I am super excited that my work has recently been featured in Issue #48 of one of my favorite sites for queer feminist cultural production, nomorepotlucks. “We Touch the Same Stuff: Queer Feminist Craft Praxis as Soft Circuitry” is adapted material from my dissertation, “Soft Circuitry: Methods for Queer and Trans Feminist Maker Cultures,” to be posted soon!
Here is a belated wrap-up of the 2015 #TransformDH (un)conference at UMD. It was written in the response to the survey question: “What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts?” for Media Commons: a digital scholarly network. I wrote about creative feminist labor, soft circuitry, and the work of Lisa Nakamura.
“Compositional Craft: Zine Workshops as Pop-Up Makerspaces,” an essay I wrote for the Gayle Morris Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative back in April, 2016.
A collaborative project between MICA students and artist Aubrey Longley Cook, March 2016. Portraits of local Baltimore activists and community members exhibited at the Middendorf Gallery, Baltimore, March 2016. Check it out: Stitched Queer Baltimore
So much going on in the past couple months that I’ve barely had time to process it all!
A couple weeks ago I attended the #TransformDH (un)conference at the University of Maryland. #TransformDH is a distributed collective and a movement for transformative digital humanities work that bridges activist spaces both in and outside the academy. Alongside feminists, queer theorists, and critical race theorists in science and technology studies and (new) media studies, #TransformDH questions discourses of neutrality that surround digital technology in order to think about the ethics and politics of how technologies are designed, consumed, and reappropriated. Several years ago, in the first Introduction to Digital Humanities class offered at UMD, I gave a presentation on #TransformDH, so the event felt like a great opportunity to think about how my interests in digital humanities have shifted and evolved.
The unconference featured a fantastic video showcase that highlighted a range of art activisms, and also gave me hope for emergent conference formats and scholarly spaces that attempt to value theory that is not only written or verbally presented. Along these lines, I embroidered a logo for the event using a sewable LED, which Reed Bonnet photographed using a long exposure. Working on a collaborative project like this reminded me how vital different kinds of technological and media literacies are in combination, especially in digital humanities projects, where it is difficult if not impossible for one individual to have all the skills and knowledge necessary to finish something. I could not have transformed this physical artifact into a (beautiful) digital image without Reed’s help. This was my way of combining the digital labor of my hands and fingers, working through a very old feminine technology, with the mediated travel of images that digital photography and the internet makes possible.
The organizers put the logo on a sticker, which turned out really nicely and, I’m proud to say, is now gracing the laptops and notebooks of transformative digital humanities scholars from all over!
You can watch the plenary by some of the original members of the #TransformDH collective and the keynote by Lisa Nakamura at the conference site’s livestream archive. They need help transcribing the events to make them more accessible, so consider contributing! I’m grateful for all the labor that went into making these events possible.
In other news, I finally finished revising “Making Queer Love: A Kit of Odds and Ends” for the open-access online journal Hyperrhiz. The short essay should be up on the site soon. The kit itself is going to be on display in the Digital Studies Center of Rutgers University Camden. You can see some earlier documentation of the process of putting together the kit in this post. The kit and the essay are also accompanied by a zine, “A Kit of Odds and Ends: A Love Letter to Queer Feminist Crafters.” It’s sort of weird to think about my work existing on display in a physical space for a few days or most of a semester, not to mention online for anyone to come across. I would like to think that the kit, which consists of very tangible craft objects and ephemera, represents an intervention into digital (humanities) scholarship that prioritizes big data, born-digital projects, and social media research, but I’m somewhat anxious that people will dismiss the project as “not digital.” In the project, secondhand craft supplies become a kind of queer social media, circulating in a very material way to show how craft processes and projects mediate our everyday worlds.
And last but not least, this weekend I’m participating in the Pittsburgh Feminist Zinefest! I finished a new zine, “Work: A Zine about Office Life” (pdf coming soon), that follows up on “Study: A Zine about Surviving Graduate School.” I think I’ve been amassing collage content for Work for several years now, so it feels really good to be able to pick up right where I left off and actually finish something! Having never tabled at a zinefest, I’m realizing I’m going to need to print waaaayyyyy more copies….
