by Katie Schaag with Sarah Ciston, Sam Cohen, Kate Durbin, Feliz Lucia Molina, and Sandra Rosales
Katie Schaag: At the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference in San Antonio in March 2020 – one of the last major academic conferences before the quarantine – I chaired a “Queer and Femme Digital Literature” panel featuring the work of Sarah Ciston, Sam Cohen, Kate Durbin, Feliz Lucia Molina, Sandra Rosales, and myself. My co-panelists were unable to join in person, but in the spirit of the digital they presented virtually (now it’s hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the default mode). Each speaker discussed their approaches to queer and femme digital literary forms and processes, with specific examples drawn from their current projects. Following individual presentations, I moderated a roundtable discussion with Kate, Sam, and Sarah.
The purpose of our panel was to move toward a working theory of queer/femme digital literary aesthetics. What’s queer about code? What’s femme about remix, pixels, hypertext, emojis? How do queer/femme aesthetics impact the form, content, and interactive experience of multimedia poetry and fiction? These guiding questions framed an energizing, wide-ranging conversation, documented here with individual panelists’ presentations, written statements in response to my roundtable discussion questions, and screenshots from the live conversation. To contextualize our collective and individual interventions, this essay begins with an introduction to situate our work in the wider field and point to some ways forward.
Katie Schaag: Women, femme, queer, trans, and nonbinary people have always been at the forefront of theorizing and making digital literature, though they have not always been fully acknowledged for their contributions. Key theorists and makers of e-lit, interactive narrative, and computational poetics include Anna Anthropy, Kathi Inman Berens, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Amaranth Borsuk, Mez Breeze, micha cárdenas, Kate Compton, Lai-Tze Fan, Dene Grigar, N. Katherine Hayles, Allison Parrish, Porpentine, Anastasia Salter, Stephanie Strickland, and Anne Sullivan, just to name a few. Of course, not all queer or femme-identified writers and artists engage with a queer femme aesthetic. While the identity of the creator certainly plays a role in their work’s meaning, our roundtable primarily considers the aesthetic of the work itself.
So, what is a queer/femme digital aesthetic? Our roundtable discussion begins with a consideration of this question, attempting to define this aesthetic in theory and practice. Of course, there is no one definition, though I’d argue the nail polish emoji is pretty key.
Digital literature is inherently multimedia, engaged with visual, sonic, and experiential aesthetics as well as literary – so we’re attending to formal elements like color, pitch, and duration in addition to more traditional literary elements like syntax and rhythm. Queer femme internet aesthetics often intentionally subvert minimalist design principles and usability heuristics, making the user aware of the platform/medium rather than concealing it. Net artists and animators like Petra Cortright, Olia Lialina, Marisa Olson, Momo Pixel, Molly Soda, and Kara Stone break “good design” rules and embrace a Web 1.0 aesthetic.
Moving from the abstract to the concrete, I think the work represented in our panel models how a queer/femme digital aesthetic might materialize in various ways. As the curator of the event, I want to say a bit about each panelist’s work and why I wanted to put these interventions in dialogue with each other.
I think that Sam Cohen and Sandra Rosales’ digital publishing project YES FEMMES crystallizes a queer femme digital aesthetic in a literary context. In Issue #1 I love the huge pink hand with pointing finger cursor with red nail polish outlined in neon green, hovering over purple text superimposed on floating pink clouds. Their project “considers how digitality might be femme,” and by curating contributions as well as shaping the look and feel of the website itself, they create a space for this aesthetic to be collectively crafted and revised. The second issue celebrates how fandom and “gushiness” can “open portals to worlds.” The diversity of form and content in the multimedia work featured in the two issues is a testament to the richness of the contemporary landscape of queer femme digital artistic and literary production.
Kate Durbin’s early work celebrates women and femmes’ contributions to digital culture. Her Tumblr project Women as Objects archives teen girls’ labor in shaping early internet aesthetics. More recently, her performance project Hello Selfie activates the female gaze online and IRL, values femme labor in image production, and invents a sequence of aesthetic palettes that reference and reshape the landscape of femme self-making. I love the mermaid tones and Hello Kitty sticker proliferation, and the mediated interface between digital and physical. Her books E! Entertainment and Hoarders meditate on the speech and actions of women in reality television shows without trivializing them, and her collaboration with Amaranth Borsuk and Ian Hatcher, ABRA, is an analogue and digital femme spellbook that genders the interactive writing process.
