Élodie Mugrefya and Peter Westenberg
What is the gender of your server? What is an author if not a singular name? How does one account for skills and knowledge gained in a historical context of massive plunder, extraction and exploitation? What is a computer? Socially, politically, economically, chemically, geographically, geologically, joyfully? How to be complexly together?
Constant is an association for arts and media run by artists, designers, researchers and hackers based in Brussels, Belgium. Constant works to systematically create collaborative situations that engage with the challenges of contemporary techno-life. At Constant we develop projects at the intersection of art and technology in which, for us, it is important to make connections between intersectional feminisms, free software and copyleft approaches. Together they allow us to imagine webs of interdependencies, infrastructures of solidarity, poetic algorithms, conflicted data processing practices and principles for multi- and/or fuzzy authorship. For us generating puzzling questions is a strategy that offers openings for profound, complex and playful research. These questions are stumbling blocks that help us realize that the technologies we are interested in are not about fluency, smoothness, optimization and efficiency but are instead full of assumptions and problems that demand our continuous attention.
Constant organizes several types of (semi-)public experimental and artistic research moments, worksessions being one of them. Worksessions are intensive thematic multi-day group gatherings which are prepared as open-ended situations and are inspired by multiple forms of curiosity: toward a topic, towards other participants and towards the possibilities of letting go of predefined positions. These parameters invite participants to collective trials and errors, discoveries, development of speculative artistico-politic proto-proposals and conceptual postures. The worksessions’ participants include artists, software developers, theorists, activists, writers, designers and curious people of all kinds. Worksessions welcome different types of knowledge, skills and sensibilities towards technological objects and concepts.
We are grateful for and excited by our invitation from MARCH to convene a series of articles which connect our practice to the notion of Publishing As Protocol. For us, the question is not whether we publish or not, but rather how to shape the work of making (a) public, while asking: For who and with whom? This is the first of six essays which will be published between now and June 2022. In this essay, we will briefly collect some aspects and thoughts relating to our work which will be expanded upon in forthcoming articles. The subsequent essays will be written by additional members of Constant, each bringing their interests and professional perspective into play. The next essay, written by Michael Murtaugh, focuses on Constant’s web infrastructure and motivates its integration of tools, contents and media. The Collective Conditions 4 re-use (CC4r) free license that Constant and partners have developed will be discussed by Elodie Mugrefya and Femke Snelting. In the fourth article, Mia Melvaer will write about how operational and executable text is part of Constant’s practice, followed by Martino Morandi who will discuss the techno-practices we share with a larger network of organizations in which Constant operates. In the final article, An Mertens will reflect on the role of machine and non-human writing as part of our work.
The tools and practices we deal with are relational and entangled in networks of interdependencies. Software tools play a significant role in our work. We enjoy thinking that our work is part of a recursive process in which practices shape tools which are, in turn, shaped by practice, etc. This shaping is accompanied by questions of agency. Applying F/LOSS tools (Free/Libre Open Source Software) holds a feminist potential for us, making it possible for others to study, exchange and use code, or any other work, in order to modify it and publish it.
We see software tools as co-shaping our work, lives and collective practices. Having access to its codes, understanding its structures and operational logic, and being able to redirect and interact with them, is of major political and practical importance. A significant benefit of free software for artistic, emerging and experimental usage is that it offers attachment points from which new entanglements can be developed. Constant supports free culture because it is a way of acknowledging that culture is a collective effort in which exchange is inherent. There is no tabula rasa, no original author; there is a genealogy and a web of references.
When it comes to technology, we think free software can make a difference because it invites us to consider, interrogate and discuss technical details of both software and hardware as we engage with its concepts, politics and histories. For this reason, we distribute all our work under free licenses and work with and on F/LOSS. In recent years we have come to the realization that being affirmative of free culture requires further critical consideration. Although we are not yet sure how, we want to take into account the links between open access ideology and colonial extractivism which can obstruct our understanding of its complexity and porosity. In addition, we want to take into account the “right to opacity” (Édouard Glissant) in access and transmission of knowledge, especially in regard to marginalized communities in relation to questions of privacy and anonymity.
Through its open source licensing, free software allows you to intervene and to be part of a collective and continuous process. People engage in discussions around code through mailing lists, or do bug reports to comment on technical issues. In that way it is a very discursive culture. At Constant, we aim to involve different types of expertise in discussions around technology. We think it’s necessary to include other voices than those from engineering or computer science, as it is too limited to confront technology only with technology. Through collectively reading and commenting on different layers of code, we want to learn and test how our relations with technology are never one-way.
