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Interview with Marie LeBlanc Flanagan

 

As part of our monthly 5 à SAT networking event on the theme of Women in Tech, the SAT spoke with artist-in-residence Marie LeBlanc Flanagan. We discussed the place of gender, the need for diversity, and the measures to be taken to support women, non-binary and marginalized people in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) … and more specifically in digital arts.

Marie LeBlanc Flanagan is an artist who builds playful installations, experimental video games, and cooperative experiences. Marie founded Drone Day, Wyrd Arts Initiatives, and co-founded Imaginary Residency.

 

SAT: As a non-binary person, how do you feel about the “Women in STEM” initiatives ? Does non-binarity involve specific aspects to this conversation, in your perspective ?

Let me start with a quick aside:

For many years, I had the delight of leading Weird Canada, a grassroots nonprofit and music blog dedicated to experimental music, arts, community, and culture. There were about 600 of us, and we had a very strict rule: we only celebrated art made in the country we call Canada. Why restrict it in this way? I’m no nationalist. Nestled beside the United States of America, Canada is engulfed in a cultural death-hug. American arts and culture is loud, big, glaringly bright: it’s everywhere all the time. It dominates our screens, feeds, and stages, washing out our own voices and artistic scenes. Our choice to focus solely on art made in Canada was a deliberate boundary, a shield that made space for us to readjust our eyes, resensitize our ears, recalibrate our senses to more local nuance, possibility. And of course, to find each other, in smaller, local communities.

 

Ok, it was a bit of a long runaround, but I feel the same way about women in STEM initiatives. There are a lot of men in the room, and they can be quite loud, as a group. There’s value in intentionally making space for women to join the conversation. And equally, for non-binary and gender nonconforming people, and trans men, and others to join. I can’t speak for other gender non-conforming or non binary people. My specific situation is that I identify more as a human, or living being, than as a “woman” or “man”. For most of my life, I simply accept that people generally understand me to be a woman, and I navigate the challenges that come with that as best I can.

I want to add that it’s really important that these initiatives keep in mind two more things: 

1) It’s often not a pipeline problem. That is to say, it’s not helpful to build a pipeline that dumps a pile of women in STEM and leaves them with no real support or understanding of *why* women aren’t already in these spaces. 

2) “Women” as a category can be helpful, but it isn’t enough. The challenges faced by a first generation trans woman immigrant from Haiti with a deep background in Python who is supporting two young children are not the same as the challenges for a dyslexic woman from Kitchener who lives in her mom’s basement and studies quantum mechanics in the evenings.

 

SAT: What is your experience navigating the world of digital arts, that is dominated by (white) cisgender men ?

I didn’t get where I am easily. My path was strange, like an impossible labyrinth with peculiar, tortuous paths and stairways twisting into bewildering loops. It’s a tiny miracle I ever learned to code at all. Multiple people told me that I should simply give up. My brain likes patterns, but it also likes nuance, it’s hard for me to believe in definitions or generalizations. It took me years to accept the concept of a variable, philosophically. Numbers and facts, while reliable friends, always seemed to wobble slightly when scrutinized too closely. 

I mention this to say: I come to STEM as an outsider. I barely made it in the door and I absolutely feel like an outsider. Gender expression is only one aspect of many where I feel a little alien, in the world of STEM. 

In STEM spaces, I meet a lot of white cisgender men. I am glad to meet them. Many of them are dear to my heart. But I do find it strange that they come in such overwhelming numbers, and have wondered for a long time about the reasons, patterns, and systems that spit out this demographic skew. I’d love to meet a more diverse group of people in digital arts. The dominance of any single group diminishes our shared possibility, making our shared spaces less vibrant, less surprising—uniform to the point of flatness.

Given the way art forms and expresses the moving shape of culture, it’s a deep violence to exclude the rich diversity of voices that actually make up our world. I choose the word violence intentionally here. More plainly: when we build panels, host showcases, build juries, build boards, and structure digital voices around the shared priorities and values of white cisgender men, we end up retracing old systems of power, and this is somehow both deeply boring and unconscionably violent. 

 

SAT: Do you perceive differences, gaps? On which aspects do you think gender has an impact? 

I’m not totally sure what gender is. I’m still trying to understand it, personally. But I do think that if huge swaths of people are identifying as men, they probably have some shared characteristics. I also know that in general, I’ve faced an uncomfortable amount of harassment and condescension from men in STEM. I’m not claiming causation here, simply mentioning that it has happened enough that when I enter a room of 50 people and 40+ of them are men I tend to leave quickly. There are professional consequences to these escapes. 

Also, the STEM women I collaborate with generally (generally!) tend to be more intellectually curious, less emotionally fragile, and often bring in fresh perspectives, probably because they literally have different perspectives than most of the people in the room. And I’ve never been sexually harassed by a non-man in STEM. Maybe this is just because only exceptional non-men make it in STEM. Perhaps if we get more equitable representation of gender in STEM, all this will change. There’s only one way to find out!

 

SAT: What do you think should or can be done in order to have more gender representation in the digital arts?  

Let’s burn it down! 

Seriously, though, we first need to ask a lot of different people what we should do. We need diverse voices to build diverse solutions. 

It’s helpful when organizations and people with power *show* that they care about diversity by inviting diverse groups of people to make art, rather than making people jump through hoops. Active outreach is important. 

And language matters. I know it can be confusing for people because the language we use is always changing, but this can be a delightful part of communication, it doesn’t have to feel like a chore. 

Ultimately we need more initiatives led by people of diverse genders, abilities, cultural backgrounds, and economic backgrounds. We need well-funded, well-supported, hands-off initiatives where more diverse groups can build new creative ideas and communities.

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