Feliz Lucia Molina’s twin projects Nail Hearts Clip and Hair Hearts Flip reinvent the epistolary genre in the context of femme internet aesthetics and discourse. Archiving a series of multimedia blog posts made by two friends, these digital books elevate everyday musings to the status of art and celebrate female friendship. I love the assemblage of writing styles, tonal registers, and media elements in these projects, as well as the humor throughout her work. Her book Undercastle is saturated with internet language, grappling with the mediation between the digital and physical worlds. Her visual project, Emoji Collages w/ Matisse playfully remixes early 20th century painting with early 21st century emojis, recontextualizing how we use images to represent and shape our environments.
Sarah Ciston’s GIF– and AI–driven writing explores queer relationality and digital embodiment. Their intersectional feminist chatbot project ladymouth uses computational techniques to disrupt online sexist discourse. The aesthetics of the project can be located in the process of writing code to procedurally generate responses to sexist comments, selecting feminist texts to inform the chatbot’s speech, and crafting performative language to intervene in the resulting conversations. Their project, U N C E R T A I N T Y I N D E X, an “interactive poem of the quantified self,” situates lines of poetry alongside a running log of data tracking mental, physical, and financial health, and their language-based GIFs query the boundaries between text and image. I love that her computational aesthetics always foreground affect, mediation, and embodiment.
Finally, my digital poetry platform, The Infinite Woman, visualizes the linguistic aesthetics of remix and erasure in the form of an endlessly scrolling litany of gendered utterances, and a fog that slowly rolls in and erases the page. The project critiques the constructs of womanhood and femininity while also opening creative space for cis, trans, and nonbinary women and femmes to renegotiate the language that shapes and reflects lived experience. The accent color is pink to invoke this color’s use as one of sexism’s many essentialist tools (e.g. “It’s a girl!” = pink) as well as its reclaiming as a queer feminist gesture (e.g. Janelle Monae’s PYNK). The aesthetics of the platform embody some of the stereotypes of femininity (cold, mysterious, surface-oriented), as a satire and also as a space for creative play.
Of course, our panel represents only a small sample of the vast field of queer/femme digital aesthetics in art and literature. Still, I hope this snapshot of our discussion contributes to the growing visibility and valuing of queer/femme aesthetics in digital spaces that are still often dominated by straight white male normativity. The diversity of our panel also touches on some exciting new interdisciplinary directions of digital art and literature, including creative coding and critical code studies, glitch feminism, e-lit as digital humanities, computational media as digital humanities, and computational crafting with attention to physicality and affect.
In the next section of this essay, each panelist reproduces their individual presentation. The final section stages a lively and nuanced roundtable conversation on the page.
Sarah Ciston’s LADYMOUTH, an intersectional feminist chatbot
Sarah Ciston: ladymouth is a chatbot that tries to explain feminism to misogynists on Reddit. I wrote this code to investigate how harmful language is embodied and embedded in our everyday lives. By resituating the interactions of misogynists with a feminist bot into creative and critical public spaces, I wanted to ask how machine bodies and flesh bodies process digital information, and whether technology can help us address the very problems it exacerbates.
Sam Cohen & Sandra Rosales’ YES FEMMES, a digital publishing experiment
Image: screenshot from http://yesfemmes.com/issue-first/
Sam Cohen and Sandra Rosales: YES FEMMES is an online experiment that publishes writing and digital projects working toward a femme aesthetic. We’re interested in writing that explores the limits of the body, that’s campy or fannish, that engages with witchcraft or the occult, that has an excess of feeling, that looks to animals and plants as models or collaborators, that considers how digitality might be femme, and that moves toward the horizon of queerness.
