Reflecting on Wired Women* by Ailie Rutherford

I was invited to work with NEoN Digital Arts in 2021 on a festival titled Wired Women, as Scotland was still in partial “lockdown”. In 2022 NEoN commissioned me to write this piece reflecting on how my work as guest co-curator of Wired Women* relates to where NEoN Digital Arts is now.

My first question was around inclusion, to check that “Wired Women” would be a transgender and non-binary inclusive festival. So the asterisk was added, defining Wired Women* as inclusive of transgender and intersex women, as well as non-binary and gender-fluid people who are comfortable in a space that centres the experience of women. As an artist and occasional curator working on feminist projects, artworks and collaborations it has become increasingly important to define this feminism as inclusive of all genders marginalised under patriarchy. This is for two reasons: as trans visibility has risen in recent years, we have seen a rise in transphobia and exclusionary feminism. It is part of a feminist ethic of care to speak back to this, to support trans rights as human rights.

Meanwhile, as the understanding of gender as a colonial construct comes further into the mainstream, we have seen an attack on feminist and women-led spaces. It is vitally important that while we address gender as a colonial construct, we continue to create and defend spaces for women and marginalised genders, because gender-based discrimination remains a very real threat. I brought to my work with NEoN in 2021, several years of experience working as artistic director with Feminist Exchange Network (FEN), a Glasgow based women-led* collective using social and activist arts practices to explore ways of putting feminist economics into practice in community contexts. We recently issued a collective statement on the continued need for feminist spaces, delving more deeply into these issues [i]

Something that has been central to my work with FEN and my wider artistic practice is a feminist ethic of care; conversations around what this means in practice, how it relates to peoples lived experiences, what radical feminist governance might look like and how we enact this in a hetero-patriarchal & neoliberal world [ii]. Having created artworks around this concept for many years, it was interesting to see conversations on care becoming prominent during lockdown and “feminist ethics of care” infiltrating the language of organisations. In 2019 I had begun looking at how this feminist ethic of care related to digital justice, working with creative technologists Bettina Nissen and Libby Odai on the development of feminist tech, we were interested in the potential for emerging tech to disrupt established power structures [iii]. Then the following year (coinciding with lockdown) on the co-design of prototype collaborative software for collective working centred on a principle of mutual care and co-operation, String Figures [iv].

I brought this work with me to my role as guest curator on Wired Women*, seeing the festival as an opportunity to do more than simply celebrate women in tech, but to question the hetero-patriarchy of corporate digital space and its control over our lives. This felt particularly urgent against the backdrop of an ongoing lockdown when so much of our communications, collaborations and interactions had become reliant on and mediated through technology. I saw this as an opportunity to invite women and non-binary artists who were creating exciting works, providing some possible solutions, queering digital space, proposing feminist internets and opening up access to online art:

Rosana Cade’s work on access and inclusion in online art [v], Fannie Sosa’s work to create an interactive WIG [vi], Sprinkle Stephens work connecting care for the more than human world with queer love and sexuality through digital collage [vii] and Padmini Ray Murray, an artist I had first met during a lab for the incredible Unbox [viii] festival in India, whose work explores how technology can be feminist, decolonial, local and ethicali [x].

Originally written about my work on String Figures, but fitting with the approach I was taking to Wired Women*, this quote from my website was used in publicity for the festival: As our every experience is commodified online and our inter-relationships are increasingly trackable, traceable, and data-mineable the project looks at how we can take more care in our digital lives. If the web 2.0 is a fucked up racist, transphobic, misogynist shit-show of extraction and exploitation, then let’s imagine the feminist tools of the new web, a digital commons where we can pool our collective resources to build the systems we need to support each other. A space where we are not mind-controlled by state-corporate collaborations but able to collaborate with our peers in a way that can never be owned or co-opted or sold back to us.

Alongside the theory and speculative works, it felt important to me that this move towards a more feminist ethic of care in a digital arts organisation was coupled with some practical moves away from big tech. I worked closely with NEoNs Development Officer to test out various non-profit and open source alternatives that NEoN might adopt inplace of its reliance on corporate tech. It’s hard to know since finishing in my role as guest curator how much of this has had a long-term impact on NEoN in practical terms but encouraging to see that their current Trans*Feminist Counter Cloud Action Plan looks to be building on what we started.

Activating a truly inclusive feminist practice of care is always more complicated and messy in practice than it looks on paper (or on screen). It is often, by necessity, about finding an acceptable balance that is good enough for now, safe enough to tryx as we try to make this work while staying afloat and sustaining ourselves under capitalism, accepting that arts and academic funding streams often come via neoliberal mechanisms.

Other Scottish arts organisations are putting this into practice, below are two examples from organisations I have recently worked with to Map Below the Waterline [xi]:

Rumpus Room [xii], a feminist artist-led initiative in Glasgow have a practice of care that is immediately obvious from first encounter. The care they extend beyond their immediate circle of co-directors and committee members to all those who engage and work with them is noticeable because it is unusual. Care permeates through everything they do, even their paperwork, with an agreement for freelancing artists that includes a “Statement of Collective Care”

ATLAS organises collective art projects across Skye, Raasay and Lochalsh on the North West coast of Scotland. They invited me to work with them to map how the economy of their arts organisation intersects with the island ecologies.[xiii] The ethic of care and hospitality, practiced by co-directors Yvonne Billimore and Joss Allen is part of the organisations move into working on community economy practices, connecting ecology, economy and care in a way that values highly the work of caring for everyone involved, reaching far beyond the self-care of the organisation. A more in-depth look at my work with ATLAS is in my chapter “Love Proliferating Outwards” in Rehearsing Hospitalities Companion 4 published by Frame Contemporary Art Finland and Archive Books. [xiv]

Article commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts

Image credit: Mapping Below the Waterline by Ailie Rutherford for ATLAS, 2022 Published in Rehearsing Hospitalities
Companion 4, 2022, edited by Yvonne Billimore and Jussi Koitela

Alt text for image: block print image in black and white, using symbols to map intersecting economies of care with red pen lines showing connections. Handwritten notes on the map read: Love, Pathways, What is a hopeful economy?

[x] From the 7th principle of sociocracy in consensus decision making

Posted in C19

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