Feminism, Media Technologies, and Studio XX: An Interview with Kim Sawchuk

By Guest Editor Stephanie Tripp


Kim Sawchuk is a feminist media studies scholar and a founding member of Studio XX, a feminist-run new media arts collective based in Montreal. A professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University, she is the former editor of the Canadian Journal of Communication and co-editor of wi: journal of mobile media. Sawchuk’s work encompasses the roles of women in science and technology, as well as issues surrounding media technology access and use by women, elders, and immigrant communities. Her more recent research involves the use of mobile devices by older adults. During a Skype interview with guest editor Stephanie Tripp on March 22, 2013, Sawchuk discussed her collaboration in Studio XX, her research on women and technology, her work on mobile communications technologies, and her outlook on issues facing women working in new media today.

Stephanie Tripp: First of all, can you describe how you, Kathy Kennedy, Patricia Kearns, and Sheryl Hamilton came to found Studio XX?

Kim Sawchuk: I was finishing off my Ph.D. and had just gotten a job at Concordia in the communication studies department, but I had become involved with people who were not academics – I come from a non-academic family, and so my circles tend to be slightly different. I had become good friends with Kathy, who is a singer, and who has run for many years a women’s choir called Choeur Maha that emerged almost at the same time. Trish was a filmmaker, and Trish and Kathy and I were friends, and Sheryl became involved just a little later. She was a Ph.D. student who was doing work on cyberfeminism at the time, and I said, “I don’t think we can talk about cyberfeminism as a theory unless we talk about feminist practice.”

Kathy, who was an artist and a musician, and Trish, who was a filmmaker, were having discussions about the ways that their practices were being pressured into change through digital media. I also had seen as a student and in the academic environment the multiple fantasies and discussions going on around digital media technologies, including the promise of zeros and ones, and I thought, “We have to get on this. We can’t wait for things to emerge hoping someone would say, ‘We’re going to include you gals at some point.’” We felt that we needed to construct a space, not where we could say, “Oh, this is how we adopt and adapt,” but let’s have a space where we can first talk about technology and figure out in a more proactive way what we foresaw for ourselves.

Another important point here is context. Montreal at that point was a very vibrant space, and Kathy and Trish and I had belonged to a group called the Feminist Perverts. We used to socialize and concoct political activities to do together. For instance, when there would be changes to government policy, we would work with other women’s organizations in the city to come up with performative actions that we would do to raise public awareness.  Studio XX comes out of this environment that was already in the city.

So, really we started off with margaritas on a porch and by the end of our impromptu rant about exclusion, we said, “Let’s just have an open meeting and invite everybody we know to say, ‘This is what’s happening.’” It really started off that way. It started off as every two weeks modeled on the French notion of the salon and the salon culture. We just thought, “Listen, we’re just going to bring people in” – bring women in, and feminists in, and activists in – whose work environments were being transformed and who have questions, or who have other models of practice, who are doing things.

We got together informally at first, and then started thinking about equipment sharing, and hauling computers with modems into community centers telling people that “This is the World Wide Web, and you should know about it.” We were trying to find other alternative ways, outside of academia, that would actually make links between artists, activists, academics, and anybody. One of the exciting opportunities and challenges of living in Montreal is constructing a community within a state of very lively bilingualism and often a divide between French and English.

Studio XX had no space at the beginning, so we shared office space, and we brought in old computers, and we learned to refurbish them, and we just tried to create a structure and an environment, first, for discussion before we started saying, “We know what digital technologies we want.” So it evolved from a friendship network of feminists who were really thinking that we needed to actually make sure that we pre-empted the discourse before the discourse pre-empted us. We wanted to have knowledge and different kinds of knowledge sharing across the environment.

ST: It seems you had a lot of foresight that new media gets marginalized within the arts, and within the academy – at first, at least – and women, of course, within that. How did you respond to that marginalization?

