XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 26
Digital Citation

‘The co-’: feminisms, power, and research cultures—A dialogue

Jaz Choi, Ann Light

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This article is polyvocal and tentative. We, Jaz and Ann, are exploring the beliefs that motivate our work, in this first of Jaz's columns. For both of us, collaborative working is a method but also an end point—a goal that recognizes the interdependent nature of all life and looks to support it. Here we discuss the "co-" in co-design through a dialogical reflection on feminism and process.

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi: It's been a tumultuous time. More of the perilous ruins we have been creating became visible to people, making palpable an uneasy sense of uncertainty on many different levels, in many different ways. For me, this aroused reflections about self, the worlds now, and relations between and among all of us. One change I made as a result was to actively reject academic land-grabbing in my work and endeavor to (co-)do more with others. When I found out that the theme for this Interactions issue was feminisms, I immediately thought to ask you to do this piece together. I confess that, at that time, I had not read your paper on queering technology [1], which may be what readers think of first at the intersection of Ann Light and feminisms. Now that I have read it, I see that it complements your practical work on designing with others for different social arrangements. It is part of your inquiry into how to make cultural change—the act of designing together alters people and relations in significant respects. One quality I admire is that you dare to ask difficult questions. You really go there—in considered and careful, but decidedly unambiguous ways. If we are to approach feminisms critically and creatively toward change, we need that kind of audacity. So here we are. What a pleasure.

Ann, as an advocate of co-design and participatory practices for societal challenges, what are some of the cultural barriers to getting this work taken up?

Ann Light: Thank you, Jaz. The pleasure is mine too. It is great to pause and reflect with you, with your meticulously patient research and understanding of care [2]. Co-creation is demanding, as you know. It is time consuming; it takes considerable facilitation work and attunement even to begin. It is also highly political, since much hangs on the power issues generated in particular groupings. Being aware of one's own status and other baggage, coming in as a researcher, is important. Feminist positionality theories are useful for the necessary sensitizing, but then it requires constant self-examination.

None of us do research on our own. We rely on others' teachings, on networks of support and promotion, and, at times, on people's willingness to be researched. But co-designing has a particularly modest quality—it is doing with, and outcomes are based on the hard work of participants. It is not accurate to present it as a personal accomplishment. And yet if the results of the work never reach the ears of others, that is also a form of disloyalty, so we have to contend with the broader academic culture, which is institutionally at odds with these values.

None of us do research on our own. We rely on others' teachings, on networks of support and promotion, and on people's willingness to be researched. — ANN LIGHT

To share an anecdote that illustrates this culture clash… A few years after getting my first job in academia, I was told to apply for a more senior job, but the application was rejected. Having failed, I was then told to go and see the boss to hear why.

It seems little was wrong with my résumé that the change of a few pronouns could not fix. In other words, if I had, more often, used I, instead of we, I would have done better. I was being rejected for being too collegial. He told me it was a common "woman's problem." Does that make co-design a woman's undertaking? I don't know.

I do think the academy should be listening more carefully for different voices and for what such collaborative work can enable, both in research and in its regard for language—in papers and forums, as well as applications for promotion—rather than teaching us to conform to the orthodoxy (and, in this case, to overclaim my role). Unfortunately, for many of us, the competitive culture of academia is both tiresome and tiring.

Jaz, to pass back to you, this raises further questions about identity and research. Do we need feminism and other movements to challenge and change academic culture? I think we do… but what kind of movements?

JHC: Many have already rightly emphasized the need for an intersectional approach; see, for an excellent example, the Design Justice movement. What's so important to delineate is how this has long been a contested space on multiple levels. It could be at an individual level, asking quietly but sincerely, probably repeatedly, and often condemningly what I'm busy doing in this body, in this hour. It could also be in vociferously advocating for collective resistance to the systemic bias centered around white Euro-Americo-hetero-male-able-centric bodies in and across many spaces of our labor and lives. All this takes place at the same time as we are helping others who are also suffering from this bias. This is laborious. Michelle Law, a writer and actor based in the Eora Nation (Sydney, Australia), captures the condition perfectly in her tweet:

ins01.gif Jaz: Encountering Anicka Yi's art was a poignant moment for me. Yi's transcorporeal coalescing of the asymmetric binaries that condition our relational existence opens and holds space for questioning the more-than-human in its beauty and grotesqueness. To me it is kintsukuroi (金繕い) of many worlds, a necessary one for myself during these particularly apocalyptic times when I was writing this piece with Ann. More about Yi: Shown here: You Can Call Me F, installation view, the Kitchen, New York, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist, 47 Canal, New York, and the Kitchen, New York.

