My discussion of tagging does not only account for hashtags or other textual labels. Another interesting practice that I believe is worth discussing is geo-tagging, the assignment of global positioning system (GPS) coordinates as metadata to a piece of content produced online. Through this function, an item – a photo, for example, but also a tweet or a Facebook message – can be linked to other items attached to the same location or visualised on map.
As geo-tagged items cluster and accumulate, their impact may have aesthetic and even political consequences: already in 2011, in fact, Jeroen Beekmans (of Dutch design agency Golfstromen [https://twitter.com/golfstromen]) was investigating gentrification dynamics through 4Square check-ins[https://www.behance.net/gallery/2522711/Check-In-Urbanism], while a couple years ago Brent Knepper has written about the impact Instagram geo-tagging is having on certain natural sights[https://theoutline.com/post/2450/instagram-is-loving-nature-to-death?zd=1&zi=qmce4yk7], all of a sudden exposed to unprecedented touristic influx that winds up spoiling them.
It is fair, then, to say that geo-tagging is a material actor within the “accidental megastructure” that Benjamin H. Bratton describes as The Stack [https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/stack] – a six-layer entity that connects the minerals being mined out of the Earth up to mobile phone users, through a complex lamination of globalised smart cities, digital interfaces, and ubiquitous addressability.
If the Stack is a brilliant conceptual visualisation of how software scrambles the concept of sovereignty worldwide, here I wish to understand how geo-tagging relates to a very different type of “politics of location”: the feminist concept introduced by poet and essayist Adrienne Rich in the 1980s and referring to the situatedness of female experience. The anti-universalist claim made by Rich – one can only speak from and for their own perspective and experience – has since become hugely influential on feminist, postmodern, and postcolonial theory, and has notably been adopted by Rosi Braidotti in her discussion of nomadic subjects and nomadic theory.
It is specifically because our experiences have become more interconnected and hyper-represented than ever, I believe, that it is useful to put these two differing perspectives in a productive dialogue with each other. For this reason, I have talked about how the practice of geo-tagging can become extremely fraught with feminist activist and academic Helena Suárez Val [https://twitter.com/ladelentes], who is doing a PhD at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at Warwick University. Helena’s research stems from her own mapping of feminicides – intentional killings of females because they are females – in her native Uruguay, an endeavour rooted in her background as both an activist and a programmer. By using geotagging to invest a location of the urgency that only the situated lives – and deaths – of victims of feminicide can give it, Helena is stitching together the Stack and the politics of location introduced by Rich. While not an artistic project per se, her exploration of geotagging also touches upon the political potential of aesthetics, among many other things.
Nicola Bozzi: What kind of data are you focusing on?
Helena Suárez Val: What I’m looking at right now are different spreadsheets that are used by governments or activists to record cases of “feminicide” – homicides of women where there are gender-related aspects. There are other names for the category, and that’s where the mess starts: sometimes it’s “feminicide”, others “femicide”, sometimes “feminicidal violence”… Governments still talk about domestic violence or gender-related violence, as well. There are different categories and characteristics, but they also overlap and interact in complicated ways. Especially in Latin-America, “feminicide” and “femicide” are used indistinctly, often with a slash as well (“femicide/feminicide”), which creates the mess. The mess is also in the data itself: how you record the data, what you record, what you call those things you are recording… I’m looking at those things in terms of categorisation, but also in terms of ontology as well – what entities and properties emerge from these datasets. And I’m trying to see if these categories and properties in the datasets actually correspond to the categories that these datasets claim to represent.
Nicola Bozzi: Is this all open data?
Helena Suárez Val: The government dataset was published as open data earlier this year and it refers only to 2018. I am also looking at my own records as an activist, which include data from 2001 to today – it’s not really open data, but the motivation to start this project also came after an invitation by WikiData to put data in there and make it open. By that I mean making it reusable, accessible… and one of the requirements is that there is a description of the dataset, metadata that makes people understand what the dataset is about. Open data is also a political movement, it has to do with transparency and accountability. You enter a different world.
Nicola Bozzi: Speaking of political movements, I’ve seen you’ve published papers on feminist cartography. As both an activist and an academic, which role came first and how did it inform the other?
Helena Suárez Val: The activist definitely came first. I did not enter into higher education until I was 40. I was a programmer, and in my 20s I started working with NGOs, but my main involvement with feminist movements was when I came back to Uruguay in 2012. Then I got super-involved, and one of the things I started doing was mapping these cases of feminicides as part of a collective work with other activists. After a couple of years, I decided that I wanted to think about it, so I started studying it. It emerged out of a need to create a communicative object that would be more visual, more interesting than a spreadsheet – that is what we originally had. We were coming out on the streets of Montevideo every time a woman was killed and the spreadsheet was only a part of our other activities. We wanted to have a visual representation of the cases and that’s how I started making the maps. It also started because of my own existing skill-set as a web developer: I had done some courses on data journalism and I knew how to use Google Maps and make infographics and so on. Because of the need and these skills, the map format came about. I also decided to come back to the UK – it’s curious, because I’m also trying to establish a distance from my work. I still continue to do it, but I’m not as involved, I do it remotely.