KS: We were seeing things happening in new media arts festivals. I had written a little about feminism and technology and I had done community radio as well at that point. Someone from VNS Matrix was coming to the International Society for Electronic Arts, and that was happening in Montreal around 1995, and they wanted to be included and to make contact with other “cyberfeminists.” I don’t think that they were in ISEA at that point so I said, “We’re just going to invite you in.” We organized a public talk, served homemade Jell-O cocktails and Josephine Starrs brought her accordion. There must have been over 50 people there, mostly women. Josephine talked about what they were doing and we talked about what we could do. So from the get-go Studio XX was born out of a do-it-yourself, impromptu, responsive attitude. We’d see or hear of someone coming to the city and so then we would figure out what we make happen right off the cuff without too much money.

. . .

Right at the get-go we said, we know we’re feminists. What I think has made Studio XX live on is that that kind of core agenda. It has always asked critical questions about how we live in a technologically saturated world, with each other. We realized collectively that technology is a part of our society. “How are we going to foster a discussion about it?” – from a feminist perspective.

I think it means that Studio XX has managed to remain ‘flexible’ no matter what digital changes have happened. They have allowed themselves to move within that agenda in a very innovative way precisely because the technology wasn’t the only thing driving the organization. It was an important part of what was happening in the equation, but it wasn’t the only thing.

We have always been against the idea that one technology or media should replace all others. This influenced how we organized. For example, we  said right off the bat that we need to think about face-to-face communication, and not think about it as a deterministic line of inevitable media evolution and change. We wanted to have multiple forms of entry for people no matter where they were in the so-called digital spectrum. We also were thinking technologies are ‘in’ places. Montreal is a place. What kind of place is this? What do we need here? We were saying, even if we get into the online world at that point – networking was just being taken up – how do we also say that we need nodes, we need hubs, we need to recognize that a computer sits somewhere. And face-to-face meetings were still going to be important in this vision­– and getting together every two weeks to talk and do show-and-tells, and to have drinks, and great food, and formal conversation. Why not? It’s still a model that’s still there, in the bones of the organization, if I can say that. 

ST: In one of our initial e-mail exchanges, you remarked that you were really pleased that Studio XX continues to sustain itself with new people. What do you think worked to set that in motion?

KS: I think it was because it was started as a collective. There wasn’t a sense that it’s one leader. I think that we all had, also, a very committed feminist perspective that said we have to think about intergenerational sustainability. We asked ourselves “how do we build an infrastructure that will not need us?” When it’s time for you to move on because you want to do different projects, always make room for new people to come in so that they don’t feel like, “Oh, we have to just listen to the previous generation and follow their agenda.” This initial model of dialog from the beginning as well as the collaborative and collective nature of the studio facilitated this. I don’t mean to idealize. I mean, it had tons of bumps and still does – these things are not easy. But realizing that you really needed to know ‘when’ to step aside was super important. Realizing that there was going to be a new generation of women who were going to have a whole new set of skills and differences from us that we needed to listen to has also been vital and humbling.

ST: Are the conditions that motivated you and your colleagues to establish Studio XX in the mid-nineties similar to those facing women beginning their careers today? If not, how have they changed?

KS:  The environment is so different because the technologies are far more pervasive, I believe. At the beginning, we were talking about things people didn’t know about, and so there were different issues just in terms of acceptance and awareness. I think in some sense that it’s almost the opposite problem now. There’s too facile an acceptance of digital media as our savior. I think that the neoliberal agenda is also informing the discourse around new media technologies that wasn’t there when I started. Or maybe it was there, but I didn’t see it. The social conditions have changed. New technology is part of consumer culture in a way that is completely different. There’s much more general social awareness of and interest in new media issues, and it’s often seen as a panacea for a lot of different things, and so we’re living in a different kind of overall discursive environment for the work that needs to be done.

ST: Much of your recent work focuses on mobile communications, including your foundational roles in the Mobile Media Lab and wi journal. As a feminist media scholar, what about this “mobile turn” in our communications technologies do you find most compelling?

KS: I think when I discovered that there was something called mobilities as a research area it just helped me make sense basically of things that I had been doing since I started reading Rosa Luxemburg as an undergraduate in political science.  I always have been interested in the relationship between outcome and process and not working within a split between means and ends.  Luxemburg articulated the relationship between means and ends constantly. To me, mobilities is really just a different way of understanding this – it’s not just about where you’re going but how you get there that matters. That is completely commensurate with my feminism.

ST: I read with interest about your work with older people and their use of cell phones and how they embrace it in different ways and under different conditions, and how it’s important that they are allowed to do it on their own terms. Can you speak more about that?

