I’m One of Those Geek Girls!

“I am here, making a film about geeks,” filmmaker Gina Hara says at the beginning of her documentary Geek Girls. Although seemingly straightforward, being “here, making a film about geeks” is more complex than it might seem and these complexities are exactly what Hara’s documentary delves into. Growing up in Hungary, Hara had no word for “geek” and no way to describe her identity within a community. In 2017, being a “geek” is in style and even commercialized. But the word’s connection to bullying and discrimination is still strong. Where geeks were once outcasts, the geek community has produced the isolation that once defined it, although now it excludes women, trans individuals, and non-binary people. Geek Girls considers the empowerment of self-identifying as a geek in order to look closely at the simultaneous costs and dangers of that label.

“Only a few years after learning the word ‘Geek’,” Hara narrates, “I had to learn another word—cyber-bullying.”

Geek Girls begins in Japan, at the centre of geek culture. Although the film travels across many different locations, it continually returns to Japan, as if to bookmark the fragmented structure of the film. Instead of following one interview at a time, Geek Girls weaves together the experiences and stories of 11 different women (including Jamie Broadnax, a podcaster from Black Girl Nerds; NASA Aerospace Engineer Anita Sengupta; and competitive gamer Stephanie Harvey.) The documentary’s interwoven structure parallels the complexities and constant negotiations involved in identifying as a geek.


Geek Girls depicts the wide range of interests that can make someone “geeky,” such as cosplaying, video games, comic books, science, and aesthetic choices. But the documentary also makes clear that, despite all these variations, geek communities are often far more homogenous and exclusionary to women.


In her book Cybersexism, feminist columnist and author Laurie Penny describes this exclusion as “perhaps the most insidious part of the misogynist defence of geekspace.”


Some geek girls resist this misogyny by making new and safe geek spaces. Mariko McDonald, for example, organizes a monthly brunch for geek girls in Montreal and works hard to create communities without exclusion. “I’m a gamer if I say I’m a gamer,” she says.

As Laurie Penny writes, “We have to take back the word ‘geek’.”

But resisting misogyny and reclaiming the word “geek” requires a lot of emotional labour and can even be dangerous. Geek Girls makes geek misogyny uncomfortably visible. During the Montreal Harajuku walk, in which people come together to wear and celebrate Japanese fashion, the camera happens to catch a moment of harassment as an unknown man grabs one of the participants. The candidness of the scene reveals just how common it is for geek women to encounter misogyny.


Élisabeth Fallen, who runs the Montreal Harajuku walk, describes how she must hide her ‘geeky’ lolita and steampunk-inspired fashion from her co-workers for fear that it would affect her employment. Although her style is celebrated in online communities, the labour and love she puts into her craft remains invisible to many who know her.

 

What Geek Girls does best is pay tribute to the emotional labour and energy that goes into “tak[ing] back the word ‘geek’.” It honours the people who say “I’m one of those geek girls” despite the risks it may pose, while also acknowledging the many people who are too scared to.


“All this for being a geek,” Hara says near the end of the film, and that’s the crux of it. “All this” work. “All this” harassment. All of this made visible.


Geek Girls will be showing in Montreal on July 30th at the Fantasia Film Festival.

 

Participatory Making

You are handed an envelope and instructed to text “READY” to an unknown number. You send the message and look through the envelope. In it is a single loonie, which you pocket. You receive a text and image from the number: “Follow this handrail to the auditorium. Walk slowly. Text me the room number at the end.” You follow the instructions, guided by a series of texts and images from the unknown number. You are told you are looking for someone named Lucie, someone who has been missing for a long time. You are told to “keep your face hidden from the cameras.” You look up to try and see the cameras. You are not sure whether you are more engaged by the mission prescribed to you, or the fact that you enjoy playing the role.

In early April, during the height of end-of-term madness, over twenty students, faculty, and artists gathered at Concordia to kick off a week of workshopping, making, and conceptualizing. The week was part of an ongoing collaboration between independent theatre and digital art company ZU-UK and Milieux’s Technoculture, Art, and Games (TAG) lab.

The starting goals for the week were vague, but exploratory: the group would break into teams and then make projects based on a similar set of concerns. The projects all needed to consider and make something based on the terms “participatory, public, locative, performative, and game.” The ongoing tension of the week was between making things and conceptualizing them. How do we determine how much time to spend on each part of the process? At what point is it necessary to physically experiment with what has been conceptualized, and how often is it important to go back to the conceptual drawing board?

