How can we build an infrastructure together? During this talk, we will focus on the acts of collective infrastructure making that have happened in Varia, namely our homebrewed server running our website, instant messaging service, etherpad, shared calendars, etc. We will contextualize these activities by shedding some light on Varia's collective statement and the shared goals of its members.
Presentation link: https://demo.codimd.org/Bd20QcfmQ6Kf2jURFG-5uw#
Images and diagrams
References on group conversations
WHAT IS VARIA
- NOOO2 Publication - Projects that set the stage for Varia:
- Ananas (proposal to call the Varia server Ananas) with:
- Instant Messaging Service
- writing emails together
- keeping meeting notes
- writing applications
- Welcome to the Federation
FUTURE OF VARIA
- Feminist Hack Meetings
- Digital Solidarity Networks
- Read and Repair
- Community Networks
- Pub Club
- Electronica Depot
INTRO: Good afternoonevening, we are Lídia and Cristina, two of sixteen Varia members. Thank you so much for this opportunity be in this company and to present Varia and its collective infrastructure. When we say infrastructure, we mean the digital, physical and, most important, social systems we have developed as part of our shared practices.
QUOTE: Infrastructure: To build a home or something that can sustain you from somewhere (unlike those offered on the market). To create communities in many places. Spideralex, Underneath and on the sidelines: Sustaining feminist infrastructures using speculative fiction
Although we are two people doing this presentation, we will be using texts and ideas written and developed in diverse occasions by the entirety of Varia members. Also, some of the pictures that we have been using for this presentation are taken from our group chat, they are the behind the scenes of what's going on in Varia.
We will start this talk by introducing the space, its activities and shared values. In doing this we will provide the background that explains our shared ways of working, supported (and at times hindered) by our homebrewed digital, yet very material, infrastructure.
WHAT IS VARIA (ccl)
*missing: how does the previous connect to the code of conduct, what is the relation to the infrastructure?*
- Where is Varia's home?
- Not here, but ... here.
- Sometimes it looks like this.
- And other times like this.
- Varia is a Rotterdam-based initiative launched in 2017. We work with free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) to encourage participatory forms of art and design making. The themes we are interested in span media literacy, media archaeology, technological interdependence, feminism, DIY culture, self-organization and labour activism.
- The initiative emerged from a group of five people who had the realization that there was an affinity of values and attitude among their members. They felt the need to open up their practices to other practitioners, and in the meanwhile Varia grew to be having 16 members.
- We organise workshops, lectures, concerts, or reading rooms. Our activities are guided by the concept of **everyday technology**. Focusing on everyday technology means questioning the hierarchies in place within technical objects and therefore the valorisation of skills needed to design or use these objects.
- Everyday technology means that a sewing machine is no less important than a laptop, that a tailor's work is by no means less meaningful than that of a computer scientist. Everyday technology means reconsidering the hegemony of high tech: cheap, artisanal solutions are our method of choice.
- With our work, we try to show that low-tech solutions can be complex, inventive and joyful. Everyday technology means to believe that not only experts should have access and decisive power in regards to how things should work. This is why we design and contribute to convivial tools, namely, tools that guarantee a certain degree of autonomy to their users.
- Everyday technology means keeping in mind multiple and entangled perspectives, needs, and aspirations when it comes to the understanding of a technical object. We are rooted in the context of art and design, but we actively try to build bridges with other fields. To do so, we encourage participation of people from varied backgrounds and disciplines.
- We want to:
- - work towards the eventual **disentanglement from the radical monopoly of Big Tech corporations** (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, among others) by collectively building digital infrastructures that foreground care and conviviality.
- - To **demystify the complexities of technical objects** and find ways to adapt them to the needs of different communities by providing a space for long-term, sustainable, critical, artistic, hands-on, **dialogical learning** about everyday technology.
- - To move away from the ideological dichotomies that inform the adoption and use of technology, such as "old" versus "new" media, "low" versus "high" tech, "smart" versus "dumb" devices. We focus instead on notions like **appropriateness, accessibility, maintainance, and public interest**.
- - To **transform critical thinking into action** by explicitly engaging with technologies which do not rely on exploitative business models and which promote non-discriminatory standpoints.
