Stefanie Wuschitz, Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory

“You can unconsciously articulate yourself through technology and/or you can invent technology as an artist!”

Stefanie Wuschitz works at the intersection of art, research and technology, with a particular focus on feminism, open source technology and peer production. In 2009, she founded the feminist hackerspace Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory in Vienna, encouraging art and technology that is developed from a female perspective. During her Feral Labs Network artist residency at Schmiede, Austria, she spoke with Makery and provided her insights on mobility.

Stefanie Wuschitz. CC BY-SA 2.0

Can you introduce yourself? Have you been working as an independent and/or are you involved in cultural/maker organisations?

Stefanie Wuschitz: My name is Stefanie Wuschitz, I’m an artist, researcher and critical maker. I’m the founder of the feminist hackerspace Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory in Vienna. We are a community of women*/trans who work with open hardware and open source technology, mainly to do art art and design projects, but we also see ourselves as activists. We exist for 10 years now as an NGO, we are funded by art and culture organizations and also receive government subsidies for our art exhibitions, as we have  every year 5 to 8 art exhibitions in our space where we give young artists the chance to show their work. I really think that our curating is a form of hacking too, because we try to see people not just as deliverers of artwork but rather try to help them with child care or assist them with developing their ideas, go more far, be more radical to express their ideas. We try to make a safer space where people can just be fearless about their articulations.

Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory, how to contribute? teaser:

I myself also try to work with open hardware, I tried to use recycled material, or fair trade materials. I usually do media art, but since you cannot live from media art (laugh), I finished a PhD on feminist hackerspaces at the Vienna University of Technology, and now I’m engaged in two Post-Doc projects, one at TU Berlin and one in Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

The Post-Doc at TU Berlin is about « Coded Feminisms in Indonesia », because there is a very old rooted DIY culture in Indonesia. In fact it has roots in Indonesia’s decolonization movement that had a strong feminist section and developed into a million strong feminist movement in the 50s. This movement was totally banned in 1965, but still has a lot of impact on digital communities today. If you go to the area of Yogyakarta you find a lot of hackerspaces and artists collectives who do really amazing work and they can do it because they maintain commons. Even though their situation is precarious, living in commons enables a lot of artists and makers in Yogyakarta to afford  live as cultural producers in relative independence.  

My other project at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna is about fair traded hardware: how can we  salvage or recycle or generate fair hardware? Not only open hardware but fair traded hardware. We just started this project, so, at the moment, we mainly read a lot of post-humanist theories and try to understand how things are entangled: the impact of exploited resources socially, politically, economically, looked at from a feminist perspective. This is a three years project, the other one is a one year project.

Where do you situate your “maker” practice? And how do you define what is known as “maker culture”?

Stefanie Wuschitz: It’s a little difficult because maker practice was appropriated many times, from industry, then by activists groups, and then back from industry, back and forth… so I always try to avoid the maker term. But anyway I feel really at home there, I cannot deny it. The difference is that in the art world, it’s really about the person who is the author, the authorship lies with the artist, she owns the credits. In maker culture, it’s more about the technological innovation maybe, or exceptional idea, or creativity or inspiration. Sometimes it is hard and even not necessary to track any personal articulation in there, it can be really just about this deeply dedicated nerdism or geekism, or meditative exploration on a technological development, something that I completely understand. I also love to tinker.

But i think in hardware development you can articulate, express yourself too. Sometimes the two are really merging.

“You can unconsciously articulate yourself through technology and/or you can invent technology as an artist! It happens all the time, I mean, even painters invented new forms of paint, right? There has always been artists and technologists
merging into one.”

Workshop in Vienna at Museumsquartier, Raum D, festival “Make Me! Napravi Me!” organized in Vienna and Belgrade. CC BY-SA 2.0

Have you participated in mobility programs in the past? Can you elaborate on your experience(s)?

Stefanie Wuschitz: I was part of a mobility program in 2005 that has changed my life a lot, because i had the chance to go to Syria for half a year and study in Damascus University, and went also a lot to Lebanon at that time by route, because it’s very close, and it really changed my perspective about marginalization and forms of othering. Also, as I said before, I was able to go to Indonesia for a while, for an artist residency, and I learnt a lot there. Yogyakarta is a sub district in Indonesia, sub region that has different laws than the rest of Indonesia, so it’s much more liberal and there are a lot of artists and activists who live there. It has also been fertile ground for a lot of political movements that started in Yogyakarta and Semarang, the two are very close cities. The residency took place at Sewon Art Space, which does not exist anymore. It was a studio funded by the Austrian government allowing artists to live in South East Asia for three month.

“Rumah hacker”, women-centered tribe houses in West Sumatra with men-centered hackerspaces:

So I was in Syria for one semester where I could study.  While I was there Syria’s former socialist market suddenly opened up to outside companies, flooding the country with new consumer items, triggering a lot of change. Then I had the chance to go to New York for two years, and it was also through mobility grants. I think I would have never gotten into hardware and coding without that option to study at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University and at the TISCH School of Art. It was really mind blowing for me back then. After this I went to Indonesia where I made a lot of projects with Indonesian artists and Indonesian activists in the context of my thesis.

