Imagining the practice of citation as a political act is a core ethos in Mindy Seu’s ambitious and hyper-comprehensive project, the Cyberfeminism Index. The website has been over a year in the making, and started out in the format of an open call and open-access spreadsheet, in an attempt to gather as many cyberfeminist projects, sources, and references as possible, together in one place.
The term cyberfeminism is most often described as a contemporary genre of feminism, coined in the early 90’s to describe a wave of feminist critique, theorization, and a general reimagining of the internet and new media technologies. In the Cyberfeminism Index, Mindy Seu beautifully expands the definition of the term to encompass more than the relationship between women and technology: “Combining cyber and feminism was meant as an oxymoron or provocation, a critique of the cyberbabes and fembots that stocked the sci-fi landscapes of the 1980s. The term is self-reflexive: technology is not only the subject of cyberfeminism, but its means of transmission. It’s all about feedback.”
“We are taught to focus on engineering, the military industrial complex, and the grandfathers who created the architecture and protocol. But the internet is not only a network of cables, servers, and computers. It is an environment that shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants,” Mindy states. Throughout the Index, a different story of the internet is told through the lens of its makers, and this multitude of definitions and voices echoes through the website, as all projects are described in their own words using original citations or pull quotes, emphasizing the multiplicity of cyberfeminism.
Many original cyberfeminist websites from the 90’s are broken and hard to find, existing in the peripheries of the internet. This project acknowledges this disconnect between cyberfeminism’s iconic works and its legacy, which has had an enduring ripple effect on many areas of technological inquiry. Through the Index, the crucial vitality of cyberfeminism’s past is made visible, and it is (literally) linked with both the present and future.
Now launched as a website of its own, the Index is not a finished project, but rather a continuous call-out and invitation to edit — “a billboard for submissions — never complete and always in progress.”
In this interview we talk about a wide range of topics, from the responsibilities of decentering whiteness, to future proofing and sustainability, digital hoarding, big-tech dystopias, future dreams of a slower web, and platforms that don’t ultimately commodify the people who use them.
Marie Hoejlund (MH)
What was your starting point to collect cyberfeminist references, and what lead you to begin compiling and indexing them?
Mindy Seu (MS)
I’ve been interested in sharing robust resources for a while, especially thinking about the different forms this might take. One of these examples was the New Woman’s Survival Catalog, a 1970s resource guide created by Susan Rennie and Kirsten Grimstad billed as the ‘feminist Whole Earth Catalog’. I loved this idea—sharing as survival. Both the WEC and NWSC were seen as examples of proto-internets due to its internal network, user-generated information, and analog hypertextual cross-references. If you look at it now, NWSC feels like this expansive lens of intersectional, second-wave feminism in the United States.
In 2018, I was a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for the Internet & Society. Here, I was surrounded by policy-makers, lawyers, and activists critically examining the current use of the internet and trying to shape its evolution. Simultaneously, I was taking a class called Experimental Infrastructures with Abby Spinak who spoke about the politics of citation, who and how we cite as a way to ‘legitimize’ certain practices.
Thinking about resource guides and techno-criticism and alternative citations blended pretty seamlessly and the idea emerged from there. It really started with reading and scraping bibliographies. It was also important and necessary to break away from the institution and pull in alternate references. I reached out to net artists, biohacktivists, internet activists, sex workers, and so many generous people… and suddenly I had this huge list! I’m pretty open about sharing half-baked ideas, so I posted the spreadsheet online, and it kind of took on a life of its own.
The draft publication is called the Cyberfeminism Catalog and the website is the Cyberfeminism Index. Eventually, I’ll get back to the catalog, but I wanted to use the website as a billboard for submissions—some broadcast that says “never complete and always in progress!”
Although implemented as universal, technology ”is grounded within the myth of western culture, and remains at the core of the digital mainstream” 1 In the Cyberfeminism Index you commit to challenging and dismantling an exclusionary western perspective. Can you share your thoughts on the responsibilities that come with creating this type of canon? I’m curious to hear about your working process and what you discovered.
