At the very end of last year, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Mindy Seu, editor and gatherer of the Cyberfeminism Index - an evolving, collaborative archive of projects working towards cyberfeminist futures dating from 1985 to today. The project initially began as an online archive but has now been created into a BIG, BEAUTIFUL book!
Listen back to our conversation here, where we discussed the evolution of the project and what the word ‘Community’ means to the Cyberfeminism Index. Or have a read below!
KI = Kes Inkersole (Protein)
MS = Mindy Seu
Kes Inkersole: Hello! Today we're super, super excited about this episode with Mindy Seu who is the author of the Cyberfeminism Index. What a way to end the year! I guess I'll start by introducing myself first.
My name is Kes and I help set up our events in the Protein Community. I've also just finished studying an MA in Internet Equalities at the UAL Creative Computing Institute in London where my final thesis became an evolving, collaborative, feminist and post-capitalist manifesto for redesigning safer online community spaces. So as you can imagine, Mindy's Cyberfeminism Index has always been a huge inspiration for me, and I'm very excited to speak to you Mindy. So, enough about me, it would be great to hear from yourself, Mindy. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you've been focusing on at the moment?
Mindy Seu: Thanks so much Kes. And thanks so much to the Protein Community for being here today. I’m excited to chat more and get to know the space as well. I’m an assistant professor at Rutgers University and a critic at Yale School of Art. For the past several years, I've been working on a variety of projects and essays. But probably the one that we'll be focusing on today is the Cyberfeminism Index, which is really an encyclopedic-like volume of over 700 entries of online activism and net art from 1991 to present, and I'm sure we'll be digging into that more today.
KI: Amazing. Thank you so much for the intro, Mindy. You're up to such exciting stuff, as always. Yes, today we will focus on the Cyberfeminism Index mainly, but please feel free to bring in all of your interests and projects, of course.
So, what is the Cyberfeminism Index, from your perspective?
MS: The Cyberfeminism Index I kind of see as an umbrella project of sorts. It was started a few years ago, and it's really taken multiple forms. First it was an open source, open access spreadsheet. And then it became a website that's online, now cyberfeminism index.com, commissioned by Rhizome and presented at the New Museum. And then a couple of years later, it turned into a printed publication, which I believe might be in bookstores in the UK already. It's taken a couple of weeks to be in the US. But it really helps to be a living archive for a variety of global forms of online technofeminism.
I really like to describe Cyberfeminism as kind of a feedback loop. It can't only be about the dissemination of feminism through online channels, it also has to incorporate the criticism of technology through that dissemination.
For example, something like #MeToo, I personally would not consider Cyberfeminism because that really incorporates everything and we needed some constraints. That's kind of an example of feminism distributed through online channels, but maybe something like GamerGate would be considered Cyberfeminism because it uses online dissemination of Cyberfeminism, while also being critical of technology, especially in the video game space. So that's a more contemporary example. But this goes back several decades as well.
KI: That’s a really interesting distinction to make. In terms of the Index, how would you describe it? As a platform, an archive, a community, or is this something that's always evolving?
MS: I would describe it more as an archive or perhaps a living index that very much encourages self authorship and evolution. The archive is really hoping to evolve as the project expands and lives over time. The online component really acts as the space where it's very much crowd sourced, it's still submitting entries, it's really following the pathway of kind of a memory institution. It feels like a grassroots community archive. The book then is kind of a snapshot or a document of this living space, and hopes to give it a little bit more posterity. Because even if we've tried to make a lot of decisions to make the website live as long as possible, which we'll be talking about a bit later, I've also seen historically how quickly websites and new technologies degrade.
KI: Yeah, that's so interesting. I really like how your work traverses the online and digital space, and then recognises that participating in both those spaces is very symbiotic.
I wanted to ask you a bit more about the process of creating the index? How do you decide what projects go into the index? And how are people involved in this process with you?
MS: So when I first started the project, it was really a resource guide for myself, I'm very involved in various techno spaces and seeing a lot of peers deal with experimental technologies and critical technologies. I was having a hard time finding a robust compendium of resources in that space. So when I was building out this spreadsheet, I was just adding things, artworks of my peers, different texts or essays that we are reading. I shared this publicly asking other people if there was something in this space that felt related that they could then add, and it kind of snowballed from there. I began to realise that it was actually a relevant resource for other people as well. And when I opened it up to crowdsourcing, it’s moderated by me and some other peers. But we always try to make sure that if people are allowed or able to self identify a project that they've made, or someone else has made within this umbrella, we really embrace this multiplicity, this definition, as it has historically. One of the first cyberfeminist groups, The Old Boys Network, which the very seminal net artist Cornelia Sollfrank was part of, created the 100 Antitheses which was a list of 100 definitions as to what cyberfeminism was not. So kind of built into their history was this idea of it being as adaptable and inclusive as possible and not having clear boundaries, and that porousness, I think you see throughout the index.
KI: In such an extensive archive of works from all over the world, how do you cater for the multiplicity of perspectives included in the index?
MS: It really tries to capture the multiplicity that you're speaking with, but speaking also about the global rhizomatic nature. A lot of people might assume that Cyberfeminism started with A Cyborg Manifesto, the essay by Donna Haraway, in the mid 80s. And while some people have been very inspired by this text, it’s kind of moving into slime theory and experimental net art and things of this nature. Globally a lot of people were thinking about similar themes, but it kind of emerged from a reaction to some of the constraints they were finding in this early web environment. So in order to capture this, because the language is different, not all people use the term Cyberfeminism. There were kinds of stewards in different regions that were able to call together resources and references from that area. So for example, in Latin America, I was working with the Cyber Girls, and they were so helpful and not only pulling together different people, I can talk to you about the history of Latin American Cyberfeminism, but also it's very much underground, contemporary spaces as well. Or even in Korea, they're called the Net Semies and I was working with them to make or to provide more of these East Asian references. So it really, really does feel like a collaborative, collective project and a big embracing of the many, many different strands. Again, using Cyberfeminism as an imperfect umbrella term, rather than a very exclusive structure.
KI: Definitely, that's so interesting to hear you say because, I mean, obviously, Cyberfeminism has been critiqued a lot in the past for being very exclusive. It's really admirable how you are directly reaching out to different people and different communities to be included. I know that you speak a lot about citation across all your practices. So I wanted to ask you how you see citation as an important tool for credibility, but also as a tool for community building?
MS: Yeah, I think that citation can almost become a practice for everyday life. I really feel like the platforms that we're on are almost discouraging this kind of behaviour. So for example, an early proto Internet called Xanadu by Ted Nelson, who was considered the father of the concept of the hyperlink or hypertext, he was creating this platform that was using two way links. So it was always pulling up the secondary sources and almost archiving them so you wouldn't lose them when you were adding them into your primary document. In the World Wide Web of Sir Tim Berners Lee that we're using now, it’s used as one way links. So this leads to a lot of link rot, where if I link to a website on the Protein page and that goes down in a few weeks or a few years the link on my page would be link rot or lead to a 404.
So I was really trying to not only pull together some of these historical examples of how the architecture or people have been subverting the architecture to encourage more citation, it also moves beyond that technical framework as well. I often like to cite the Detroit-based activist and scholar Adrienne Maree Brown. She is able to incorporate so many citations or references in her writings because she talks about context so that her footnotes almost read as narratives. I was sitting at this lecture, and so and so was speaking, and it made me think of this person, which made me come up with this thought. So it feels like a more informal practice of incorporating the number of people around you and before you that helped you come to an idea, rather than having to use some sort of academic citation. So I think there are multiple models for how we can really encourage acknowledgement, and essentially co-authorship and understanding that no one comes to an idea alone.
KI: Definitely, especially in our world today we never really own our own ideas. I love what you said about citation not having to be some academic, dry thing that everyone thinks it is. I want to ask you about the difference between designing the book versus the website or the spreadsheet. How does citation appear differently across different formats?
MS: Yeah, I think that a big thing that we were really trying to model across both versions was this idea of a cross reference or an internal hyperlink. So while hyperlink has a very digital connotation, people always cite early analogue references, so things like the Talmud, the primary religious doctrine of Judaism, more classical things like bibliographies, footnotes, indexes, all of these printed examples, they attempted to bring this into this idea of the digital hyperlink.
