Gender space architecture: an interdisciplinary introduction

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Engineers design infrastructures to remain in the background and enable seamless functioning of systems they are engineered for. Suzan Leigh Star observes that systems become infrastructure when they work sufficiently well so that we stop noticing them. Star brings out the example of piping and staircases, both of which we use without particular awareness, until the piping breaks or the stairs become a problem to mobility.

Piping is infrastructural to people whose homes and offices it supplies with fresh water. At the same time, to a plumber, piping is work, it is a problem to solve. Discussing infrastructures demands the extra effort of taking a distance from something we are half-consciously engaged with on an everyday basis. Writer Paul Graham Raven proposed infrastructure fiction [2] as a form of discourse that takes this critical distance to systems and services that underlie our everyday interaction with the environment and with each other.

Visibility, or the lack thereof, is a common theme in infrastructural research.

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Adam Rothstein wrote about the privilege to experience our infrastructure in first person. Infrastructure, for him, implied anything from container shipping lines to telecommunication traffic. These infrastructures were designed to be visible only to the ones who maintained them. Lucy Suchman suggested to put more effort into conceptualizing the intimate relations between work, representations, and the politics of organizations. Similar to the technical infrastructures, the better the work is done, the less visible it is.

She encouraged a design practice in which representations of work are taken as part of the fabric of meanings out of which all working practices are made.

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We follow her call to carefully investigate infrastructure as production sites of meaning and become more sensitive towards the construction of power through its representation. Fox et al. We use the word infrastructure intentionally to denote an underlying set of facilities, tools and relationships that the feminist practice relies on. We apply this perspective to the organization of feminist hackerspaces. The labor that goes into the organization of a feminist hackerspace does not recede from view here, but we focus primarily on the gender performance that is enabled within a feminist hackerspace.

Yet, the key difference is in the connection between agents, which is fostered through a tool rather than an aim. We will describe in more detail how feminist hackerspaces become infrastructures that enable an autonomous gender performance. We regard this hackerspace and the network of its users as an infrastructure that facilitates and conducts additive processes of empowerment and emancipation from passive consumers of technology to active and critical participants in its appropriation.

We also draw from a larger study conducted by one of the authors in hackerspaces in Asia, the United States and Europe through in-depth interviews with female identified and transgender artists and hackers. We use standpoint theory to ground our methodological approach. It requires from the researcher to become an interactive agent in the field. Empowerment can emerge only through political processes informed by situated knowledge Harding, Our observations are based on a research of a group of feminist artists, developers and designers who run a self-organized, shared space, intended exclusively for people who pass as female or transgender persons.

The organization that defines itself as feminist hackerspace, not only provides open source tools and equipment to all participants, but also encourages members to perform gender in a new, unexpected way, break with technology related stereotypes and unlearn trained feelings of deficiency.

Gender Space Architecture

Technical skills such as soldering and writing simple code for specific projects, or taking apart hardware tools is taught at one or two day workshops. Participants come from various educational and professional backgrounds. The resulting organization is not merely a shared living room which shelters from the weather and from harassment by young male geeks. It is also not simply a collection of soldering irons, LEDs and Arduinos that a feminist hackerspace offers to feminist makers.

Its particular structure and setting creates and preserves material and immaterial output.

Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction by Jane Rendell

Knowledge sharing work slowly adds up, producing documentation, manuals and instruction sheets. Custom hardware tools and objects are designed and assembled. Equally important to this material production is the experience, gestures, norms and values created in this environment. It amplifies critical thinking and encourages to take risks, but above all fosters the bending of normalized gender performance.

The laboratory style of decision-making, co-hacking and caring Toombs, et al. These do not replicate relationships formed in hackerspaces in general, although the focus on technology is very strong. In feminist hackerspaces, participants do not limit their mutual support to technical skills, but help each other in finding jobs, apartments, making deadlines or exhibiting artwork.

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This collective transgression of gender norms decreases the fear of opening a device, but also gives participants a taste of how it feels to break gender norms in general. A site-specific culture evolves over time. Should we consider these immaterial products as innovative and what would be our criteria to do so? However, we identify similar problems in Western-based hackerspaces dedicated to underrepresented groups, such as female identified makers. Innovation which does not compete with solutionist, optimization oriented agents fails to make an impression.

To counter this, we are diving deeper into the dynamics within a feminist hackerspace and address the immaterial innovation that is being accomplished here. What makes the process of feminist hacking different from hacking in a traditional hackerspace? We could compare the presence of female-identified makers in a male-dominated hackerspace to the appearance of drag queens in public. In the same ambivalent way as drag queens question the connection between femininity and beauty wearing makeup or a robe hooks, ; Butler, , female makers question the connection between masculinity and technology soldering, coding, welding.

Female makers in a hackerspace who are performing technological tasks, look like they try to compete with male identified participants in appearing masculine, in performing masculinity. Although it is simply the development of technology that is being performed. Conversely, in a space shared with female identified makers, the development of technology is not seen as masculinity performance anymore.

Making technology here is really just making technology. All pass as unmarked, become invisible. We raise the question: in which kind of infrastructure do female identified makers become invisible? People performing technology and femininity at a traditional hackerspace are visible, meaning they are discriminated, stereotyped, marked.

The infrastructure of a feminist hackerspace renders gender unmarked. Feminist hacking activity generates alternate, autonomous, fluent forms of gender performance. If people in a shared space perceive themselves as similar to each other e. Their access to the shared space and practice is stable as well. These are three stable factors that ground, but also limit the lab participants of a traditional hackerspace. Feminist hackerspaces in contrast, rely on no stable subject position, no stable gender performance. Tech practice in a feminist hackerspace tends to be fluid.

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While participants of traditional hackerspaces replicate commercial technological developments in their practice e. This anchor needs to compensate for the ephemeral condition of gender and tech practice. The activities and facilities of the feminist hackerspace we observed for this research are offering a stable factor to trust in, an infrastructure for gender performance. Feminist hacking makes more visible the multitude of perspectives that can and should be addressed by technology, which are currently not.

When a community of such people is gathered around in a hackerspace, these different perspectives and narratives speculative designs begin to accumulate. Medical pace makers make an interesting example of a device that needs attention in this context. Karen Sandler, an attorney and executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy pointed out how they are calibrated to a male standard user. It is therefore urgently necessary to foster infrastructures that amplify the voices of people ignored by mainstream software development companies. Knowledge and energy accumulated in a feminist hackerspace can ideally encourage them to develop open technology themselves that considers their individual situations.

When a feminist hackerspace is functional it fosters the bending or breaking of normalized gender performance. We propose that we will comprehend their dynamic better if we look at feminist hackerspaces as an innovative infrastructure. If the infrastructure works well, the spectrum of possible technology practices and outputs widens. Feminist hackerspaces therefore create essential infrastructures to enable unorthodox and creative technological practices and out of the box thinking. This way the feminist hackerspace we worked with is producing material, but even more so immaterial outputs.

In the future we plan to analyze which other forms of subversive output participants of feminist hackerspaces have contributed to their community. We contribute to formulating the feminist hackerspace agenda s by stepping away from its existential questions and instead look at the actual practice. We identify a form of subversion of gender norms provided in the process of hacking in feminist hackerspaces.

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