Fostering Feminist and Queer Futures: Instagram Hacking for the Resistance
Brianna I. Wiens
This presentation offers a contemporary example and analysis of queer, trans, intersectional feminist scholarly practices that contribute to the building of small-scale community dialogues and relationships. Our Instagram account, Feminists Do Media (@aesthetic.resistance), functions as: (a) a design intervention into prevailing Instagram culture that amplifies marginalized voices from LGBTQ2IA+, BIPOC, and other marginalized communities in its push against the colonial capitalist heteropatriarchy; (b) a digital database of feminist historical and contemporary media practices, as well as current activist movements; and (c) an online space for discussions about these topics. Those invested in feminist design are well aware that current technologies and digital cultures are overflowing with forms of mediated misogyny that promote intimidation, harassment, and “alarming amounts of vitriol and violence” online (Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kate Miltner 2016, 171). Under these conditions, digital feminists are challenging gender discrimination and promoting renewed visions of “feminist politics in the public sphere” (Jessalyn Keller and Maureen Ryan 2018, 1-2). As such, digital feminisms and the kinds of queer and feminist solidarities that can emerge are important sites for further consideration––both for what feminists can offer as well as the exclusions that can occur under their fourth-wave feminist banner. Our Instagram account is thus a space to cultivate digital methodologies and tools for such feminist and queer resistance, considering complex events, actions, and contestations that influence our processes of data-production, analysis, and remediation. We leverage media tactics to intervene into harmful, normative digital cultures in order to generate new conceptual paradigms and make explicit interventions into institutional cultures. Importantly, discussions sparked online are brought offline through workshops at our maker space at the qcollaborative (www.qcollaborative.com) situated at the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo, Canada. In our workshops, digital artifacts (memes, hashtag discourses, etc.) are materialized through art and performance in order to engage in processes of vulnerable and equitable co-creation of knowledge across differently lived experiences.
This presentation emphasizes the importance of engaging in both digital and material solidarities: slowing down our digital encounters into material, multimodal, and embodied interactions to strengthen community building. Our orientation to this work stems from Sara Ahmed’s (2017) feminist survival toolkit, which has helped in aligning intersectional feminism and feminist technoscience within our digital feminist activist practices. Ahmed reminds us, “To be committed to a feminist life means we cannot not do this work; we cannot not fight for this cause… Survival thus becomes a shared feminist project” (235-6). Our Instagram account, @aesthetic.resistance, is an attempt to respond to this call: it offers a reflection of our feminist design commitments and an example of how to use popular social media platforms to intervene into different prevailing cultures, including most notably Instagram’s influencer culture, white liberal feminism on social media and at large that has become so prevalent with the rise of digital culture, erasure in art criticism discourse, and mediated misogyny. Indexing aesthetics as a media tactic used to make political interventions, we go beyond influencer culture to instead amplify artistic activism within intersectional feminist frames. We understand the project as a form of feminist public
placemaking circulated through the interface of performance and technology. Our critical/tactical use of Instagram develops an emerging mode of creative research/method that seeks out tacit forms of knowledge to “reflect new social and other realities either marginalized or not yet recognized in established social practice and discourses” (Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt 2012, 4). At its best, we argue that feminist digital activist practices, including feminist practices of solidarity that we engage in, offer a communal call: one that usefully queers the internet, itself a tool of the master, in order to better catalyze feminist configurations of relationships between people, technologies, and cultures–-a call to gather the diverse practices and perspectives to mobilize them online and offline. Fundamentally, this project was designed with the intent of co-opting the functions of Instagram itself via a decidedly aesthetic mode of exploratory knowledge production that does not have a predetermined, tangible deliverable––a queer feminist Instagram hack.
