Belonging in the Mess

by Johanna Hedva

Director of Advocacy, Processing Foundation

This essay was commissioned as a reflection of the Processing Foundation’s participation in the 2016 exhibition Public, Private, Secret, at the International Center for Photography. It will appear in a monograph about the exhibition, published by Aperture, in 2018.

Johanna Hedva joined the Processing Foundation in 2014, motivated by her political activism in intersectional feminism, anti-white-supremacy, anticapitalism, and for the rights of LGBTQIA+, disabled, and neurodivergent people from all backgrounds. (photo by emji spero.)

I’m an outsider — no matter the community. I’m an American living in Berlin. I’m disabled, yet my disabilities are invisible. I pass as white, having inherited all of my mother’s Czech and German genes, and none of my father’s Korean ones, which makes me an outsider to Asian-American and POC communities, and also an outsider in white communities, neither all the way in nor out. I’m an outsider in queer and trans communities because, although I am genderqueer, I serve a lot of femme realness and use she/her pronouns, and, although queer, I’m currently partnered with a cis man; all of which, it goes without saying, make me an outsider in the straight cis world; which is to say, it’s complicated. In my work, I write and perform: writing is the medium of my art practice, and performance is the context for my writing; so I don’t fit easily into the art or performance worlds (where the visual is the most prominent signifier of meaning), nor the literary world (where the materiality of language is often still kept separate from the visual and the embodied). And in my work for the Processing Foundation, as Director of Advocacy, I am not a coder, or even somewhat technically inclined, preferring books to screens. I don’t even have a phone. In fact, my primary day job is as a witch, giving astrology and tarot readings, having conversations with the dead — an outsider, then, even to this world of the living.

So, a good question is: what’s a disabled, queer, gender-nonbinary, Korean-American writer-performer-witch doing as a director for an open source software project? The way I like to think of an answer is to refigure the terms that would signify a particular position in an identity politic as terms that indicate a practice, a method. Disability, queerness, open source — not as identities, or groups I belong to, but as modes of doing, of how I practice myself.

Being an outsider means that the question of theory and practice — how practice is affected by theory, how theory is constructed by practice — becomes the most important one. Membership to particular groups and experiences is often predicated on the visual — whether someone “looks like” they belong or not — which means that my membership to most groups must rely on something else. My belonging has more to do with how I enact that group’s politic, which is to say, less that I “walk the walk” and more about how.

The question of theory and practice is also the central question of open source. In a way, open source could be said to be a philosophy of how to practice a theory of utopia, a demonstration in how to make a community, as a community. In its aims of collaboration and shared labor, and making software non-proprietary and free, open source is a proposal for how software can operate beyond the terms of its commercial value, but rather, in its social, cultural, creative, and political value.

To participate in the community of open source, you have to do something. You have to be a maker. Unlike proprietary software, which requires only a purchase of the license for you to be a “member,” open source demands that you get your hands dirty, that you become an active part of the project itself. It’s not enough just to buy your way in. You have to devote your time, your attention and intention, and it’s not enough to think through whatever issues arise, or to merely talk about them. Something has to be done, which is another way of saying that something has to be made.

Within open source, the capitalist mandate of time equaling money rings false. It’s exposed for the bankrupt, exploitative analogy that it is. Time and money — as the world is being forced to confront in ever starker terms — are not equivalent within institutions of power, no matter how much those institutions insist they are. Such institutions operate upon systems that are white-supremacist, imperial-colonial, neoliberal, ableist, cis-heteronormative, and patriarchal — all of which are attempts to reduce the irreducible complexity of humanity down to objects whose sole purpose becomes economic, becomes manageable, their edges and details shaved away, pegs in all manner of shapes being forced into identical holes.

I don’t claim to know the answers for how to solve these problems. But the most salient response I can summon has to do with scale. It seems that the problem lies primarily in the capitalist inertia of scaling everything up, while relying on the paradox of infinite growth that organizes resources in terms of scarcity. When the world is organized according to such a paradox, the scale becomes skewed: it means that infinite growth does in fact happen, but only to a few, since the rest of us, laboring within the system of scarcity, are what provides those few with the resources required to get to the top of the pyramid. I think this is why I’ve always found resonance in open source: because of its relentless insistence on human-scaled labor, and its skepticism and rejection of vertically scaled hierarchies, it is less about ascending to the top of the mountain and more about working the soil of the land. (I often say that the only thing I’m willing to scale up under capitalism is my hair.)

Another good question: Is it possible for artists to subvert, or transgress, or resist these institutions of power? Should resistance be a part of an artist’s practice? If so, how? At this moment in twenty-first-century global capitalism, is it even possible not to collude with the forms of power that oppress?

Though it may seem daunting and preposterous, I live my life under the belief that the answer to those questions is yes: yes, artists must necessarily be attempting a practice of resistance. The reason artists must resist is because art is not only about talking and thinking, or about buying one’s way into a group, but it’s about doing, building, and making: theory and practice.

This is not to say we will all arrive at a solution any time soon; in fact, I would argue that the very notion of arriving at a solution, as though the process will culminate and, so, stop, is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. The process of making, the struggle itself, seems to me the best we can hope for, and that is enough. Like I said, there’s something in open source that relies on an image of utopia — and we all know how problematic and dangerous the fantasy of utopia can be. But the hope that I draw from open source comes less from its utopian impulses and more for the way — the means — in which it struggles toward it.

Resistance can take many forms: it can interrogate, explode, trick, prank, mourn. But primarily, it is about the practice of theory, which is to say, the struggle of doing and making. As Dawn Lundy Martin writes, “Only in the space of discomfort can we be truly creativity [sic] . . . . Mastery is an attempt to dominate the artwork, to weaken it. It is lording our skills over the artwork. If we were to live in that space of always getting it exactly right, we might not be so interested in the process. Many of us prefer it to hurt a little.”

Struggle is inherent to and defining for resistance; struggle gives resistance its definition, linguistically and in terms of its edges, where its edges bump up against the thing it’s pushing back at. This place of encounter is a place of friction, messy and in between; there are no masters here because we’re all standing on the same unstable ground. But such friction is what we need to take action, to be moved to do anything. Which is to say, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

As someone who lives her life at this chaotic convergence point, who’s built her house upon the liminal, regularly dealing with the quakes and tumult that arise from the friction, I can tell you that I often long to be on more stable ground. But I don’t belong there. I belong to — in — the mess.

Johanna Hedva will co-host a workshop with Sydette Harry about online communities, at Processing Community Day, October 21, 2017, at MIT Media Lab.

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