We’re celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride Month by sharing our favourite interview with Tea Uglow, Creative Director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, on identity and inclusion.
Impossible also collaborated with Tea to create A Universe Explodes.
I2P: If life is a process of trying to get to know ones self better over time, do you feel you know yourself well now or does doubt still play a central role?
Tea Uglow: Is that what life is? I had been wondering about it. I think a lot about this idea of self — often in relation to Theses’s paradox — the one about the Argo, in which the boat is repaired and repaired until not one part of it is ‘original’ yet it is still the same boat somehow. I think generally we are a composite of our lived experience, rather than something definable to be uncovered, or ‘known’. We are only who we are in the minute that we are thinking about it. Like culture, that sedimentary quality creates layers, textures, and a richness to our own idea of ‘self’ that is perhaps easier to define as ‘knowing’.
At the same time, I have experienced two dramatic moments with massive upheaval as I realised two truths about ‘me’ that I was unaware of, or in denial about. The first was that I didn’t recognise faces. That is called prosopagnosia — I don’t have any recall for faces, and I respond more to body language and hair and gait and the context of a situation in working out if I know someone. Out of context every face is a stranger. Fortunately your smile gives me context, your face always betrays context, your body language, hair, voice, location, clothes. All of these give me the context to know who I am talking to. But I am rarely certain, I live with constant doubt. And my doubt informs my personality, which is predominantly to talk and smile a lot. It turns out people will forgive you anything if you smile and bring a broadly positive agenda. But to find out that you didn’t know something so profound about yourself (I was 30), and then to apply that retrospectively to your entire history makes you revise your understanding of self anyway. So, it was probably helpful in getting me ready for the second big revelation — which was that I was transgender. Born a boy, and quite happily carrying on as a boy until one day I realised that I wasn’t a boy, I was a complete idiot. It is pretty amazing what the brain can do in self-defence. So I knew but I didn’t know. All of which is a very long way of saying — I refuse to rule out the possibility that I have more about myself that I don’t know. Not to mention that as a composite I do not know who I will be next year, or in five years, any more than I did five years ago, or ten. So I am a complete mystery to myself. And probably everyone else as well.
I2P: What does gender mean to you?
Tea: Gosh. Well, I am transgender. Technically between genders. I have the physically observable biological traits of a boy (or I used to).
I certainly have xy chromosomes. But neurologically I identify as female. There is a lot of complexity in gender. It’s hard to simplify but I start with how you identify, how you present, and how you are identified. Which can all be different. So I identify as female, I present as female, and now, thank god, 95% of people identify me as female. But that hasn’t always been the case. For me the biology doesn’t really matter. I understand that it is a fact, but so is race. Unless you want to use that to distinguish, segregate or to inform a prejudice — then the biological part is less relevant than those three aspects of identity and presentation.
Generically I see gender as a very powerful aspect of ones identity that 99.7% of people consider to be exactly the same as their chromosomal sex. I am much much happier identifying as a woman, even though life is significantly more complicated. I wish the whole thing was simple, but, like many things in life, it just isn’t simple. Nor is it fair.
I2P: How has your approach to and understanding of feminism changed since transitioning?
Tea: I think I have massively widened my scope of what feminism means. Before it was a single struggle, one that I supported and felt was a unique cause. Now I see it as a diaspora of different challenges that exist for many different kinds of women.
I have become a lot more tolerant of radical feminist groups that want to exclude trans-women, who are often reduced to the unpleasant term TERF’s. I don’t agree with them, and they are very mean to us — but I feel some sympathy and wish they hadn’t reached that place. They were radicalised against us, and one should understand radicalisation in order to hopefully counter it.
I feel a greater sense of awareness of women facing issues because of multiple aspects of their identity, whether sexual orientation, or race, or religious beliefs — we seem to call this (somewhat obliquely) intersectionality. That’s another space where the first and second wave of feminists feel a bit put out, because, comparatively, their lives are actually a lot easier, and if you are part of an oppressed group then sometimes it’s hard to cope with people who are even more oppressed than you. And I feel a lot more sympathy to a generation of women who are natural feminists: strong, modern, courageous women but who don’t want to assign that word to themselves because the idea has somehow accumulated stigma. That is a problem to be overcome. Assimilation of different types and needs of feminism is incredibly hard because of other biases and prejudices we all face. I typed the word sisterhood and then deleted it because I still don’t feel I belong there. I have spent my life as a feminist, albeit one excluded on the grounds of gender.