I’m trying to make an anti-canon… its contents are malleable and permeable, connected to so many external things, not to mention open-source, crowd-sourced, and open-access. Donna Haraway once said that true corporeality does not exist. If anything, I like to think of the Index as an imperfect umbrella.
This goal to decenter Whiteness in the Index is hard! And again, this points back to citations. Even though cyberfeminism already has a niche history, within that sphere, you see the same figures over and over. And while those people should be celebrated, I was curious about those that were unmentioned, especially from a global context. Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, these criticisms were there, like in Radhika Gajjala’s Third World Critiques of Cyberfeminism, Maria Fernandez’s Cyberfeminism, Racism, Embodiment, or Beth Kolko’s Erasing @race: Going White in the (Inter)Face.
‘Cyberfeminism’ is a nebulous term. So even beyond the language barrier, I had to find, and I’m still searching, for the breadth of terms people were and are using. Scholars like Kishonna Gray and Tressie McMillan Cottom use ‘black cyberfeminism’. In Latin America, groups like GynePunk called themselves hackfeministas. Some Korean scholars like 손희정 (Hee-jeong Sohn) use 넷페미 (net femi), while some in Africa and its diasporas use afrocyberfeminismes. Not to mention all of the diasporic works occurring all across the internet, like the online community CyberPowWow, Prema Murthy’s artwork bindiGirl, or Kristina Wong’s project Big Bad Chinese Mama, who do not use any self-identification connected to cyberfeminism.
Throughout the index, every entry is described only through excerpts or pull quotes. As you read, hundreds of projects are described by their makers in their own voice. This cacophony was very important to me. During the 1997 First Cyberfeminist International organized by Old Boys Network, the participants wrote the manifesto 100 Anti-Theses. Rather than defining ‘cyberfeminism’, they chose to list what cyberfeminism was not, in a mix of different languages. It’s all about multiplicity.
I also invited people who make work related to cyberfeminism to create collections. This becomes another way for visitors to arrive and see a curated lens of the index from specific perspectives. So far we have collections about marginalized histories, cybernetics of sexual labor, post-cyberfeminism, and more by Legacy Russell, Melanie Hoff, Constanza Piña and Melissa Aguilar (Cyborgrrrls), Cornelia Sollfrank (Old Boys Network), Kishonna Gray, Annie Goh, Refresh Tech, Neema Githere (Data Healing), Helen Hester (Laboria Cuboniks), Mary Maggic (ed. note: Mary Maggic’s work is currently on view in the Walker’s exhibition Designs for Different Futures), Klau Kinky, and VNS Matrix.
Regarding the structure and design of the website, the indexing appears non-linear and un-hierarchical. There is not one way to navigate the site, but several ways of searching. Both design and functionality are super simple and ultra user friendly; it even features a print-on demand-button, and highlights a “trail” of previous found references listed, visualizing the visitors personal “path” through the index.
Through its design, the website functions as a generous resource in its simplest form, echoing the sublime simplicity of websites such as Craigslist or Wikipedia. I am curious about your thoughts behind the design and structure?
When you arrive on the site, it feels austere and dense in chronological order. But as you navigate, these ‘default’ elements begin to feel unusual because of the transitional moments activated by the visitor. When we accept the default as the norm, we forget that these are actually objects designed by someone for some purpose.
As visitors begin to interact with the index, the website reacts to their movements. Scrolling causes the navigation bar to glow or loading distorts the text. That green highlight, for the most part, only appears during moments of transition. I’m currently co-curating a show with Roxana Fabius and Patricia M. Hernandez, and throughout the process, we’ve focused on cracks, glitches, leakiness. These are all terms used by Anna Tsing, Legacy Russell and Wendy Chun (respectively) as ways of revealing and foregrounding the people or events that are often pushed to the margins. Throughout Mushroom at the End of the World, author Anna Tsing discusses how allies are found in the interstices. I wanted the design to emphasize the interstitial spaces of the website.