Kate Durbin’s ABRA: A LIVING TEXT, an iOS interactive poetry app and spellbook
Image: screenshot of Abra app
Kate Durbin: The recipient of an NEA-funded, Expanded Artists’ Books Grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, and winner of the international Turn on Literature Prize for electronic literature, ABRA: A Living Text is an exploration and celebration of the potentials of the book in the 21st century. Conceived by Kate Durbin and Amaranth Borsuk, and developed with Ian Hatcher, the iOS version of ABRA is a magical poetry instrument/spellbook. In this free iPad and iPhone app available in the app store, touch words and watch them shift under your fingers. Cast spells to mutate the text and set it in motion. Erase, recombine, and write your own words and see them become part of ABRA’s vocabulary. Read, write, and experiment to discover her secrets and make her poems your own.
Feliz Lucia Molina’s EMOJI COLLAGES W/ MATISSE, a drag & paste world
Feliz Lucia Molina: Emoji Collages w/ Matisse is a relation between the pictorial and speedy language of emojis and the collage or painterly scene which re-configures the narrative environment of Matisse. It’s a way to collage another ‘world’ in whatever Matisse painting by using emojis to describe the re-imagined world. It’s also a fun way to project my own fantasies onto a painting or scene by using the ordinariness of emojis. The result is funny because it took some effort just to look banal.
Katie Schaag’s THE INFINITE WOMAN, a computational poetry platform
Image: from https://projects.cah.ucf.edu/mediaartsexhibits/uncontinuity/Schaag/schaag.html
Kate Schaag: The Infinite Woman is an interactive remix and erasure poetry platform hosted at theinfinitewoman.com (use Chrome). As a feminist critique and artistic intervention, the project remixes excerpts from Edison Marshall’s The Infinite Woman (1950) and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). Marshall’s novel is a melodramatic, male-authored, first-person fictional narrative in the voice of Lola, a protagonist who embodies the ideal of natural womanhood. Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy of gender deconstructs the myth of “the eternal feminine.” The web app digitally recontextualizes the voice of “the infinite woman” as a machine: an n-gram algorithm procedurally generates infinitely scrolling sentences that recombine and recontextualize the two source texts’ vocabulary and syntactic patterns. Infinitely generating language that attempts to describe and critique an eternal feminine essence and revealing patterns through iterative permutations, the algorithm stretches the logic of the infinite woman to the breaking point. Meanwhile, fog slowly erases the screen. Users can select sentences from the infinitely scrolling text to send to the canvas workspace, where they can erase words and rearrange sentences. These user-generated erasure poems are multivocal repetitions with a difference, rewriting the ephemeral voice of the infinite woman and proliferating possibilities for reimagining womanhood and femininity, hopefully with trans and nonbinary perspectives at the forefront.
#1. How would you define a queer/femme digital aesthetic? Does it exist? If so, what is it? What’s femme about code? What’s queer about erasure? What’s femme about remix, pixels, hypertext, emojis? Based on features of your own work, the other panelists’ work, and/or broader trends, what formal techniques, methods, platforms, mediums, and/or processes do you associate with specifically queer or femme multimedia literature?
Image: screenshot of Sarah Ciston speaking during the AWP roundtable discussion
Kate Durbin: I resist defining anything, but I’d like to talk about my iOS poetry spellbook project, ABRA, and its relationship to the femme. When Amaranth Borsuk and I first conceived of the project, over a decade ago, we imagined the language of the poems as being highly ornamental and decorative. We wrote the poems side by side on the floor, stitching them together, like a dress. While writing, we looked at the work of visual artists whose work is very fashiony and excessive, such as Matthew Barney. The end result were poems where we couldn’t tell who the original author was, and through that a third voice emerged—that of ABRA, the speaker of the poems, a kind of high-femme, post-human being. Then when we were working with Ian Hatcher on the app, all three of us were thinking through how we might use the witchy concept of the spellbook for the app. We took on the attitude of more is more, an attitude I associate with the femme: bringing in emojis, rainbow letters, a spinning rainbow wheel at the bottom of the app that the reader can play with.
Sam Cohen: I would associate explosive feelings, a refusal of linear logic, decorative prose, longing, shifting or plural subjectivity with queer and femme literature in general. And, yes, as you say Katie, remix—a need to tell a story again and again, in different ways, from multiple perspectives, or to find within it what’s untold. Digital forms can help with this as hypertext is ready to tell a story with multiple pathways, a digital palimpsest can offer multiple or hidden meanings within a text, and there are ways that the user can be included in authorship.