It’s refreshing to return to zines after working in other media. I’m thinking the next in the series should probably be titled “Sex: A Zine about…You Know.”
I made this small embroidered ornament for a Taurus crush of mine as a birthday present. It’s the Pleiades constellation, a cluster of stars that is pretty visible in the night sky if you know where to look. It’s in the constellation Taurus and is also known as the Seven Sisters (it is usually depicted with nine stars; the two leftmost stars, Pleione and Atlas, are the parents). I made each of the stars using star stitch (go figure) with three strands of embroidery floss, but didn’t really create eyelets because the LEDs underneath are so small it seemed like overkill. This battery holder on the back is from Chibitronics, a site created by Jie Qi (a graduate of the MIT Media Lab)–I highly recommend her tutorials! It’s super useful for powering paper circuits, making it easy to slide batteries in and out of projects. It’s held in place with some hot glue as well as the copper tape that creates the circuit.
I completed this project in an evening, and I think a version of it could probably be adapted for a day-long or half-day workshop given the right amount of prep time. It could also be easily put into a kit because the materials are self-contained and simple: an ornament frame, fabric, floss, glue, LEDs, scotch tape, copper tape, and a coin cell battery. This could be a cool way to learn about constellations, the colors and ages of stars, and basic embroidery stitches as well as electronics! Using a small ornament frame from Etsy, my first step was to figure out whether a circuit of LEDs would actually fit in the ornament, and how many LEDs I could power with one battery. Because I didn’t have a lot of room for mistakes, I made sure to take a lot of time plotting out the constellation and the path of the circuit.
First I traced the constellation from my computer screen. Using pins, I created small holes in the page so that I could easily transfer the pattern multiple times onto paper. In the images above you’re seeing the cutout I taped into my notebook so that I could plot out the circuit (below).
Surface mount LEDs can be a little obnoxious to work with–they’re SO tiny and they don’t adhere by themselves (unless you have ones with sticker backing). They can be secured with scotch tape, which makes them easier to keep track of in your work space and also conveniently amplifies the light with a shiny glow. Keeping your scotch tape clean of hair, lint, and oil from skin is a bit difficult though, so washing hands and making sure your space is organized is important. One 3V coin cell battery was sufficient to power five white LEDs, but I wanted to capture the Pleiades’ bluish glow, so I tested out three white LEDs and two blue ones (above, right). I was a little surprised they all shone as brightly as they did–I’m not sure how long they’ll stay lit on one battery! Really handy for the process of testing out the LEDs on pieces of paper was the CircuitScribe, a pen with conductive ink for drawing circuits. This saved me a lot of copper tape!
After plotting out my circuit path, I had to actually affix it to the ornament backing. This required running two strips of copper tape (one positive lead, one negative lead) to each of the LEDs arranged in parallel (this means even if one LED goes out, the others will keep working, unlike in a simple circuit). This was probably the most difficult aspect of the project because on such a small space the copper tape is very finnicky. It wrinkles easily, and because I purchased tape whose adhesive side was NOT conductive, I had to make sure all of my connections were properly reinforced. The LEDs are minute, so I also had to check that the positive and negative leads weren’t touching. The scotch tape holds the LEDs in place and helps them make contact with the copper, without affecting the conductivity of the copper tape. Chibitronics has a REALLY helpful tutorial on working with copper tape using paper craft techniques!
Simpler than all the circuitry, for me anyway, was the actual stitching. I framed out a small piece of black Aida cloth with masking tape to keep it from fraying and marked the nine stars with pins, roughly gauging how big they are in relationship to one another. Lined up with the stitches, the LEDs create the nebulous effects of the stars through the openings in the Aida. Look for them in the night sky–they’re pretty clear even in places with a lot of light pollution, like Washington, DC.