KS: I’ve been working with a group called Respecting Elders: Communities Against Abuse (RECAA), where a group of women practice Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre. We are giving them training on dealing with digital cameras and creating weblogs and thinking about how they have to do other kinds of outreach and what’s appropriate for them, working in their specific context, with their particular desires and needs. It’s fantastic to work with these amazing super women. They are doing so much because of their sense of commitment. But I guess my real interest here is on how we might put technology into the hands of those who can and will use it in interesting and unforeseen ways. How can we set the conditions for this?

For example, one member of RECAA, Susie, recently died at 92 years of age. Anne, who works with RECAA, had recently gotten a cell phone. She had some training with the Ageing-Communications-Media network, which I helped to found, on camera work. Anne also had the knowledge and feeling that there are histories that need to be documented. Four days before Susie died – she told Anne,  “I need to send a message to President Obama about violence and gun control and how I feel about this.” So Anne said, “Well, I’ve got this cell phone. Let’s do an interview.” So Anne whipped out her phone and did this incredible interview with Susie four days before her death. She then edited it with a bit of assistance and put it up on YouTube. It’s not like the cell phone has made this possible. It’s a combination of things, and it’s the confidence and will that goes on to say, “We’re going to do this.”  This action did not come out of the blue. The material conditions were there. RECAA been working on digital passing of the camera for a year together. So when the moment came when it was needed, and they were in crisis, and Anne was distraught and Susie was sick, this could be done. That, to me, is “activist aging.”  We may think we know what’s going to happen with a technology. We have these scenarios and scripts that cell phone companies set out for its use.  But it’s these other moments of interruption into that digital discourse where these things can be given other purposes and used in other ways for things that I think matter, and in moments that matter. Those are the stories that also need to be told.

ST: It’s like that story takes these women from potential consumers who can be monitored, tracked with their preferences, their consumption habits, and all of a sudden, they’re mobile production units.

KS: Absolutely. That’s what we want! And also, with RECAA,  we came to realize that these technologies have incredible symbolic value. So, for example, they were working in the context of an inter-racial multicultural high school in Montreal known as James Lyng. It’s a kind of an alternative high school but it’s extraordinarily working class, located in Little Burgundy, which is the traditional African-Canadian area in Montreal. RECAA has a space there two times a week, and since they’ve been doing the digital production work, for example, or working with the cell phones and small cameras, the kids have become fascinated with what they’re doing. So now the kids from the high school don’t see them just as these old women who come twice a week to do theater, but also they’re figuring out joint collaborations. In fact, one of the first skits that they constructed together was about inter-generational communication. It was all about digital devices and cell phones on a bus. It’s brilliant.  RECAA know that they’re not outside of these systems – it comes back to Haraway –  of surveillance and power. So how do we negotiate spaces within that? How do we reconfigure things so that there are resistances, diversions, kind of what I call a tactical mediatization.

We’re talking about discussions with ordinary folks. I take that back. They’re not ordinary folks, they’re extraordinary folks, and how they’re taking up these things and how they might imagine taking them up is so amazing.  Because they have longer histories and ideas and different experiences, they come up with really interesting projects and insights. I think that’s also what we have to listen to. It’s tactical work. Maybe we’re not changing the entire global capitalist system. Patriarchy, we know, has not disappeared, but, nevertheless, we do what we can in the context in which we live. And re-do it, and re-make it.

ST: What are your thoughts about the documented decline in the number of women seeking degrees in the so-called “STEM” fields in the US? Also, what do you make of the emphasis on STEM? From a feminist perspective, are there risks in assenting to a taxonomy that defines work in “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” as separate from work that addresses science and technology in the humanities and social sciences? Is there a danger that some disciplinary approaches to science and technology are being “feminized”?

KS:  As feminists, we’ve been addressing this issue for so long. There were “women in science and technology” groups when I was a graduate student at York asking the same damn questions, to be quite frank. Some of the systemic stuff is so entrenched that  I fear that one more public awareness campaign is not going to make a difference. If women are located in the humanities, how can we foster a dialog where we also value each other?  When I work with engineers or science friends, we have to learn each other’s language. I’m learning their language as best I can, and I wonder if they’re learning ours. Maybe engineers should be required to work on projects with women, or with elders, or with queer communities, or with immigrant communities, so that they learn, in fact, what a critical take on science and technology would be from the ground up. Again, it’s like we’re always being asked to measure up to standards and hierarchies that are put into place. It is those standards and hierarchies of value that we do seem to be able to change in some ways. Are you going to keep asking why we are not able to fit into your agenda? How are you setting up science and technology in multiple ways that foster these exclusions and problems of access? Why are we devalorizing the work that is already being done within these fields on the humanities side?

Perhaps I am being overly polemical here. I am for learning science and technology. I am not saying this. I am just frustrated by the forgetting going on here.  It’s part of the larger problem in terms of also keeping people in school, of how science is taught in the early moments of kids’ lives to later on. I feel like we’re always closing the barn door after the horse has already gone, to use an old, hackneyed phrase, but truly so. So we come to universities and we wonder why are there not more women in science and technology studies. I don’t have an answer, but feminists have been asking this for a long time and maybe they should consult more deeply on what we have been observing for a long time. I just don’t know if that conversation has been happening.

I think that’s where the media arts can play a role, because in some ways that’s an “in point” for collaboration around issues of science and technology. I don’t know whether big solutions are possible at this point. Perhaps it is a matter of thinking, “OK, if we have a problem, how can we set up an experiment that might provide an alternative that then could maybe grow.” Organically and in small, meaningful steps. And we could also figure out on a small scale if there’s other kinds of educational possibilities that could not just make it appealing but make it meaningful for young women, or older women, or women from diverse cultural, racial or class backgrounds, people who are excluded from that agenda, to participate in a project together that would bring in their forms of knowledge and expertise that also may address those issues. At this moment, it’s not just the issue of women in science, it’s the issue of science itself, not just as a dominant enterprise but as a radical enterprise, to be honest, that we need to address. I think science is a public issue, and feminism is one part of it, and it should be part of that discussion that we have to address more generally. Sadly, and too often, the agendas of our universities don’t accommodate difference very readily. Industry itself doesn’t accommodate families and women deciding whether to have children or not so even if they get degrees and training they can keep them. It doesn’t accommodate women who don’t have children but who are dealing with aging parents. It assumes in these discussions sometimes a particular kind of subjectivity.  I think that’s partially the root, connected to existing hierarchies of power and the politics of everyday life that also need to be addressed as a connected issue to the STEM agenda

ST: In your work on women and medical imaging, you note how the labor of so many women in actually producing those images as illustrators or technicians has been overlooked and undervalued. Even today, it seems that the contribution of women working with new media technologies across a spectrum of fields isn’t fully recognized. Why do you think that is?

KS: There are larger discursive structures that have systemic impact that don’t necessarily go away if you introduce a technology. If something is transformed because you have an ecology of sorts then, of course, things are going to shift, but, we ask, for how long, and who ultimately is going to benefit? We haven’t gotten rid of that basic underlying sexist premise, that sense that if a girl is doing it, then it can’t be valuable. Look at the persistent wage gaps. These are clear indications that discourses have material-semiotic effects on people’s lives.

A family example: my mom worked in the banking industry. Of course, women don’t make money in the banking industry, especially thirty years ago. They are low-level managers and whatever. But when they were bringing video terminals in, they put women on the road, like my mom, who were responsible for setting up those early computers. And they’re not seen as having been part of the implementation of those new systems, but they obviously had some kind of level of skill and know-how and aptitude. So I think there are multiple things that women have done and are doing that aren’t seen as technological. Looking at the histories of working class women in technology probably is also another – which brings us back to class – an important area to reconsider as writers such as Virginia Eubanks remind us in their analysis of women and technology. These are other important areas and we need a fuller story so we are not just thinking about some fantasy of high-tech salvation. We’re thinking about what we even think about as a technology, what gets included in what we’re talking about, and also what gets valued.

ST: Do you have any concluding remarks or advice for women working in the arts and technology?

KS: Work collaboratively, and realize that it’s vital to set up learning environments that are not just supportive but challenging. Move forward but keep a critical eye on things. Have a wide variety of things that you’re capable of doing. Always ask who’s not being included, who’s being left behind.