featured gallery for August 2020

Extending Affective Care in the Digital Realm

By early April, New York City had reached the initial peak of it’s COVID-19 outbreak. Hundreds of miles away, in my Ann Arbor apartment where I currently reside as I pursue my Masters in Information Science, my mind immediately went towards my parents, my friends and my city. I watched helplessly as the pandemic took over my hometown of Elmhurst, Queens. This meant that day after day there was the constant stream of GoFundMe’s seeking support for the burial costs of neighbors and their loved ones. Some were neighborhood activists. Others were relatives of friends; some were owners of local businesses that I had gone to since I can remember. Almost all resembled my own brown, immigrant, and working-class family which meant that with each loss was a story of resilience, of hustle and dreams for their loved ones and our greater communities. They are what makes New York City so special yet we were losing them fast. Black and Brown New Yorkers were already facing the brunt of rapid displacement enveloping the neighborhoods of our city. Now we also find ourselves in a pandemic that’s systemically targeting and killing us due to structural inequalities in healthcare and housing. I wonder how we can not only remember them but also demand accountability on behalf of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. We mustn't forget that the state, with the pretext of neutrality, has previously distorted narratives to intentionally subvert their own complicity; and this moment in history will not be the exception.

Moving towards liberatory and transformative introspection is why I find great solace in memory spaces such as the Visual AIDS Artist + Registry, a living, digital collection that documents artworks and the lives of artists with HIV and AIDS. The registry reminds me of neighborhood Facebook Queens groups that not only allowed people to update each other on local mutual-aid efforts but also to share photographs and memorials of those who died of COVID-19 as a way to collectively grieve and pay tribute to their lives. In the registry, I came across the familiar smile of Ms. Colombia, an LGBTQ+ icon, whose colorful and regal presence is very much a vivid and comforting memory of my childhood of growing up in Western Queens during the 90s. It was not uncommon to see her walking in the many Latinx parade routes on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights. I learned of Shirlene Cooper and Wanda Hernandez-Parks, fellow New Yorkers, artists and activists, who have long advocated for working-class women living with HIV and AIDS alongside VOCAL-NY, a statewide grassroots organization that builds power among low-income people affected by HIV and AIDS and mass incarceration. Since April, Shirlene has been organizing online COVID-19 mutual aid support and art therapy workshops with positive Black women and women of color through the Women's Empowerment Art Therapy Group. There is also Luis Carle, whose photographs document the very much rich activist history of the LGBTQ+ movement in the US led by Black and Brown queer and trans people such as Sylvia Rivera as well as the organization ACT UP both whom pushed for accountability on behalf of the government. As you can see, memory spaces can serve as places to memorialize and learn about our histories but they can also exist for us to make new meaning of the legacies left behind by those who have come before us and I believe that is a form of caretaking too.

As an archivist, I believe that part of our work is to incorporate an ethos of care and collaboration when co-designing archival practices that directly influence how cultural and public memory will be passed on to future generations. Something as simple as creating the metadata of records or establishing ethical sharing practices can define how someone will be remembered. Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, archival scholar and previous Visual AIDS web gallery curator, frame this praxis through a lens of radical empathy “by which responsibility is connected to the records’ creators, the records’ subjects, the records’ users, and larger communities.” It is worth noting that, while this emerging outlook by the archival field is awe-inspiring, archives have also been used to silence and distort histories of the most marginalized people in the U.S. As memory spaces transition more and more to the digital realm, archivists must also contend with the racial policing or oppressive biases of AI (artificial intelligence) and surveillance embedded within the technologies that we use to connect with one another online and now document our living histories. For example, social media platforms like Instagram have seen a rise in users creating digital collections on their platforms to amplify visibility for underrepresented identities and subcultures. And I can understand why, it’s seamless user interface and interactive-centered design makes engaging these collections a communal and powerful experience. However we must not forget the proprietary nature of social media platforms which has led to the erasure of content (solely at their discretion) as well as the limited lifespan of the sites themselves which ultimately is tied in to their for-profit nature. This leads to my overall question: how do we extend an ethos of care within digital memory spaces, considering the realities of the internet today?

Online technologies have been instrumental in enabling the government to further strengthen their surveillance apparatus. Meanwhile, tech companies have repurposed and refined AI technologies to generate profit and assert dominance. Users, most of the time unknowingly, have played into the hands of the surveillance apparatus by having their data, such as images from social media networks, online dating services etc, be mined (scraped off the web) and aggregated to create powerful datasets. These datasets are then used by the companies themselves or sold to third party entities with the end purpose of further refining AI technologies. In her book Lurking, Joanne McNeil states that “70 percent of all internet traffic are sites and services owned and operated by Facebook and Google—such as WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram”. Considering our use and dependence of sites and hardware tools (smart phones, smart speakers and apps) produced by these same companies, one can only imagine the extent of our data being mined and for what purpose. As touch and voice-based technologies are further developed, I can’t help but wonder if the mining of my own facial motions and voice tones will go in the development of new technological tools sold to me by these very same companies. Of course in this toxic cycle, it’s hard to grasp the benefits and protections for us - the users. More sobering is how censorship and incarceration play into this greater apparatus. Popular sites such as TikTok and Airbnb blacklist users and content using biased algorithmic filtering, and tech companies, such as IBM and Amazon, are reported to sell their facial recognition technologies to law enforcement. A federal government research study has shown facial recognition algorithms work best on the faces of middle-aged white men versus the faces of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), erring most significantly for Black women. And as demonstrated by the federal government’s public call, in early June, for digital media of individuals taking place in protests for the Movement for Black Lives, there is real danger when archiving in the digital realm. An unblurred photo uploaded to social media can have real-life consequences.

The HIV+ community in the United States has too been subject to a history of HIV criminalization where surveillance, incarceration and the medical-industrial complex have long worked together to carry out invasive and harmful practices in the name of public health. This has included the collection of biomedical metrics (CD4 counts, viral loads) of individuals living with HIV and AIDS. In recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has designated molecular surveillance as a primary HIV prevention strategy. According to a recent POZ article, these policies work hand in hand with HIV criminalization laws and statutes that currently exist in 34 states. Alongside digital surveillance, HIV surveillance could further exploit private data to criminalize HIV+ communities, in particular BIPOC, queer, transgender folks and those of low income backgrounds. In Anonymous Test Site, artist Frank Green puts front and center how institutionalized medical practices, that are still very much relevant today, have historically silenced the actual lived bodily experiences of HIV+ communities despite pushing a facade of well-being. Instead, Green centers self-healing and self-determination as the crux of wellness and care for HIV+ communities.

So how can we extend an ethos of care within digital memory spaces? I argue it starts with holding online technologies accountable and normalizing safer and more secure digital practices. More explicitly, it’s up to us — the end-users — who should leverage the power of our digital footprint. We must see the repercussions of uploading vulnerable data. And it’s up to us archivists, as memory workers, to consider how our digital memories can be commodified as data to exploit especially those most vulnerable. An ethos of care is to inform ourselves and our communities of our digital rights, to advocate for greater privacy protection and to privilege end-user consent for any use of online memories.

*Editorial support by Elifete Paz.