So cross references then pull you to different parts or entries within the website or the book itself. Then you're able to kind of jump to different things that have a complementary or juxtaposed idea. It works a little bit differently in the book and the website, because the website actually has live links that allow you to jump to different areas. But both of them are really encouraging nonlinear reading. If someone submitted something through crowdsourcing, their name, or moniker is always included in the entry itself. So it'll say submitted by so and so. And even early on in the process, when I was speaking to people over the telephone, or through email, they weren't using the submission fields. In those cases, I would cite their submission, or there are references as referred by really trying to make sure I was tracking the trail of lineage that led for an entry to come to exist in the archive itself.
I've wondered if there should be multiple categories, because some of these things really happen in passing. I'll see references when I'm at a lecture or an artist performance. So I really feel like I'm trying to create multiple ways of citing the trail of influence, and building this as the index continues to grow.
KI: Amazing, I love your idea of nonlinear reading, and especially from a design perspective how this can actually manifest. The design of the index gives me a Web1.0 energy which I really like. I wanted to ask about the concept behind this aesthetic of both the website and the book, where did it come from for you?
KI: It's so cool to hear all of your concepts and process behind the design. I love how it's all aimed for longevity so that it can always serve the community who interact with it. I know you haven't really said the word “community”, but for me, it feels like there is such a huge community navigating around the index. What do you think the word community does mean to the project?
MS: I think community is a huge part of this project. The writer Saidiya Hartman describes how a publication is the site of a public which leads to discourse. For her, essay writing is a huge moment for a discursive environment and I feel like this index kind of does the same. So even if there are no comment fields, I've really seen how people are continuously adding their own references using the “submit” fields. But also, when you click through different entries, you can download all of this as a PDF. And those selections are tracked in what we call our learning trail. So you can actually see how many things were downloaded at different times. We don't store any of this in the back end, we don't store your IP, and we don't store your selections, but we do store the timestamp and the quantity. So it's been really interesting to track or see how people are continuing to kind of preserve this through these PDFs. And I think if you talk to many digital archivists, they'll kind of claim that duplication is a huge part of maintaining a lot of this very ephemeral, digital ephemera.
Also, it's been great to see how people are using the contents of the index to develop their own projects. So even today, I was tagged in a post about how someone had used a generator to remix the entries of the index, only the manifestos in the index, to develop these new cyberfeminist auto-generated manifestos. I also liked that it's becoming a tool to develop new works. But most importantly, I think that now that we're embarking on this book tour, we're trying to make sure that at every location, we're pulling cyberfeminists or techno-femme researchers from each region to talk about not only the book, but just cyberfeminism at large. So it really feels like there's a conversation happening and having these public gatherings really feels like a good complement to the material gathering that happened in the index. So it feels like gathering in multiple forms.
KI: Definitely. I also think that's so beautiful, the ongoing creations people are making from the index. It really shows how powerful it is, and how evolving the conversation of cyberfeminism is. In terms of gathering people in the physical and digital spaces, how do you find the differences between cultivating community in both of these worlds?
MS: I mean, I think that we have really started to see these new experiments happening during the pandemic. So, of course, there are a lot of Zoom events happening. But we also saw the rise of Clubhouse, we saw people using Jitsi, and experimenting with the front end. So instead of a grid of faces, everyone was in their own globe bouncing around the screen.
Of course, people were also really developing more intimate online spaces. So instead of trying to lean on platforms that already existed, a lot of these new grassroots tools were also emerging. I really like seeing this evolution of how people are really carving out online digital spaces that are specific to their intimate communities.
And of course, this contrasts with physical environments where we can have a lot of different forms of language that we're reading into, not only textual language, but spoken language, visual language, body language, etc. So there's different types of nuance in both fields.
