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Interview with Ailie Rutherford

We’re switching things up a bit this week! Normally we’d publish a lil response or a think-piece-style blog post. This week’s entry is a bit longer, but it’s an interview with Ailie Rutherford, Freelance artist-curator for NEoN Digital Arts. We attended an event Ailie had been part of the organising team for and wanted to ask her some questions to follow up. Rather than a response that was entirely our thoughts, maybe it’s a better format to just give you some good Behind-The-Scenes content! Here’s Ailie’s answers to our clunky questions.

TWP: Hello who are you, what do you do generally, and what do you do at NEoN? 

Hi there! I am Ailie Rutherford, an artist, based in Glasgow, Scotland. I make a lot of collaborative work around ideas of feminist economics, looking at how we might collectively organise ourselves in a way that challenges the norms of capitalism. I was really pleased to be invited to curate this year's Wired Women* festival with NEoN. It’s been an opportunity to think more deeply about how feminist ideologies relate to our digital and online practices. And to invite some incredible artists to respond to those ideas.

TWP: You organised the ROUND THE VIRTUAL TABLE event, to address the digital gender divide; what are the markers and boundaries of that digital gender divide? How is does it manifest itself online, and how do we recognise it? 

Well... since injustices and inequalities are happening all the time on so many different levels it very hard to pin this down into a neat answer.

We could start with the more obvious examples of gender inequality; there are far fewer women working in tech and most tech companies are owned by rich white western men. This means there are less women programming our digital tools and controlling the web so women’s activity online can tend more towards consuming and generating content than controlling or shaping the web. This can be extremely exploitative in quite hidden ways eg. through attempting to please male-designed algorithms to get more social media likes or extensive harvesting of our data through online profiles. Our data has really become an extension of our bodies and should belong to us, but data harvested from women can be highly specific and intimate, such as the information gathered through menstrual tracking apps, dating apps, etc. Given that big tech companies (mostly owned by white men) gather this data to capitalise on it and control our behaviours, this is all pretty alarming.

It’s important to say here that this is not purely a gender divide. Since the web is primarily designed and controlled by affluent cis white western men, and centres their world views, there is a real matrix of oppression happening here. We launched the NEoN festival in March this year with a screening of Coded Bias, a film that follows the work of Joy Buolamwini and the Algorithmic Justice League in revealing the gender and racial bias inherent in AI and facial recognition tech. The Algorithmic Justice League also does brilliant work around the ways facial recognition tech has been designed to assign gender in a very binary and heteronormative way. I highly recommend taking part in one of their Drag versus AI workshops.

Since beginning this job with NEoN I’ve been reading and researching more about the colonial history of the web as we know it, and how “the internet” has come to be such a hetero-patriarchal space. The short article Alternative Internets and Their Lost Histories by Lori Emerson gives a really great overview of this, the many other internetworks that have existed, and how our contemporary internet is the offspring of telegraph cables birthed from colonialist mindsets and anything but neutral. And we’ve not even begun to discuss the volume of misogyny and abuse directed at women online....... But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about that.

Side note – credit to Lee and Sabrina as co-organisers of the event as it absolutely wasn’t all my work!

TWP: Where does a feminist internet begin? Does it have to start being built from scratch, or do you recognise potential spaces emerging already that could be adapted? 

This really follows on from that last question. I think the frameworks for this already exist. There have and continue to be more internets than the one we call “the internet”. So much brilliant work has already been done on this. In the past decade, much has been discussed around the idea of a feminist internet. In 2014 The Feminist Principles of the Internet were drafted at the Imagine a Feminist Internet meeting in Malaysia. Bot Populi continues to do amazing work on this, examining the digital from a social justice and global south perspective. Their podcast series on feminist digital futures and feminist social media is well worth a listen.

The Feminist Internet Manifesto 1.0 created by in 2017 begins with the statement: There is no feminism, only possible feminisms. There is no internet, only possible internets.

Our intention was to look at how we could build on what’s already there. There is no one answer to this, more a series of radical approaches for transforming our online spaces from using the tools we know in subverting online space to building new platforms and community intranets.

Across all of this work, the commonly agreed elements of a feminist internet would be for platforms and networks to prioritise care, inclusivity, and transparency. We need a digital commons where we own our own data, and consent to the use of our data is not reduced to the ticking of a box to allow access or unticking boxes to self-exclude.

TWP: The Round the Virtual table event was organised as a fishbowl. Can you tell us a bit about the format and why you chose it? What do you feel it helped to facilitate? 

One of the first tasks assigned to me in my new role as curator was to organise a round table event, work- ing closely with Sabrina Logan and Lee Weinberg. Sabrina suggested the fishbowl technique after she had used it in a discussion group in her previous job. She felt it had been a really great way to keep the discussion moving and to allow quieter voices a space to speak as only three people can be in the fishbowl at any one time (as opposed to a larger space where it’s often the loudest voices that are heard). This was the first time any of us had tried the technique in an online space rather than a physical space so was not without its difficulties and technical hitches! It’s actually pretty difficult to facilitate something like this in a digital space. Round The Virtual Table was a bit of an experiment in how we might bring people together for a conversation at a time when we can’t invite visiting artists to come to Scotland. I feel like we’re all still working out how to make online spaces function in a way that might give us something close to the feeling of being in a room together. But I’m not sure we’re quite there yet!

TWP: How do you feel about this conversation taking place within an arts festival? Is there something about creative practice that helps facilitate difficult conversation, or that breaks open context and cross-disciplinary understanding? What are the limits of having this conversation in the context of the arts? 

I’d like to think that creative practice helps facilitate difficult conversation or at least takes our thinking beyond the usual parameters to imagine different possibilities.

On the first day of the event, we tested out a prototype software I’ve been co-developing called String Figures. The title comes from techno-feminist Donna Haraway’s metaphor for the inextricable threads that connect us all, collaborative software for collective organising, centred on a principle of mutual care and co-operation. The software is a digital adaptation of a print-block mapping toolkit I designed in my work on feminist economics. Since the printing blocks, we held in our hands and passed around while sharing food, sitting close, and talking intimately are (for now) redundant, I had wanted to know if there was something of the intimacy of this process we could create digitally, where we still feel connected and can work creatively to organise together online? In closed workshops, we started visually mapping our needs in relation to our artistic and political work, and then moved into imagining how we might meet those needs and achieve the collective aims we established. People using the software have described it as a space for collaboration that is joyful to use, that takes our thinking and our imagining into a different kind of virtual space, away from the head-fuck of the video call, where we can imagine new worlds together and make space to ask for the things we need as we build de-centralised support networks through visual diagrams.

We were keen for the conversations that took place in Round The Virtual Table to inform how the NEoN festival moved forwards and have continued to work with many of the artists through subsequent commissions. The event was very much focused on how the questions and ideas of a feminist internet relate to artists working with technology. So I would say that the conversation was always intended to be about the specific context of digital arts.

TWP: The first day of the event was closed for invited guests only - are you able to discuss the outcomes of that first half of the conversation? Did anything interesting or unexpected emerge from having half the conversation in private, that wouldn’t be possible with an entirely open format? 

The first day was where the really interesting conversations happened. Each artist gave a short presentation on their work and their thoughts in response to the questions we’d posed, followed by the String Figures workshop and small group discussions. This for me was the most exciting part of the event and where the real collective thinking happened, seeing all these brilliant artists from different parts of the world talk together about their ambitions, fears, and ways of imagining a more feminist and collaborative digital future.

As a public-facing festival, I think there was a desire from the NEoN team to hold something more public on the second day, to allow a devoted NEoN audience to access the conversation. While it was great to open this up and hear from some other voices, and some really important perspectives I do have concerns over the disparity in this type of event, where everyone is asked to give something of their thoughts and ideas but only some people are being paid for their time or credited for their intellect...... but maybe we’ll come back to that in another interview?

TWP: What were you hoping for in terms of outcomes for this event? (I guess also: Do you think outcome/output is a helpful metric to think about, or does it force a kind of productive expectation onto things) maybe a more accurate question would be: what did you hope would follow the event? What did you hope would happen for attendees after, or for them to have willed into being over the course of the 2 days? Feel free to answer whichever version of that question feels most comfortable, I can’t quite find the right shape for it! 

Our hope was always that the event would shape the way the festival moved forwards. And create a space for artists and the NEoN audience to input to that.

I am working closely with Sabrina Logan who is leading NEoN’s outreach programme to look at the potentials for community intranet in Dundee. We’re considering how we can bring some of the more academic and radical ideas discussed in that “round table” event into practice in a community context, and how the community context continues to inform the debate. It has been important to us from the outset that the curatorial and outreach aspects of the NEoN festival inform each other in this way.

We are continuing to work with some of the artists who were part of the discussion to expand on and develop ideas that emerged over those two days. For example, we are working with artist and designer Padmini Ray Murray to look at how we can build new feminist infrastructure from the ground up, work that centres on technological disobedience, innovative and low-cost tech solutions, or hacks. And we are working with Roxana Vilk on a project that will be primarily shared through other networks with only a minimal appearance on “the internet”. Lee, Sabrina, and I are discussing a follow-up event, inviting all the artists to reconvene in some way. I think the format for that might take quite a different shape. 

Image Credit: Computers Were Women, by Ailie Rutherford

Text by Gabrielle de la Puente, The White Pube

NEoN are working with The White Pube as part of its Wired Women* programme. They are writing responses on the different public outcomes of the programme.Find out more here.