Finally, I made a backstitch border around design and cut the Aida to size so it fit snugly in the ornament frame. The flimsy plastic backing made the final steps of the process difficult–anytime I tried to press the backing in, some of the LEDs would flicker or go out. The copper tape turned out to be more forgiving than I initially thought, and with some delicate maneuvering I was finally able to evenly apply pressure to the LEDs and position them under the stars. Besides, a little flicker is realistic!
(I treated myself to this cutting mat cuz it looks real legit.)
Happy Taurus new moon!!
I just had the best time with the Multimodal Working Group completing our grant for the Center for Literary and Comparative Studies, whose annual theme was “Subjects and Objects.” Our workshop, “Multimodal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Storytelling with Technology,” allowed us to experiment with some hands-on classroom activities and assignments like paper circuitry, infographics, editing soundscapes, and annotated slideshows. Building off our work with English professor Dr. Mary Helen Washington’s upper-level Film and Literature of the Civil Rights Movements, we explored complex narratives of social (in)justice in calling attention to the framing of images, sound clips, and social media data. It has truly been a pleasure collaborating with my friends and colleagues, and I know the past two years with the working group will only enrich our individual scholarship as we go off to finish our dissertations.
Meanwhile, I’ve been playing more with cross-stitch embroidery! I’ve been perfecting techniques for dispersing the localized illumination from LEDs, and I found that a great way to do this is through eyelets. (I’m sure someone else has thought of this but it still felt like a great discovery!)
Practice makes…more practice! I had to redo the eyelets on my actual project because they were a little wonky. Luckily the Aida cloth holds up well and is pretty forgiving in terms of undoing mistakes.
Also working more on “The Beginning, Parts I and II.” Here’s some of Part I.
Documenting craft practice is hard, especially when your hands are occupied as in embroidery!
Part I is an embroidered calendar of March 2009, with moon phases (I think I’m going to redo these little moons).
I presented this work at the annual DC Queer Studies Symposium, whose theme this year was Queer Speculations. I’ll be posting my paper, “Queerly Crafted Worlds: Speculative Feminist Materialism,” soon!
And in other news, finishing up a draft for submission to Hyperrhiz on a kit for queer craft, and boy is it kicking my ass in the best way! Learning to document the process is a whole new challenge.
I’m currently teaching an upper level Queer Theory course (as an adjunct), and it’s been one of my most rewarding and fun teaching experiences, mostly because I get to go back to scholarship that formed the foundation for my thinking about aesthetics, materiality, and intersectionality. The course centers queer of color and lesbian feminist genealogies (usually of the socialist variety), and one of its main arguments is shaping up to be about how different aesthetic modalities, cultural politics, and media technologies become available to us as historically and spatially situated subjects. Some of the questions I keep coming back to are: What do practices of cultural production have to do with world-making projects? How do affects, imaginaries, virtualities–phenomena usually conceptualized as immaterial–materialize or “make happen” complex social worlds?
Nia King’s book Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives usefully framed these questions in terms of art activism, hierarchies of value of creative labor, and the nitty gritty of how/where/why culture is made. My students couldn’t stop reading! Paired with a hands-on zine workshop and a look through my collection of queer, feminist, and antiracist zines, our conversation about the book attempted to think about what counts as “theory” and what counts as “art”–is making zines theoretical? Conducting interviews and producing a podcast? Occupying and moving through space in our complicated embodiments? In the coming weeks we’re picking up on the issues of gentrification, safety, violence, and activism raised by the interviewees, reading Christina Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary Award-winning Safe Space, Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, and Eva Hayward’s “Spider City Sex.” Today we tried to lay the groundwork for thinking about these theoretical and poetic approaches to the spaces of the city through Karen Tongson’s 2011 Relocations and Scott Herring’s 2010 Another Country. Unfortunately, two weeks before spring break, both my brilliant students and I were exhausted and the early announcement of tomorrow’s snow day meant that those who showed up to class were having a hard time staying there.