I think there's also an emergence of prompts or different ways people can interact in either space, rather than just having the more conventional conversational format, or a lecture panel format. I see this rise of facilitated conversation of people being able to chime in using different chat fields. I even found that when teaching a lot of Zoom classes, or even in our physical classes, if I kept the chat bar live and on the screen, even if we were in space together, more introverted or shy students were much more likely to participate in class. I liked this dynamic of just trying to maintain these hybrid environments. I think people are now more analysing what forms of gathering are working and how we can shift these dynamics in space, or online, together.
KI: For sure that’s so beautifully put and when considering the fact that we can create these more intimate online spaces now, just like how we created our own Protein Community Discord, that kind of came out of the pandemic and needing to have more of a two way dialogue with our community. I'm wondering with the Cyberfeminism Index, and your process of moderating it yourself, would you ever consider setting up this kind of online community space for the Cyberfeminism Index and handing any of these moderation processes over to other people in the community?
MS: I think that definitely when thinking about the evolution of the project, I do think trying to create a more literal, discursive environment would be great, just because I'm also so curious as to how people are resonating with certain things within the index itself. Sometimes people tell me and I'm also sure that these conversations are happening elsewhere. I think that building out more of an explicit community, or participatory or communicative environment, would be really amazing. I think right now, it just comes down to bandwidth. But we think of this as a project of longevity, so seeing how much Cyberfeminism is evolving over time, trying to map that out and talk about that publicly in some way, I think would be really valuable.
KI: Yeah, definitely. I mean, from our experience at Protein, it is a lot of work and requires a lot of bandwidth but it's also very rewarding at the same time, and something that we do feel has longevity, if it's maintained properly. But if you ever do it for the Cyberfeminism index, I'll be there!
I know that you've said a few times that Cyberfeminism is very evolving in its definition, and very different for people in different communities. How do you see cyberfeminism evolving as we head into 2023? Or how would you like to see it evolve?
MS: Yeah, I kind of talked about the differences in regions, especially in the taxonomy. I think mapping how it's evolved from Web1.0 to now has been important for me. Even again, if these are very blurry boundaries. In Web1.0, it really felt like there was an excitement about teaching people how to get online. We saw a lot of educational resources popping up, a lot of online communities, a lot of web rings, and things of this nature.
Then we moved into this platform space where we are now seeing the rise of hashtag activism. It was expanding into these larger, more global communities and also supplemented by a lot of conferences, so we've seen some social gatherings happening in space. Amidst all of this, we also see some very experimental net art and the rise of very provocative language. This is where slime theory really comes in: people saying the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix and creating video art pieces about coders collecting orgasm data, this was a thread throughout these entire three decades. I think towards now and late Web2.0, we're really starting to see a lot of dystopian understanding of the rise of these platform oligopolies, how it's no longer serving us, and also the internet becoming quite ubiquitous.
As it moves into non-screen-based spaces, we then see how Cyberfeminism begins to connect more with ecology and economy. With solar powered servers, people thinking about what local internet looks like. And of course, sex workers have been a huge part of the cyberfeminist movement and they are often some of the first adopters of new technologies because their work on traditional platforms is so policed. They're constantly being forced to embark into crypto or developing anonymous or pseudonymous ways of communicating online. We can see this occurring more and more in Web3.0 as well. But I think in the future, what I'm excited about is seeing how this evolves in different regions, and maybe how that regional gap is perhaps no longer even a difference.
It's a mix of this feeling of the local while it's extremely expansive. We see a lot of alternatives popping up in opposition to these oligopolies. We see some people who are interested in Web3.0, some people who are very skeptical of it. I think for the most part, it's always been focused very much on the body, the avatar - how both of these are quite politicised and how we can use technology to supplement that in some way. For me, it really feels like it almost will no longer be screen based whatsoever. This understanding that technology moves beyond the digital and how to modify bodies and thinking about the body instead. Even when mapping some of these strands, it's been really fascinating to see how much similarity there has been, these clear lines as we move through these different waves of webs evolution.
KI: For sure. I'm also really excited to see in the near future how “the local” comes back into it. I've seen some really amazing projects about a solar powered, community-run internet that I am keeping my eyes on very avidly.
I wanted to ask you a little bit now about your personal journey throughout all of this. I know you're very in this space now, but what was your relationship to technology like while you were growing up?