Nicola Bozzi: I see that your paper is about a feminist appropriation of GIS. Why did you think specifically of cartography? Why this type of visualisation?
Helena Suárez Val: I developed an answer after I started doing it. I did not want to make a map because it was a map, I wanted something visual. Somebody could say I could have made a graph, or a timeline. I knew Google Maps and I had taken this class, so I knew how to do it. Nothing is ever as simple as that, though, and in retrospect I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I’ve analysed other data collection projects by feminist activist on specifically gender-related murders and what I found in all these years of Googling different initiatives, is that most of the activist data representations from Latin America seem to end up being maps, whereas a lot of the activist representations from other places are different – it’s more difficult to find maps, it’s usually blogs or databases. I think there is a strong relationship with the map in Latin America: the whole notion of the map was invented with colonialism, and the so-called discovery of this new continent that was mapped and called America. So this idea of the map and colonialism and the territory are very, very important in the landscape of feminist activism in that continent in particular. For example, if we’re talking about the body as a territory – if you say that to a feminist in Latin America they are immediately with you, you don’t have to explain what you mean. And then you have the uses of the map as an activist form in Latin America, the emblematic upside-down map of South America created by the Uruguayan painter Joaquìn Torres Garcia. The simple answer is I knew how to do it, but also I am constructed as a feminist Latin American activist through all of these other linkages and interactions between the idea of the territory, colonialism, and the coloniality of gender.
Nicola Bozzi: This is also an intersectional dynamic, right?
Helena Suárez Val: Absolutely. There is this writer, María Lugones, who uses this term – la colonialidad del género, the coloniality of gender – and she uses the term interchangeably with intersectionality. We definitely understand violence against women as a product of gender in interaction with race, age, class, gender identity, and all these other categories. Mapping cases of feminicide is imbued in all that understanding. And, as a parenthesis, in a way what I’m trying to elucidate in my research is how much understanding really transpires through the maps – am I just holding it in my head and it is not conveyed strongly through these data structures? Am I, is the data, actually saying all the things I want to say, or do these structures come short in explaining all of it?
Nicola Bozzi: This makes me think – especially the urgency to have a visual element – about forensics and Forensic Architecture in particular, this counter-mapping they do. So I was curious to know what you think about the aesthetic element of your work, in terms of data and mapping as performative, which is something you also talk about. What is the role of aesthetics in your work, basically?
Helena Suárez Val: In some of my work I’ve taken inspiration from Bifo, he said something about refrain and ritournelle and poetics. I’ve looked at feminicide as a refrain, we chant in the street against it, it’s used as a rhetorical and poetic and aesthetic device. The flip side of that is the idea of rhythm, and these cases follow a particular rhythm, each location has similar patterns that you start to notice. There is a poetics in your work whether you like it or not, but I understand the point of whether it is intentional or not. That’s why I’m interested in reflecting a bit more on it, because what’s not happening in the mapping – because it was an urgent work, I did not pay attention to the visuality – is there are no “frills.” I used the standard Google markers, while in Mexico for example the markers have different colours, different icons… sometimes they use crosses, or guns or knives as markers. I think the aesthetics of it are something I’m interested in, because I feel I haven’t thought about it enough in my own work. I don’t like to make hard distinctions like “I’m an activist” or “I’m an academic”. “Artist” is the label that I resisted the most in my life, but actually what does it mean to be an artist? I’m a producer, I’ve produced theatre pieces, protest performances as well, so I’m very involved with artists. At the end of the day the aesthetic object exists insofar as there is an aesthetic encounter, so when someone encounters that map, will they see it as art, activism, a performance? It’s the encounter that will make it what it is.
Nicola Bozzi: That’s an interesting answer. Speaking of these encounters, I remember you saying you had some reservations about how much you were allowed or willing to show about each victim – to make them anonymous, to memorialise them…and also in terms of using a gun as a marker, then that person becomes somebody that was shot, not a person. What kind of data issues did you encounter, how open did you want the data to be?
Helena Suárez Val: That’s another good question and one that I don’t think can ever be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction, so I can only do it to my satisfaction. Is this an ethical way of doing it or my ethical way of doing it? I don’t know. Part of the discussion I had when I was invited to work with WikiData is: what is the data about? When you are foregrounding the violence – you put a gun or a knife – you make it into a thing. In activist’s works among which my work is situated – the mapping of feminicide – it tends to be the woman that is foregrounded. Showing data to represent the extent of the issue, but also to respect and remember the lives of these women. That’s super tense, because you’re straight away doing things that might not be “right.” You say you want to respect them, but by putting them in a map they will always be remembered as victims of feminicide, which they might not have agreed with, or their friends and families might disagree with. Somewhere in between is where I think I would be OK. Putting the data in WikiData is very important, since in order to understand the phenomenon you need data about the phenomenon, which is useful to formulate public policy, activist responses, or joint actions between activists and governments. What is representative is the case, the actual deed, something having happened, that is called feminicide and in which certain actors are involved. We’re thinking the data should foreground a fact, a deed, un hecho, and we are also part of that event, and so is the government, the media, the rest of society as passive onlookers. I don’t know how all of that can go into WikiData, I hope it makes sense.
