SHL Priority Areas: Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology research journey 

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 withProfessor 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.

Sharon Webb and Laurence Hill in conversation

Sharon Webb: Let’s start off by saying that it’s amazing that Laurence Hill is officially a Visiting Fellow of the Sussex Humanities Lab [SHL] and of the School of Music Film and Media.

Laurence Hill: I have to say, it’s very exciting for me. I remember seeing Caroline Bassett [former head of SHL] speak about it – I think it was at a breakfast meeting at Wired Sussex, which would have been whenever the Lab first began…

SW: In 2015.

LH: Yes, it was 2015. The idea of a digital humanities lab was something that was completely new to me. I was really fascinated by the idea, and it tied in very much with what Brighton Digital Festival [BDF] was about. In 2015, I was the BDF’s arts advisor and somebody else managed it, and then I took over as director in 2016 and took the festival in a new, slightly more critical direction. So in some ways the Sussex Humanities Lab and BDF came to fruition around the same time, and it feels like there’s been a really nice parallel between the two.

My interests — and as director they directly inflected what the festival was about — were exactly the kind of things that you’re doing, looking at the impacts of technology on culture and on life and society. And that’s really what I wanted the festival to explore as well, within its framework of being part arts and part business.

SW: That’s interesting. When I came to the Humanities Lab, the first big thing that I noticed in Brighton was the Brighton Digital Festival. I was extremely happy to find out that it was happening in the same place that I had decided to move to and work from. From that point I really wanted to get involved. I think my first meeting with you, Laurence, would have been in 2016 or 2017, at a kind of…

LH: … at a town hall meeting, I think. Every year, we would have a town hall meeting around June time, to say, ‘OK this is it – we’re back, this is the festival, come along and find out what we’re doing, come along and meet other people.’ And yes, that was when we first met.

SW: What I really liked about that whole platform, the way those meetings worked, was how open they were – it wasn’t a festival that was just set by the people who were on the top; it was really open and welcoming. And I distinctly remember the first conversation that we had together was around digital preservation, and thinking about digital art and digital preservation and how we might meld the two together.

LH: I think it was after that meeting that introduced you to David Sheppard and Leslie Wood from Queer in Brighton, because I’d met them to talk about that archive and preservation. And I said, ‘No, wait! There’s a person that I’ve literally just met…’ One of those serendipitous things.

SW: And from that point, we had a shared interest in the oral histories of Queer in Brighton and thinking about different ways of representing them in a way that looked to their future sustainability. The conversations that we started together with Queer in Brighton really influenced the work that I’m doing now, and have done over the past two years. The British Academy grant that I got and conversations with you were very instrumental in thinking about doing something that wasn’t just another digital archive – thinking about an artist commission, for example. That really solidified a lot for me in terms of how I think about my own practice.

LH: We talked a lot about reanimation, didn’t we? And that idea of the journey into an archive or into a museum not being a one-way street where something disappears and is gatekept after that, and only available to certain people, at certain times, for certain reasons. The idea that you could take something that was sitting on a memory stick under someone’s bed and make it available to the community that it came from was something that I found really exciting and interesting. We certainly saw eye to eye on that.

SW: And that analogy that you had from that Duty Free Art book, yes?

LH: That’s my favourite analogy.

SW: It’s brilliant, it’s perfect!

LH: It’s from Hito Steyerl’s book Duty Free Art – I think it’s on the very first page, so that book paid for itself straight away just with this one thing. Steyerl talks about a Soviet IS3 battle tank that was sitting on a pedestal in the Ukraine as a Second World War memorial. It was out of action but had never been fully decommissioned, and was therefore available to be driven, by pro-Russian separatists, off its pedestal and back to its former purpose, killing several people in the process. That idea of decommissioning and then recommissioning was very interesting – obviously, we were more positive in what we came up with than the tank example!

SW: Yes, and I think that the whole thing around recommissioning those oral histories really worked well.

LH: That thinking led directly to the work that we did with the Elle Castle, whom we selected alongside David and Lesley from Queer in Brighton, after an open call for an artist to make a work using some of those oral histories that would make them available again. Do you want to talk a little bit about Elle’s work Queer Codebreakers 1.0 and that process?

SW: A lot of that work was thinking about the ethical principles and the curatorial principles of working with historical oral histories and, again, learning from you to allow a kind of playfulness to be part of the experience, and that experimentation is OK. So it wasn’t just about the end product; it was everything in between as well, and we should support that in every way that we can.