—Femke Snelting and Katia Truijen, “Listeners in the Room”1
A practice that has emerged from this is publishing observations on the structural problems of technology; not so much with regard to elements which are not functioning properly according to their internal logic, but instead drawing attention to their dysfunctionality in regards to larger political or societal frameworks. “We often try to make what we call ‘meta-comments.’ We speak about gender in a bug report; we discuss ethnicity in a proposal for a software standard; we try to read language habits in large data sets. We do this by making use of the writerly structures that already exist around collaborative code practice.”2
Constant is committed to environments where possible futures, complex collectivities and desired technologies can be experimented with. The spaces that we initiate are therefore explicitly opposed to sexism, racism, queer antagonism, ableism and other kinds of oppression. Our positioning is one of risk-taking and trial and error in which rigour and critique meet with humor, insecurity, tension, ambiguity and mistakes. Fearless, brave environments empower radical complexity.
Departing from intersectional feminisms means for Constant to be attentive to the sometimes generative, often oppressive arrangements of power, privilege and difference. We understand these arrangements to be related to gender and always intersect with issues of, for example, class, race and ability. Finding ways to come to terms with the long colonial history of computation, the way technology impacts ecology, and the relations between them, deserves our ongoing attention.
—Constant, Collaboration Guidelines
We want to engage in a dialogue with code to see how it conducts, directs and informs us and our environments. We also want to discuss the social codes and conventions that inform what this construction of “we” can, could and should consist of. For this purpose Constant presents its Collaboration Guidelines, an ongoing process of describing desirable ways of being together. Before engaging in public activity these guidelines are reviewed and adjusted by members of the group who will aim to work under their conditions. The guidelines propose togetherness as a rewritable social technology.
Constant is a publicly funded association. This is a deliberate choice as we feel that making critical work offers public benefits and, as a consequence, it makes sense to us to make all material, processes, results and research publically available. The work is accessible through Constant’s public websites, and we also find it “important to understand ‘access’ beyond ‘the right to view.’ It means materials should be available in a usable format, under appropriate legal conditions, and if possible without predefining their use through API’s or apps.”3 That is why code and raw materials are published on gitlab and through other repositories that Constant hosts.
Writing up, annotating and documenting published material is a work of mediation that is part of the act of publishing. If possible, we try to do this work collectively, for example during the final phase of a worksession. This work involves a process of imagining what could happen if we consider each viewer as a potential writer. What additional skills are needed to turn a writer into a publisher, to execute this writing in new contexts? “What tools could we think of together, but most importantly: what types of orientation could we imagine that actually make sense?”4
For many collectives, artistic groups and collaborating coders, we believe that the current legal definition of authorship does not benefit collective intellectual creative work. Notably, because this legal status is based on the capitalist model of (individual) property. One orientation that we would like to think about is the transformative potential of publishing as a chain made of many different types of (inter)relations which invites the reuse, modification and republication of material.
Organizational work, to a large extent, consists of writing—on computers, with others, to groups, collaborators and funding bodies, as members and with participants. To write up different realities and imagine joyous futures. With trajectories such as Authors of the Future and Speculative/Libre Intersectional Technologies we try to write diverse techno-realities into existence. There is a pleasure in trying to invent new words for the new practices we want to inspire. To bring something into being through naming it is to disregard institutionalized language exclusions by deploying the hybridizing bastard potential of textual reshaping and assemblage. When we cQrrelate, it is to express suspicion of practices which exploit the correlation of data and to reclaim that work for queer operations.5 Doing collective Bureaucracktic work means acknowledging and considering the explosive potential of records and accounting.6
Constant’s un-disciplinary actions and re-learning situations are part of our creative practice. Following pre-set protocol is not necessarily in accordance with our set of core interests. We wonder how rules, guidelines, codes and protocols can be deployed as critical devices. For Constant, publishing as a practice holds the potential to generate opportunities for opening up and revealing hidden structures and, beyond that, to incite interaction and change. We see recursive publishing, which comes with the explicit invitation to rewrite and republish, as generative work. Thus our protocol is not intended as a rigid framework but rather an invitation to intervene, change and reconsider its conditions.
Élodie Mugrefya is happily part of Constant where she takes part in its artistic and collective research while shyly developing a writing practice that intersects with Constant's themes of interest, notably notions surrounding collectivity, technological infrastructures and socio-political troubles.
Peter Westenberg is a Brussels-based multidisciplinary artist and cultural instigator working in the field of technology-related public art and design. His short films, walks, photography and community projects investigate urban iconography, vernacular architecture and social routines. He is a core member of Constant, association for Arts and Media in Brussels where he develops collective artistic research. He is researcher and professor at KASK School of Arts in Ghent, where he also coordinates the Master in Autonomous Design program. His current project Capitalithothèque invites to participate in perfora-lithic anti-capitalist practice.