I love that you said “trail”! That’s what we’ve been calling it internally. It’s our attempt to visualize citations or associative pathways. As you open entries, they’re added to the side panel in a list that can be downloaded as a PDF. Charles Broskoski often speaks about this idea of learning trails or desire lines. And I often refer to Octavia Butler’s use of “primitive hypertext” to connect ideas through intuition and association that might not otherwise emerge. In “The Download”, Paul Soulellis writes, “… to download may be political.” It points to ideas of agency, ownership, and dispersal. I’ve long had an interest in print-on-demand.
Iterating in public has also been part of this entire process. I posted a link to the spreadsheet in March of 2019, then the draft catalog last May. In a couple years, we’ll also migrate this index into Rhizome’s linked data project. Even now, the site is live, but it will always be in progress. And I’m hoping this is also a way of asking questions to the people who use it. For example, would people prefer a zip download of loose assets rather than a PDF? Maybe the tags can be collectively created. Judy Malloy suggested tags like yack and hack, theory vs. practice, respectively. There are already so many good ones like slime, cyborg, digital diaspora, software, hardware, wetware, reactionware…
In the About page of the Index, you write about durable code, or as you say, “future proofing”. How do you think about longevity and lifespan within the design and programming of the website?
One of the primary references for the project was the 100 Anti-Theses webpage and First Cyberfeminist International website, which I mentioned earlier. They’re from 1997 and still working, more than two decades later. It uses a bold sans-serif system font and unstyled form fields for the navigation dropdown. So many of the websites in the Index are broken with link rot, missing images, animations that no longer work, etc. I gathered what I could, primarily using emulators or the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, but the process made me question, “What will the Cyberfeminism Index look like in twenty years?” We can’t predict the future, but we did the best we could.
I also referred to Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art, an early net art piece from 1997. He created a composition using HTML form elements without changing their default styling. As browsers like Chrome or Firefox were added and updated throughout the years, the design of the element automatically changed with them. I liked this notion of intentionally designing a structure that would accommodate these inevitable changes, like a website that designs itself over time.
Also, we chose to use Arial, one of few system fonts designed by a woman. It was co-designed by Patricia Saunders and Robin Nicholas for IBM in the early ‘80s. I couldn’t find a large set of encircled numbers in Unicode, so I commissioned Laura Coombs to design a set of encircled numbers as ligatures that were complementary to Arial’s metrics.
If I as a visitor search the Index by images, I get a feeling that I am scavenging the visual margins of the internet quite literally. This type of late 90’s / early 2000 imagery is so recognizable yet I would never come across it in a generic internet search today. It feels like lost or marginalized contents—it’s satisfying and nostalgic to see it have a place to live together! It is of course combined with newer imagery and takes on a new contextualized life of its own. What are your thoughts on performing some sort of internet archeology, or act of preservation for “lost” websites and their imagery?
Scavenging is a good word. That’s definitely how I felt as I was digging around Wayback Machine or Web Recorder. Because so many of these earlier websites were broken, I started collecting what I’m calling ‘artifacts’. These are logos or symbols or gifs that are scattered throughout the sites and used as decor, rarely with the intent of being the primary image. If you go to Mujeres en Red, the background image has a very light spider web with an @ symbol in the middle. Or in Cooking Up a Storm, there is a sticker of a candle used as a campaign logo for the Canadian Women’s Internet Association’s Candlelight Vigil Across the Internet. Both of these wouldn’t be as noticeable with a screenshot of the entire webpage, so separating them gives them more visibility. Artifacts like these give people different entry points into the works on the site.
This project seems like an extension of your personal internet presence, actively sharing resources and contributing to building communities. I am curious about your thoughts on online representation and presence as a complex and difficult terrain to navigate, for designers, and for everyone?
