Feminist Server – Visibility and Functionality

Digital Infrastructure as a Common Project

Shusha Niederberger

Originally published in German as Feminist Server – Sichtbarkeit und Funktionalität. Digitale Infrastruktur als gemeinschaftliches Projekt, in Springerin 4/2019.

The discourse around digital commons focuses mainly on circulating resources and the communities forming around them. In specific artistic practices investigated in this text, another layer comes into focus: what began as an artistic project sometimes becomes infrastructure, and with that come new roles, dependencies, commitment and a lot of service work. Shusha Niederberger explores the often invisible layers of infrastructure in artistic and activist practices on feminist technologies.

Constant: “Are You Being Served? (notebooks)”, 2015, Constant, Cover-Illustration

Anthropologist Brian Larkin defines infrastructures as „matter that enable the movement of other matter“ (Larkin 2013) and it is just as true for water supply as it is for a web server. This stratification of infrastructure and circulation is visible in many of the projects studied in our research: shadow libraries, for example, enable the circulation of texts and other cultural resources. Circulating resources are in the center of the discourse about digital commons, extending from digital resources to the communities that have been forming around them, while practices associated with the infrastructure this circulation is based on remaining mostly unaddressed. And still, infrastructure is a crucial element in many of the projects we studied. What started as an artistic project became infrastructure, and with that come new roles, dependencies, obligations and a lot of service work.

The function of invisibility

Why is the infrastructural level invisible, even in commons discourse? The pioneer of Infrastructure Research, Susan Leigh Star, argued that a characteristic of infrastructure is its disappearance behind its own functionality (Star 1999). And yes, it is not necessary to understand how the water supply works in order to be able to fill a glass of water. Only in the failure or collapse of infrastructure does become visible what infrastructure is: a whole network of things, practices of maintenance, relationships that regulate its creation and access, and also relationships among people connected to all these levels.

In our research, the question of infrastructure has been raised by projects with a feminist background, especially in the work of Constant, an artist-run organization in Brussels. In 2013, Constant hosted a workshop called “Are you being served?” to which artists and activists were invited to reflect on servers and services and the relationships to technology articulated through them (Constant 2015). During that workshop, participants formulated the Feminist Server Manifesto, stating an alternative mode of relating to servers and services. The manifesto declares, among other things: A Feminist Server is “a situated technology. It has a sense of context and sees itself as part of an ecology of practices “[1]. Feminist servers – and this can easily be extended to digital infrastructure in general – are defined here as fundamentally relational, embedded in social structures, practices and relationships.

However, infrastructure is not only embedded in social structures but also serves as a structuring mechanism in itself (Wilson 2016). The invisibility of the relational nature of infrastructure supports its normative function. This point is key part of feminist epistemology, which emphasizes that invisibilities are constitutive for power relations (Harding 1987). And this means, that in order to challenge power relations embedded in infrastructures, invisibilities must be named. Star has used this methodological approach in anthropological infrastructure research, and she proposed to identify “the master voice of infrastructure” (Star 1999). And one of the master voices of digital infrastructure is the narrative (and expectation) of self-evident functionality. So, to be able to rely on infrastructure means its disappearance behind the functionality it provides. And it is important to point out again, that the invisibility of infrastructure does not primarily refer to its material dimensions, but includes all practices associated with its maintenance, as well as the relationships established with these practices.

Feminist Server

The manifesto addresses Feminist Servers as a “thinking tool” (Sollfrank: 2018), allowing us to think about our relationship to infrastructure, and offering a feminist critique of technology. Feminist activism has taken this critique into action, implementing specific Feminist Server as running servers for communities around the world. Feminist Servers emerged from the specific needs of women, non-binary persons and LGBTI people, who have, again and again, experienced that the Internet is not a safe space for them, that the large platforms dominating the Internet since the early 2000s do not protect their content, their concerns and needs – neither from attacks by other internet users nor from access by repressive states. Feminist Servers aim at implementing servers as “safer spaces”. And in doing so, Feminist Servers go further than other activist initiatives for alternative digital infrastructures, that primarily aim at independence from commercial interests: Feminist Servers take into account the ideological dimension of infrastructure.

