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Speculative Design for Marginalised Communities

And we're off! AoIR 2015 proper starts with a keynote by Micha Cárdenas, who begins with a choice: as the planet is dying, do we want to stay in hell or move to an ice planet? By popular vote, hell it is.

But hell is, well, hellish, and unbearable, and now we're offered a chance of the ocean moon or the ice planet – this time, we're choosing the ocean moon (and this is all highly interactive, with audience members literally racing up to the podium to choose our adventure).

This is a performance of an interactive hypertext fiction piece, of course: Red Shift, a science fiction story about a trains woman of colour leaving her dying planet. Micha uses this to highlight the plight of trains women of colour, who need the justice that comes from media coverage of violence against them, but at the same time often desire invisibility. Can art, and digital art at that, provide help and support?

Micha now shows some of the art created on these themes, such as Cindi Mayweather's The Alpha Platinum 9000, featuring a colour-shifting androgynous android. Similarly, some trans women of colour are being celebrated in the media, yet, trans women of colour remain amongst the most targetted groups amongst the LGBT community.

A focus on the static state of visibility or invisibility is insufficient in a mutable environment featuring a flickering signified. Shifting one's visibility is a common feature of the experience of groups like trans people, and this is reflected in the art addressing their experiences as well.

Bodies in the contemporary world are networked, tracked, surveilled, and the result of that networking is often a form of violence. There is a link here to operations like cutting and stitching, which disconnect and reconnect individual entities. The poetics of digital art engage with this.

Some of this stitching originates from the design of wearable electronic garments; art and design overlap here. Some of this is purely utilitarian, but some of it deliberately aims to change social conditions. This in turn is critiqued as utopian, and referred to by some as 'tactical gizmology'.

Electronic objects are combinations of matter and logic, and Micha proposes an algorithmic model to understand the experiences of trans women of colour: algorithms guide the interactions between objects, and may challenge or reproduce specific systems of thought. Algorithms can be used to model experiences of violence, and to highlight and expose the underlying structures that drive such violence.

An analogy for this are Adam Harvey's Stealth Wear garments that are designed to disrupt the thermal imaging used by drones, but are priced well out of the reach of the people who may be interested in wearing such garments. Zach Blas's Facial Weaponisation Suite provides face masks that disrupt facial recognition algorithms. Here, the act of stitching in such speculative design projects effects a disruption – a cut – to typical surveillance techniques, but this work has been criticised for largely focussing only on issues affecting white middle-class groups.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater has created the Transborder Immigrant Tool to support immigrants attempting to cross over into the United States, using mobile phone apps to help immigrants find water caches in the desert while avoiding detectable Internet use. (Glenn Beck said that this work would destroy the nation – high praise indeed.)

Micha's own Local Autonomy Networks involved wearable technology able to create autonomous mesh networks, which are able to escape NSA surveillance because they use only local routing. Wearing these garments, the networking would enable a group of people to disperse and regather as signalled by the garments, and this models the practices of groups exposed to violence against them; presenting these processes at art events patronised by comfortable majority groups in society adds a further dimension to this initiative.

Another project explores the use of Kevlar, which supposedly makes garments bulletproof. This ties into movements such as #blacklivesmatter, protesting police brutality against black people, who might need bulletproof clothing – but at the same time much of the current market for bulletproof clothing in the US is with survivalist and white supremacist communities.

(We're now being shown a video of how these garments were tested using various types of firearms.)

In order to support trans people of colour, then, the strategies that trans people of colour use every day to survive should be highlighted and valued, especially also in the digital poetics of the projects that address them.

(OK, not sure I covered all of this, but I hope it got the gist of it.)