exploring feminist hacktivism with deep lab

The community of cyber-feminists are taking on security, capitalism, and class.

by Wendy Syfret
20 July 2015, 5:05am

Deep Lab call themselves a "congress of cyber-feminist researchers". What that means in practice is they're a group of young women, committed to challenging attitudes around privacy, surveillance, code, art, social hacking, race, and capitalism in the 21st Century. While there is a seemingly endless flow of conversation about the changing face of feminism in 2015, it's hard to think of anyone else who's thinking as originally as its members. i-D spoke to Addie Wagenknecht, Harlo Holmes, Joana Varon, Allison Burtch, Joana Varon, Jillian York, Simone Browne, and Claire L. Evans about digging deeper and never asking for permission.

The following conversation has been edited for length.

Inside the studio

People use the term hacker incredibly freely, how do you define it?
Addie Wagenknecht: Systems create control and at the same time create methods of how that control can be defied and subverted. I see hacking as deeply stigmatised. The media's notion of a hacker is someone who is either a criminal or a terrorist. Formulating a shift for that collective narrative has been a complex and challenging process which is just starting to happen.

It feels like people don't see hacking as an automatic act of aggression anymore.
Harlo Holmes: One of the most interesting shifts in the perception of "hacking" is that the craft is emerging from being primarily the weaponisation of computers to becoming a self-defensive practice. This is unsettling for some people; to accept hacking as a personal exercise of one's individual right to control, means accepting a shift in power dynamics. Hacking was seen as something that "gets done to you". Now, it's more clear that hacking is something "you just do" if you want to maximize what you get out of the stuff you buy, or the systems you participate in.

You call yourselves cyber-feminists, how does feminism intersect with hacking and your work?
Harlo Holmes: I've been working with a lot of journalists lately, and getting a peek into how press organizations handle opsec (Operations security) has piqued my interest in this intersection. I was once approached by a female journalist whose devices were teeming with little digital diseases, making it impossible to do any work. She does a lot of highly-sensitive work. After her devices are cleaned by forensic specialists, we go over the nuts-and-bolts of digital security (full-disk encryption, GPG, Tails, 2-factor authentication). I also have to remind her about taping up her webcam because an attack over social media with plenty of salacious "selfies-via-RAT (remote access tool)" would give her adversaries a kind of leverage her male co-workers don't usually have in their threat model.

At the Deep Lab Residency

You cover privacy, security, surveillance, anonymity and data misuse. These are seemingly pretty universal concerns, how do they relate specifically to issues around feminism?
Jillian York: Surveillance is a function of power, and that power affects us differently as women, as it does people of colour, religious minorities, and so forth. In the past two years since the Snowden disclosures, it has felt as if surveillance is something Americans have just discovered, something that affects us all equally. And that's not true. Many communities have been aware of surveillance in their lives for a long time. Women are often cognisant early of the importance of anonymity, because we know what life online can look like if we don't protect our identity. I see Deep Lab as part of a growing movement including gender, and race, and other factors, in our conversations about privacy.

Still from a drone painting performance Deep Lab put on with the New Museum

You're also researchers, what are you researching at the moment?
Jillian York: I'm researching the effect that increased corporate control of the Internet—Google, Facebook, and the like—has on nude art. My thesis is basically that current digital restrictions are worse than the fig leaf of the Victorian era, because nude art has almost universally disappeared from these spaces, rather than being simply covered a bit.

Addie Wagenknecht: I'm looking for a holy grail facial serum, perfect bedding, and where I can run away to for a few weeks in October.

Harlo Holmes: I'm continuing my research into opsec in newsrooms as a Digital Security Trainer with Freedom of the Press Foundation. I'm also knee-deep in a project using the Blockchain to notarize metadata in footage from citizen witness video and images.

Claire L. Evans: As the resident awed witness, I am researching for a book-length project about the history of women on the web.

Joana Varon: I'm doing applied research on the status of privacy protection and surveillance in Latin America. I'm doing it through a network of civil society organizations under antivigilancia.org community and some partnerships. Only in collaboration we can track the scene. That involves analyzing data protection laws; the importance for encryption and anonymity for freedom of expression; the (lack of) responsibility of ICT companies to enforce encryption and promote privacy; understanding the surveillance industry and tracking new cybersecurity policies.

Allison Burtch: I'm trying to figure a way out of this mess.

Simone Browne: I just finished a book of the surveillance of blackness that will come out in the fall. Now I'm looking toward fashion and styling a critique of anti-surveillance clothing and "wearables", like wearable computing and/or recording devices, such as ankle bracelets, Taser-proof clothing and Nike's FuelBand.

In your opinion, what is the biggest global concern right now?
Allison Burtch: That we're post-democracy. What's to be done when everything is impossible?

Simone Browne: Warming, water, capitalism, debt, white supremacy.

Joana Varon: The lack of concern on things that really matter, like a way for humanity to evolve sustainably, sharing a spirit of community. We don't seem to understand that sharing is the only path for economic, environmental and even psychological sustainability.

At a Deep Lab residency last year

What are you afraid of?
Harlo Holmes: Gentrification. Gun violence. Disappointing my mom. Extinction events.

Claire L. Evans: An Internet that isolates us instead of connecting us. The ascendancy of a tech culture that reframes art as content and devalues the work of artists, earthquakes, and drought.

What are you looking forward to?
Harlo Holmes: Growing old in this community, with this community.

Addie Wagenknecht: I think we have a lot of adventures ahead of us.

Simone Browne: Deep Lab's next step and the possibilities of collective imaginaries.

Allison Burtch: I'm super grateful for these friends. 


Text Wendy Syfret

deep lab
cyber feminism