Sarah Ciston: I would say there is no one queer/femme aesthetic but a multitude of aesthetics, that the plurality itself is part of the aesthetic. That said, certain patterns emerge: drawing on earlier analog lineages and material practices that are dismissed as non-legitimate knowledge (e.g. craft/domestic/women’s work).
In relation to digital media and code, I often look to Kara Keeling’s idea of the QueerOS—it signals how our cultural and technical systems are incredibly material and intertwined, and it proposes a socio-technical operating system “to facilitate and support imaginative, unexpected, and ethical relations,” working at odds with the logics of the current systems it recognizes itself within.
Feliz Lucia Molina: Anything strange, odd, beautiful, and unique, is queer without needing to be framed in a sexual or gendered way. I believe that aesthetics in analog and digital form is inherently queer because we, the creators, exist. And so, whatever we create in the virtual and IRL is a chance to continue this love affair we have with our own otherness and queerness which is to say, the situation of being alive. Because I am dead without my otherness and othering and contradictions. Erasure, as a textual device, is of course linked to the history and ongoing present of queer bodies and queernesses in general (be it ideological) being erased, done away with, destroyed. The classic example is Alan Turing – queer father/mother of the internet who was forced to ingest hormones by the British government to essentially unqueer himself during WWII even while his Turing machine was pivotal to codebreaking and fighting Nazis. Now I’m thinking about Juan Pujol aka Agent Garbo, the double-agent for the Allies who created various identities for himself to orchestrate a beautiful fake victory to trick the Nazis into thinking they won over some territory which effectively helped to end their genocide. This is getting out of bounds of what I’m trying to say about erasure practices in relation to queerness but I want to stress that when a specific race, class, or gender attempts to erase whatever is perceived as other, it’s a cruel act of annihilation. Erasure is more than a verb—it’s an ideology that is witnessed every day in the way that structural systems neglect and abandon the poor and privilege the celebrated and the rich. And isn’t having to do work of any kind in order to survive, itself an erasure of the ‘human spirit’ and a type of drag for the sake of customer service and the like? There is no other place rich with the drag-of-the-self than the place and situation of one’s work. While I agree with some that everything is drag, I feel this especially in the spaces of work or however way we get our money.
Queerness>erasure>money>survival not in that order. Femme has enabled me to ‘exist’ or ‘survive’ in predominantly heteronormative spaces and situations whenever I feel like not questioning my identity and role as a daughter, sister, wifey, pronoun, or place. I don’t think of myself as femme in a way that I might/may have idealized it from constructivist brainwashing <3 Katie Schaag: I conceptualize a queer femme aesthetic as a hyper-saturated, self-conscious, postmodern, performative femininity. Glitter, sequins, lip gloss, nail polish, dELiA*s magazine. Lots of neon pink and slime green. This feeling is informed by my ‘90s childhood and teenhood, and my ‘00s teenhood and adulthood. As a Gender Studies major I disidentified with femininity, and then I re-identified with it as a transformed, queerer aesthetic mode. Digitally, I think the queer femme aesthetic was innovated in spaces like Tumblr and MySpace, with tools like Blingee and Angelfire Dollz. And as I wrote in the introduction, although our panel documents only a small sample of contemporary work within a vast interdisciplinary field, I think our projects represent some exciting approaches to queer/femme digital aesthetic worldmaking.
Moving forward, I think a key queer femme intervention into digital aesthetics will be insisting on the haptic, the tactile, the kinaesthetic, and the embodied. Women, femme, and queer subjects have long been associated with exteriority over interiority, surface over substance. The centrality of the flat screen to digital objects has been a fascinating space to renegotiate the surface as substance, and the movement to consider hardware, software, platforms, and programming as the behind-the-scenes mechanisms producing user interfaces has been an important development toward complicating the binary between digital and physical. Whether with virtual and augmented reality, analog-digital artist’s books, or multimedia literature performances, I predict that queer and femme digital aesthetics will continue to act at the forefront of renegotiating the boundaries between computational abstractions and fleshy sensations, between mind and body, between online and IRL. Sarah Ciston’s projects Modify the Loss and Spark Gap model this way of working.