MS: It's interesting, because my parents were very conservative, so we had dial up, and we had some access to the internet. But for me, it was kind of a way to kind of sneak around, like even for our TV stations, my dad would delete or block a lot of stations, so we weren't able to watch a lot of things. So when we were first using AI, online messaging, learning how to code for the first time, I remember the rise of randomised chat messaging like Omegle, or Chat Roulette or things like this. I thought this was actually a really fascinating way to get exposed to a lot of different people and different areas, but also this permeation of pornography online and how that was very much shaping things, not only becoming a new sex education, but in many ways, reinforcing a lot of the sexist and racist stereotypes that we see compared to any other live environment. There have been many studies about how these tropes can be exaggerated in pornographic spaces and we see people retaliating against that in the Cyberfeminism Index or reclaiming that as well.
It also felt very expressive. I'm not great with pen to paper, but being able to use a lot of these digital tools to create images and graphics - my background is as a graphic designer - so it just felt like a way to supplement some of my other things that were less refined. I really liked how coding felt like a different language in many ways and being able to use that to express things in new forms.
KI: Wow, that's really beautiful. I'm somebody who actually really struggles to code so I really admire that skill and how you use it.
How old were you when you learned to code?
KI: Yeah, definitely. Everything online has become so homogenous now. I would love platforms to start offering ways for people to get creative. These platforms are meant to be helping us thrive. So it would be really cool to see if somebody was able to make something where we could all adjust our platform skins or something. Because I think also, it's a lot, you can't just be like*, Oh, everybody can code their own platforms*. You know, not everybody has the skills to do this and the time and energy it takes. Plus, we already have enough tech, I guess.
So. Yeah, let's ask the platform's to give us our skins back!
MS: Well, not even just skins, I think it's also about data portability. If you upload a lot of things into… I don't know if people here use Are.na, it's kind of like a research-based Pinterest. They have a very robust and public API, where you can use Are.na as a CMS and import your content into any other website. Whereas let's say Instagram, you can't embed your Instagram images easily into other spaces, because they will very much want to keep you on the platform or lead you back there. So there's an incentive for these spaces to feel as siloed as possible and lock you into a platform and own your content. I think this is also another reason why I very much encourage trying to look into that black box, figure out how websites work. Even if you're making a simple one, I think it feels quite empowering to just know how a website lives online.
KI: 100% I mean, everyone, or nearly nearly everyone with access to technology, interacts with it every day and really doesn't have the transparency to see how it actually works. I think that would be really nice for more platforms to have more integrations and options.
I know that we've had some questions asked in the chat, which sound really amazing, and I can't wait to get into, but I wanted to ask you one more question before we go into those. So I know that you're an educator now, and I wanted to flip it on you and ask you what your own education journey was like towards this point?
MS: All throughout high school, I was very interested in extracurriculars like designing T shirts and flyers. That really made me interested in graphic design, even though I didn't understand what exactly that was. I was studying Design Media Art at UCLA, and really wanted to be a book designer. I think by working with a lot of people who were in new media at UCLA, it made me realise how complementary these mediums actually are. Books, websites, performances, installations, all of these things are different manifestations of the same body of research, or it can be. So at UCLA, I really focused on software and graphic design or branding, as they call it. But then after working in studios for a long time, we were working with high tech tools and toys, but it almost started to feel like glamorous advertising for things I didn't even have access to. So I really then wanted to focus on not only the external layer and the technological layer, but also what the content was, and how I could be someone to facilitate that. So then I went to Harvard's Graduate School of Design and got a design research Master's degree. This was kind of the early starting place of the Cyberfeminism Index, because it was marrying together a lot of the things I had been interested in along the way and was very much reflective of the communities that I was in.
So maybe not too much of a pivot. But I think that moving from the more visual skin and thinking of design as a holistic research based practice has really served me and I think I see this happening a lot in peers and contemporaries. Our byline is becoming more and more multi-hyphenate. It's also exciting to see how people are not only designers, but they're also writing things, curating different projects and facilitating different gatherings. This for me, definitely shapes my interests, just as someone who suffers easily from boredom. So yeah, multi hyphenation or this interdisciplinary nature has felt very resonant to me.