Flying Objects: Sistership TV and the spectacle of feminist variety
Sistership TV is an internet-based variety show directed by a trio of artists known as The Powers. It is a hybrid curatorial and collaborative project where special guests are invited to climb aboard the metaphorical vessel of the Sistership and explore a given episode’s topics, which draw on feminist-materialist theory, media studies and the paranormal. Themes are explored through live music performances, music videos, interviews, animations, and more. The variety show format of Sistership TV, along with its emphasis on play, and its blurred distinctions between curation and co-creation within a network of artists, point to an artistic-research methodology that favours chaos, hybridity, and the uncategorizeable.
This presentation will examine the notion of variety as a point of tension that plays out in relation to the aesthetic mode and structure of Sistership TV. The paper builds on T.L. Cowan’s notion of cabaret consciousness, a concept that takes inspiration from a series of DIY, queer-feminist variety shows in Montreal, and is defined by an “appreciation of variety, risk, difference, provocation, and surprise accompanied by a concurrent sympathy with, or high tolerance for, the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic” (2010: 50-51). According to Cowan, the DIY variety show, by invoking the pleasure of the “mixed-bag”, creates the conditions for a certain open-mindedness—a willingness to accept failures, and a delight in the non-normative (2010: 50-53). Cowan makes the case that even if the acts are not overtly or evidently political, the practice of creating these conditions helps performers, organizers and audiences “to imagine new possibilities for themselves and their communities” (2010: 53). In their subcultural contexts, these variety shows create a ritual space for a shared fantasy, and offer a multitude of surprises within that space.
I draw on Cowan’s cabaret consciousness to consider what I identify as an ethic of variety in relation to the feminist politics of such performance contexts. I emphasize the importance of camp aesthetics to this ethic. An ethic of variety, in this case, refers to a variety of situated perspectives, ways of living, and ways of framing reality. I look to queer drag performance, Afrofuturist art, and feminist comedy, to consider camp’s origins, evolutions, and critical potential in light of this ethic. Several examples elucidate the ways in which the language of camp has been used to question unnecessary and limiting categorizations, in a manner that can inspire a sense of hope within marginalized communities. The socially-critical use of camp, and indeed the word “camp” itself, has a history in queer culture which can be traced back to Oscar Wilde and later the practice of drag performance (Myer, Babuscio, Sontag, Klienhans). Certain instances of women’s comedy in pop culture, such as the women-in-drag-as-women of the 1990s TV show Absolutely Fabulous, draw on this foundation to critique concepts of feminine normalcy in ways that may resonate with some of the intersectional feminist politics of the time (Schuyler, Duggan and McHugh). In the 1950s and 1960s, Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic began developing an aesthetic of exaggerated artifice, ironic humour, and flashy costumes, combining ancient and sci-fi iconography in critique of Western rationalism and white-supremecist universalism. This continues to influence the aesthetics of popular music by Black artists today (Rollefson). The work of Sylvester in the 1970s, and more recently, of Janelle Monaé and Erykah Badu, can be seen as employing the critical camp aesthetics of Afrofuturism, adding queer and feminist concerns (Agoro, Anderson). All of these examples help demonstrate some of the fluidity and expansion of camp as a language and mode of critique.
With this context for the use and current state of critical camp, I return to Sistership TV to look at ways in which The Powers particular brand of camp humour uses satirical contrast to poke fun at instances of limited thinking. I also further consider what might be a privileged relationship between camp and the digital variety show. With The Powers, an appreciation for risk and variety is engendered in the production process: our world-building is open-ended, and our model of curation is a hybrid one that allows room for digitally-networked collaboration. This approach fosters a fantastical play-space, which helps The Powers and friends expand the range of possibilities for how we might conceive of an alternate reality, and thus consider the limitations of a quotidian reality. Camp strategies, meanwhile, keep us alerted to the broken systems within which we are entrenched by presenting them as failed and ridiculous. Because camp assaults the coherency of the current state of affairs, it has the potential to fuel the desire for a greater variety of options. The spectacle of feminist variety which draws on this sensibility is not a utopian project, but one that feebly attempts, using available means, to keep reconfiguring ideas.