#2. What can a queer/femme digital literary aesthetic do? How do queer/femme aesthetics impact the form, content, and interactive experience of digital, computational, and new media poetry and fiction?
Image: screenshot of Sam Cohen speaking during the AWP roundtable discussion
Feliz Lucia Molina: Experience of otherness creates the form, content, and experience of the digital. The digital is just a tool and platform to play with, investigate, explore, understand, study, critique, etc., infinite forms and expressions of otherness. The internet is a mirror, lake, ocean to see more clear or distorted versions of our othered narratives. Dragging and pasting emojis onto a Matisse mise-en-scene isn’t a gesture of détournement in the sense of making some political statement on the absurdity of the art market. It’s a simple relation or co-existence between the ordinary/common pictorial speedy language of emojis in an albeit painterly scene which reconfigures the narrative environment of Matisse. I love to imagine a real/fantasy world in whatever Matisse painting by using emojis to describe that world. It’s a fun process that has made me stay up all night and laugh in bed while making it on my phone. It’s an easy way to make myself happy while passing time. It’s a way to cheer myself up which in the moment feels kind of eternal. The process of making it feels like a slumber party with friends even though it’s done alone.
Sarah Ciston: My favorite literature and artworks open up spaces of possibility and permission. They create a sense of what language was perhaps always capable of that I couldn’t access before, until the container for it was created. Digital work in particular lets me play with and disrupt form, which necessarily changes content. If the container is a different shape, the words that fill it will be different. Form is a kind of proposition in that way, a generative prompt. And that feels very queer, creating more possibilities for how to be in the world.
Also, I am hopeful for this idea that we can use queer theory, queer experience to read technology against the grain or reimagine language, but also that we can use technology to reframe questions about identity, gender, sexuality. I guess that queer/femme could be both a lens or a stance or approach toward these heteronormative digital systems, but also could be finding what latent generative poetic, queer, femme energy and power already exists there.
Finally, very operationally, I sometimes think of the work as direct intervention. I talk with my creative-critical coding students about the different types of interventions they can make with code and media work. So far, we have grouped them into a few buckets (likely there are more): Inform (e.g. reveal hidden info, visualize) / Disrupt (converse, challenge) / Reframe (redesign, recontextualize) / Reflect (aesthetic, affective). These extend beyond the literary, of course, but might be useful for choice of tactics, style, medium, genre, etc.
Kate Durbin: It depends on the project, of course. I like the different angles that Sarah is thinking about in her answer, particularly in relationship to intervention and coding. I am thinking of some early works of mine that were very much about taking back the means of cultural production, or projects that were sites of cultural exchange and play. For example, Gaga Stigmata was an online pop cultural criticism journal founded by me, and co-edited with Dr. Meghan Vicks, that was independently run, not affiliated with any institutions or sponsors. We published critiques of Lady Gaga’s pop cultural project in real time, or close to real time response, in order to actively participate in popular culture. The journal had a strong following by a diverse audience of academics, journalists and pop culture fans, and was taught at academic conferences as a phenomenon in its own right, as a new way of doing academic criticism in the era of the Internet. One of the most interesting aspects of Gaga Stigmata, and the most difficult to quantify, is the influence Gaga Stigmata’s writers had in shaping Lady Gaga’s project. By helping to shift the public discourse around her work to an art conversation, and by feeding ideas to her and her team through projective criticism, Lady Gaga and Gaga Stigmata were involved in a symbiotic “chicken or egg” relationship of which the ultimate cultural impact can only be speculated about.
Katie Schaag: For me, form is performative and transformative. It shapes, constraints, and acts on its contents. Experimental and avant-garde formal innovation is / has always been a method for minoritarian subjects to intervene in homogenous discourses, disrupt dominant paradigms, and create the kinds of worlds they/we want to live in. Too often, discussions of art and literature by women, people of color, queer people, etc. is siloed to the realm of content representation: work that is self-consciously about gender, race, and sexuality, rather than work that is harder to categorize and at least as concerned, if not more concerned, with form than content.
Queer and femme digital aesthetics reorient the reader/viewer as a situated subject. Queer and femme digital aesthetics disrupt the assumed “neutrality” of digital spaces, and destabilize the binary identity logics encoded in social interactions online and IRL.
Sam Cohen: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the risk that femme embodiment poses. Lipstick, cleavage, big hair, etc. renders a person highly visible and femme dykes move through the world with risk. I love that a femme digital space allows for femme expression without its ancillary risk. On a digital platform, you can be as femme as you want to be and know that your body is protected, away from whatever images you’ve constructed. On the YES FEMMES site, for example, there’s a photo of Artemisa Clark naked and blood-splattered in a gallery, her hands against the wall and ass out. It’s a vulnerable, almost pornographic pose. Men are standing behind her watching. It feels like she’s at risk, if not of actual violence, then at least of interpretation, mis-interpretation. But in the image online, the viewer can gaze at the men, heads cocked, standing behind her watching. Their inability to see Clark—to see what she’s doing—becomes part of the image. And online, Clark is safe.
Something I learned through YES FEMMES is that perhaps the pleasures of femme expression feel exciting and liberating to everyone–not just femmes. For example, when I walked my father through the site and he got to our landing page, where the cursor is a manicured index finger, he said “ooh! I have nails!” This made me think a lot about how the digital allows for a kind of role-play, a kind of almost-embodiment. This feels very queer to me—the ability to take on multiple identities, to find pleasure in various expressions, none of which feel quite natural. Literature does this of course, too—reading invites us to inhabit other people—but it is usually relegated to the cerebral, the emotional–and of course there are multiple ways to read a text that don’t involve identification. But the avatar, the cursor, offer alternative embodiment that is just so immediate—before you’ve gotten to think about it, you suddenly *have nails*.
#3. How do we make visible the presence of queer and femme identities in a disembodied digital space? Beyond the mediated representation of bodies and identities as thematic content, how do gender and sexuality become abstracted into form?
Image: screenshot of Katie Schaag speaking during the AWP roundtable discussion
Sam Cohen: Design can allow for ways to reclaim or express our queerness. As I said before, a cursor with nails, but also a messy collage, a fairytale that spirals out but doesn’t follow a clear or singular pathway, explosions of color, mess. I love a lot of the simple design choices Sandra made with YES FEMMES—rainbow gradients, pastels, pink clouds. It doesn’t feel like any other online spaces I inhabit—as soon as you arrive, it feels like a space for femmes. It feels warm to me, glowing. I often complain about how masculine all design is—I want more curvy lines, more spirals, more colors, more sparkles. Everywhere. Creating our own space allowed us to make a little digital femme world—one that is not cheesy or childish but that I think invites boldness, wonder, connection in a way that spaces with stark lines and clean black-and-white do not. I really think the hegemony of “good design” limits the kind of connection and feeling we can have with each other—if we know how to code, the digital sphere is a place where we can play with the kind of design that might allow us to feel and connect in other ways.
Katie Schaag: I think a lot about how identity markers persist in disembodied spaces. Gender, race, sexuality, class, ability, etc. are not only mapped onto physical bodies and visual representations of those bodies, but also encoded at every level of concrete and abstract analog and digital systems. Recent work on online identity formation (e.g. Andre Brock’s Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures), biased algorithms (e.g. Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism), and challenging the “neutrality” of data (Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s Data Feminism) reminds us of the key role that minoritarian artists and humanists play in digital spaces.
In queer and femme digital literature, I think that the presence of minoritarian subjectivities is evident in the aesthetic and formal innovation. The projects represented in our panel are only a few of the rapidly proliferating examples of women, femme, and nonbinary writers and artists creating experimental work in which gender is abstracted into form (emojis, syntax, code).
Feliz Lucia Molina: The dominant gaze turns gender and sexuality into pure abstract form and fantasy. Until we get rid of the vertical gaze and only have a horizontal way of reading signs and signifiers, we remain oppressor and oppressed. This seems utopian because financial capitalism reigns while it’s destroying us all.
