An Online Archive & Anecdotal Encyclopedia for Trans-Feminist and Queer Artists, Activists and Audiences

This project is dedicated to the challenge of creating digital spaces that can house and encourage feminist, transgender and transsexual and queer cultural and affective archives. Following recent critical digital humanities studies (including Drucker 2009 and McPherson 2012), we believe that such a task involves re-thinking the logic of computational design and reshaping the existing architectures of digital space in order to accommodate and enable the intra-active knowledges, feelings, social lives, politics and cultural productions that trans feminists and queers value (Barad 2007). With Johanna Drucker, we are drawn to the “speculative” in order to reflect our concerns about the ways in which the inconvenient complexities of humanities-based trans feminist and queer epistemologies run the risk of being subordinated to the technical limitations of what is “possible” in a digital environment. Indeed, striving towards the impossible is often the only survival strategy that queerness knows (Muñoz, 2009).

The Cabaret Commons – An Online Archive and Anecdotal Encyclopedia for Trans- Feminist and Queer Artists, Activists and Audiences will be the proof-of-concept stage of a broader critical research creation project entitled “Feeling Speculative in Digital Space: Building a Feminist and Queer Online Archive.” As a proof-of-concept, The Cabaret Commons is an experiment in mapping what we call, riffing on Karen Barad (2007), the “aesthetica-erotica-ethico-onto-epistem-ological implications of the “digitizing process.” That is, this project imagines the (im)possibilities of and for a mixed-use—part built, part user-generated—digital (anti) archive (Diana Taylor 2012) that will animate and activate the artistic, cultural, social, sexual, knowledge and subject experiments and possibilities opened up (and foreclosed) by relational phenomena like trans- feminist and queer cabarets and street protests. Our work here is dedicated to researching, imagining and creating a set of priorities and initiatives for a digital architecture, inspired by the imaginative leaps made possible by the field of speculative computing, and driven by trans- feminist and queer ways of knowing and being—modeled on affective networks including social scenes, aesthetic practices and political feelings. Our methods are process-oriented: we blend speculative design, performance and activism studies, trans- feminist and queer digital media praxis and research ethics. 

Throughout this research process, we work with trans- feminist and queer artists and activists and their archives to develop these priorities and initiatives to produce a “speculative wish list.” As a proof-of-concept, The Cabaret Commons will be based on this wish list; throughout the process we will collaborate with CWRC team members and other stakeholders to develop interface and metadata management goals for an expansive trans feminist and queer digital humanities learning-research-creation environment. Rather than resolve the many paradoxes that we encounter throughout this process, we accumulate, articulate—gather and extend—to attend to them. Furthermore, The Cabaret Commons is as much a project about digital archives as it is an archive itself; we hope to develop a digital space that will not collapse, or render invisible, the difficulties or, harkening back to Judith Butler, the “troubles” of both the digitizing process itself and of the feminist and queer performances, actions and moments that we seek to “house.” The process of “Feeling Speculative in Digital Space” and The Cabaret Commons is to explore, collaborate and network with innovative and critical humanities scholars, artists, programmers and designers (like those involved with CWRC) as we contemplate new digital environments that might accommodate contemporary trans feminist and queer cultural productions as well as political, cultural, social, intellectual and epistemological projects in the humanities. Through software models of social networking, temporal mapping and innovative metadata management, the networked artifacts of the Cabaret Commons we want to configure ways for this “anti-archive” to searchable, for example, through coordinates like feelings, fund-raisers, political commitments or off-stage activities (i.e., hooking up at the bar): imagine Alice Pieszecki’s The Chart from The L-Word, but for artists. It will map these feminist and queer networks not only spatially and temporally, but also by affinity and affect. That is, an artist could pop up on The Chart that maps hits for “Montreal” or “May 7, 1999,” or “Femme,” or “Clown,” or “Anarchist,” or “A performance that made me cry.” A note on terminology: This project lives at the intersections of “trans- feminist and queer” in order to name the affinities that are being articulated through a set of intergenerational, transnational and intermedial cultural and political practices. These practices—for which the cabaret is both format and epistemology—are explicitly trans- feminist and explicitly queer. That is, they mark the convergence of an important set of transformational structures of knowing and feeling: they are trans-loving, anti-racist, de-colonizing, lesbian-and-bi-positive, anti-capitalist and deeply committed to a criticality that defies the neoliberal rhetorics of postfeminsm, heteronormativity and homonationalism.

Importantly, our work with CWRC has given us the opportunity to think beyond simply who and how our collected materials are interacted with, once they become public in an online archive. As we were working with the technological aspects of digitizing our materials and uploading them to CWRC, we became intensely aware of some ethical issues that we first needed to address before moving ahead with the project. For example, it became clear that we need to address the labor issues at stake in the relationship between academic researcher and artist collaborator, and be transparent about the economic factors at stake in what we called  “The Labor of Being Studied.” We also became very aware of the interplay between questions of the technical aspects of the materials that were available – often low-quality or degraded videos and photos of live performance that were not always representative of the performance as a whole – and the ethical dimension of publishing in an open access format, materials from performances that were only ever intended for small intimate audiences within trans- feminist and queer scenes. To publish this material online would expose them to a potentially limitless audience. And as trans-people, queers and feminists know, exposure – online and otherwise -- is often a dangerous thing. This connection between the technical capabilities and ethical consequences of building a digital archive continues to shape our research. For this reason, our CWRC site remains a workspace, a sandbox and site of experimentation for our research team and is not open to the public.

The CWRC team has consistently supported our use of CWRCspace as a site for curiosity-based research and has allowed us the necessarily prolonged pace to pursue questions as they emerge, about ethical engagements with the digital drive. CWRC support has enabled us to think through the techniques of digitizing a wide range of audio-visual materials – videos and photographs in multiple formats and in various stages of decay, as well as handbills, emails, and newsletters. It has also allowed us to continue this work as a largely speculative undertaking, as we move into our current research phase, which is to collaboratively design a reflexive, responsive and accountable set of community protocols for the digitization and online publication of materials that originate in the intimacy of trans- feminist and queer spaces. 

Key publications: 





"Building Community Ethics Protocols for Trans- Feminist & Queer Digital Archives." Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies (FLAGS), Yale University, 2016.  ​​​​

"Reception Ethics: Building Audience and Performer Interaction for the Cabaret Commons."  Digital Humanities Lab Seed Grant, Yale University, 2016. 

“Feeling Speculative in Digital Space: Building an Online Feminist and Queer Archive.” SSHRC Insight Development Grant, 2011.