What was exciting to remember as I reread Herring and Tongson is how seriously they both read what other theorists might overlook: singing in the car on the commute, paper cuts into the political body of capitalism and nationalism, “micro-intimacies” and “joke work” (Tongson 15). Tongson explores how performance, in its everyday and ephemeral forms, allows queers of color to use humor to disidentify with both popular culture and what Halberstam has called the metronormativity of white, gay men’s subcultures, using a pastiche of styles to articulate a queer of color suburban imaginary. Similarly, Herring shows how “taste” and “style” can enact forms of aesthetic violence, imposing normativity by homogenizing the social space of habitus. Both of these books open up ways of thinking about how queer structures of feeling are connected to space, place, race, and class. Racialized and queer cultural capital shape how we understand and assign value to the materialities of different media–how is it that we can so easily make judgments about “high” and “low” aesthetic forms and techniques, and why do the kinds of art that feel so vital to us seem meaningless or boring to others? These economies of attention don’t just have to do with whether or not we “like” art, they also matter when it comes to social differences and the ways of being into which we are willing to put time, energy, and care. Whose political issues and social existences are we curious or passionate about, and how do we make decisions about when and where to take a stance? How do we recognize creativity and innovation not just when it comes to aesthetics, but also living and moving in the world? Being able to answer these questions means understanding social life as aesthetic: sensory, saturated with affect, subjective, situated, embodied. Structures of feeling are habitual, habituated, and inhabited. So we form habits in relation to what we care about, based on how we inhabit the world.
I’ve also recently reread parts of Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling for my ongoing project “Making (Queer) Love: A Kit of Odds and Ends,” which is working through craft as a speculative feminist materialism. Cvetkovich coins the phrase “utopia of everyday habit” for naming the way that creative practices, specifically modes of crafting emerging from middle and working class domesticities, can mediate between the humdrum of ordinary life and what we usually think of as political action (191). I think Tongson offers a nuanced account of the ways that suburban domesticities, often assumed to be the prerogative of white bourgeois subjects, are intimately connected to imperial projects and trans/national migratory patterns. For whom does suburban domesticity constitute a utopia of everyday habit, and what aesthetic habits do inhabiting the suburbs cultivate? Tongson perhaps more explicitly brings these questions back to service and consumer economies than Cvetkovich, who seems to gloss creative industries through the trope of white hipsterdom. Here I’m not critiquing Cvetkovich so much as noticing how our own habitus can keep us from seeing the material specificities that make up aesthetic milieux.
These queer imaginaries are helping me think through what my own creative labor might do, as a student and as a new member of an emergent precariat, as a white woman born and raised in the suburbs on several generations of working class values, pleasures, and fears, who can no longer (if I ever could) afford to live here in the shadow of the capitol. How is it that I came to practice crafts such as knitting and cross stitch, and how does it matter that I’m practicing them inside a rented house in a neighborhood situated squarely on the county line, which most people tell me is too brown to count as this place or that?
You can take the girl out of suburbia….
I’m experimenting with LEDs and cross stitch for a new project, trying to figure out how to incorporate LEDs into cross-stitched alphabets. Because some of my first cross-stitching was not on Aida cloth (the fabric you see here, which has regularly spaced openings), so far my letters have been improvised and a bit crooked. The stitches on this lowercase ‘o’ are too spaced out–the crossed stitches are supposed to be right next to each other so you don’t see any of the white cloth.
It looks like the size of the LED is going to determine the size of my alphabet for this project. The stitched letters are turning out smaller than I thought.
This yellow LED is running off one battery on some scrap fabric. I’m trying to figure out the best way of covering up the LED with embroidery floss so that the light diffuses in a warm way and so that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb amongst the even, grid-like cross stitches.
I’m discovering handy tools like this simple, but useful, pattern designer: http://craftdesignonline.com/pattern-grid/, which is where I got the letters above.