Looking back to that first iteration of Queer Codebreakers, Elle did that on her own, essentially. You had sessions with her just talking it through, and I had a lot of anxiety because I couldn’t see the end product until the day before! To me that was a letting-go of control, which is not often the case in things that I work through myself, or research that I do, because I’m doing it. That was a much more collaborative experience; I hadn’t worked that way before, and it was about letting go of control over the final piece.

LH: That’s interesting, because one of the things that that we want to do together is to think about the connection between the academy and the arts and creative businesses – and part of that, for all of those separate sectors, is about necessarily letting go of the ways that they do things. So it’s really interesting that you went through that kind of process yourself. But actually – you know that I have an obsession with messy edges, which I’m now rethinking as unruly edges thanks to Anna Tsing and her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Well, to me, that’s where the interesting work happens: when people do work slightly out of their comfort zones. If you can find collaborators that that you can trust, that’s where the richness is. There’s richness in the edges and in the cracks, sometimes.

Queer Codebreakers 1.0 (February 2019)

SW: I think that allowed Elle and me to think about what worked and what didn’t work. Even the night before the launch of the first exhibition, we devised some additional questions that we added to the installation, and that engagement, although under pressure, encouraged us to think more creatively about what we would do next time. So, when the opportunity came around for Queer Codebreakers 2.0 to be part of the Queer the Pier exhibition at Brighton Museum, we really had a better sense of what worked. And again, experimenting for the first one supported that; it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

LH: Yes, that’s the other thing with digital art: it often it feels like an iterative process. In a sense, Queer Codebreakers 1.0 was like a proof of concept. Incredibly well done and well delivered by Elle, but it did need to go forward to further iterations. For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about digital art, and maybe there’s a link with research there: you might have an idea that you write a paper about that then becomes a body of work and it’s also an iterative process.

SW: Definitely.

LH: It’s the same for the creative industries as well. If they’re building something, that’s going to be an iterative process – it rarely gets delivered to market as a fully realised product, which is why we’re constantly bedevilled by updates of everything!

SW: I want to move on to ask you how the Messy Edge conference came about. As an output of the Brighton Digital Festival, I think that it was its most successful element. It’s the thing that I engaged with and found most useful, especially in terms of your curatorial experience or the way that you presented the Messy Edge. It’s been amazing to watch it develop over the years. Do you want to talk a little bit about it?

LH: Sure. The Messy Edge came from the need for a conference of sorts for BDF. I agreed that with the chair of the BDF board and from there, I just ran with it in my own direction really. I’ve famously never explained really where the name came from mainly because I genuinely don’t remember…

SW: I think I’ve heard three versions!

LH: There have been three versions, none of them true! But the name and idea came about through my belief, which we’ve talked about, that interesting work happens at the edges. I wanted to make a space that was the antithesis of the cutting edge, which I find such a sterile idea.

So, the curatorial concept was built on that idea and on the fact that I didn’t want a bunch of straight white men talking. Having had the privilege to go to a lot of digital culture and technology conferences, that was a lot of what I had seen, so I started thinking about programming in that kind of instrumentalist way. Then what became really clear, really quickly, was that if I wanted to get people to talk about the sort of topics I was interested in exploring, the straight white men weren’t the people who were doing that.

I’ll give one quick example – I was interested in the topic of digital colonialism and research led me almost immediately to artist Tabita Rezaire, a woman of colour living in South Africa, whose brilliant work in part explores that topic – so she became the first person that I invited to speak. So I thought, ‘OK, this is going to resolve itself and I don’t have to be so instrumentalist,’ and so it proved. Through taking that approach, the conference started to challenge the dominant narratives of digital culture, which are almost exclusively white, western, male, cisgender and straight.

Last year’s Messy Edge [in 2019] was the final one that I curated (the BDF board have claimed the name as it was conceived when I was under contract with them) and I was super proud of it. That thinking will inform all of my work going forward, including what we do together at SHL – and it’s very exciting for me to get further input from you all.

It would be interesting to loop back to our earlier discussion and make the connection to the Messy Edge. One of the things that I always tried to do was to bring elements of the BDF programme to the conference. We had, for example, Rhiannon Armstrong, who developed the idea of the Slow Gif Movement during a residency we provided, and she returned to talk about that.

