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Interview with Amy Iona

The Wired Women programme at this year’s NEoN festival is working to examine both the digital gender divide as well as the contributions of female and non binary artists in shaping digital spaces and online experiences. As a part of that programme, artist and researcher Amy Iona will be publishing a zine that condenses her work on ‘cyberfeminist literature as a theoretical underpinning for curating digital art.’ In this interview, The White Pube speak to Amy to discuss the focus of her research, the experience of doing that research, the walls she has come up against, and the value she holds in the work.

1: Hello! who are you, what do you do (generally), and what do you do at NEoN?

Hello! I’m Amy, an artist (and now also a researcher) from Scotland. I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art last year, and have just completed a Masters in Museum Studies: Theory and Practice at the University of Glasgow. My artistic practice has always been critical and centred around social and environmental issues in some way.

In my Masters, you could choose to complete a standard dissertation or apply to a limited number of organisations that were happy to work with a student on an “applied” project, kind of like a research placement. NEoN accepted my proposal to use my dissertation to respond and contribute to their Wired Women programme, by looking at issues specifically impacting queer women and otherwise gender marginalised people in the broad fields of digital, technology-based and new media art.

2: Tell us about your research, and the work you’re doing around inclusion in digital curation! How are you going about it, what are you looking into? Is this a question about ~methodology? Maybe! But we don’t know what methodology means lmao

First of all, does anybody know what methodology means?? I’m a Masters student and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me in a concrete way.

On a more serious note, I’ve been looking at the possibilities of using cyberfeminist literature as a theoretical underpinning for curating digital art. The “method” that I’ve been using to go about that is grounded in an adaptation of something called “feminist standpoint theory”, which in really simplified terms basically meant validating peoples’ lived experiences and recognising the varying experiences within one group of people. Cyberfeminist writers are concerned with issues of gender as they relate to technology, and more recently there’s been a better focus on intersectionality and the needs of multiple-marginalised people.

There’s a really interesting relationship between queer, gender-marginalised folks and technology. Growing up queer and online is such a unique experience - so many queer folks talk about exploring their identities in early forums, avatar-based online games, even by coding their Neopets homepages (okay, maybe that’s just me), and the same can be said of kids on today’s social media apps. Some of my friends have made art that reflects on that connection between queer identity and technology, so I wanted to explore the positive and negative aspects of it in greater depth - Wired Women just turned out to be the perfect opportunity!

I’ve always had a tertiary interest in how digital tech can be used in curation, and most importantly, how it can improve access to art. A big part of why I chose the Masters that I did is because Glasgow offers courses about both digitising traditional collections and curating born-digital media. This research is concerned with the latter: because of NEoN’s focus on the digital arts, it’s specifically concerned with the politics surrounding the use of digital media in contemporary art right now.

3: And what are you hoping to produce as an outcome from your research?

Beyond the dissertation assignment I wanted to think of this research as a more open-ended body of research. The key outcome is a list of recommendations for how arts organisations can more mindfully include queer and gender-marginalised people in their curatorial activities, but I don’t think that politics of inclusion can ever be fixed in just one lasting document. The way that gender and sexual orientation is approached has to be fluid and prepared to evolve - that’s how human beings work. I’m also currently working on translating and condensing 16k words of academic writing into an artsy online zine that will be published through NEoN, so that the results of the study are more accessible to everyone.

4: How has it been going? Where are you at with it now?
At this point it’s actually finished and submitted - finally! But like I said above, I like to think that even though the dissertation exists as a fixed thing, the research could be expanded upon and revisited in the future. There’s been ups and downs. I - and I think all students this and last year, honestly - have found it such an enormous challenge to commit to projects such as this whilst balancing our own wellbeing in a totally abnormal learning environment. I will say that working from home with NEoN has been the best in terms of both intellectual and practical accessibility - although the organisation is based in Dundee, lots of folk contributing to Wired Women are working from further afield.

5: This might seem like a silly question, but bear with me on it! What is inclusion? Because at least recently, it’s been a buzzword that institutions throw out there, and its rarely defined in a solid way. It can often feel like this untethered value that can never quite be reached. If you could define it, or explain what that end goal looks like, would that be half the work done?

This is a really good question. I feel comfy saying that inclusion is not a broad, sweeping statement in an EDI report with no affirmative action attached to it (we saw this performativity a LOT from galleries during and after the Black Lives Matter discourse in 2020). It’s also not treating diverse and complex groups as some kind of Borg collective - for example, with “LGBTQ+ inclusion”, there are reports that say the creative industries are “well appointed” by gay men, but that doesn’t automatically mean that trans women and gender non-conforming people enjoy the same representation or face the same issues.

Practically, it’s the littlest things that people in charge often forget. I once worked with an organisation that was really welcoming of a new transmasc employee, but the building’s custodial department made a huge fuss about putting a sanitary bin in the men’s bathrooms because of policies or supplies or some other arbitrary issue. That’s the kind of thing that should be just sorted without question, before a transgender employee has outed themselves to raise their needs. Institutions need to be really understanding of the fact that able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender white people are not actually the default or the norm, despite the fact that the world is largely designed for them.

I think effective inclusion starts with making an active effort to collaborate with communities and individuals who are underrepresented in the arts and cultural sectors; fairly compensate them for their time and efforts, commission new research and artworks, involve them in policy-making decisions and approach them as individuals to factor in their needs. Big institutions need to be aware of the mutual benefits of ensuring that their programmes and resources are truly accessible to all kinds of people. They need to be open to change and criticism, and factor both physical and emotional access for underrepresented or marginalised people into their core policies. I think NEoN is a good example - no organisation is perfect, but I’ve been in meetings where somebody sees a potentially alienating policy and literally just says, “we need to change this”, and it’s refreshing. It’s about putting people first rather than panicking about resources or workload before you’ve even fully analysed the problem.

6: Why is this work important? Is that outcome (proposed strategy for orgs) on the level of policy suggestion a gap that needs filling? Is it an area of the wider arts landscape that’s been lacking for a while?

Before this body of research I had read a lot of accounts criticising galleries as being hostile or unsupportive towards queer people (like David Wojnarowicz’s writing, and the way that queer communities were weirdly and voyeuristically documented by non-LGBTQ+ artists during the AIDS crisis) - they were all largely historical, so the social and political landscape in the arts is different now. It’s great that arts organisations are recognising diversity as a key issue and beginning to address things like underrepresentation in their exhibitions or inequalities in their cohort, but there’s absolutely still a gap that needs to be filled! Implicit bias still impacts hiring practices and curatorial decisions in a huge way, and a lot of organisations can be accused of making these broad, sweeping statements about EDI with little follow through - plus, there’s the issues of financial and intellectual access that are exacerbated by the state of how the UK treats its most marginalised people right now. I think that smaller and grassroots arts organisations have a fantastic opportunity to support marginalised artists, even more so than larger institutions that feel bound by their long-term modus operandis.

7: Historically and currently, what barriers to inclusion exist in these digital arts spaces? What’s the lay of the land that you’re looking at now, and are there any specific or focused problems you’re looking to address?

The barriers to inclusion in digital arts spaces vary by demographic but basically boil down to the fact that discrimination is everywhere, and neither technology fields nor online spaces are the exception. In my dissertation I surveyed an anonymous group of queer artists about their concerns related to professional development and wellbeing, and I let those concerns inform the issues that I needed to look into.

There’s a couple of broad statements I can make here. Marginalised people (especially POC) log on to social media and are immediately flooded with images of pain and trauma; the culture surrounding online gaming has a huge issue with racist, sexist and homophobic abuse. So that’s a key intellectual barrier - in order to openly explore your identity and creativity as a marginalised person in digital spaces, you have to navigate past outright harassment.

Even when I was growing up, gender hugely impacted your access to technology in bizarre ways - getting a white Nintendo DS was “gay”, girls played cutesy stuff on the Wii and socialised on MSN (I’m old) but boys only talked over Call of Duty. Now that everyone’s growing up online, these issues are pushed on you at an even more formative age; they kind of become innate knowledge through osmosis, despite all the effort to make STEM fields and computing more inclusive. All technology remains influenced by our social codes. There’s stacks of tangible examples of this in daily life and research to go along with them - smartphones being ergonomically designed for AMAB people, facial recognition algorithms failing to appropriately recognise non-white skintones, full body airport scanners flagging up trans people as anomolies and routinely subjecting them to invasive security procedures. It takes guts for a marginalised artist to harness a media that’s not been optimised for them and turn it into a creative or activist tool.