- Why is the COC important in relation to the infrastructures? It is a reflection of the shared values and ethics that hold varia together, but also a way to emphasise that infrastructure maintenance not only includes technical relationships, but also social ones.
- In the past years, more and more collectives and free software projects started to work with a *Code of Conduct*. A good example of this is Python Foundation, which made the presence of such a document a requirement in order to grant interested projects a sponsorship. With that statement, they triggered other initiatives to create frameworks to engage with complaints and social misbehaviour. The code of conduct is a set of guidelines that help establish shared values and ensure that behaviour that may harm participants is avoided.
- Writing a *Code of Conduct* was for us an attempt to answer the very important question: How do we resolve/identify/engage with conflict in a way that feels safe to those involved? The growing interest in the *Code of Conduct* within the field of software development and community initiatives gave us many examples to start with the writing of our own. However, as none of us had experience in writing a *Code of Conduct*, we invited ginger coons, *insert small bio for ginger* , as an external advisor.
- As Varia had grown from 5 initial members to the current number of 16 members, it was clear that we needed a document that could engage with unavoidable frictions. At the same time we also become more and more aware of our responsibility towards the people that visit Varia for public events. During these occasions anyone can walk into the space and any sort of trouble or frictional situation might emerge.
- Working together in groups is always a vulnerable social process. Writing Varia's *Code of Conduct* has specifically been important to acknowledge this vulnerability, as the document creates space for urgent conversations about power hierarchies and exclusions across the lines of gender, sex, race, ability, etc. Acknowledging the importance of tackling these issues, the Code of Conduct is an important first step towards ensuring the creation of a safe and inclusive work situation.
ORIGIN STORY (ccl)
- NOOO2 Publication - Projects that set the stage for Varia:
- Pics: https://vvvvvvaria.org/~ccl/pictures-of-varia/photo6008344555306463904.jpg , http://varia.zone/archive/2019-09-28-nooo2/P1910627.JPG , http://varia.zone/archive/2019-09-28-nooo2/P1910668.JPG
INTRO: To provide a contextualization of how the importance of needing a physical space and infrastructure emerged, we will briefly introduce a project that itself contains three other projects from a proto-Varia phase and which reflect on the benegits and some of the challenges of working together.
Three Takes on Taking Care is the second issue of Networks of One’s Own, a publication series initiated by Brussels-based cultural association Constant. The series is taken care of by related but independent collectives. For each of the episodes, it proposes different experimental and collective practices for situated writing, technical learning and (digital) publishing. Each issue is thought of as the release of a software stack, documenting a set of tools, experiences and ways of working.
Three Takes on Taking Care was an occasion to revisit three very different projects that have been important for the emergence of the physical space, and for its individual members: Bibliotecha, homebrewserver.club and Relearn.
- As we work with and around free/libre open source technology collaboratively, the authorship of the tools and research that we develop is shared, not just amongst us at Varia but also with a wider international network. Multiple agents are involved at different moments, with varying intensity and for a range of different reasons. This results in intricate interrelationships of ownership which complicate documentation and long-term maintenance.
- By collapsing maintenance work with publishing, we found a form that enabled this collective care work to happen and to spend the necessary concentrated time together.
- Pics: https://networksofonesown.varia.zone/Bibliotecha/images/BibliotechaAtVaria-arrows.jpg
- Bibliotecha proposes an alternative model of distribution for digital texts. It allows specific communities to form and share their collections, through a single-board computer running free software to share books over a local WIFI hotspot.
- Bibliotecha’s history begins in the Piet Zwart Institute, where there was an active culture of reading and sharing study material made available via a common bookshelf. While digital formats and the internet should make it easier than ever to share books, digital rights management and repressive copyright systems make the physical book paradoxically easier to share than its digital counterpart. In response to this came up with what would eventually be Bibliotecha, a digital library that was available via its own off-line network.
- Pics: https://networksofonesown.varia.zone/Homebrewserver.club/images/dontturnofthisisaserv2.png
- The homebrewserver.club started in 2014 after attending a few editions of the Rotterdam Crypto Party. While Crypto Parties were focused on encryption and privacy — essentially offering cryptography as a solution to surveillance and corporate dominance — there was a parallel interest to look at the more systemic issues of corporate platforms. Out of this interest the homebrewserver.club was founded as a way to learn about hosting one’s own on-line services rather than relying on corporate ones. Its members host from their homes rather than from data centers, for and with their communities rather than just for themselves.
