By Sharon Webb
In my last blog I discussed the Sussex Humanities Lab’s priority research areas, and the thinking behind their implementation. This time around, I’d like to focus on the priority area that I lead — Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology (ICCT). ICCT was conceptualised to bring together and to create coherency across a cluster of activities, and to highlight some of the values that inform the Lab’s work and how we operate as a research community. ICCT also reflects the way in which the Lab, its culture, its people, have offered me a focus that has helped develop and broaden my research profile, and the collaborations I am part of.
Since joining Sussex in 2015, I have integrated my work on digital preservation and digital archives with community archives and heritage work. From 2018, and upon reflection motivated by the explicit feminist values of our original leadership team — particularly Caroline Bassett, Tim Hitchcock, and Rachel Thomson — Cécile Chevalier and I have developed research and teaching that incorporates techno-feminism, and intersectional/queer/feminist Digital Humanities, with an investigation of these histories, alongside practical and creative interventions such as coding workshops and creative coding initiatives.
More recently, Irene Fubara-Manuel and Sandra Nelson have joined us in these efforts. Both contribute to our ‘Techno-Feminism: History and Practice’ MA module and have developed a programme of work for our ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology’ network called Reflexive Re-Tooling: Alternative Workflows for the Feminist Researcher. Irene is also Co-I on ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, alongside Cécile and I. (You can follow each project on Twitter: @FACT_ntwrk, @FullStackFem). Kate O’Riordan, Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, has also informed the way in which this research, and community, has developed. It’s also important to acknowledge the inclusive intersectional feminist frameworks, networks, and research that already existed at Sussex: my work and the Lab have benefited from these.
In many respects the ICCT priority area reflects a research journey. It echoes the myriad ways that we build capacity around clusters of research and how we build community, connections, and networks that are valuable not only in terms of research output but research environments and cultures. The ways in which we manifest our research as individuals become part of a larger collective conversation — and that is the point!
Highlighting and centring community in this area was important. “Community” in this context is not, I hope, empty virtue signalling, but instead echoes a long tradition of working with community groups at Sussex and at the Lab. It acknowledges that perspectives outside of our academic circles should be included. These perspectives have a place within academic work, and are equally important, and sometimes more important, than the perspectives of professional academics. It also encourages us to think more about non-traditional research methods, outputs, and ways of disseminating, about the collective benefit of our research, and about new ways of listening and responding.
In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the artists who took part in our Brighton Digital Festival event in Nov. 2021. ‘Subverting Digital Spaces’ was co-organised by the Lab (under the umbrella of the ICCT priority area), the Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities project, and Laurence Hill, visiting fellow at the Lab and Digital Curator of the Full Stack Feminism project. Artists and activists Teresa Braun, and Jake Elwes both spoke to subverting
traditional digital platforms … [of] … queering datasets and developing digital tools for social intervention. Collectively, they … [draw] … from Intersectional, Black, Feminist, Queer and Trans activisms to create online spaces that challenge normative social constructs and their omissions.Subverting Digital Spaces
Both artists represent aspects of ICCT and of the ways in which performance within and across digital spaces can subvert dominant narratives around gender, sexuality, and race. Interacting with technology, like machine learning and AI (particularly deep fake technologies in the case of Jake) highlighted not only how these technologies can be “queered,” but also the way in which queer and intersectional feminism have a role to play in questioning, disrupting and challenging digital spaces and technologies, spaces and technologies that often promote or amplify far-right sentiment and ideals of “normality” (or heteronormativity). Both artists investigate drag performance to subvert technical spaces, as a means to disrupt data sets based on normative bodies and normative abstracted models of the world (as represented/propagated through training data sets in AI, machine learning, and/or neural networks, for example).
What transpires from these experiments and performances are powerful interventions that highlight social, cultural, and techno-social inequities, imbalances, accompanied by methods or ways to subvert these. Jake’s work especially resonated – in Jake’s words, what happens when you introduce 1,000 images representing queer expressions, bodies, drag queens, drag kings
into a standard homogenised data set of 70000 images of human faces which is used as a standard to train facial recognition systems … which contain very little of this otherness? … [The resulting output] shifts all of the weight in this neural network from a space of heteronormativity into this space of queerness and queer celebration.Jake Elwes
Jake questions whether we want to be in included in these systems, or whether we want to break them, to queer them. In this sense autonomy and agency within and over representation merge with questions of technological surveillance and acquiesces (or consent and unconsent). The big questions here are what models of the world are we building, what models do we have control over, and what models are impacting our engagement (or disengagement) with our world? How do technologies (AI, machine learning, neural networks) reduce our world to classifications and binaries, and indeed how do they perpetuate old systems of classification and categorisation? Both artist presentations offer useful and unique moments of reflection about the digital world we live in – or the digital world that is imposed upon us.
As a research cluster, ICCT (Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology) brings together and highlights the manifold ways the digital world (imposed on us) has the capacity and potential to be as systemically unjust, bias, and dis-enfranchising as our “analogue” world has historically proven to be. Yet, (on a more positive note) it also highlights the potentials of individual, project, and community interventions, often collaborative, to mitigate this harm and transform our digital environments and spaces. In this regard, the Lab’s open workshop, organised in collaboration with FACT and under the ICCT umbrella, to celebrate Ada Lovelace day (Oct. 2021), Building a Feminist Chat bot, as well our seminar with Professor Patricia Murrieta-Flores, ‘The future of the past. The development of Artificial Intelligence and other computational methods for the study of Early Colonial Mexican documents’, highlights some of these interventions and ways of working. Both consider the ethics of building tools using AI and machine learning algorithms. In particular, Building a Feminist Chat Bot which stems from an ongoing collaboration between FACT, the Reanimating Data Project, Suze Shardlow and the Lab, centres a feminist ethics of care with relation to building tools and interfaces. It “builds a chat bot” but this is probably the least important aspect of the work –instead the process of building, the collective coding and skills sharing, are more important than the end-product. Centring work around a feminist ethics of care is not always easy. It requires additional resource and can become emotionally challenging – but it is worth it. Values of care are not maternalistic but instead centred on values of listening, of making space, of empathy (for those in the group as well as those you are building “for”), of ethics. It is a way of working that ideally should be embedded in how we do research anyway, but as a method makes these approaches explicit.
SHL’s ICCT priority area includes intersectionality — not as a diversity-waving add-on (see Sara Ahmed On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)), but as a means of working in an ethically, feminist, community, and queer informed approach. Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities (a two-year AHRC-IRC funded project) explicitly draws upon intersectional feminism and is investigating how we embed these values within and across Digital Humanities practice and research. It explores what feminist DH methodologies look like and how we can develop a framework to encourage their inclusion through the life cycle of digital projects and creations. Intersectionality has become — alongside equalities, diversity, and inclusion — a bit of a catch-all term, but we use it with intention. It outlines our positionality as a lab, as a research community. In many ways, it also recognises our aspirations, and recognises the need to constantly think and rethink who we are and who we, as the Lab, want to be.
You can find details and some recordings of some of the events mentioned here in the Lab’s past events listing. For more information on our research projects please visit, and for information on other priority areas.