String Figures is a project developed by Ailie Rutherford and Bettina Nissen to allow activist, feminist and creative groups working for social justice to support and strengthen each other’s work through de-centralised open-source networks centred on a principle of mutual care. This mapping process can be used with local and translocal collectives looking to further support each other in anti-capitalist work.
MoneyLab-String Figures workshop introduction by Ailie Rutherford
Over this past year I have been working with designer Bettina Nissen and creative technologist Bob Moyler to co-design prototype collaborative software for collective organising. String Figures takes its title from techno-feminist Donna Haraway’s metaphor for the inextricable threads that connect us all, and is centred on a principle of mutual care and co-operation.
Adapted from a print-block mapping toolkit I designed in 2016 for The People’s Bank of Govanhill – a feminist economics project in the community of Govanhill, Glasgow. The printing blocks we held in our hands and passed around while sharing food, sitting close and talking intimately are (for now) redundant. So I wanted to know if there was something of the intimacy of this process we could create digitally? Where we still feel connected and can work creatively to organise together online?
A lot has been written about care this last year. As multiple crises unfold and we work out how to reorganise our lives both online and off to meet our needs, the ways we connect and care for each other have shifted into new territory.
So much profit-driven work has been deemed essential meanwhile much of the work of activists, artists and community organisers is considered a danger to public health. We are stripped of our means of production, left with this feeling of impotency in the face of economic, social, environmental and health crises.
We need new ways to connect and care for each other but trying to build a new inclusive system of care on platforms owned by rich white venture capitalist men just feels counter-intuitive. Mutual aid facilitated by whatsapp groups, zoom and google docs looks like a sticking plaster on scarred and dismantled public services in a state that only cares about care when it damages profit, while enabling the surveillance capitalism nightmare to advance at a rapid pace.
It’s really important that we learn how to care better, look out for each other in times of crisis and incorporate that care, love and attention into every aspect of our lives and our activism. And to keep making space for pleasure and joy. But in working out how to really love each other in the face of a world driven by individualism and competition the care network itself is not enough. It is there to support us all and keep us collectively strong, to make our networks accessible and inclusive, to help us stay passionate about building the futures we need, articulate and raise our collective voice. But it’s not a substitute for revolutionary work. We still need radical systemic change.
Through the initial String Figures workshops, the busy maps and string figures we created together reflect the messiness of feminist working, the non-linear paths of creative practice, layered diagrams of things we need and ways to care together discussed, encrypted to all but the participants and only ever shared with full consent.
String Figures has been described as a space for collaboration that is joyful to use, that takes our thinking and our imagining into a different kind of virtual space, away from the head-fuck of the video call, where we can imagine new worlds together and make space to ask for the things we need as we build de-centralised support networks through visual diagrams
In workshops we started thinking about our needs in relation to our political work, and then moved more specifically into how we might meet those needs and achieve the collective aims we established. Some of our needs mapped were immediate, like “friendship and allyship” at a time when hate speech has risen. Other collective needs are longer term, like the idea of a funding syndicate where we might look to fundraise collectively as a community, working together rather than competing for funds. Finding radical new ways to be better allies, for those of us with fundraising experience to work in a community collective with people who have been excluded from funding applications due to language and other parameters set by neo-liberal funding bodies.
And we kept coming back to this conversation about the need to redefine collective action and collaboration in times of social distancing in a way that doesn’t draw us further into over-reliance on big tech.
As our every experience is commodified online and our inter-relationships are increasingly trackable, traceable, and data- mineable how can we take more care in our digital lives? what about all the unseen exploitation that allows us to work online and connect with each other; the energy, labour, land, mineral use and mining that make digital working possible.
We wanted to know how we extend our ethic of care and consideration, taking care to reduce the exploitation of real people and natural resources.
And how do we move towards a digital commons, one where our data is not owned by rich white men and used against us to control our thoughts and modify our behaviours?
Bob Moyler, the creative technologist on the project talks about “keeping it deliberately light” with no database. Our refusal to gather data through String Figures is not just about our collective privacy and avoiding surveillance (although these are vital too). There are energy and land implications each time data is sent or gathered. String Figures has no unnecessary server storage of data. The application only does what is absolutely necessary to serve as a conduit for the collaborative mapping process.
If the web 2.0 is a fucked up racist, transphobic, misogynist shit-show of extraction and exploitation, then let’s imagine the feminist tools of the new web, a digital commons where we can pull our collective resources to build the systems we need to support each other. A space where we are not mind-controlled by state-corporate collaborations but able to collaborate with our peers in a way that can never be owned or co-opted or sold back to us.
String Figures map of the offers and needs of the participants of the MoneyLab #11 workshop on March 28, 2021: