Tag Archives: computing

Feminist Computing #5: Martina Navratilova’s Tennis Computer

Last month I gave a lecture at Toronto’s Trampoline Hall titled “The Many Wives of Martina Navratilova.” The talk, part of a night curated by Jon Davies, had little to do with my “real” research but it was a lot of fun, and what came out in the wash was this quite lovely entry for my collection of feminist computing stories.

The Coaching Computer

“Robert Haas, the man who programmed my nutritional needs, and an associate of his have designed and programmed a tennis computer that I have used from time to time. The computer is fed an entire tennis match about thirty times, analyzing and breaking down the points stroke by stroke until previously unseen patterns become evident. What we look for in this breakdown are my patterns and those of my opponent. We find tendencies. Perhaps one top player will continually hit a return to the same spot at break point, or hit the ball harder, or perhaps slice more when down. What the computer has pointed up is that when the pressure is on, players stay true to their tendencies, and this knowledge is helpful against patterned players such as Chris Evert Lloyd and Tracy Austin. By understanding both my game and that of my opponent, I feel as though I have a far clearer insight into what my future matches might hold. The computer is a good accurate scout.”

– Martina Navratilova, Tennis My Way (1983), p. 190.

The Circle of Lesbian Indexers – Book, Card, Computer

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a paper on The Circle of Lesbian Indexers here in Toronto at what looks to be a great symposium organized by Emily Drabinski: Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies.

This is new work, part of my almost-finished final dissertation chapter. In the paper I consider  The Circle of Lesbian Indexers, a group of six feminist information activists scattered across the U.S., who indexed hundreds of lesbian periodicals by subject between 1980 and 1986. Specifically, I examine The Circle’s manuals and correspondence alongside histories of computing from that era to examine how these women thought about emergent database computing and its potential for organizing their growing index. I argue that three “materials” critical to The Circle’s work—the book, the card, the computer—create a tension that is key to the promises of  information activism, and to creating a heterogeneous, feminist media history of emergent computing.

Circle diagram

Here’s an excerpt:

Cards allowed the index to be revised and re-sorted, and it allowed Potter to facilitate the Circle’s collaborative workflow, bringing multiple batches of cards into the fold of one growing index. This was no small task: In the Circle’s guide to indexing, Potter writes, “the numbers of cards we can safely manage without the help of machines seems finite. We can keep on top of hundreds (no problem), or a few thousand cards, but even dykedom has its limits” (Potter 1979a: 9).

At the limit of “dykedom” likes emergent database computing. The Circle used cards, but they thought about computers, discussing the merits of going electronic often in their correspondence and training manuals. Potter invested a great deal of hope in the possibilities that computer databases might present for managing the Lesbian Periodicals Index. She spent many evenings and weekends at Stanford University’s Computer Center, trying to learn how to use WYLBUR.

WYLBUR illustration

WYLBUR was a text-editing program that ran on the time-sharing system pictured here—this is when a big, central mainframe computer is shared by multiple users at individual terminals. This is an illustration from the hand-drawn manual to WYLBUR, created by one of the scientists who worked at the lab. The figure in this drawing is smiling at her terminal, but Potter was not. She describes learning the system with frustration in a 1981 letter to one of the other indexers: “I find I just can’t spend my every night and weekend at the Stanford center learning and then inputting. I need to spread some of the parts of this others!” (Potter 1981c). Potter didn’t want to be working alone at her keyboard in the sterile computer lab that was such a far-cry from the warm, domestic scenes she describes in The Circle documents. Scenes of workshoping subject terms with other Circle members in rocking chairs on her porch.

How we work: the micropolitics of rhythm, computer, post-it note

I love this photo of Jim Henson, writing in his eames lounger. What would be, for me, the most awkward pose in which to write, works for him. His feet are propped up not just on the chair’s ottoman, but also on a shelving unit, which suggests that he’s put the chair in that place, just so. I like that Henson wrote this way because it’s eccentric and wonderful, must like his muppets. There is purpose to the artist’s strange ergonomic.

A while ago I went to see Matthew Kirshenbaum give a talk about his forthcoming book Track Changes: the Literary History of Word Processing. As part of this project, Kirshenbaum is “cataloging the first computers or word processors for as many authors as I can reliably ascertain.” During the lecture he showed slides of writers working at these computers, and though Kirhshenbaum’s interest is in the type of machine and its interface, I was brought in by the rest of the desk, the room, the choices of where things are placed, how the space is lit, what time of day of it is, what they are drinking, wearing, small choices that add up to a whole habitus, the spaces, practices, and routines that construct our sense of value and our place in the world.

Annie Leibovitz, Susan with Karla Eoff, West 24th Street, New York, 1992

The images that illustrate Kirshenbaum’s project were what lead me to start cataloguing instances of “feminist computing” here. This ongoing project is about an old-school concern for the personal-as-political. What Victoria Hesford describes as the “micropolitics of vaccuming and sexual intercourse”—to which I would add “choice of post-it notes”—, which become “sites for feminist resistance,” acknowledged in their political charge instead of being written off as unimportant because of their everyday character.

Recently I went to hear Julie Maroh, creator of the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), speak about her practice and her new book. She talked about process a lot, and my favourite question asked her to describe her daily routine—what do the banal habits of working look like for her? She talked about mornings spent drinking tea at her desk while responding to email, afternoons of drawing or writing (rarely both activities in one day). She talked about going grocery shopping in the mornings. Staying up late to work. And then days when she feels like she accomplishes nothing at all, a frustrated feeling I want to learn how to let go of.

The small ways that we choose to work matter. What gets left out of conversations about art and labour, or about academia and precarity, is what this work actually looks like: what the rhythm of a day feel like, and how small habits and tiny practices become major ways of dealing with the ways that capital diminishes the steps that go into doing this kind of work. Steps like making a pot of tea to drink in your ridiculous chair.

“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political”: on feminist genres of expression

The other day I was talking with a friend who does a lot of art writing. Gabby was nervous about a text she had just submitted to a “serious” art journal. Worried it was “too personal,” she anticipated disapproving notes from her editor, a VERY SERIOUS LADY. I get it—art writing is notoriously detached and prone to posturing—but I also felt a bit of, “REALLY, is this still a thing!? We still have to feel self-conscious about making work that’s “too personal?”

I had just finished reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother (2012), a totally shattering account of the artist’s relationship with her mom, heavy on childhood gay shame and told against the backdrop of psychoanalytic and feminist theory. In it, Bechdel reflects on beginning her career with Dykes to Watch out For (1987–2008), a comic strip that represented her world but was at arm’s length from autobiography. Later she transitioned to working on explicitly personal material through her memoirs about her mother and father (Fun Home, 2006). She credits this transition to the influence of Adrienne Rich:

The question of “writing the self” is of course an old debate in feminist theory. Our French sisters—Cixous, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray—were all about l’écriture feminine, taking a poststructural approach to following the gendering of texts and language. American lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Rich told us about feminism by telling us about getting cancer, embodying the sting of racism, feeling ambivalent about the motherhood we’re supposed to love without question.

So if we already know all this stuff about women’s genres as bound up with autobiography, why the renewed interest in this debate right now? This is the question that’s been guiding a great deal of my reading over the last six months. I’m especially curious about framing this question in relation to media.

At the end of February I had the chance to help some super smart women—cheyanne turions and Hazel Meyer—throw together some readings for an iteration of the salon-style reading group, No Reading after the Internet, hosted on the occasion of Hazel’s exhibition No Theory No Cry at Art Metropole in Toronto. The centerpiece of the readings was Kate Zambreno’s “semiautobiography” Heroines (2012), a non-fictionish, experimental text that offers a speculative history of the wives of modernism—Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and others—set against Zambreno’s reflections on being the precariously employed academic wife of a tenure-stream research librarian. Zambreno writes with impunity about the necessary messiness of telling our stories; the body and the psyche figure prominently, and crying, sweating, avoiding the shower, getting our periods, or dealing with a rash are all valued epistemologies for communicating our emotional selves. Alongside Heroines we read selections from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). The reading group took place at Art Met; we sat amongst the work and began the reading by listening to Hazel talk about her practice, which is very much engaged with these questions about thinking through the body, the messy self, and the inseparability of emotions and politics.

As a blogger—Heroines began as online writing—Zambreno is interested in how her access to a network of other feminist writers, and her own publishing platform less bound to ideologies of genre, alters the experience of being a woman artist, but also raises totally unresolved issues from modernism such as “what is the work? Who is the author?” (282). She writes:

“Online we negotiate and navigate what it means to be a writer, for some of us what it means to be a woman… . Yet of course many of us don’t write every day. That’s why I think of this form as a form of l’écriture feminine: a rhythm of silence and raw emotion, these fervent utterings… . A dialogue, a communication: the Internet. So intimate. These writings are the shudderings of the ego and lamenting the wound. We blubber and ooze. Texts that are raw, vulnerable, bodily and excessive. Sometimes freaking out in public. We are naked, like Karen Finley. My blog at times feels like a toilet bowl, a confessional, a field hospital” (286).

For the last couple months this blog has turned into a series of images about feminism and computing or the Internet. This is partly about me being too preoccupied to do much writing, but it’s also a way of reflecting on Zambreno’s suggestion that networked computing is a key moment for feminist modes of expression. Now that we write or make art online we are simultaneously freed up from the isolation imposed by the gendered political economy of print publishing or art criticism, but also acutely aware of how some of the problems faced by the ladies of modernism stay the same across media forms: for example, women’s work can now be dismissed because it’s “just on tumblr.”

Computers appear often in Bechdel’s reflections on her process in Are You My Mother. Bechdel at her desk working on a series of macs over a twenty-year period is a backdrop that’s easy to miss in the text because it’s so quotidian; but then attention to the ordinary is sort of key to this whole question about feminist genres.

On that note, I’ll end this with an image from Are You My Mother.

Feminist Computing #3: Alison Bechdel’s macbook pro with ergonomic stand:

Feminist Computing #2: Eileen Myles’ “Old Computer”

Therapy by Eileen Myles

I like therapy because I don’t need my glasses
I can sit there naked like the animal I am
a beautiful honest animal
a landscape of rolling reasons.
So amazing that an artist would use a cup
for a prayer; and no less amazing
that another animal would choose to be one
I considered being a cup
somewhere in my journey
between stars and thinking changing fonts was a revolution
standing in my green kitchen
Four years I’ve been to sea
so much is left on the old computer
things written in that place
one night getting rimmed
and then she fell asleep
spending hours mopping up the next day
in place of doing work
missing a party after all
I say always go to the party
which doesn’t mean I do
some friends left early
I stayed and the sea spoke next