FTN Roadshow Blog Series* – Open

by T.L. Cowan

How does the concept and practice of openness structure FemTechNet? And what does the open mean in our Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC)?

As I approach these questions, I want to begin by recognizing and valuing how our shared and distinct ways-of-working as community organizers, political activists, cultural producers and scholars shape FemTechNet and its various collaborative projects, including the DOCC. I come to FemTechNet as a performer in, and curator and producer of, trans- feminist and queer DIY/grassroots cabaret and as a performance studies scholar. These histories inform my ways of working, and my ways of thinking about the work we do, and how we work at FemTechNet.

The experiment of this short essay is to think through FemTechNet and the DOCC as practices of cultural production that privilege openness as an ethical-methodological principle. I approach this experiment as a cabaret organizer, and want to suggest that whatever openness FemTechNet has achieved has come through what I’m calling a cabaret methodology; that the DOCC is an exemplar of cabaret pedagogy; and, that—in the context of the labour conditions of the majority of contemporary academic workers particularly in the US, the UK, and Canada—we might equally understand these cabaret methods as characteristic of an adjunct, contingent, precarious, differential methodology.[i] In fact, I suggest that it is only by practicing something like a cabaret/adjunct world-making methodology that we will create the “accessible, open, accountable, transformative and transforming educational institutions of our dreams” (FTN manifesto). This is not to say that many of us are not already doing this, but let me just ask: what happens when we think of FemTechNet as cultural production, as cabaret, or as mobilizing cabaret technologies? What happens when we think of FemTechNet in relation to genealogies of feminist cultural production and activism at least as much as we are in relation to genealogies of academic cultures? In addition to studying the digital technologies that we use and make as we work together face-to-face and across distances, and the many other forms of technologies that we theorize in our teaching and research, what happens when we foreground our open organizational structure itself as a user-generated, improvisational and collectively-designed ethico-methodo-techno-logy[ii]? What happens when the world-making impulses and desires that drive our cultural production and community organizing, begin to (re)structure our university cultures? What happens if we think about cultural production and academic production as the same project in open access and design? And what happens, of course, when these cabaret ethico-methodo-techno-logies hit an institutional wall[iii] and we are told, explicitly or implicitly, where do you think you are? this is not a cabaret.

Cabaret Methods

You are at a Cabaret … If you bought a ticket in advance or at the door and paid what you could. If you are seeing and being seen. If you are drinking liquor. If you are sober. If you know someone who is performing. If you are performing. If you are pleased that you left the house. If you wish you’d never left the house. If you are glad you changed your outfit at the last minute, since there she is, that hot butch you’ve had your eye on. If you are in a community hall, an attic gallery with black mold, the back of a coffee shop, a strip club, a church basement, some woman’s living room, some guy’s studio, or a gay bar. If you are wearing lipstick, or intend to get lipstick on your collar. If there’s a good cause. If there’s been dancing, film, storytelling, rant, drag, burlesque, comedy and a girl with a guitar singing about her ex, her cat or her ex-cat. If you are thinking about how you can get back on stage, or backstage. If you got a reminder email from the organizer. If you are surrounded by the same people that you saw at the last show, at every march and rally, in the coffee shop in the neighbourhood, in your pottery or Pilates class. If there are information tables. If you signed a petition. If there is nudity. If someone started their set with “I’m really nervous.” If someone started their set with “You are all so beautiful, and you listen to poetry!” If you are sitting there energized, irritated, turned-on, embarrassed, confused, thoughtful, emboldened, self-righteous, inspired and charmed. If you are thinking, “These are my people” and, “These are my people?” 

Grassroots cabarets are those shows that so many folks from cash-poor but people-rich communities and scenes put to use as entertainment, as fundraiser, as pedagogy. It’s a show with many different people performing; usually there will be a theme for the night, whether it’s a fundraiser for a medical procedure that is also an exploration of trans-poetics, or reproductive justice, or a showcase of the work of femme performers, or women of color, or folks with working class or low-income histories, or Indigenous poets, or celebrating “Pride” or “International Women’s Day,” or “Black History Month.” Cabaret is about people working together to make something that they couldn’t make alone, and its economic structure is more often driven by mutual support than by big cash rewards. Most of the grassroots cabarets that I write about are either very low-cost, Pay-What-You-Can, Sliding Scale and/or no one turned away for lack of ability to pay. In cabaret spaces emerging and established artists split the door, share a stage, share an audience.

FemTechNet employs similar ethico-methodo-techno-logies; in particular, like cabaret, people join and contribute to FemTechNet across professional status. This is a place where folks with hugely divergent institutional positions work together for each other. But being structured by openness, means that we also have to be accountable for the materially different realities in which we live and how institutional hierarchies, wage disparities, and tenure-status structure our lives. Rather than bury these realities, we try to stage them openly, to work across a horizontalized power structure in which responsibilities and resources are (re)distributed.