KI: Yeah, that's amazing. It's so nice to hear that the index view has been a holistic gathering of all your interests along the way. And how everyone now is just a polymath and everyone is embracing the multiplicity within themselves. So we've got a really nice couple of questions.
The first one is from Andrea, from the Protein Community core team: I would love to know from you Mindy, what is your take on developing collective knowledge? What are the values, the tools and the practices you prefer? What has worked that you didn't expect and what really didn't that caught you by surprise?
MS: I think that for me, developing collective knowledge has really been about starting small. So I realised that there are these huge compendiums online and even now, the Cyberfeminism Index also feels quite large. But it initially started as a tool for myself as a way for me to learn more about the work of my peers.
It just so happened that this then resonated with people outside of that more intimate space. So I think then I was able to tailor this collection towards defining this project as it evolved, rather than having a very clear set of constraints in the beginning, and omitting people because of that. So I think that the process of collecting the information or even building out the different collaborators and partners felt like a very, very natural process that moved as the project moved. Looking back on this, I would not change any of that. I don't know if that's perfect for every project, but it definitely felt very organic for the way this project evolved. So it it kind of reminds me, of the concept of Fractalism where now when we're all so focused on scalability, we just scale out these systems proportionally without reflecting back on the scales of people who are using them for activism, starting small responds to that specific community that you are a part of, not just gazing in on. And as these things grow, it evolves as the new members join. So for me this spiral shape has felt very generative. But thank you so much for that question. And that nice comment, Andrea, appreciate it.
KI: So cute. Thank you for answering that, Mindy. We have another one from @chroma: Have you experimented with any blockchain-related tech as a part of your archival process?
MS: Yes. So one of my mentors at UCLA was Casey Reese, who started the processing foundation, but also Feral File, which is a very much artist-run online exhibition space. She invited me to curate a show as a benefit sale for the Cyberfeminism Index and I wasn't able to invite people from all generations of this movement. I think for many of them, except one, it was their first time minting an NFT.
It was actually kind of tricky, because this was right as everything was dipping hard. But still, I think it was a great experiment in terms of figuring out what are the different types of auction models for this and how do we make sure it's as accessible as possible? So actually creating multiple copies of each piece at a set price rather than creating this inflation at every auction. So I think working with Casey and his team at Farrell file was really helpful and also just made me think about perhaps the potential for artists in this space, even if it's not necessarily one that I'm very active in.
KI: So interesting. Thank you, Mindy. There's one more question. So I'll go ahead and ask that before we finish up. This next one is from LW: Do you have any thoughts about how coding plus error/glitch and their associated aesthetics connect with Cyberfeminism? Can coding be an act of feminist resilience? And did you have any encounters with this when making the Cyber feminism Index?
MS: Yes, that's a great question. So the errors, the embrace of the error, the embrace of the glitch, this propensity towards hacking, all of these things are very much within the ethos within early Cyberfeminism to its contemporary evolutions. Legacy Russell who wrote the afterword for this book, she's also the author of Glitch Feminism. And during the first book launch at the New Museum, we invited McKenzie Wark, who is the author of a Hacker Manifesto.
There's so many people who talk about glitch aesthetics and coding, seeing not only as technical coding, but a coding that we've kind of been acculturated with as we've grown up. So this idea of hacking not only considers hacking into written code, but also hacking into the coding that we've embodied over time, and how we can subvert that understanding or reclaim those spaces. So within a technical and more metaphorical or social angle, coding, and the glitch has always been considered very liberatory in this space and I actually haven't seen that waiver at all, in my studies of these three decades.
KI: So interesting. I'm also a big fan of Legacy and her work as well.
Thank you so much Mindy for joining us. It's been an amazing conversation and I really appreciate it. We're all massive fans. I look forward to seeing you next year at your event at the Whitechapel Gallery!
MS: Thank you so much. It's been an absolute pleasure. I look forward to continuing the conversation next year. Hope you have an amazing holiday as well and get lots of rest.