • ooooo: We take a holistic approach to safety: we do not only insist on technological security, but we also consider physical bodies, psycho-social challenges, ecological parameters. We think of emancipation in terms of the relation human-machine, but it is not finally about the machine. That’s why we propose to talk about infrastructure, because it is a broader concept.
  • Mara: In fact, we want to call it “affective infrastructure”. It is based on social engagements. The affective infrastructure is a community that understands your struggle.
  • Mara: To make this tangible, consider the Eclectic Tech Carnival, which is regularly organised locally in different cities by local groups. In these local groups, different perspectives from artists, activists, minorities, etc. come together. The website, mailinglist and other materials of this big community event are hosted on systerserver. But is the local group organising the Carnival that also takes care of the server. They have to update and manage it as a whole.

On safe(r) spaces: awareness about limits and reach

  • vo ezn: Limitations are ok, there are personal limits, but also technical limits. It goes down to the software and even the hardware. The “cloud” that we see in Google, Youtube, Amazon, etc. (GAFAM) seems to be forever and without limits. But it just hides that there are limited resources, e.g. ecologically or in terms of storage.
  • Mara: There is a link between “technological safe spaces”  and “physical safe spaces”. They deal with the same issues of energy consumption, limitations, trust, accessibilty.
  • Mara: This then comes back to our visibility. With our feminist server, we have an answer to the critique on Big Tech. We think that this idea of “Affective infrastructure” is valuable for many people and communities. But for us, it is not about being well-known or being famous.
  • vo ezn: Grace Lee Boggs spoke about “critical connections”. It is very often about how we are interconnected and with whom, not about reaching as many people as possible.
  • Mara: the effort we put to fix bugs, setup certain tools, configure updates, … we insist on doing it collectively. But this is also demanding. It could be easier, more efficient, to do it alone. But this is not the philosophy of our community. Efficiency is not a core for us. There is no need to compare it to a company, we are simply different. We are vessels for learning, sharing knowledge.
  • Mara: Who is “we”? We are a loose community. At the same time, caring for the infrastructure, organising the Carnival, now setting up the video platform with the AFNI project, … these things bring liveness to the community. Without these shared things, I don’t know if we would be so much in touch, as friends and acquaintances.

On societal issues and technology: issues with privacy, censorship, oppression, big tech, …

  • ooooo: many submissions had the urgency and critical mindset on Big Tech, but did not come with a constructive practical proposal.
  • vo ezn: a lot of issues are theorised, and many people know how problematic the situation is but applied and constructive approaches for alternative ways of working digitally are not as visible.
  • Mara: and we have something already, we were lucky to be working with feminist servers.
  • Ooooo: there is a service-based approach to tools that you are using. But how do you make people that want to use it a part of the development of these tools? It is not about “it has to work, and it has to do this”, but rather “how are we developing it together so that it can do it in a way we want”.
  • Mara: As a queer woman and working in an IT environment, as a minority, I have to struggle to communicate so that my input is valued, or to negotiate a better salary. But when I work with the feminist server community, I feel more relaxed and I can share some of these issues with them. We start from discussing technical issues, but then we can move on and talk about other, perhaps more personal issues.
  • Ooooo: we are in positions of isolation, we do not want to compete. We want to make connections. It is not about an innovative kind of dynamic. We want to extend our bodies also in digital spaces. We want to try and find deep relations.

On societal issues and technology: where is art?

  • Ooooo: In setting up a peertube instance, we are engaging with people who need a front-end to show their video material. But we look for people and organisations that align with our values, and we affiliate with them. By doing so, we instantiate the idea of a feminist server, because we avoid to be reduced to a machine.
  • Vo ezn: Sometimes, with technical things, you do not want to learn about it, or you do not have the time for it. So then it becomes really about the artistic idea. But when you do not know how to work with a tool, you might not know all its possibilities. Or vice versa, you might assume that a certain tool should be able to do something. So, the tool can inspire your ideas.
  • oooo: Interfacing is really important. What are we doing? We are already working in the backend, behind the usual graphical interface that people see, it is invisible. So, for this project, we opted to make a video platform, because video is widely used and is in a relation with the art world. In setting up a peertube instance, we are engaging with people who need a front-end to show their video material. But we look for people and organisations that align with our values, and we affiliate with them. By doing so, we instantiate the idea of a feminist server, because we avoid to be reduced to a machine.
  • Mara: AFNI was for us also a curatorial project. We were looking for people to work with, trying to align, or acknowledging differences.
  • ooooo: we were asked to take up the streaming of a conference in Brussels about Digital Gender Violence. It could be a way to bring in people for the feminist server and share knowledge about video streaming and production . It also brings in discussions on “The Queer Gaze”– how do you frame such a conference visually? What do you show, what not? These are artistic, but potentially also activist choices! On who you point the camera, who receives a microphone, … this can be really empowering. And many people know  how to operate these video devices (camera, mic, …) well. But with the feminist server, we also want to show how a server, that fundamental infrastructure, is also a tool of empowerment for a community.

This text is based on a conversation at the end of September 2022 with Mara, ooooo and vo ezn, about the ideas of a feminist server.

A Fair New Idea?!

We lanceerden vier open oproepen voor projectvoorstellen die bijdragen aan een sterk, eerlijk en duurzaam kunstveld. Bekijk de resultaten en ontwikkelingen.

A Fair New World?!

Hoe kunnen we toewerken naar een meer inclusieve, duurzame en solidaire kunstwereld?! Tijdens het A Fair New World?! traject (2020-2022) verzamelden we ideeën, praktijken en instrumenten die mogelijke oplossingen bieden.