 

You receive another text: “There is a coffee cup in one of the plant pots. I left instructions inside. Do EXACTLY as it says.” You find the coffee cup and ignore the weird looks from the strangers watching you as you pick the instructions out of the cup: “Buy the cheapest thing in the cafe.” You follow through, purchase a banana, make small chat with the barista, try to appear natural. But your phone buzzes again, another text. It is a picture of you, followed by another message: “You have been compromised.”

There is no singular kind of process in group collaboration, rather an ongoing entanglement of making and reflecting on that making. But what seems to work best is an ongoing process of making and reflecting–with neither part of the process dominating the other. Maintaining singular and specific goals is also necessary. Because the week was an experiment, everyone came with different expectations for what was inevitably not-quite-game-jam, not-quite-conference, not-quite-makeathon. By defining the process through nots, we are able to narrow the focus. It is often the simplest, most constrictive goals that allow for the most bizarre, interpretive possibilities. Interactive experiences are similar. Participants need to be drawn in with the least amount of explanation possible. They need to understand their role immediately. They do not necessarily need to feel safe, but if there is a leap, they need the incentive to jump. How we frame playable experiences is similar to how we frame these collaborative processes.

Someone comes up to you. You don’t know them. “You just missed her,” they say, and hand you a pair of headphones. You put the headphones on and hear a voice. It is the voice of Lucie, the woman you have been looking for. “I don’t want to be found,” she tells you. She instructs you to look up, towards the top of the staircase. You see another person, in your old footsteps, picking up an envelope as you once did. You follow them from a distance, listening to the voice. You sabotage their progress, take a picture of them standing outside the cafe. You realize you are the cameras.

In making, thinking, and experimenting, we must remain aware of how our actions function. How do we invite all participants to feel welcoming in our critiques? What conversations are we participating in by conceptualizing? When are we just following prescribed instructions? How do we make our making matter? “Sometimes it is important to stay with the trouble,” TAG co-founder Lynn Hughes tells me, referencing the title of Donna Haraway’s most recent book. And maybe the reference is not so far off from what we try to do when we get together to critically collaborate. This act of participatory, critical collaboration is like a game of cat’s cradle, “passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”

You see them buying a banana, as you once did. You walk towards them, tap them on the shoulder, and repeat: “You just missed her.” You have finished the game. (The not-quite-a-game.) And you feel like not-quite-yourself. You have participated in something much more cyclical and knotted than just an individual experience. You have entangled yourself with other participants in an ongoing process of “becoming-with-each-other” and now you are left looking–not for Lucie–but for your own relation and engagement with that complex, participatory web.

Your Place or Minecraft?

Gina Hara has been working in film for a long time, but her latest movie, Your Place or Minecraft?, is her first time filming in-game. Hara is a filmmaker, Milieux member, and creative director of Concordia’s Technoculture Arts and Games (TAG) Research Centre. Your Place or Minecraft? is the first Minecraft documentary web series ever made and details one of the world’s most modded Minecraft servers. Each of the eight episodes follows a different player from the server as they discuss their experiences as both players and game scholars. The documentary explores the politics and relationships of the game’s infinite, randomly generated space, as they take place both in and out of game.

However, beyond the flying and the dying, Hara uses a pretty typical documentary style. “It is the same as any documentary,” Hara tells me, “I wanted to get people to relax by asking them to show me what they built.” Many of the shots show the camera pointed at an in-game avatar as the player’s voice is heard overtop. Their avatar becomes the manifestation of their identity.

 

Like the people she interviews, Hara is both a player and a scholar. Her presence in the community and on the server is apparent throughout the film. Her player’s arm is visible in many of the shots, continuously reminding the viewer of her role as both participant and voyeur.

 

Despite her current expertise of the game, Hara had no idea how to play when she started. “Somehow I got some seeds and found some chickens. I kept trying to feed them, but I just kept punching them in the face [by right-clicking, instead of left-clicking.] I just kept punching them and crying.” When her teammates found her, she was hiding in the corner of the room with a crowbar.

 

As she tells me the story, I cannot help but laugh. One thing about Hara is that she is an amazing storyteller. In her 2011 film, Waning, Hara tells a narrative of violence by breaking a single shot into multiple timelines. In Your Place or Minecraft?, she breaks a world of blocks into a world of stories. The film introduces us to the server through the varying perspectives of the players who have inhabited and created that space.

 

The server world is complex and vast, and its socio-cultural aspects even more so. Throughout the film, each player tells a slightly different story of the space and its community. On one side of the map, there is the capitalistic chicken factory BFC (Big Friendly Chicken) and, on the other, Witch Mountain, where players are cursed for their in and out of game wrongdoings. The avatar becomes the manifestation of their identity.

