String Figures is a project developed by artist Ailie Rutherford and design researcher Bettina Nissen with creative technologist Bob Moyler 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. The mapping process and symbols are the work of artist Ailie Rutherford.
Creative Informatics funding allowed us to develop a short digital pilot to test out an initial version of the collaborative mapping software developed from Ailie Rutherford’s print-block mapping work.
The aim of the String Figures pilot project which the Creative Informatics Small Grants enabled us to develop an early stage version of a mapping software, taking Ailie’s mapping work as a starting point and looking at how a digital mapping practice could support online collaborative discussions and mutual support. This work follows on from Ailie and Bettina’s Crypto-Knitting-Circles community centred research project in 2019.
For the String Figures pilot project, we worked with Furtherfield (London) and Guerilla Media Collective (Spain) and iteratively designed the digital mapping tool throughout four pilot workshops. This allowed us to develop and test out an early piece of software working through both technical specifications and restrictions as well as the workshop model for facilitating the mapping practice online. Through early experiments with existing online tools, we realised that a custom, more intuitive way of interacting with others is needed and more aligned with our art and design practices. A simple yet strong aesthetic and visual language was needed to focus people on the discussion the mapping practice aims to facilitate rather than being distracted by the practical elements on how to use the tool.
Dragging an arrow to connect a need to an offer is like opening a conversation. The tech acts as a prompt for human conversation
software needs to be easy to use but I’d like to see it become messier too (like the tentacular webs Haraway talks about)
Throughout the development, co-design and experiment phases we explored different design elements and aimed to design responsively with the aims of objectives of a network for mutual care in mind. Over the course of the workshops we refined both the design and workshop delivery of guided mapping activities. Overall, the digital mapping practice facilitated conversations around shared interests, needs and potential mutual work. The mapping process works as a way of initiating and facilitating conversations about exchange and mutual support across different like-minded groups. The workshop participants saw that “the tool facilitates human to human interaction” further asking “Can a tool build community?” During the workshops and the different stages of the pilot software and the resulting discussions about each other’s projects, practices and needs were initiated by the mapping tool and “dragging an arrow to connect a need to an offer is like opening a conversation. The tech acts as a prompt for human conversation”. With the aim of the mapping tool to offer support and mutual care the initial prototypes were built on very simple and intuitive interactions, similar to the accessible stamp mapping practice. However, one of the workshop participants also highlighted that the “software needs to be easy to use but I’d like to see it become messier too (like the tentacular webs Harraway talks about)” highlighting the more entangled practices and relationships it represents.
Points and Questions raised through the pilot
We found that during the initial workshop, some participants were quick to experiment and explore the tool themselves. However, others internet connections were not as quickly updating the mapping tool as others with faster internet connection, so we quickly realised the need to move at the pace of the slowest internet connection in the group and to remain mindful of this throughout workshops. From this initial prototype further questions for future developments remained, for example around monetary value of needs and offers or the addition of paid/unpaid labour stamps to possibly be added. While these were more practical questions and what components or aspects to add in the future, other questions emerged about how the details of these conversations would be secured, should the group map be private or encrypted – only visible to the group involved? And if so, how would this be implemented? Could members of a particular map hold part of the encryption and only access or edit the map again together or does everyone hold a distributed copy of the map and is able to revisit the map in their own time?
the tool facilitates human to human interaction. Can a tool build community?
Two key areas of discussion emerged throughout this pilot project. The first were questions and evolving conversations around open source working, in particular working with several creative organisations and how this initial tool could potentially be used in different contexts. Positive feedback from participating partners showed that the mapping tool is a valuable resource but in its pilot format not ready to be broadly distributed or used. Further technical development would be required to make such a tool more widely available. These discussions also brought the ethics of open source as a way of sharing into question. While the ideals of open source software are a highly relevant as aims of this project and ethos, we realised during the work that it may also fall into conflict with creative practitioner’s source of income, their need to be paid for their labour as well as credited for their creative work in particular in times of Covid-19.
Ailie, Bettina and Bob are now working together further developing the String Figures work though Creative Scotland funding working with a local network of activist community groups in Govanhill Glasgow, further developing the technology and addressing questions raised through the pilot.