I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, but all of these things are basically indicative of a digital culture that is centric around firm binary definitions, and human beings do not work that way.

8: Is there anything interesting you’ve come across in this research that you didn’t expect? Has anything you suspected before been confirmed?

Yes, both! One pre-existing suspicion that has been confirmed for me will be a pretty obvious statement for most people - gender politics, especially in relation to inclusion, is a difficult and highly personal topic. I actually tried to avoid NEoN’s description of their focus on “women and non-binary” as much as possible because it’s a contraversial phrase - sure enough, somebody was upset by its use in the survey I put out. It’s really difficult. I can’t stress enough that their concerns were valid, and that non-binary and otherwise gender non-conforming people are not women - but if they’re comfortable being included in anti-patriarchal spaces and discussions about gender marginalisation, they should be welcomed and encouraged to participate. The way that you invite people to participate in your programmes matters.

One thing that I was really relieved to see confirmed - quantifiably, in a report by the Creative Industries Federation - is that there is tangible proof of the benefits of inclusion for galleries and other arts organisations, beyond just “you should do this because it’s the right thing to do”. According to CIF, companies with greater gender and racial diversity amongst their employees are significantly more likely to have “financial returns above their respective national industry medians”. It sounds really cynical to put a human wellbeing issue into financial terms, but money clearly talks, so this report certainly doesn’t hurt the case for inclusion.

9: How are you finding the process of doing a Masters in co-operation/alongside NEoN? Is there anything that changes or shifts when an arts org is part of this research, rather than it just being within the boundaries of an academic institution? Does it make things more complicated, easier, more practically focused? Does it help you visualise the end-goal and application, or does that become an obstacle you have to bend around?

NEoN have been fantastic to work with in that they’ve been very openly supportive of my Masters from the get go. They approved my proposal and were happy for me to lead the research - that level of support and flexibility is rare in the creative industries as a whole! I’m also grateful that our collaboration came about through the university, because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with them in this research-based capacity otherwise. Having said that, this was my first go at applied research beyond my own art practice, and I picked up on some pretty major issues related to collaborating between an academic institution and a more community-focused, practical organisation.

I’ll get the obvious one out of the way first, because it’s almost boring to mention at this point, but of course COVID had an impact! I think this kind of research has to be rooted in community work, and although there’s a benefit to anonymous online answers - people feel they can be more open without outing themselves, and have time to formulate their thoughts into texts - I had some big ideas about how to connect with LGBTQ+ folks that just could never have happened because of lockdown restrictions, budget, and the time constraints of a single semester. That’s kind of where the zine comes in - I’m working on ways to avoid restricting this research to a single literature review and survey, but that’s completely independent from my dissertation.

This is 100% just my own personal reflections about the process, but I felt a weird sense of guilt that I was addressing these big sensitive issues whilst worrying on a really superficial level about passing my degree by writing a “good” dissertation; I would hope that if the project were to continue beyond the confines of my degree, it would be a lot more focused on practical research than literature. The academic assignment is this singular thing that really demands most of your time and energy, and is restricted by marking parameters, but often the topic you’re researching deserves a greater attentiveness and maybe a little more radical thought. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to balance both - practice-based research is huge in arts and humanities subjects, and lots of people achieve it incredibly well, but it’s definitely an obstacle worth addressing if you’re relatively new to this way of working.

I felt pretty comfortable after a few meetings with NEoN that they were actually happy to be both critical and criticised - and, to be fair, both the ethics team and my research supervisor were positive about my research topic too. It basically came down to a weird personal conflict where advocacy was the most important part of this project, but that advocacy needed to be conducted within the confines of a very specific piece of academic text. Universities always say that they reward criticality and innovative thinking, but do they really in practice? Is it actually possible to do radical work in these profit-motivated institutions that are still largely governed by one very specific demographic? I’m probably cynical because I’m a 2020 art school grad and dealt with all the major institutional baggage that comes with that, and there’s certainly people more qualified than me to reflect on those questions. But it’s definitely going to become harder and harder for both academic and arts and cultural institutions to ignore the communities who demand that they take better accountability for their statements.