Sarah Ciston: I’m resistant to the idea that digital space is disembodied. But we can make work that shows how it’s always been embodied, highlighting what’s missing and what’s been naturalized, who is missing from the conversation—not falling into the trap of thinking that any space or technological choice is neutral or can be abstracted from material impacts. It’s never “just math” or “just the machine” but actual human choices compounded through the speed and quantity that computation allows.
More broadly, I’m interested in how we can bring tactics from intersectional queer, feminist, antiracist theory to tech spaces—but I think has to be considered across all levels of scale—from line-by-line of code to infrastructures level. It’s not as simple as representational diversity in hiring; but do we listen to the people we hire, who do we design for, and do we consider the cultural impacts that we have on them?
#4. Conceptually, aesthetically, and technically, how can digital forms perform queer and femme affects?
Image: screenshot of Kate Durbin speaking during the AWP roundtable discussion
Sarah Ciston: I’m noticing my forms often rely on excess and error, and on what I’ve started calling a queer digital interstitial (gap, glitch, break). I use digital forms almost always to think about the digital and the body together, to comment back recursively on these forms—asking how is this data stuff getting processed through the machine but also processed and digested through our bodies (for example, as anyone is reading the comments on the internet every day, or as I read the bot’s responses as live performance at poetry readings.) What is the relationship between the code as container and conduit and my body and my relationships as container and conductive material?
I’m not sure if that gets at the question beneath: What are queer and femme affects? What does it feel or mean to be in a porous body? Then: How does code or our digital situation reconfigure or amplify that? I don’t know. I am currently circling around this site for a new project on queerness, code, and trauma; but I don’t know.
I do know there are long histories from analog to digital of queer femme aesthetics that recontextualize preexisting music or images; use the close focus of the bedroom, body, or intimate space; take technologies and tools and toys cast off or meant for other purposes and adapt them to new tasks. One of my favorite examples of all three: Sadie Benning’s “It Wasn’t Love” (1992).
Sam Cohen: Digital forms allow us to play with possibilities for queer and femme ways of being and knowing that might be too scary, too expensive, or otherwise impossible to figure out in physical life.
Feliz Lucia Molina: Digital forms are a technology to liberate queer and femme affects.
Katie Schaag: I think that much of the contemporary queer and femme digital literature overlaps with the “post-conceptualism” movement, which, for me, signifies a rejection of conceptual writing’s rejection of authorship and affect. As post-conceptual writing, queer and femme digital literature is informed by critical theory but not beholden to it, invested in machinic procedural processes but not to the point of erasing the author-body who initiates those processes, and serious about intellectual abstraction but not divorced from concrete feelings. Queer and femme digital literature is curious about distributed subjectivity, an online assemblage saturated with affect.
Kate Durbin: Something I find interesting about the earlier (say 2010-2013) queer and femme internet is the way that information, ideas, and art were freely exchanged there. I talked about this a bit already with Gaga Stigmata, how it was structured as a playful and porous site of cultural production and exchange. One of the things that was unique about Gaga Stigmata was that all of us writing for it were fans of Lady Gaga—we were not pretending to have a kind of objective neutrality about her project, even though we treated it with seriousness and rigor, and we weren’t into pissing on pop culture just so we could be seen as serious scholars. I think it’s no coincidence that as the Internet has become more corporately controlled, and with the rise of the alt-right online, these modes of exchange have become less safe and less possible.
#5. Can you share some practical tactics and methods in queer and femme digital literary production? If an audience member [or reader] is interested in creating their own multimedia work inflected by queer/femme aesthetics, what are some approaches to form and process that they could consider?
Image: live/virtual panel after AWP roundtable in San Antonio
Feliz Lucia Molina: One approach I would start with is knowing and owning your ancestors and lineage and doing a deep psychic dive into why you love certain artists and writers. Did someone or some institution tell you how and why to love who you love? Start with knowing that. Then start writing about this in Rich Text File or MS Word or Google Doc or your phone. Love is the form and the way you live is the process. I’ve been writing this screenplay because this story wants to be told in pictures. It doesn’t know how else to come through. And so now I have to write it in Final Draft – a screenwriting program. Love for this story tells me it has to be written this way even if I don’t love having to use the program.
