Collective Infrastructures: How to Understand Collectivity
Ål Nik [Alexandra Nikolova]
From March 10 to 13, FIBER organized a four day meeting place for artists, designers, creative coders, technologists, researchers, energy experts and policy makers who are committed to, or interested in, working towards a fossil-free and fair internet. The aim of the Natural Intelligence Lab was to fuse existing practices, skills and knowledge, and to form new alliances. In order to start addressing these questions, the lab explored four interdependent and sometimes overlapping research areas: Energy Literacy, Everyday Technologies, Collective Infrastructures and Fossil-Free Imaginaries. Alexandra’s piece connects to Collective Infrastructures by looking at how to find new modes of collaboration and build bridges between existing practices. Radical changes need a collective spirit.
In our search for an internet that can operate within the ecological boundaries of our planet, while also being fair and equal to users, it is clear that a collective way of designing and building digital infrastructures is a necessary paradigm shift. If we are to educate ourselves about how to nourish a low-carbon internet, collaborative endeavours are necessary.
Collectives play a vital role in creating and establishing practices. In a world where we are often confused or even lost about what is best to do in terms of hardware and software choices, trust in our community is something we can rely on. After all, aren’t we often inspired and influenced by the people around us?
On a personal level, working within collectives helps us to discover new tools in a highly participatory way. For example, if we are to address the issue of what personal daily practices have a disastrous impact on the planet, we can cover more if we do it with a group of people. The exchange of ideas, opportunities and knowledge is only possible when there are multiple inputs and therefore more possibilities to grow. However, the basis of any change is only truly possible from the local level and it can only be sustainable if it is coming from a particular need.
There are some 13 different angles to look at collectives, proposed by researchers and designers Cristina Cochoir and Manetta Berends. They presented their work at FIBER’s Natural Intelligence Lab, all of which were described in the zine “Infrastructures of Collectivity”. In order to explore them, Cristina used a Python generator for random choice from the chapters. In the hour we had, we managed to talk about seven of them.
Cristina and Manetta are part of the Varia collective: a Rotterdam-based initiative, which started in 2017 of the need to open up their members’ practices and organise ad-hoc public or semi-public moments among different configurations. They aim at developing critical understanding of the technologies that surround us.
The term “collective” can be understood in a rich variety of ways. How does a group of people come together? What shapes the way in which a collective functions, and how does a collective evolve to epitomise the goal of their shared existence? Every step in the journey offers an opportunity to re-define what we mean by “collective”. Varia approaches collectivity as also being entrenched within our daily work and lives, engaging especially with the digital environments we spend so much time in.
While there are boundaries we draw between ‘us’, the humans, and ‘them’, the machines, creating a combined entity can enhance both, enriching the social with the technological. For instance, chatbots can be part of collective conversations that build up to an html page which expands over time. Such approaches are used by Varia at events to help people to keep in touch during and after them.
The role of the artist within our present cultural societal reality is bound up with individualised work, competition and prestige, all of which are necessary to leave behind if we are to build collective practices. The difference between a network and a community lies within its identity — the latter shapes a shared one.
In order for people or even whole communities to cross paths, they need to have a space to gather. A place with open doors and infrastructure to accommodate them, to create reasons to hang around and space for them to have a conversation. Jennifer Gabrys defines community as “multiple entities effectively resonating within and experiencing a shared register of world-making”. The act of making and co-creating gives a great purpose to people to become a group, a team and eventually a community.
Collective as in: being unavoidably part of an extractive global computational infrastructure
As individuals, we are constantly dependent upon major infrastructures in order to communicate with each other and to reach out to close ones. Those computational infrastructures are navigated by big tech companies, politics, and the economy. The next step for us is to understand our dependence and look for alternative ways to become less contingent.
The possibility of open licences
Open licences such as the free, livre or open-source tools, create an unique opportunity for any creation to grow. Authorship does not necessarily need to mean ownership. The default licence we all put on our work is copyright, but what if we reconsider and open for use at least part of it? That will save an extensive amount of energy, effort and is a way to build communities and collectives along the way.
A network of networks
One of Varia’s latest projects is ATNOFS: A Traversal Network Of Feminist Servers. Its goal is to bring visibility and public dialogue to how we engage with unused digital tools, or how to develop new ones. How can we strengthen our bonds and build new ones? The travelling server of this project will go around the partners of the project to document their efforts, events and reflections.
Octomode is another project of Varia that is a digital space for co-production. In this method everyone uses Etherpad — an online text editor — to write and design collectively. Thus, altogether, the individual contributors form one voice.
How do we start to work collectively?
In order to fully embrace a collective identity, we need to leave aside our ego and individualism. Building collective practices can work only if we share and care. It doesn’t work with competition. Joining or creating meeting places for people who want to co-create gives us a purpose. As an individual, but also as a group, we can already begin to question the major infrastructures, such as the most famous applications and software we are using. We can also start looking for alternatives that are created by small collectives. Open-source software is already a solution in our exploration journey. If we are not ready to build it ourselves, we can look for others who are already doing so, and join with them. And make (a change) together.
More About Alexandra
Alexandra is a mixed media artist who developed an interest in ways of building sustainable art practices online. Her art and illustration practices mainly take place in the digital space. To find more experimental and disruptive ways to create digital content and publish it, Alexandra recently joined the masters programme of Experimental Publishing (XPUB) at the Piet Zwart Institute. At XPUB she is looking into the ethics behind hardware and software usage and how to make educated choices when building up practice and work. This complements some of her recent projects, which tackle important social topics. For instance, in 2022 Alexandra started design and illustration work on a European campaign on raising awareness about ecological problems in communities that need to be addressed in the climate change crisis.