 

Your Place or Minecraft? brings up critical conversations about gender, politics, ethics, and space, but it never provides just one truth. It is up to the viewer to break apart the different perspectives and construct their own narrative—to become an active player in the story.

 

Similarly, filming Your Place or Minecraft? provided Hara with a freedom she had never before experienced in filmmaking. “Shooting was a dream,” she tells me, “the budget was super low and I had creative freedom.” Now that the film is being released, she is prepared for some criticism due to her gender. But that isn’t stopping her. Her next film, Geek Girls, is scheduled to be release in Spring 2017, and will be the first documentary from the perspective of a woman about geek culture.

 

What Your Place or Minecraft? leaves us with is something to structure our understanding of games around. It shows us the ways we can interact with games both critically and playfully. Whether building or burning down a chicken coop, or covering the entire map with jack-o-lanterns, there is value to our play.

 

All episodes of Your Place or Minecraft? are available on YouTube for your binge-watching pleasure.

Weaving Binaries Into Conversations: An Interview with Genevieve Moisan

“What I like about making is the power it gives you,” Milieux member Geneviève Moisan tells me during our interview. For Moisan, “making” involves many things: quilting, weaving, embroidering, and even photography or performance.

Although she has been involved with textiles since she was young, Moisan’s love of weaving truly developed when she moved to the city of Saint-Étienne in France, where she lived just blocks away from the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie. Within the museum, she discovered a room of antique looms, one of which she tells me “just feels like it belongs to [her].” he first Jacquard loom was invented in 1804 by Joseph Marie Jacquard. Although looms were already in use at the time, they required a second person sitting on top of the loom called “le tireur” to pull up the threads. Jacquard invented a “head” for the loom, so that this extra person was not needed. The Jacquard loom was controlled by a chain of punched cards, laced together in a continuous sequence—a technique that inspired the hardware used by early computer programming.

 

But in a television program about the top 100 innovations of humankind she watched recently, Moisan said that the loom was not acknowledged. “If it’s not one of the most important innovations,” Moisan tells me with a laugh, “what is it?”

 

The Jacquard loom, located in the Textiles and Materiality Cluster, weaves based on black and white pixelated images that are fed through the software used by the cluster called Pointcarré. Much like binary code, these images work to raise or lower the heddles. But the loom is also a complex machine. Images can change based on their different materials and new threads or different warps and densities on the loom can completely alter a technique. It took Moisan over 100 hours to learn the software and over 5 years of using the loom to develop her current skill level, but this development of her craft is also an important part of her work.

 

Moisan’s art weaves together this history of the loom with modern concerns, both conceptually and in practice. For example, her MFA thesis project explores moments of waiting. These brocade pieces draw on the tradition of 19th-century French textiles that depicted small, woven romantic scenes. But her own work is concerned with a modern world and fast-paced world where “we still wait everywhere.” The project asks the question, “where and who are we when we’re waiting?”

 

Similarly, Moisan’s We Have too Many Friends depict woven scènes de genre (portraits of everyday life) based on intimate images downloaded from free sharing websites. In one picture, a man is passed out drunk on a floor covered in bottles. In another, a person is curled up on top of a toilet. The project explores the boundaries between public and private, spaces and non-spaces, as well as the many layers of screens we wade through in order to navigate reality. In We Have too Many Friends Moisan chooses to represent images of people as opposed to their physical bodies. Similarly, her photography work in the past has focused on representing the world through a series of blurry fiberglass and resin screens.

 

Despite addressing modern concerns, Moisan’s work is also embedded in a long history of weaving and making. Her interactive woven representation of Angry Birds differs from her other works in that it brings a digital game outside of its screen and into the space in front of us. Viewers can interact with the piece by throwing velcro balls at the image, forcing the game out of its independent screen and into a communal space.

 

But Moisan seems to always be drawn to moments of community and communication. Although she does not always work with others, she tells me that she misses the community of women she used to quilt with, who would use their time together as a way to socialize.

There is a long history of storytelling and communication in weaving and embroidery, within communities as well as stitched into fabric. Chilean Arpilleras, for example, were used to record a history of violence. Although Moisan’s work comes from a different place than the artists behind these works, she is interested in and inspired by these forms of communication through textiles.

 

“There are so many words to explain things,” she tells me near the end of our interview, “but I like when people just react to, just look at [my art].” She values their emotional responses and letting her works speak for themselves. Much like the loom, she feeds her ideas into the machine and works through them to create complex and interwoven conversations, to visualize in a poetic and also very material way moments such as waiting on a bench.

 

Across the table from me, she weaves her fingers together as if to show just how easy it is to intertwine the things we perceive as binary opposites—and how strong they become when they are brought together.