I also really love learning things the hard way. My first attempt at cross stitching letters is on scrap fabric from the thrift store. Will most likely turn this into a patch, although I’m thinking about mounting it on some dark denim.
Meanwhile, working on “Making (Queer) Love: A Kit of Odds and Ends”! More soon!
Scott Herring’s new book The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture (2014) counters the pathological understanding of hoarding that currently dominates popular science and reality television. In an effort to understand how the figure of the hoarder became such a unilaterally feared spectacle of material life, Herring offers several concise case studies in a genealogy of hoarding in the U.S.: the Collyer brothers’ Harlem brownstone in the 1930s, Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, the rise of professional clutterologists such as Sandra Felton in the 80s and 90s, and Big and Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens (1975) fame. Each of these historical moments represents a turning point in the emergence of what Herring calls material deviance: “the social constructions of an aberrant relationship with your things” (6). Gathering an archive that spans the twentieth century, Herring “approach[es] hoarding as a unique moral panic over material goods, or an object panic whereby forms of social deviance attach not only to interpersonal behaviors but also to material ones” (7, emphasis in original). Such a move enables him to show how hoarding achieved its status as a mental illness with a diagnosis in the DSM-5, and how a number of cottage industries sprang up to help hundreds of people clean out cluttered homes.
What I find most compelling about Herring’s book is that its interest in materiality is explicitly ethical. It builds on material culture studies’ premise that things have social lives, and that things are integral not only to how we relate to each other, but also to how we relate to ourselves. Herring calls attention to the fact that the worth of an individual’s life is often judged according to the value (and quantity, and order—or lack thereof) of their things. He writes, “This book ethically maintains that there is no natural relation to our objects….What counts as an acceptable material life? Who decides?” (17, emphasis in original). By denaturalizing such thingly relations, Herring opens up “material life” to speculative possibilities, allowing us to reconsider what we might mean when we claim that there are normal or appropriate uses of objects. What would we learn if we resisted judgement about why people are attracted to certain kinds of stuff, and lots of it? What if we held off on diagnosing people’s material lives and instead remained open to the different forms our modes of relating with things could take? Drawing on the frameworks of queer and disability studies, as well as an emergent body of work putatively known as “thing theory,” Herring makes the case that hoarders aren’t “crazy” but instead entertain non-normative relationships with materiality.
Herring is clearly developing strains of thought from his previous work, Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (2007) and Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010), both of which explore the ways class, race, and queerness are intimately bound up with ideas about space and place. While The Hoarders is less overtly preoccupied with queer cultural production than his other books, and also markedly less literary in its focus, similar tensions between the rural and the (sub)urban run throughout. He shows, for instance, that Homer and Langley Collyer became local and national newspaper sensations in the 30s and 40s for boobytrapping their Harlem mansion with piles of rubbish, and that they were portrayed as crazy for refusing to leave their address in the midst of black migration and white flight to the suburbs. Before and after their deaths in 1947, the two white brothers were increasingly conflated with their locale in the press; as Harlem transformed from a neighborhood characterized by white wealth to one presumed to be plagued by the “social disorganization” (24) of black and immigrant working class populations, the Collyers’ secret hoard shifted from a sign of opulence to pathological decrepitude in the public imaginary. As Herring writes, the social disease attributed to Harlem’s alleged decline became cemented as a mental one: “when the experts present [hoarding disorder] as a social impairment or as a public nuisance that leads to possible health risks for the social body, they give an unknowing nod to how disorganization theories of Harlem enabled a representational shift from hoarding as eccentric greediness to hoarding as a diseased pathology with racial and ethnic roots” (31).