White privilege is White artists getting to just be artists. I don't want to be an activist, but I HAVE to be in order to continue making work. It's like having two full time jobs [3].

Yet we can't let fatigue stop us. We must keep going. Of the many changes we can make in design research and practice, what resonates with me is the stark similarity between its imaginary and what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls the apocalyptic mise-en-scène of victory [4]—how aspirations for individual "sensational…exceptional…extra-ordinary" feats are normalized, reinforcing the existing power hierarchy. This suggests that what we need is love and slow-walking-with: We need the culture of polyvocality in which we can remain open and take time to listen and express; and in in which disenfranchised voices can arise and be heard, so that we can exist together in feminist juxtapositions of thinkings and doings.

Ann, what are some of the ways in which we could make changes toward the kinds of feminist futures we hope for?

AL: As you note, I have been engaged in the work of queering (or troubling [5]) futures, a theoretical position that takes a non-essentialist view of what humankind is and can aspire to be. There is so much evidence around us for what we are capable of now that it may seem we are fixed entities in particular relations that are unchanging. But, as a species, we are as much a historical contingency as we are a set of bio-physical constraints. For some, that may evoke technologically enhanced beings, but for me, it points to the chance for social and cultural transformations, enacted fast. I think the changes under Covid-19 have given us a taste of that. And that also points to the urgent need for co-creating new futures as the climate warms. Every current injustice is going to be exacerbated by climate change—the Global South being hardest hit, and those in poverty being the most vulnerable as their means of livelihood are threatened.

This pattern will be reversed only by compassionate but firm action as a groundswell, by people feeling their way to a different being, with all that entails. (I use the idea of feeling one's way both to suggest the uncertainty of it and to acknowledge the importance of affective transformations.) This groundswell can be cultivated through co-design and co-creation.

ins02.gif Ann: We work across continents, ever revealing part of ourselves, ever unknowable. Working with others is changed again by our need for and increasing familiarity with virtual environments. Here I capture a moment from an exchange with Jaz.

What has this to do with feminisms? A gentler, more considered way of being is beautifully and repeatedly described in the feminist literatures—one of respectful coexistence, where interdependencies are fully acknowledged. (Even the oxygen we breathe emerges from the chemical reactions of plants.) It is not wishful to consider utopias now, but rather urgent and responsible. Unsurprisingly, I am most engaged by the literatures on becoming. My utopia does not involve an end state, but rather a movement, together, toward worlds that will be brought into being by that moving. That is what queering leads to—difficult questions asked in pursuit of a transition to something that is there only if we believe in it hard enough: a meeting of skepticism and faith. That is the meaning of co- in my work.

We need the culture of polyvocality in which we can remain open and take time to listen and express. — JAZ CHOI

JHC: Ann, thanks for taking this short walk with me in our journeys toward feminist futures. We'd also love for readers to join us and share their thoughts about co-, feminisms, power, research cultures, and any other related topics, for example by using the hashtags #CoFeminists, #TheCo and #InteractionsMagazine on social media.

back to top  References

1. Light, A. HCI as heterodoxy: Technologies of identity and the queering of interaction with computers, Interacting with Computers 23, 5 (Sep. 2011), 430–438;

2. For example, the work you've been doing at the Care-full Design Lab (


4. Trinh, T. M.-H. Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared. Fordham Univ. Press, New York, 2016.

5. Light, A. Troubling futures: Can participatory design research provide a constitutive anthropology for the 21st century? Interaction Design and Architecture(s) Journal - IxD&A 26 (2015), 81–94.

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Jaz Hee-jeong Choi is director of the Care-full Design Lab and Vice-Chancellor's Senior Research Fellow in Design, RMIT, Melbourne. [email protected]

Ann Light is a professor at the University of Sussex and Malmö University, leading a research node on the European Union's Creative Practices for Transformational Futures (CreaTures) project. Her next book is titled Designs to Reshape Humanity: Integrity and Cunning in the Anthropocene. [email protected]

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