What were your favorite contexts when you participated in mobility schemes in Europe or Internationally? Workshops? Symposia? Training? Residencies?

Stefanie Wuschitz: I think an essential feature is to have a person responsible for you (laughs), who is your host. Because I’ve been to places where I’ve been completely left alone, and if it’s a very foreign country to you, it takes you a lot of time until you can start working. It doesn’t have to be someone paid by the residency, it could just be someone who feels they invited you (laughs). Otherwise I think the longer the better, I think it’s almost impossible in two or three days to get out of your bubble. If you have a symposium that lasts a week, people of the symposium will hang out together, so you just don’t get the chance to get to know the country as much, you don’t meet local people, the local communities. I think it’s really necessary to stay long, and ideally also learn the language a little bit, because otherwise you meet only people who are already privileged, because they are educated and speak English. Sometimes you really have to learn the language to be able to talk to the local people, also to not be only considered as part of the privileged elite of a country. It depends what you want to do. Of course if you don’t have much money, it’s better to go to a symposium than nothing, but with climate change, I think it’s really not a good practice to ship people or fly people in from other continents just for two days, it’s really just a waste of resources in my eyes.

What have you been missing to better develop your creative practice? Do you see loopholes in mobility programs regarding maker practices and culture?

Stefanie Wuschitz: The default resident is always a male white artist who has no kids you know (laughs), and for most artists I know who have a partner, the partner just comes with them and takes care of the kids. Me, as a female artist, I don’t have that situation, my partner has to work, our kids have to go to kindergarden (laughs). And if i want to do a residency I’m going to need some kind of help, find a kindergarden or day care, or some kind of help to also bring my partner. But he cannot take vacations every time I want to do a residency, so I think it would be a more feminist approach to artists residencies if there would be some kind of offer for people who have care work to do. In our feminist hackerspace, if we have artists developing a solo show we really try to bring toys, or bring someone who is a babysitter, eventually, depending on the age of the kids, other kids can come and play together, so the mother can set up her exhibition, as it is almost impossible to set up an exhibition and take care of the children at the same time.

What would be to you a dream mobility scheme for makers? Would you give priority to travel support, social encounters, technical access or networks building?

Stefanie Wuschitz: Training is really good, festivals are really good… everything is good. But I think we should prioritize on creating an exchange. It cannot be only white western people going to ex-colonial countries and doing their things and looking like the messiah, but rather people from other countries coming to Europe and being able to stay and work, getting enough money. So the perspective is not just always a perspective from the West going somewhere else, because we have so much to learn here in Europe. We have to be so much more humble than we are at the moment, and I think this can only happen through people who have the chance to come to Europe from other places, and do their work here and have their statements being heard.

So you mean a mobility scheme could be inviting someone to come?

Stefanie Wuschitz: Yes. And really embrace what they have to say. Because the other stories I mentioned, in New York and Syria and Indonesia, it was only one way you know. It’s really hard for Indonesian artists to come here or for Syrian artists to come here, i mean, now. All my friends from Syria are refugees, which is horrible, that was not the way I was planning the exchange. Even artists from New York, they cannot stay to live here, they have to leave again. It has to be a real exchange.

Damascus, Syria, 2010, workshop conducted by Stefanie Wuschitz & Kyrah Kosina (MetaLab) CC BY-SA 2.0

What is mobility in times of world pandemics? Should we still invest on that? And, considering our travel restrictions, how can we continue to grow and reinforce networks, if we cannot meet one another? And why is that important (or not)?

Stefanie Wuschitz: It’s a tough question. It’s about which server do we use, which software do we use if we want to connect, because I don’t want to risk anyone’s safety through the tools I use and I don’t want my data be collected. If we go all digital in our encounters, it can be expensive, it’s not like it is free, we have to be really careful about infrastructures, we definitely need to have independent infrastructures. Otherwise it’s not helping at all (laughs). I see now in Austria that all the independent servers have to close down, because it’s not profitable of course. Since they are  independent and small, some loose important support, because now the government says “why do you facilitate a small server when users can have a cheap server from the US”? Or from somewhere else, like China… I think in order to make exchanges possible there have to be infrastructures that are independent, where people can really have a true safe space online. I know today it sounds like a total oxymoron, but my real concern is having a safe space in real space but also online, where people can really express themselves without having to fear any consequences.

And of course, otherwise if the pandemic doesn’t restrict our travels, I’m all for traveling, even if it has to be a real encounter, a life changing experience. The art economy is pushing people to do crazy things, like I had a friend who went every week from New York to Bergen only to give a lecture, because that’s what looks good on a CV, you know, it’s completely insane (laughs). But that’s because in order to stay involved you have to invest a lot,… time wise, money wise and climate footprint wise too (laughs). We should think about how to make it possible for more people to be part of the debate, without having to invest so many resources.

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