Currently, there exist diverse Feminist Servers, especially in Europe and Latin America (Spideralex 2020). They are operated and maintained by their users themselves, however seamless functionality is not their declared goal. As another point in the manifesto declares: “Feminist Servers avoids efficiency, ease of use, scalability and immediacy, as these can be traps.” Instead of walking through the door of seamless functionality into the trap of normative invisibility of infrastructure again, the Feminist Server activists want to make their servers a place that can be inhabited, that is: a place of shared practice.

Feminist Servers are therefore fragile, being transparent in regard to the conditions of production of running services. “A server is a service. This implies work and care, and it is illusory to think that it can always be free or that it can always be there for you, if you know the conditions necessary for a service to work,” says Spideralex in the interview with Claire Richard (Richard 2019). That the refusal to reproduce the invisibility of infrastructure goes at the expense of functionality, is, from a feminist perspective, not coincidence but intention. It allows the Feminist Servers to not become invisible again as infrastructure, but to remain a decidedly communal project.

The activists are aware of this tension. The last point in the manifesto says: “She tries very hard not to apologize when she is sometimes unavailable” [The Feminist Server is deliberately gendered as female in the manifesto, author’s note]. Spideralex speaks of this tension as an exchange: “You lose, and you gain other dimensions. And everything depends […] on the needs of the people who inhabit the respective server.” (Sollfrank 2018) What is lost is the self-evident functionality and efficiency of infrastructure together with its normative function, but in exchange, gained is a self-determined relationship to technology, a space to inhabit.


The circulation of digital goods is based on a digital infrastructure that is not self-preserving or self-reproducing. The feminist approach to technology of the Feminist Server Manifesto and also Feminist Server activism makes this invisible level accessible, hitherto neglected by the commons discourse.[2] By naming the connections, practices and relationships hidden by functionality, they can be addressed as part of commoning practices. And by questioning the primacy of functionality and efficiency, alternative relationships to technology communities may choose to become visible. “Feminist technology is incomplete if one does not go through all the layers”, as Spideralex said (Sollfrank: 2018). In other words, a feminist perspective allows not only to extend the commons discourse about digital technology, by putting the different practices connected by digital technologies into relationships, but it also allows these relationships to be changed.


Constant. Are You Being Served? (notebooks), edited by Anne Laforet, Marloes de Valk, Madeleine Aktypi, An Mertens, Femke Snelting, Michaela Lakova, Reni Höfmuller, Brussels: Constant, 2015. https://areyoubeingserved.constantvzw.org/

Federici, Silvia. ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’. In Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, edited by Hughes/Peace/Van Meter, Oakland, California: AK Press, 2010.

Harding, Sandra. ‘Introduction. Is There a Feminist Methodology?’. In Feminism & Methodology, edited by Sandra Harding, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Larkin, Brian. Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure, Annual Review of Anthropology, 42, 2013, pp. 327-43.

Richard, Claire. Pas d’Internet féministe sans serveurs féministes. Entretien avec Spideralex, Panthère Premiere, 4/2019.

Spideralex. ‘Creating New Worlds – With Cyberfeminist Ideas and Practices’. In: The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Cornelia Sollfrank, Colchester / New York / Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2020, p. 52.

Sollfrank, Cornelia. Forms of Ongoingness, Cornelia Sollfrank in conversation with Femke Snelting and Spideralex, 2018, https://creatingcommons.zhdk.ch/forms-of-ongoingness/.

