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Conversation with Austin Wade Smith

January 26, 2023.

*Austin Wade Smith (AWS) is an artist, ecologist, writer, and technologist based in Brooklyn, New York. Their research explores the interrelation of decolonization, non-human agency, symbiosis, and bioregionalism in global technical and financial infrastructures. They are the creator of Feral.Earth, a solar-powered server hosting a website where the surrounding ecological behavior controls access to its various links. The website's description states, “I am an ecosystem, serving through the interplay of water, air, sun, earth, and AWS. I am an instrument of ecology intimacy.” For further context about this interplay and about ecological intimacy, an “aleatoric switch” on the website provides access to an essay by AWS titled “Queer Servers and Feral Webs.”

MAHM: I’m curious where servers entered the picture for you and how they have tied into your research and practice. When we shared a studio space almost four years ago, you were in the midst of a server practice with your project Digital Animism.

AWS: In a broader sense, I have been interested in the digital animism project through this larger idea of feral technology and feral computing — which I would call my server work — as a response or an investigation into this assumption that technology, or its constituent processes, the collection of data, are ultimately a means to abstract and disembody and remove intimacy from the living world. That narrative seems to come from a modern myth around the severance between people and nature or the living world. Is there such a thing as a technology that cultivates and proliferates different new forms of intimacy, kinship, and situated entanglement?

I've been building servers as an outgrowth of my architectural practice to think about computing as an environment. I identify as queer and as they/them, and I've asked myself, what does my orientation mean to me? My sign-off has been for a long time “AWS,” just as initials, and it's a version of myself. A couple of times, people got it confused with the Amazon Web Server, and I was like, “I love that.” So I was thinking about myself as a server or as a host. I identify as they/them not because I believe in the spectrum of masc and femme, but because I see myself as a multitude, as a pluralism, as an orchestration, and as a symbiotic party of all these cells. So the “they” is very much about being an ecosystem as an entity. As with the living world and with ecology more broadly, I think human beings are taught only to be able to see those things which provide service to them. I think that is a deeply capitalist commodified conception of what we can see. Basically, capitalism can only see what it can capture, only what serves it. So the idea of feral technology is, in a way, that technology is not in service to you. It’s not for Mark to be able to have a more efficient and productive day. Like the stars; the stars don't really give a fuck, but they're an incredible kind of technology if you learn how to read them. Maybe it comes from this idea that the world always already was an internet. That I'm creating this spoof by making legible this highly commodified private property-driven version of the internet we call the world wide web.

MAHM: I was going through your Are.na channel, Bioregional Computing, with the description of "cyberPLACE." Since you placed Feral.Earth into the channel, I'm curious how it's in dialogue with some of the other references and how you are thinking about bioregional computing in general.

AWS: I've really been interested in the question of "where are you?" as a better question than "how are you?" because if you take it at face value, “how are you?” is an impossible question to answer. “How did all this stardust coalesce to keep making Mark?” is a tall order to answer. "Where are you?" is actually an equally very interesting question because in order to know where you are, you have to refer to your surroundings. And in order to refer to your surroundings, you have to look at them. If someone asks you where you are, you have to look at the street sign, or you have to assess the tides or where the sun is, or the direction of the wind. And so there's the reciprocal process of understanding what you are and where you are by extending yourself outwards toward the environment that you're around.

A lot of interest initially emerged out of forms of computing through the environment. Bioregional computing is closely related to another channel called "Navigation as Environmental Computing," which is where we compute what and who we are by extending ourselves to the world around us as a way of understanding where we are. Astrolabes and compasses and things are processes by which we compute our existence and where we are through the environment. Those practices have been around for a long time, and I made a bunch of Astrolis a long while ago and was interested in star charts and building my own star computers or a tide computer. How would you be able to know where you were and who you were based off of the sun, wind, and tides? It's a form of wayfinding. So that is an important lineage of computing that's not discussed.

MAHM: I know that there's a weather station on your roof that connects to the server. How is it configured in your space?

AWS: It's in my room. The orchid tank is adjacent to it. There’s the Raspberry Pi itself, which is a Pi 3 that's just plugged in, and then there's a pallet with a solar panel and a weather station up above. That's all part of the organs that make the server. And a gel mat battery and inverter to power it, which is way oversized for the project because it started with me only using the amount of juice that I got from the solar panel during the pandemic.

I would turn my laptop off when I ran out of battery power from the panel, and that would be a way of letting the sunrise and sunset into my browsing habits. And it’s a way for you to just be mindful of the number of tabs you have open and stuff, which is nice. The most standard setup of a server would be a Raspberry Pi that, inside of its root folder, has some index.html files in it and an Apache server that presents it and makes it discoverable on your local gateway. Then you have this thing called port forwarding, which allows anybody to come into your house. It's like swallowing what somebody gives you on the street. I'm letting into my room internet traffic, which is fun. (Or technically, letting it through the router, which is just outside my room.) In theory, there are Wi-Fi packets getting passed back and forth. That bandwidth probably passes roughly over my bed. So it is not unrealistic to say that there's literally internet traffic flowing over my head to the server to access that. It's very intimate.

MAHM: I love how the server being in the space with you and initially being run by your solar panel was also affecting your rhythms with work and leisure. You sent some delightful tweets that I wrote down related to intermittency and how you're designing and thinking about it. You tweeted:

I’d like to think of personal servers as organs which queer the idea of discrete personhood into messier composites of access, service, and ecology More access protocols should follow actual plant watering and blooming cycles. Links are an act of pollination.

This idea of intermittency is usually thought of as a temporary failure when the power goes out. But in this case, there's a complete reframing of how we might relate to this energy and infrastructure according to the temporalities of the planet.