Nicola Bozzi: Of course. Is your PhD centred on this project?
Helena Suárez Val: No, it’s broader. I’m proposing to look at Feminicidio Uruguay, but also projects in Mexico and Ecuador. I’m at a stage where everything might change, but I wanted to look at three or four different activist initiatives of this kind, including my own, looking at the political implications of visualising data in this particular way. In order to explore it together with other activists I’m hoping to lead or organise a series of workshops, also with programmers, academics, or government officials who are interested in data visualisation to work on feminicide as a category for data creation. That’s the idea at the moment.
Nicola Bozzi: In terms of the hashtags you’ve been using as an activist, what kind of dynamics have you encountered? Are they more, less, or differently effective than geotags? Does it pay to create new ones or follow existing ones?
Helena Suárez Val: In my project I chose three hashtags that I did not invent myself. I tried to avoid obvious ones like #FeminicidioUruguay, so I used #feminicidio, which is purely categorical – what is this? – and the other two are #MachismoMata and #NiUnaMenos. The first one is offered as a way of explanation: machismo is very known in Latin America and #MachismoMata does not leave room for doubt – although it leaves room for contestation and dispute, of course. It’s something I’ve seen used in Spain and in contexts related to violence against women, so by using this hashtag I’m also trying to insert the project in a wider online conversation. #NiUnaMenos is also related to feminist activism and it’s a bit more ambiguous – if you don’t know what it is, you wouldn’t understand it. It means “not one less (female)”, but what is this “una”, this female thing that we don’t want to miss? Of course, in Latin America it has become a rallying call against feminicide, so it’s very familiar in the region and now even outside the region. It’s even been on The Guardian, so it’s very recognised as part of feminist activism. All of these hashtags do not really say much if you look at them on their own, but the meaning you fill them with is feminist activism. I use those hashtags repeated almost ritualistically, I always put them in the same placing, in the same order – that’s part of what I am, a bit of a control freak. What I feel I am doing is naming the issue, explaining the issue, and calling out for feminist activism.
Nicola Bozzi: That also taps into that rhythm, ritournelle you were talking about earlier. In terms of the more theoretical aspects of your work, how do you place it academically?
Helena Suárez Val: I’m at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies and one of the reasons they were interested, and why it is suitable for my project, is because the proposal is to study the visualisation of data about feminicide as a methodology to study feminicide, as well as for activism. And it is an interdisciplinary one – it involves theory, knowledge of technological practices, political strategising – I’m studying an interdisciplinary methodology from an interdisciplinary perspective. But I have no idea yet of what it will be and how much I can do. I’ve been interested in new materialism, as you’ve seen, I’m still interested in that idea of non-human agency in all of this, and I guess you must be interested in how tags have a life of their own. Then my methodological proposal is to do this series of workshops, also asking: how can a workshop be a method? The presentation of the workshop as a method – how do you study as you do?
Nicola Bozzi: In terms of the performativity of mapping?
Helena Suárez Val: Doing the maps is performative also in the way that you are thinking about, it’s a performance. I went into it a bit more in my MA dissertation at Goldsmiths. There is a performance in making the map, I can’t just make it. I receive an alert, a news item, and I say “OK, this looks like a new case”. I have to put myself in the position where I’m doing the map, the way I’m sitting… Am I crying? I used to… If someone watched me or any or the other women doing this, they would realise there is a performance of emotion and activism. And of course the map becomes performative, it generates other emotions on the other side.
Nicola Bozzi: In terms of actualisation and performativity, with this premise if you stop doing it people might look at the map and think “Oh, this is feminicide, these are the people who were killed” and maybe there are 100 more people who’ve been killed. So in a way you have a responsibility to keep it up? Although anybody can contribute, right?
Helena Suárez Val: That’s part of the reason why we are having this discussion about structuring the data to minimise the risk of people being assholes, for example by vandalising the records related to actual human beings. But there’s more to the performativity of the map and actualising feminicide. It actualises the idea of a woman, an idea of this country… Because we’re using Google Maps, it works very much within the frame of this particular state configuration, and what is interesting and dangerous of this use of mapping as an activist tool is that the mapping kind of fixes this territory. In the Feminicidio Uruguay map there are a few cases of women who were murdered outside of Uruguay but were Uruguayan women. It’s just a few cases, but it already troubles this idea of the map. The fact that it’s just a few cases actually makes it worse. What is the map recording? Is the map showing cases of murders of women in Uruguay or of Uruguayan women? It’s very unstable, but it looks very stable. What is a woman, what is feminicide, what is Uruguay?