- The club has worked as place for collective learning and skill building, where technological choices get contextualized on the axes political-economy and DIY amateurism.
HOSTING TOGETHER (ccl)
- Pics: https://vvvvvvaria.org/~ccl/pictures-of-varia/photo6008344555306463899.jpg
- Relearn is a collective learning experiment with as many teachers as it has participants, week-long gatherings that have been taking place since 2013. In 2017 a group of people now involved in Varia decided to organise an edition of Relearn in Rotterdam. It also happened again in 2019 and we are aiming to do it again in 2020.
- Conclusion: *how these connect to infrastructure making and Varia*
- All of these projects touch on topics that have become central to the making of our physical and digital infrastructure. From the development of bespoke tools for knowledge sharing exemplified by Bibliotecha, to the socio-political contextualization of self-hosting forwarded by homebrewserver.club and the pedagogical principles of Relearn, these practices continue to inform Varia's activities on a daily basis.
- In the following section of this presentation, we will see how these practically manifest:
Pics: http://varia.zone/archive/varia-server/IMG_4379.jpg , http://varia.zone/images/variaecosystem.png, https://vvvvvvaria.org/~mb/images/varia-digital-collective-infrastructure.png
We host some of our own services, while also relying on other people hosting theirs. In fact, we are more fond of the idea of interdependence than that of autonomy.
This is a picture of our current server in the space. It looks very inconspicious there in the corner, but if the electricity or internet is down in the neighbourhood, our main infrastructure is also down, the website is unreachable, out group chats stop working and so on. Some of the things we host on this server are the following:
- Lurk.org is a volunteer group that hosts, facilitates and archives discussions around net- and computational culture and politics, proto- and post-free culture practices, experimental, sound, new media, software art.
- The website is using a static file generator called Pelican and we use the Gitea interface to add content to the website.
- Static file websites mean that the site is generated once when content is uploaded, and not on the fly on the user's side. In this way it consumes less resources.
- Instant Messaging
- For our Instant Messaging Infrastructure, we are using Prosody, an XMPP server. XMPP is a communications protocol designed as an open standard.
- To quote from the homebrewserver.club article "Have you Considered the Alternative": "Such an approach, rather than suggesting a singular and proprietary solution, allows for the existence of different free and open source software servers which can be combined with different free and open source software clients.(...) These clients can range from general instant messengers to custom
- For example within the Varia group chat, these are the servers hosting Prosody that interact with each other.
- Hosting our own server also means that we can customise our services. Within some XMPP chats, we have hosted bots alongside the XMPP server. Some bots that add bibliography
- Etherpad is an online editor providing collaborative editing in really real-time. It has become central to how we organise ourselves. We take notes from meetings on the Etherpad, write emails together, write applications together. During the lockdown we also used Etherpad to hold collective reading events. This is an excerpt for example of a session held by one of Varia's friends.
- Hosting it ourselves means that we can experiment with making new interfaces for it. This is an alternative interface to the same text we were looking at before, but without authorship colours.
- We also use the Etherpump, a deviation of Etherdump, as an engine to generate html files. We are looking at the Digital Solidarity Networks pad translated to a html. Every hour the page regenerates itself based on the content of the pad.
- Our shared calendar is used to let each other know when we are using the space, when someone is planning an event, when deadlines are due, but also to share interesting events going on in the city. On the other hand, the calendar also points towards the vulnerabilities of hosting one's own services. Fo already a while, someone's client is acting up and deleting the events from time to time, so someone else uploads a back up copy to replace it again. Due to the lack of time to investigate this further, we haven't yet been able to figure out what causes the glitch.
- Welcome to the Federation lídia
WORKING TOGETHER ccl
- Pics: http://varia.zone/archive/2018-12-WttF-Mastodon-and-the-Fediverse/photo5791687760443190857.jpg , https://varia.zone/wttf/images/the-ecosystem-is-moving.worksession-0.jpg , https://varia.zone/wttf/images/the-ecosystem-is-moving.conversation-2.jpg
- Welcome to the Federation was a project initiated by Varia members Roel Roscam Abbing and Manetta Berends. In their own words: "Welcome to the Federation explores alternative federated ecosystems for online services such as social media and chat. (...) The WttF question is to explore how arts and design communities can play a supportive role in these processes by contributing skills, knowledge, time and exposure."
- In the context of this project, two events were organized:
- - The first, called "The Ecosystem is Moving", involved a lecture by and worksession with Daniel Gultsch, developer of XMPP-based messaging application Conversations, about federated instant messaging, open source software and the sustainability of open systems.
- - The second, called "Mastodon and The Fediverse", involved a worksession for translating and documentation of the Mastodon project and a public discussion providing a general introduction into Mastodon and the Fediverse, hosted together by an administrator of a large Mastodon community and an administrator of a small Mastodon community. It is important to mention here that this small Mastodon community is post.lurk.org, an instance for discussions around cultural freedom, experimental, new media art, net and computational culture, where Varia has an account.
- This relates back to the general philosophy of hosting together that is pervasive to Varia: the focus is more on the social and community aspect of the infrastructure and less on the technological aspect. In this case, a community that is closely related to many of our members (with some overlaps!) was already hosting an instance, so it would have been a waste of resources to be hosting our own. To quote from the homebrewserver manifesto: "we try to host for and with our communities rather than just for ourselves".
- Workgroups ccl
- As the infrastructure is being built, it supports and allows us to work together in different ways, one of which are the workgroups. Workgroups happen both with members and non-members and as opposed to events, happen on a long term basis. We will briefly mention a few to give an idea of what kind of things are going on.
- Feminist Hack Meetings
- Pics: https://vvvvvvaria.org/~ccl/pictures-of-varia/photo6008344555306463887.jpg
- The Feminist Hack Meetings are a series of research meetings and workshops that explore the potentialities and imaginaries of feminist technological collectives. These gatherings aim to challenge who counts as a hacker, and what counts as hacking. The diverse activities of these gatherings will include sociopolitical discussions around technology and feminism, storytelling, prototyping and skill-sharing, as well as art experiments.
- Digital Solidarity Networks
- Pics: https://vvvvvvaria.org/~ccl/pictures-of-varia/photo6008344555306463882.jpg
- Digital Solidarity Networks started within the context of the global pandemic as a shared listing of tools, practices and readings for digital solidarity and conviviality. It currently lives as one of the many pads on the Varia server and it contains examples of collective digital alternative practices, in a time where everything points to the further consolidation and accelerated normalization of the Big Tech industry (Zoom, Facebook groups, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc.).
- Pics: https://vvvvvvaria.org/~ccl/pictures-of-varia/photo6008344555306463886.jpg
Read & Repair Sessions is a type of reading club happening on the final Sunday of each month. Read & Repair Sessions have a focus on community building and self-organised learning through collective reading tactics. For these sessions, a guest is invited to share a text that connects to their research, which they discuss together with the participants.
- Other workgroups existing in Varia at diverse stages of development are:
- Community Networks, which focuses on Varia's relationship with the neighboring community
- Pub Club, which focuses on dialogical and generative publishing systems
- Electronica Depot, a community resource where members can purchase common parts parts at a low cost
- Although hosting our own services and being in a constant flux of making and remaking our infrastructure, it is of course not always a smooth process. Working on our own infrastructure also means that there are frictions sometimes: faulty syntaxes on our event announcements mean the website becomes unavailable every once in a while, quickly expanding log files have crashed our etherpad instance more than once, electricity failures and accidental pushes of the on/off button have temporarily sent our server to sleep. These occasions highlight not only the physicality on which our digital infrastructure is dependent, but also the amount of care and maintenance work necessary to keep things running. For this, we are dependent on the availability of our members, or their physical proximity to the server in cases of emergency.
- We don't consider, however, that this in any way detracts from the validity of our efforts: indeed, we are wary of smoothly running technology. Very often this obscures the intensive extractivism which allows it to run: appaling working conditions, depletion of natural resources, heavy environmental impact etc.
- Small-scale, community-focused and low-tech are our methods of choice not because we believe in isolationist perspectives, but because we want to give our contribution to the development of alternative approaches to everyday technology for the benefit of more than just a small minority. Slowly, we want to make Varia a home not just to ourselves but other communities too.