Introducing Wish You Would Hear

Introduction to Alex Tigchelaar’s Wish You Would Hear.

— T.L. Cowan & Jas Rault

DREC’s inaugural research story is from Alex Tigchelaar, with her three-part series, Wish You Would Hear. In this series, Tigchelaar draws critical connections between the centuries-long surveillance and criminalization of sex workers, the ways that sex workers are used as “collateral” in morality wars, hygiene campaigns, and political one-upmanship, and the various tactics and techniques that sex workers have used to collectively survive. The recent FOSTA/SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) legislation in the United States, which holds platforms like Backpage, Craigslist, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and others criminally responsible for content that may be linked to sex trafficking. This legislation, which offers no nuance, capacity, or will to distinguish between sex work, which is done consensually, and sex trafficking with is non-consensual (like kidnapping and rape)–and refuses to acknowledge the difference–has meant that sex workers have, once again, needed to reinvent the ways that they advertise, and re-create and re-mediate the spaces and scenarios in which they can be seen, but not surveilled and criminalized.

Over the course of the past several decades the phrase ‘digital hygiene’ has emerged as a catch-all for various ways that we are held responsible for the cleanliness and safety of our digital bodies and devices — from updating software, to being careful about what we post, to protecting our passwords and identities, to keeping track of the privacy policies and settings on our various social media accounts. In this way, ‘digital hygiene’ may seem innocuous enough and perhaps even a familiarly useful phrase to remind us that digital technoculture is risky and we need to be diligent in our self-regulation and digital life management. But what digital ‘hygiene’ also drags in with it, is more than a century of the administration of hygiene policies that target sex workers, negatively racialized people, negatively classed people including  impoverished and indentured factory and other industrial labourers, border-crossers, transgender and gender non-binary people, queers, feminists and other outsiders, and the workers responsible for the cleanliness of domestic, office, industrial, food service and sanitation spaces and processes — usually the most precariously positioned workers in an economic system at any given time. As we see from the ways that sex workers are being purged from what Tigchelaar calls ‘the digital stroll,’ digital hygiene functions just as sex worker targeted purges and broad-stroked ‘clean-ups’ have functioned over the course of history. Under the protection of digital hygiene, the technologies of sex worker sweeps are new but the administration of morality under the guise of health and safety remains the same. As Tigchelaar’s three-part essay proposes, so too are the digital technologies and technocultural work-arounds that sex workers invent, shift, hack and navigate in order to make a living. Wish You Would Hear, gives readers the tools to hear sex workers outside of the health and safety panic noise of digital hygienic governance and criminalization, to hear (and see) cryptically.

—  T.L. Cowan

Tigchelaar’s research speaks to some of the key questions for digital research ethics around which DREC is oriented: if the internet is a place of labour, normalizing the ubiquity of labour, or what Melissa Gregg has called “presence bleed” (Work’s Intimacy 2011), whose labours are valued and credited? How do minoritized and, in this case, criminalized workers mobilize strategies of invisibility in an exposure and presence economy? How do minoritized workers cultivate aesthetic strategies to both court and refuse recognition — courting the recognition they value and refusing the recognition of the state/nation/law? Tigchelaar puts her digital art/work in conversation with a long history of sex workers’ media art/work — media art that has always both blurred and revelled in the shifting lines between work, sex and art.

Wish You Would Hear asks us to consider the ethics of researching and exposing (through online circulation and publication) sex workers’ strategies for non-exposure. How do we, as researchers and workers, cultivate and advocate for networked digital spaces that can support the creative and economic thriving of sex workers without exploiting and exposing their innovations in aesthetics and labour? These questions push us to imagine modes of circulation and communication that complicate digital technocultural assumptions about the inherent liberatory good of openness or transparency. For me, this puts Tigchelaar’s work in conversation with a field of critical transparency studies that intersects with surveillance studies — fields of scholarship and artwork that foreground minoritized Black, Indigenous, trans feminist and queer tactics for evading what Michel Foucault called the disciplinary “dream of a transparent society” (Foucault 1980, 152; I’m thinking here of Edouard Glissant on the “right to opacity”; Zach Blas on “Informatic Opacity”; Daphne Brooks on “spectacular opacity”; Simone Browne on the regulation and control of Black people as the history of modern surveillance techniques; micha cárdenas on the trans stitch and modulations of perceptibility; Glen Coulthard on Indigenous people’s rejection of colonial recognition and Audra Simpson on Mohawk refusals of colonial interpellation). As Kim Christen explains, Indigenous cultural protocols for digital rights management challenge modern colonial ideologies of “information freedom” to instead prioritise the “sociality of information” (Christen 2012, 2887) — and building digital models/architectures that reflect and foreground the social and cultural life, location, context of all information (texts, images, artworks, cultural works and heritage of various forms). Wish You Would Hear situates tactics like cryptography, code and steganography in the long social history of sex workers’ aesthetic, sexual, economic and media innovations to screw with and survive colonial surveillance capitalism’s dream of a transparent society.

— Jas Rault

This first DREC series is published on December 6. In Canada this is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. As a site of and for feminist, queer, anti-colonial, anti-racist,  trans- and crip knowledge production, DREC aims to think about and work against the ways that research and its circulation — online and offline — can be forms of violence. Today, we remember and celebrate the lives of all the women, girls and two-spirit people who have been murdered by men; and we reach for, hold hope for, those who are missing. We honour the knowledges they created, and to which we are indebted.

— T.L. Cowan & Jas Rault