I’m quite shy online. I don’t like sharing a lot about my personal life. But I do want to contribute to social networks. I’m also a digital hoarder, so I love collecting and organizing. Sharing these resources with others is the least I can do. More and more, people seem to be using platforms like Instagram or Google-Docs to make lists and guides and toolkits. In his lecture Designing for Social Justice, Jerome Harris recently touched on powerpoint activism, the use of Instagram Stories to share instructions or information.
Laura Coombs and Laurel Schwulst and I just started a channel on Are.na for our consultancy CSS called Womxn Who Web to provide an open list of good web developers. We get asked for references for designers and developers all the time, and yet we always hear the names of the same men. They are great programmers, but there are also womxn who are excellent developers too! But unfortunately they are not part of the same reference pool. All of this points to your earlier question about dismantling a certain perspective. When I first met Tsige Tafesse of BUFU, we talked about the notion of generous citations. This politics of citation is also about the politics of access and reading. Not only should we share the names of and read more voices, we can also take more care in how they are described and circumvent standard formats of citation-based practices. If we can share as much as possible and other people stumble upon it, you’re creating more avenues for people to discover new realms. If not, we only have this more mainstream narrative, which is unfortunately quite exclusive.
Laura once pointed out to me how Adrienne Maree Brown uses the term “gathering” to describe her role in writing Pleasure Activism. I love this term, and I see myself as more of a gatherer than an editor especially for the Cyberfeminism Index.
In this project you actively link the past to the present and future. How do you understand the future of the internet on a bigger scale, as a place for users? (What are your dystopias and utopias? How do you think of surveillance capitalism, labour, development of platforms, global inclusion, etc.)
I often think about the slow web. What does slow technology look like? This points to my earlier comment about being shy online. What are other ways people can participate without being reliant on massive platforms? Laurel Schwulst and Elliott Cost have a podcast called HTML Energy, Emma Rae Norton teaches the handmade web, Venkatesh Rao talks about domestic cozy, and Color Coded speaks about ancestral technologies. Perhaps this is a retaliation against mainstream platforms, because they don’t feel intimate and commodify the people who use them.
Beyond the micro, individual efforts, this turn away from big tech can also be seen from a macro perspective, through a lot of the social justice work that critiques the systemic problems at play. During the ASA (American Sociological Association) 2020 conference, the author of Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Noble said, “One day we’ll talk about big tech like we did the smoking industry.” I’m really excited about what will come out of the new lab that Noble and Sarah T. Roberts recently started at UCLA called Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. In regards to algorithmic justice, Karen Hao discusses how coloniality manifests in artificial intelligence and states, “Algorithmic discrimination and ‘ghost work’ didn’t appear by accident. Understanding their long, troubling history is the first step toward fixing them.” And there are already practitioners hard at work doing just that, like Black in AI or Queer in AI. In an interview about the abolition of carceral technologies, Sarah T. Hamid introduced the Carceral Tech Resistance Network who campaigns to build up community knowledge and defense against technologies used by law enforcement. These days, I really question the value of design or practice, if separated from social justice.
I also hope for an environmental web. Kris De Decker, Marie Otsuka, and Roel Abbing created the Low-tech Website which uses a solar-powered server and many design decisions that reduce how much energy their website requires. I recently wrote an essay for Geoff Han’s publication with Source Type called “The Internet Exists on Planet Earth.” And Nabil Hassein spoke about “computing, climate change, and all our relationships.” Both of these consider the physicality of the internet and the extractive methods that affect our environment and increase the digital divide. Server farms require enormous amounts of water and energy, our cell phones use rare earth minerals mined in Latin America, even sending an email has a carbon footprint.
I also hope we can create a new term for people who use the internet. I often refer to Taeyoon Choi’s ‘poetic computation’ or David Reinfurt’s ‘useless software’. I love these adjectives because without them, computation and software connotes efficiency, usability, productivity. Adding ‘poetic’ or ‘useless’ creates a juxtaposition or a provocation as to what computation or software might be. Those who use the internet or these tools are not ‘users’, but rather readers, visitors, scavengers… ▪︎