#TransformDH and Feminist Creativity

In October 2015, well over a year ago now, a group of transdisciplinary scholars, artists, and activists converged at the University of Maryland for the first #transformDH (un)conference, which featured an opening plenary by core members of the original #transformDH collective, a video showcase of projects by artist-theorists and art activists from around the US, a roundtable on disability and the digital, and a keynote by media theorist Lisa Nakamura. The formal conference activities were followed by a day of group discussions, THATCamp style, that centered around the ethics of doing digital and social media research in vulnerable communities; the politics of professionalization, promotion, and grant writing as researchers who are queer, trans, feminist, and/or of color; digital pedagogy; and in general the rewarding and difficult labor of combining research, art, teaching, and activism.I highlight this event not only because it represented somewhat of a watershed moment in terms of intra-institutional collaboration and support for work that spans fields as expansive and diverse as digital media, design, multimodal and multimedia practice, literary and cultural studies, women’s and gender studies, critical race theory, ethnic studies, queer theory and LGBT studies, and disability studies, but also because it offered an all-too-rare glimpse into the kinds of creative praxis that are transforming our understandings of “the digital” and our approaches to its roles in our everyday lives. The video showcase, for example, put a range of amateur and professional filmmaking practices on display, with projects that explored embodied experiences of reproductive justice, cultural myths around the bodies of women of color, the need for and design of sign language translations and performances of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences, black speculative fiction and film, and the issue of water scarcity and sustainability along the multiple geographical, political, and economic borders that make up the interface between the US and Mexico. My own small contribution, pictured here, was an electronic textiles composition in cross stitch embroidery, in which the eponymous hashtag was rendered in UMD colors and illuminated by a sewable LED. Distributed in the form of stickers and flyers for the conference, the long-exposure image (created in collaboration with Reed Bonnet) referenced the futuristic vision of the #TransformDH collective while drawing attention to the “digital” labor that crafters do with their fingers and, increasingly, with electronics such as the LilyPad Arduino.

Lisa Nakamura’s keynote, furthermore, connected the online labor of content moderation by women of color in “toxic” online spaces such as Twitter back to work such as that performed by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the 1980s. Nakamura used Kitchen Table as an example of what she calls “platform cooperativism”: taking control of the means of literary production and distribution to create collective, grassroots interventions in culture that may be relatively short-lived yet nevertheless have a tremendous impact. She points out that, similarly, the unpaid immaterial and activist labor of women of color combating racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and fat phobia via hashtags such as #ThisTweetCalledMyBack or #NotYourAsianSidekick, among others, attempts to make platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr safer by reducing harassment online and off, providing an invaluable but uncompensated service.

Nakamura makes it clear that such labor is highly creative, affective, as well as pedagogical in educating our communities about the combinatory effects of multiple forms of oppression. But, she points out that it is work that is “unwanted,” as these women “are often accused of ‘policing’ social media, of lacking a sense of humour, and of imposing ‘pc’ values on other users” (Nakamura 111). In the year and a half since the conference, we have seen this unwanted labor proliferate as women of color respond not only to the white supremacist, misogynist, and xenophobic hatred that the Trump administration openly espouses, but also to white feminist movements that fail to enact coalitional politics and further marginalize trans women and gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities, sex workers, immigrants, and poor people under the guise of “unity.”

It behooves us to materially support the crucial and transformative digital work these women do by paying them fairly for speaking and publishing opportunities, citing them generously and often, and taking on the burden of having difficult conversations in person and online, rather than assuming that merely directing more traffic to their sites is enough. While not a solution to systemic inequality, new subscription services such as the arts funding platform Patreon, which supports creative production through a patronage system, and Safety Pin Box, a network specifically for white allies that directly funds black liberation efforts by black femmes, make it easy to finance radical creative work. #TransformDH’s continuing efforts to remake digital cultures call on us to recognize and to name creative cultural labor in all its forms, from electronic textiles to art activist filmmaking to social media pedagogy. Feminist creativity can transform the digital humanities. 


Works Cited: 

Nakamura, Lisa. "The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call Out Culture as Venture Community Management," New Formations (86) 2015, 106-112. 


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