Katie Schaag: Don’t be intimidated by technology. The default sexist “tech bro” atmosphere surrounding computing substantially contributes to the lack of women in the field. I have always been intimidated, and I’m finally starting to feel more comfortable. Although I’ve been a media artist for years, I’ve found that proficiency in sound and image production does not necessarily translate to a knack for programming, so I’ve avoided it. I teach computer science students the software development process at Georgia Tech, and I still don’t know how to code. But through the process of conceptualizing, designing, and directing the development of my own digital poetics platform with a team of programmers, combined with what I’ve picked up from teaching the course I teach, I’m slowly starting to feel more comfortable with the field, and I’m going to start learning to code. Whatever it is you want to do, don’t be intimidated by everything you don’t know. Reach out to someone who does work you like, and ask them how they started. Take a workshop in a program you want to learn. Start experimenting.
Kate Durbin: If you don’t want to learn to code yourself, you can work with collaborators. That’s what Amaranth Borsuk and I did with ABRA—we worked with a programmer. The artist Lynn Hershman Leeson does this with her code-related projects, too. I recommend making sure everyone’s expectations and roles are clear from the outset, though, if collaboration is the road you’re going to take.
Sarah Ciston: Being iterative and rapid prototyping. Not being afraid to just go be weird and do it a lot. Going deep into your obsession or neurosis, even if it’s “just” the minor or domestic or the easily dismissed—if you’re drawn to it, stay with that thing and tease it out, and continually iterate it. I find this comes up a lot as a very femme, feminist—intersectional, interdisciplinary—
Also, Katie’s comment about intimidation around learning to code absolutely rings true for me, and it’s the reason I started Creative Code Collective, which tries to help provide a more supportive alternative to that “tech bro” atmosphere. It draws on my own many false starts and my experience that there are SO MANY different ways to learn and make with code that are completely valid. We are working on an approachable resource page and it’s one of my favorite topics to talk with people about (ladymouth was my first Python project ever!), so please be in touch: creativecodecollective.com
About the contributors
Sarah Ciston (she&they) makes queer tactical media and writes in prose, poetry, and Python. One of SF Weekly’s “Best Writers Without a Book,” their work is in Ada Journal; ZYZZYVA; Hobart; and soon in Leonardo Electronic Almanac. They are a Mellon PhD Fellow at University of Southern California’s Media Arts + Practice program, as well as a Virtual Fellow at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, where they are currently developing a library of digital-print zines on Intersectional AI.
Sam Cohen is the author of SARAHLAND (Grand Central Publishing). Her fiction is recently in BOMB Magazine, Fence, and DIAGRAM. She is a PhD Candidate in USC Dornsife’s Creative Writing and Literature PhD, a MacDowell Fellow, the Fiction Editor of Gold Line Press, and the Founding Editor of YES FEMMES.
Kate Durbin is the author of the poetry books HOARDERS (Wave Books), E! Entertainment, and Ravenous Audience. Her interactive poetry app ABRA: A Living Text won an Expanded Artist’s Book Grant and the Turn on Literature Prize for Electronic Literature. In 2015 and 2020 she was an Arts Queensland Poet-in-Residence in Brisbane, Australia. She has shown her artworks nationally and internationally, at The Pulse Art Fair Miami, MOCA Los Angeles, the Haifa Museum in Israel, SF MOMA, The Spring Break Art Fair in Los Angeles, Peer to Space in Berlin, and elsewhere. Kate’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Art in America, Art Forum, and more.
Feliz Lucia Molina is a poet, writer, and clinical social worker. Her books include Undercastle, The Wes Letters, Roulette (forthcoming), Crystal Marys, and Hair Hearts Flip. While writing a semi-autobiographical screenplay, her social work/therapy practice is focused on the homeless crisis in Los Angeles.
Sandra Rosales is a queer digital designer and front-end web developer.
Katie Schaag publishes critical and creative writing in print and digital journals, and performs and exhibits her artwork at museums, libraries, and theatres. She is the author of the erasure poetry chapbook, The Infinite Woman (Greying Ghost) and the interactive poetry platform, The Infinite Woman (Angular). She earned her PhD in English Literature with a specialization in Performance Studies and a minor in Fine Art and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and teaches in the Writing & Communication Program at Georgia Tech.