At the Messy Edge [in 2018] where you spoke, I invited the performer and activist Emma Frankland and put the two of you in a session together. We did a project with the trans and non-binary community in the city called VoiceOver Brighton, which Emma led. At the conference, she spoke about the power and the importance of digital to distributed communities, but also an understanding that if you want to do that kind of work in a particular community, then you have to allow the people in that community to make the work.

SW: What I loved about that piece was that it captured and presented people’s voices from a marginalised community but critically, also the way that Emma was thinking through who has the right to record and who has the right to access these kinds of oral histories. That thinking was clear in the way she curated the final piece that was exhibited in the gallery on the sea front. This goes back to a conversation that you and I had in the Lab with Caroline [Bassett] and Amelia [Wakeford], about hidden archives and how access for communities is really important. It was a real eye opener for me, thinking through those things and how Emma identified what was for a general audience and what wasn’t. In a lot of my previous work with the Digital Repository of Ireland we’d always talked about open access, but actually, that doesn’t work for all communities. I think, again, that was something that was really important, and that’s influencing how we work with the Queer in Brighton archive as well: understanding that actually some of it isn’t for a general public, and that there are different publics within these spaces.

LH: That was the thing that Emma identified very early on – the opportunity for the trans and non-binary participants to be able to determine themselves whether their content was solely for their community or for a wider audience. It felt like a radical notion in that moment.

SW: I’m also thinking about how you framed that edition of the Messy Edge around the ideas of the right to be forgotten and the right to be remembered. That was a crucial move – it really opened up what maybe the Western notion to access is, when actually to have the right to be forgotten is a privileged position and, as you articulated in that conference call, some people haven’t even been seen let alone remembered. That goes back to the work that I do with community archives, where there is a sense that where digital preservation doesn’t exist throughout the practice there is an idea of double erasure.

Emma and I were on the same panel, and I thought that worked extremely well, because the two of us were talking about similar things. And for me it was also being putting in a space with an arts practitioner; that’s outside what I would normally do, but that’s part of my learning curve – and this has been something that through meeting you and working with you that has come to fruition.

LH: That section with the two of you worked so well, I thought, because you were talking about the same or at least very similar approaches to two different areas of practice, and in a lot of ways coming to the same conclusions even though you hadn’t worked together or even met before. One of my very many happy memories of the Messy Edge.

SW: So, we’ve collaborated on a few things, but thinking now about how we might work together more formally in the Lab, I want to ask – and this maybe is an unfair question! – but what does it mean to you to be a Visiting Fellow of the Lab?

LH: It feels like an achievement to have been awarded that status. I’ve valued my various contacts with the Lab so highly over the past few years, so it feels very exciting.

In practical terms, everything has been somewhat slowed down as we’re having this conversation [because of the Coronavirus crisis], but there are two areas that we’re looking at over the first six months that are connected and both, in a sense, pilot projects. First, and we’ve received some funding for this, is to look at the Lab’s impact on creative businesses in the city and try to make some more concrete connections; and second, I want to run an arts programme within the lab that is also about connecting outwards, and with a view to creating an artistic director role to run alongside my own curatorial practice extending and developing that Messy Edge thinking.

Initially, I need to get in there, when that’s possible, to sit down with people and start looking at the kind of work that’s happening in the Lab currently, and its history. Obviously, I’m aware of some of that but not all of it. It’s very early days and there’s a lot for me to think about, but I’m looking forward to having my thinking shaped by those conversations.

Also, as you know, I did my MA at Sussex couple of years ago and rediscovered a love of learning, and of thinking in a more focused way than normally happens in my head! The chance to reconnect with that, to be in that environment, to hang out in the library, is really important and very exciting to me.

SW: And it’s really exciting for us as well. You know, the Lab started in 2015 and over the past few years we’ve become more involved in the Brighton Digital Festival – that includes me, Alice [Eldridge], Cécile [Chevalier] and other members across the university. Through those involvements, we’ve had so many conversations about various different things, and to now have you as, essentially, part of our team, is absolutely amazing. For me, it’s not about an academic setting, it’s about the people who we navigate towards, so it’s great to have you with us because it’s organic; it makes sense because we’ve worked together over the past few years. And I think, again, it’s about the things that are important to both of us: that sense of community, and that collaboration within communities and supporting each other. I think that it’s a great way for us to see what we can do in the future.

Elsewhere:

Earlier: