Toolkits for Counterparts, and the search for comforts in digital chaos

(Source: Martie Rosales/Toolkits for Counterparts)
(Source: Martie Rosales/Toolkits for Counterparts)

It was in 2021 when curators April Lin and Mac Andre Arboleda came up with the idea to bring together artists from the United Kingdom (UK) and the Philippines, respectively, that would later become the “Toolkits for Counterparts” digital art exhibit.

With the benefits of the British Council's Connections Through Culture arts grant, the pair’s focus, in Arboleda’s words, was on “building this toolkit, that did not necessarily limit itself to practicality, but rather impulses that would give us a direction in understanding ideas of solidarity, as in counterparts, and resource-sharing, as in tools.”

It was on the eve of March 3 when Lin and Arboleda unveiled their's and six selected artists’ two-month labor of love. Arboleda explained that the featured pieces were forged from workshops that centered on asking “what do [the artists] need, what do [the artists] build, why do we build with and for others, and how will this support them?”

“We started out wanting to create a space for that, and at the same time, being very aware that these positions of different sociopolitical realities don't and can't occur in a relational vacuum, right? That there is, for instance, a global north/global south awareness to take into account, as well as everyone's own lived and differing experiences of, say, disability, neurodivergence, class, diaspora, and the many, many other aspects that influence the way that you move through the world,” they explained to a virtual audience.

In pursuing “honest and critical and intimate conversations” in making the artworks, Lin emphasized the need for a safe space for critical conversations.

“[...] actually I think reversing that dynamic, and making any expectations of the work very open-ended but facilitating the making along the way, has been a really good reminder, at least for me, of how creative collaboration can challenge a certain mode. [...] It has been an intriguing and playful experiment in what can happen when you do decide to revisit what an online collaboration seeks to do,” they added.

A randomly generated prompt from frameweaver’s guttation: an altar for softwheres. (Photo: Toolkits for Counterparts)
A randomly generated prompt from frameweaver’s guttation: an altar for softwheres. (Photo: Toolkits for Counterparts)

Tales from a digital safe space

Out of the six artists, two provided in-depth discussions regarding their respective works.

For queer Filipina artist cj silva (also known as “frameweaver”), her work guttation: an altar for softwheres is rooted in “randomness and synchronicity.” What was originally meant to be a reflection on living with disability and the experiences in the digital space eventually became an “8 ball of sorts.”

“My piece is very much inspired and informed by my practice of Tarot and astrology, of randomness, correspondence, and meaning-making. I believe that our creative practice can change the world, and I wanted to create a sort of fermentation starter towards rituals that can situate our body [and] minds, our tools and technologies, and the mundane reality of interconnectedness with each other and the more than human world,” silva said regarding her inspirations.

Through guttation (the term itself refers to water droplets coming out of plant pores), users are treated to randomly generated prompts that aim to “shape one’s creative practice” with every click of the screen. A link will direct interested parties to separate comment sections, where they can share their answers to the prompts.

Complementing the project’s minimalist design is a looping animation in the background, which silva revealed was made with 2D and 3D animation (the former of which she has had prior experience).

“We are filled with questions, questions that wouldn't take simplified instant solutions,

but instead would take continuous daily engagements, negotiations, renegotiations, adjustments, and experimentation, so in my second iteration for this piece, I thought, why don't we start here, with the questions,” silva reflected.

Public annotations fill the right side of Yifan He’s messy little dictionary. (Photo: Toolkits for Counterparts)
Public annotations fill the right side of Yifan He’s messy little dictionary. (Photo: Toolkits for Counterparts)

Going deeper into the technological aspect was interdisciplinary artist Yifan He’s messy little dictionary. The inspiration for this piece can be traced to the article “Coding Is for Everyone—as Long as You Speak English,” where Wired’s Resident Linguist Gretchen McCullough criticized the extensive use of English in coding.

He’s “d(f)ictionary” served as a response to this issue, recalling that “[they] started off [their] research wanting to address - like draw attention to the fact that in the industry of programming, the most used coding languages are all in English, so coding is for everyone, as long as you speak English. Despite the binary system, the binary coding system [allows] coding to happen in any symbols or shapes or whatever, human language or not. This fact reflects the alarming disparities when it comes to tech for whom, and tech by whom [...].”

Presented as an accessible Google Doc file that is accompanied by .gifs, the messy little dictionary allows users to freely annotate sentences or encode their strings of thoughts in the hopes of providing alternate definitions for different ideas. In other words, “for recomputing towards making nicer words.”

It is through this that He dug deeper into the idea of ternary computing. While the more traditional binary coding uses the two values of 1s and 0s to encode instructions and perform other computer functions, ternary computing suggests that three values can be used. This reflected He’s understanding of providing queer alternatives or more inclusive definitions of terms.

“All these related terms discovered when I was researching into non-binary computing allow me to stretch the definitions of words, or use definitions interchangeably across different fields of study, to imagine the queer alternatives from non-binary logics to non-binary tech, then to non-binary worlds. So the messy little d(f)ictionary itself requires time, care and generosity,” He shared, while relating their insights to works such as Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell, The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam, and Artificial Gut Feeling by Anna Zett.

(From top) Kate Frances Lingard’s our data, Mirjam Dalire’s How to: Starterpack memes, Pablo Lorenzo’s Map to the Stars, and nil00’s d00m gates. (Photo: Toolkits for Counterparts)
(From top) Kate Frances Lingard’s our data, Mirjam Dalire’s How to: Starterpack memes, Pablo Lorenzo’s Map to the Stars, and nil00’s d00m gates. (Photo: Toolkits for Counterparts)

Interested users may also view the works of Kate Frances Lingard, nil00, Mirjam “Jam” Dalire, and Paolo Lorenzo.

While the individual works of both the Glasgow-based Lingard and the Liverpool-based nil00 centered on games, the latter created d00m gates, a top-down role-playing game (RPG) that tasks players to fight their “inner critics” in a fantasy world.

Meanwhile, the former made our data, a minimalist game that has players simply click on a digital human body in the hopes of gaining access to several articles related to digital rights among other issues. Per Lingard, they viewed data as something “leaking” from the body, saying that “by imagining data as an extension of the body, something that [affects] us all, the game aims to provide alternate routes into collective and individual methods of resistance to data capitalism.”

“It began as a prototype for a tabletop game because that's what I've done in the past, build more tabletop RPG games, so migrating it to the digital space was a nice challenge as well, in that kind of way. But yeah, I would like to keep continuing my project as it feels like it is only kind of like the seed link of what it could become eventually,” Lingard hoped.

In the case of Filipino artists Dalire and Lorenzo, the latter crafted an interactive map, dubbed Map to the Stars, that detailed different local infrastructure projects from 2016 to 2022 (all the while comparing the presentation to the cultural significance of the stars).

On the other hand, the former made How to: Starterpack meme, a satirical video that mixes popular memes, visuals from The Sims, the artificial intelligence voice of Google Translate, and classic Internet effects to explore the wonders of online humor.

A look at the Gather.Town version of the Toolkits for Counterparts library.
A look at the Gather.Town version of the Toolkits for Counterparts library.

The world beyond the computer screen

For the exhibit’s last feature, in an attempt to further contextualize the issues discussed by each artist, Waki Salvador designed a virtual library through the virtual conference software Gather.Town. The inspirations for which, per Salvador, include “local info shops which are community archives or centers where you can access radical ideas and along with this [and] a fascination with weird shapes.”

Here, visitors venture through a geometric space filled with interactive “hyperlink ruins.” These would then lead them to online articles shared by collaborators with each other over the course of the development process. According to Salvador, “these resources have been collated into an eclectic library with topics such as poetic computation, non-binary computing and digital rights.”

Guests are also free to share other relevant works by interacting with an obelisk at the bottom right of the library’s entrance (seen at the player’s right in the above screenshot). An easy-to-read Google Doc version can also be accessed in the laboratory set-up (located by the left of the player).

Outside of the library, guests can organize hangouts and even play games (including and Tetris) with fellow visitors in the lounge.

Near the end of the launch, Lorenzo, comparing his experiences to what he learned from his UK-based colleagues, dubbed their works as “appeals for collaboration.”

“I think more than anything, at least the British counterparts have taught me the different orientation towards publishing a digital work, wherein it's immediate, it's almost immediately open, because I think in contrast to the Philippines here, where engagement with digital space is extremely private, extremely privatized, so there is really no concept of sharing that space, or even altering - or altering your space to fit others, or letting others alter the space for you,” Lorenzo said.

Meanwhile, in the artists’ creative process, nil00 believed that all six were able to explore topics that they were invested in

“I felt like everyone managed to talk about something that they felt something about, and was interested in rather than ‘yeah, the idea of usefulness being limited to things with a practical application,’ because I think the whole thing about art is that it's not necessarily ‘you can't use it in the same way you can use [it] like a cup, but it makes your life.’ It can make your life more meaningful, and I think it was nice to explore that, and focus on the uses of it,” the digital artist recalled.

(Interested parties can visit the Toolkits for Counterparts digital exhibit until February 28, 2023.)

Reuben Pio Martinez is a news writer who covers stories on various communities and scientific matters. He regularly tunes-in to local happenings. The views expressed are his own.

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