Cabaret, like FemTechNet, privileges variety, pleasure, risk, excess, flopping, challenge, confusion, amateurism, fractalism, translocality, hybrid temporalities, explicit politics, and a wide range of social configurations both on stages and in everyday social-political life. Cabaret as a form/method functions across temporal and regional boundaries as a community-building, -challenging and -sustaining set of activities where artists and activists, as performer-audiences, can come together as a dynamic, labouring, often frustrated, but ultimately transformative scene of political and aesthetic activism and experimentation, as a mode of loving-struggling-creating-living-being-knowing that is both produced by, and produces, pragmatic-optimistic trans- feminist and queer lives. As a performance/audience practice, cabaret reflects what we might understand as an ethics of recognizing that this thing we scare quote as “community” is always both fractured and durational and that as individuals we are all multiple, responsible to and accountable for the multitude. It is an example of what Sandoval called ‘differential consciousness’ – a methodology of the oppressed, bound by that complex kind of love she calls “affinity” (2000: 170). Cabaret is where I have participated in some of my most challenging knowledge exchange experiences on class and classism, race and racism, gender, trans-phobia and feminist trans-misogyny, sex, sexuality, violence, consent, decolonization and empire, cultural and intellectual imperialism, safety and risk and so much more. I see the same potential for FemTechNet.

Adjunct Methods

Like many feminist organizations, FemTechNet is a network that is people-rich and cash-poor. It’s here that I think it is generative to extend my analysis beyond the cabaret and to think about the ways that the realities of adjunct and other contingently employed academic workers are working in and with precarity not only as a condition of existence, but as a method of living. Since so many universities structurally exclude part-time faculty from full participation in the social life of institution-building, program-setting, curriculum design and research culture, world-making projects like FemTechNet need to understand and value the particular skills—technologies, techniques, methods—that are the domain of contingent faculty.

Living in—but not sanctioning—the current state of academic labour, the maldistribution of career and life chances within the academy and the vastly asymmetrical system of access to resources (financial, affective, etc.), contingent faculty are resourceful and we attend to the relations of power that situate us all. As a site in which many of us are working with/towards an adjunct methodology, FemTechNet opens up these relations of power and identifies the ways that they work and how we work within and across them: we work where we can, when we can, and how we can. And through these methods we build with/towards an open infrastructure for our network and for the Distributed Open Collaborative Course, sustained, in large part, by the care we have for each other’s well-being. Like much feminist collaborative labour, it is not work that is particularly understood, recognized or rewarded by our home institutions (if we have them), and it is a form that, in its distribution of expertise and attention, pushes back against the individualist, exemplary modern/colonial subject, of the solitary genius, cultivating instead tactical cultures of collaboration, shared resources, and coalition and affinity politics.

The DOCC as Cabaret Pedagogy

One of the goals we had for the DOCC was to build an open source syllabus and create a course that could be offered in university & college classrooms, in off-campus community-based learning environments and that anyone with an internet connection could access for free. In the summer of 2014, I put on my cabaret-producer hat and wrangled about 15 DOCC faculty to help produce this syllabus, and to offer a course we called “Collaborations in Feminism & Technology.” I did this by saying what I’ve said to hundreds of cabaret performers over the years: “You won’t make any money and it’s possible no one will show up, but it’s going to be totally cool and look at all the other people who already said yes!” So the 10-week open access syllabus supported by our Online Open Office Hours (OOOH) came into existence, and, yes, we didn’t make any money, and yes, sometimes no one showed up, but it was totally cool.

The OOOH schedule for Collaborations in Feminism and Technology reflects FemTechNet’s foundational collective belief that anyone can contribute, regardless of their status within the university. Some senior faculty contribute by directing resources to the collective, mostly to subsidize travel and to compensate the work of underemployed university and community-based faculty; mentoring junior faculty, and lending their experience to the sustaining work of collective processes; faculty across rank design and develop new collaborative key learning projects; and many junior faculty and graduate students contribute through the labour of chairing our committees and working groups, taking and circulating notes, providing tech support, video editing and production, writing web content, hosting OOOHs, and building the distributed research-teaching infrastructure and philosophies of the collective. Undergraduate students contribute by participating in the experiment of the DOCC, completing the key learning projects, developing Keyword Videos, even writing grants and producing the labour-intensive Video Dialogues.

I return to my opening questions: How does the concept and practice of openness structure FemTechNet? And what does the open mean in our Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC)?

I’ll suggest that openness is a political, ethical and affective structure that is at once method, technique, challenge and critique. FemTechNet and the DOCC are research and creation sites in which we seek out participation and contribution from feminist artists, activists and scholars—with the recognition that simply calling a network ‘open’ does not an open network make. “Open” is not a performative utterance; it is a call to action.

[i] Thanks, Karen Barad. I’m riffing here on your “ethico-onto-epistem-ology.”

[i] Here I’m looking especially to Chela Sandoval’s (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed and her “differential consciousness” as an early theorization of what I identify here as cabaret, adjunct ethico-methodology. With thanks.

[ii] Thanks, Sara Ahmed.