AWS: Totally. Alex Nathanson and I from Solar Protocol had lunch a long time ago, and we were talking about what internets serve different needs. At the far end, you have feral technologies, they’re not in service to you and not meant to be a reliable participant. On the other end, you have a person in urgent need to get to the hospital, and they need to know how to be routed there. In this situation, you need uptime with 100% robust bandwidth. We're not playing [laughs]. You're not going to rely on an amateur star navigator to get you through critical moments. So there's definitely a degree of how much you rely on the web as an infrastructure versus a kind of organism, depending on the need. I think that we should calibrate the internets we use to the kinds of needs we have. Solar Protocols’ baton pass is like building a more stable internet, and we need that. That version of it we need, and we also need the version that really goes offline a lot because it's like a kite in the sky, and it only gets picked up when the wind is over 15 miles per hour, which is honestly like 45 minutes every month.

This is an old-school animist idea that things have personalities as they degrade. You have to jiggle the lock the right way for the door to open. It's fussy… It's not for you all the time. It has character. We attribute the spirit of things in their breakdown or in their loss as having personality, and you only see the design when it fails. The underlying ideologies and beliefs of things get shown when they fall apart. I'm interested in how impasses and obstructions are a constructive way to bring people into the present. There’s friction. And that it's not invisible, but it's intermittent, and that's because it's from somewhere, it has lived a life, and it has an opinion about things. Our tools might disagree with you today and agree with you tomorrow.

MAHM: I'm happy the server is down now [laughs]. It's an invitation to talk about the care that goes into this jiggling of the lock—the working and the reworking.

AWS: There's a lot of care that goes into the servers. The cult of novelty and disruption tends to fundamentally overlook the importance of management, care, or maintenance work. It's unglorified, and when you work with living systems like a puppy, or an orchid, or a child, maintenance work and care work is everything. So it's indicative of the kind of labor that we understand to have to happen with living systems, that the maintenance and care work is 99.9% of the work.

I'm not sure how I'll want to sustain this labor. I might retire it and be like, "Cool, here's the repo for how to do it. I don't want to do this anymore. I want to do this new version of it." And that would be a bummer, but that would be absolutely a part of the story, you know? Of how these things are fragile.

MAHM: "Who services the server?" is something that Alice Yuan Zhang once asked me. Regarding stewardship, it makes me think of the work of Māori architect Karamia Müller. She discusses how decolonizing architectural education can move us away from territory and instead toward relationship and away from land as property and toward land as guardianship.

AWS: Who stewards the servers’ server in a way, goes back maybe to my work with food systems. Like what sustains the person to have the energy or what sustains the person to have the free time to be able to do this thing. What experimentation is allowed to happen in that free time? Guardianship is relegated to those spaces outside of property. Stewarding is relegated to the space between spaces of ownership. There are the dominant forms with which we have relationships, and then in the space between is where these practices can happen. And so it's always like, if you look at GitHub repositories and stuff, people are like, "Oh, I'll do that when I have free time."

Like this work, even the open source software movement and the creation of commons, more broadly, happens in the interstitial space between other conventional forms of value and ownership and property. If you've seen the Varia project, they do that pretty well. It's like a feminist hacker collective in Rotterdam. I cite them in the section of Feral.Earth, but they're the closest I know about queer servers — and I would identify all of this as a subset of queer servers and computing. Varia has a feminist perspective on servers, and they're a collective that maintains that infrastructure. So it'd be interesting to talk about models of what a household or a village or a co-op looks like in terms of maintaining and running these things.

It's the beauty of if, for example, a bunch of roommates are growing a wildflower garden on their roof together, and they have to water it, and it enters into this mundane routine of everyday life. Like, please water the plants, please do your dishes, and please keep uptime on the WSGI memory allocation system. I would love to share that with other people. But right now, in my life, there isn't really a big enough community. I think through Solar Protocol, that's happening more, where there's more people talking about this relationship with servers, and maybe we can build a club that maintains a few of them.

I would call them pets, but they're not pets because they're wild animals, really. But calling it feral isn't really fair because you do feed it and nourish it and stuff like that. It doesn't fend for itself entirely.

MAHM: But you also can't domesticate it altogether.

AWS: Yeah, like, right now, I can't domesticate it. I have to figure out what the fuck is going on. Or when it's really, really cloudy here for a long period of time, it just goes offline. I think one of the interesting questions that maybe we haven't pointed out and that I've talked around is, what do servers actually serve? That is a question that I think is a big one. One of the things I really struggled with, with Feral.Earth — and I don't think it's successful at all in this — is what to show when. What would you want to know about at high tide? What matters at night? What should be reflected or served during the solstice? In the intermittency or in the conditional relationship you have, it's not an unconditional relationship with computing; it's a conditional relationship with computing, in this case, based off of the forces and flows of the living world. What is being shared? As an example, would it be interesting if my social security number was actually embedded in all of that? So if you wanted to steal my identity, you would have to pay attention to the tide tables in Newtown Creek and when the eclipses are happening in relation to the solstice, and maybe I'd embed one of them so that only when it was at midnight in the month of a solstice, three days before the eclipse, something would reveal. And that project of extending yourself to the world to know where you are — you'd have to really play that game because you wanted to steal my identity.

What servers serve, I think, is a really interesting question. Are there any stakes? Are there any teeth in it? Because right now, mine, it's just crap. It's not really anything actually successful. The mechanism is what's interesting, the content is less so. I would love to see more conversations about what's worth serving in relation to the sun. What's worth serving in this hyper-local organismic type of server model? What are we sharing, and what aren't we sharing? I don't have a very well-formulated answer to that. I think it's probably the great outdoors of this space.