That the vast accumulation of things removed from the Collyers’ home after their deaths was not deemed valuable, but instead considered an indiscriminate collection of curiosities, oddities, or trash (bundles of newspaper, smutty ephemera, bones, automobile parts, musical instruments, bottles, etc.), was used to further condemn the aging brothers as mad, even render them queer: “As much as the brothers were racialized by Harlemitis, then, they were just as much made queer by their weird relics. While such queerness was not entirely unrelated to sexual deviance…I spotlight a perversion associated more with material attachments than with eroticized bodies” (42-43). Herring’s next chapter picks up on the perversity of material attachments with Warhol’s nondescript boxes of everyday ephemera and collectibles, the sheer quantity of which scrambled dominant hierarchies of value imposed by cultural arbiters such as Sotheby’s auction. His final chapter expands on the deviance attributed to non-normative elderly relations with its analysis of popular media depictions of the Beales, mother and daughter cohabitants of a dilapidated Long Island estate and relatives of Jackie Kennedy. Herring shows that the Beales’ material deviance, with their preponderance of cats and garbage, came to stand in for unsuccessful aging as gerontological discourses proliferated in the late twentieth century.
What particularly struck me were the parallels between the Collyers, described as “incestuous” (43) in some accounts, and the Beales, whose relationship was cast as suspect in comparison to Jackie Kennedy’s public marital success; their forms of shared domesticity were marked as failures due to the squalor in which they lived with their chosen companions. The Collyers were perceived as dangerous because of their inability to leave a site of urban risk, while the Beales’ home needed to be beautified because they were seen as a blight on the pastoral Long Island town that acts as a haven for the rich. In both of these cases, object panics about the quantity and quality of these people’s possessions seem to be spurred by fears surrounding the loss of class status and correspondingly an imperiled whiteness: a social (and spatial) order in danger of being displaced, a bourgeois American dream slipping away. Neither the Collyers nor the Beales (nor Warhol for that matter) were appropriately reproductive, and could not effectively channel whatever existed of their rumored wealth into a form heritable by a nuclear family—the kernel of heteronormative futurity. State agencies’ concerns about threats to public health and family efforts to control loved ones’ hoarding tendencies work together to secure this normative futurity, attempting to contain not only excessive materiality, but also forms of queer intimacy, dwelling, and care. They seek to regulate social life itself, presuming that the “eccentric recluses” who prefer the company of their (worthless) things are not adequately or productively social, and are therefore unhealthy. I think this is what is so useful about Herring’s argument: material life is social life, and vice versa; they co-produce each other such that material value cannot be divorced from social worth.
Taken together with Herring’s other work, The Hoarders suggests under-examined connections between queerness and class. This oeuvre implicitly challenges the image of the aspirational white gay man with impeccable taste that has come to dominate popular culture, in part due to the fame of aesthetes, artists, and “innovators” such as Warhol. In fact, I thought “taste” as a form of discrimination and distinction deserved further attention, and would have dovetailed nicely with an extended discussion of the diagnostic hegemony of the DSM, long a concern for queer and disability studies alike. How can we understand the mechanisms of taste and diagnosis as central to the disciplinary power of aesthetic regimes and their attendant value structures, and what might such an understanding enable us to learn about the intersections of queerness, class, and ability? How do these mechanisms organize social and material worlds, such that some people and things get sorted into the category of the valuable while others are discarded as trash, less than or outside of the human? These are questions that feminist and critical race theorists grapple with every day, and it is not hard to see these issues playing out all around us. #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreathe, as responses to the necropolitics enacted by militarized state policing and anti-black racism, are prime examples of campaigns to combat the uneven distribution of the value of human life. These activist tactics, while not within the scope of Herring’s project, show that the “mattering” of human lives is never given or settled, but is waged in violent struggles over entirely ordinary things: a bag of skittles, sagging jeans, a hoodie, a toy gun, a pack of cigarettes. Such objects have much to tell us about how we move through the world as racialized, classed, gendered, and (dis)abled beings—as social, embodied, material subjects, and as people who can be strategically denied meaningful subjectivities. With the concept of material deviance, Herring’s work provides an opening: a way to speculatively reimagine material social life in light of how things make their presence felt in the social, and how the social affects the shape of things.
To read the thingly and/as the social is a new materialist practice, one that affirms that “what matters” is a political, ethical, and aesthetic question.