Star, Susan Leigh. The Ethnography of Infrastructure, The American Behavioral Scientist, 1999, Vol. 43 (3), pp. 377-391.

transhackfeminist!. ‘[version 0.1] A feminist server …. constantvzw’. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://transhackfeminist.noblogs.org/post/2014/06/03/version-0-1-a-feminist-server-constantvzw/

Wilson, Ara. The Infrastructure of Intimacy. Signs, 2016, Vol. 41 (2), p. 247-280.

[1] different perspective on the history of Feminist Servers offer https://alexandria.anarchaserver.org/index.php/History_of_Anarchaserver_and_Feminists_Servers_visit_this_section and Femke Snelting; https://www.newcriticals.com/exquisite-corpse/page-8.

[2] This has also been the critique of Silvia Federici, with which she – unlike the Feminist Server activists – fundamentally rejects the possibilities of digital technology for the commons alltogether (Federici 2010).

Forms of Ongoingness, Interview with Femke Snelting and spideralex

Femke Snelting develops projects at the intersection of design, feminisms and free software. In various constellations, she has been exploring how digital tools and practices might co-construct each other. She is a member of Constant, a non-profit, artist-run association for art and media based in Brussels.

Spideralex is a sociologist and holds a doctorate in social economy. She is the founder of the catalan cyberfeminist collective Donestech that explores the relation between gender and technologies developing action research, documentaries, and training. She was the coordinator of a four-year international program with the title “Gender and Technology Institute”, working with human rights defenders and women’s rights activists around the world on topics of privacy and security online, but also in the physical and psycho-social domain. She has edited two volumes on technical sovereignty initiatives.

In this interview, Femke and Spideralex talk about their shared practice of engaging with what they call feminist technologies. They discuss their understanding of technology as an embodied practice, that bears desired relations as well as terrible connections. How can we live in ungracious times? They explore, how digital infrastructure could work differently with the help of the feminist server, which is both a real server, a need, and at the same time a thinking tool. Within this discussion, they also address questions of autonomy versus ongoingness, the role of language as a tool of investigation, and the cultural dimensions of technology like expectations of servitude behind functionality.

Interview conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank, 16 September 2018, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel).

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For any other use please contact us.

constant, Brussels

Constant is an artist-run organisation founded 1997 in Brussels. It is working in collaborative situations of groups of artists and researchers working together for defined periods of time. Often these settings are collaborations with other institutions, and take part at other places. This is only partly due to the absence of permanent place, but also reflects some of the core practices of the organisation, which could be described in an interest in collaboration, translation, negotiations, explanations and the care of shared resources. Constant is thus not a space, it is an organisation.

It features different formats of working together (cyclic exhibition projects, reading groups, publishing, exploration of open source tools, research, workshop, education and all kind of inventive formats that go between and beyond).

Constant’s program is concerned with media, technology and artistic practice.

„Constant is a non-profit, artist-run organisation based in Brussels since 1997 and active in the fields of art, media and technology.

Constant develops, investigates and experiments. Constant departs from feminisms, copyleft, Free/Libre + Open Source Software. Constant loves collective digital artistic practices. Constant organises transdisciplinary worksessions. Constant creates installations, publications and exchanges. Constant collaborates with artists, activists, programmers, academics, designers. Constant is active archives, poetic algorithms, body and software, books with an attitude, cqrrelations, counter cartographies, situated publishing, e-traces, extitutional networks, interstitial work, libre graphics, performative protocols, relearning, discursive infrastructures, hackable devices.“


Laurence Rassel: Notes from Field-Workers, in: Art & Research, a Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Vol. 2, Nr. 2, Spring 2009



Experimenting with Institutional Formats. Interview with Laurence Rassel
Conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank, 4 March 2018

Institutional Practice. Interview with Peter Westenberg
Conducted by Felix Stalder, 4 March 2018

Forms of Ongoingness. Interview with Femke Snelting and spideralex
Conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank, 16 September 2018

Ecosystems of Writing. Interview with Michael Murtaugh
Conducted by Shusha Niederberger, 15 September 2018