What we might call an ally in the LGBTQ community. I still feel excluded, less so, but I will never feel ‘true’ and I guess until we can abandon that notion of all women being equal but some being more equal than others (especially those ‘born’ equal) then we will diminish our focus required to address the bigger problems of gender inequality. It is funny, even typing this I wonder if I have the right to say it at all. Which is kind of sad.
I2P: How do you feel society’s attitudes towards gender issues is evolving?
Tea: It has progressed in some areas and not in others. Our sense of outrage has been heightened, we are less numb to certain injustices. On the other hand ‘we’ are a tiny elite minority. Globally we can see, from simple things like YouTube dislikes for videos that talk about gender equality, or LGBTQ issues, or problems like #gamergate — that the majority of the world continue to hold different views.
The main concern for me at the moment is that we are building learning frameworks for machine intelligence that will define the next century and it is incredibly important that those frameworks understand and account for gender, partly because they ‘learn’ very often from interaction with humans. And humans are stupid and bigoted.
For people it is a necessary way for us to deal with all the information we have to process, we just can’t cope with it so we have ‘values’ and ‘beliefs’ that we use to filter out contrary or unhelpful input. We can’t ‘fix’ for bigotry — but in terms of the future ‘evolution’ that means that today’s attitudes towards gender are in danger of biasing many iterations / generations of machine learning and computer science.
And computer science is not dominated by women. But that’s a different problem.
I2P: Can you explain the thinking behind the blockchain disappearing book you developed with Visual Editions and Impossible?
Tea: Basically it is the second in a series of experiments that looks at what it means to own (literary) culture in a non-tangible / digital age. The first was about allowing books that could reflect the dynamic properties of the web, and let writers understand a little more about how liberating it would be to free fictional narrative from the paginal linearity of books and ebooks. That’s an essay as well. The blockchain book is a new story in phase 2, that looked at ideas of ownership in terms of patronage or conspicuous consumption — which is where we get our financial value for certain ‘art’ forms. Effectively creating artificial scarcity by making a limited edition of a digital object, and also a sense of historical precedent to accompany digital assets. We remove ownership from access. And codify a fixed ownership as different to the current model of licensing ‘ownership’. Much more the traditional model of ‘owning’ something but for digital.
To do this we used blockchain to make 100 versions of the book A Universe Explodes, and then ‘ownership’ is recorded in that chain for each individual book, like a family tree. So regardless of the fact that it is all just code, you can distinguish each one of the 100 books by its list of ‘owners’ including the current owner.
Access was universal: anyone could find and read any of the 100 books online. Much in the same way that someone who loans a painting to an art gallery has exactly the same right of access to view ‘their’ painting (they also have their name onthe little card on the wall). In this way we created a sort of library card model of past owners, a heritage for each book, to see if that affected perceived value of different volumes.
To make it more complex we also asked the ‘owners’ to edit their version of the book, each owner adding one word and removing two words from each page — so that after a certain number of ‘owners’ the extant copy would only have 1 word per page. (although, being digital, you can see any of the states). It was a very playful intellectual idea that also was realised incredibly beautiful by Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab as well as the brilliant team at Impossible who inspired the whole blockchain angle and built it for us.
I2P: What are you working on now?
Tea: I am working on a number of books — one about how fairness is not the same as equality or justice. Another on our understanding of time in a conceptual, religious, geographical, psychological, and mathematical way. We have an interactive installation opening in Room 3 of the British Museum. We have just finished a fantastic pilot project working with enchanted objects in theatrical settings with Punchdrunk that I just loved. And I am working on new digital books, one about perspective and prejudice and filter bubbles and Ovid. And one about generative fiction within environments that uses computers fascinating ability to identify and articulate what they ‘see’ in the world. I also have an AI poetry project that I’m excited by and a locative sensory experience with a chamber orchestra. There’s a bit of being visible and wandering around the world ‘Googling-while-Trans’ and giving talks. And mainly trying to be a good parent to my boys, who ultimately matter more than anything else I’ve talked about.
This interview was originally published by Impossible to Print on 21st May 2018.