Corporeal iRituals of Conviviality: Queer Aesthetics Contesting Mythic Realities of Extractive Dispossession in Latin America
Within anti-capitalist struggles, the contemporary aesthetics of Latin American queer artists expose corporeality as a matter of concern for justice and a virtual site of conviviality. Susana Chavez’s “Cuerpo Desierto” and Elyla Sinvergüenza’s “St. Peter/Duck Pulling” respond to the violence of everyday life under regimes of extractive neoliberalism in Mexico and Nicaragua. Their artistic practices incorporate digital technologies to the effect of critiquing dispossession from the perspective of corporeal existence, or the body as something between person and thing. The works function as rituals insofar as they provide a provisional space for the resignification of their bodies. The digital aspect of these rituals suggests that attention to corporeality demands changes to the material conditions in order to allow for its emergence as actual conviviality.
“Cuerpo Desierto” is a poem that acts as a space of suspension: its narration oscillates between a person and an “emptied-out,” objectified body. The poem mirrors the disposability of women in Ciudad Juarez attributed to the arrival of the maquiladora industry as part of the city’s transformation into a special economic zone. Chavez was intimately familiar with the relationship between neoliberalization and femicide: she was an activist organizing to hold the Mexican government accountable until her murder in 2011. Her poem therefore exists in a “mythic” reality where narratives of women as disposable are valuable since they allow maquiladoras to continue employing women in conditions of high turnover while disavowing any responsibility for their well-being. In this context, the poem becomes a ritual that politicizes the body, demanding justice through the description of corporeal dereliction.
Sinvergüenza’s performance also replicates this narrative space of suspension between person and thing that allows the body to speak in the context of a mythic reality of disposability. “St. Peter/Duck Pulling” consists of a monologue describing the friction between the artist’s experience of her body and her social subjectivation as a “man.” The friction manifests through everyday life forms of violence, such as forcing her to destroy plants and to behead a hanging duck as part of a local celebration to St. Peter. Near the end of the monologue, the stage goes dark and the artist reappears covered in feathers and tied up in shibari. As she’s slowly suspended in the air, she asks: “Could I perhaps be the duck?” The tentative question is not articulated from a stable gendered subject but rather from the violent mise-en-scène of her forced subjectivation: the beheaded duck hanging from a tree. She then asks: “In what territory do I let this grief loose?” while electronic music plays and lights flash around her. By ending the performance through a bodily identification that turns pain into pleasure, the piece also functions as a ritual that resignifies Sinvergüenza’s body as the only territory where she can be. This closing statement not only questions the possibility of justice but also alludes to her status in the U.S. (where the performance took place) as political exile from Nicaragua, where she was organizing against Ortega’s reforms to social security and plans to build an interoceanic canal.
Both pieces incorporate digital technologies that might appear to facilitate connectivity but actually underline the status of the body as a corporeal thing that exists in a horizon of life with the rest of the world. Chavez published all her poetry through her blog, which is now almost impossible to navigate: the content does not load in its entirety and incessant pop-ups dissuade thorough perusal. While Chavez’s digital self-publishing made it possible for the local poetry scene to continue circulating her work, the blog itself is now a site of dispossession of her own creative labor. Sinvergüenza’s decision to digitally record her performance is an archival practice but also a complication of her own ritual: she alters the end by muting the electronic music and juxtaposing the image of her tied up, suspended body with black-and-white film of men running around trying to behead the hanging duck. The end becomes less optimistic, suggesting that resignification of the body through aesthetic practices is a limited ritual if the material conditions to sustain it are not in place.
In both cases, the digital enmeshes the body with critiques of contemporary dispossession, turning these pieces into “iRituals” that contest mythic realities of extractive neoliberalism in Latin America. By critically reading for corporeality as a matter of concern that demands justice, the politicality of the body also becomes legible as virtual insofar as the non-actualization of justice becomes a site from where convivial living can be imagined as possible.