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Failurists: When Things Go Awry



Failure is a popular topic of research. It has long been a source of study in !ields such as sociology and anthropology, science and technology studies, privacy and surveillance, cultural, feminist and media studies, art, theatre, !lm, and political science. When things go awry, breakdown, or rupture they lead to valuable insights into the mundane mechanisms of social worlds. Yet, while failure is a familiar topic of research, failure in and as a tactic of research is far less visible, valued, and explored. In this book the authors re"ect upon the role of creative interventions as a critical mode for methods, research techniques, !eldwork, and knowledge transmission or impact. Here, failure is considered a productive part of engaging with and in the !eld. It is about acknowledging the ‘mess’ of the social and how we need methods, modes of attunement, and knowledge translation that address this complexity in nuanced ways. In this collection, interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners share their practices, insights, and challenges around rethinking failure beyond normalized tropes. What does failure mean? What does it do? What does putting failure under the microscope do to our assumptions around ontology and epistemologies? How can it be deployed to challenge norms in a time of great uncertainty, crisis, and anxiety? And what are some of the ways resilience and failure are interrelated? Contributors: Jessamy Perriam, Emma Fraser & Clancy Wilmott, Kat Jungnickel, Annette N. Markham, Anna Hickey-Moody, Linda Dement, Jen Rae & Claire G. Coleman, Julienne van Loon & Kelly Hussey-Smith, Li Jönsson & Kristina Lindström, Sam Hind, Lekshmy Parameswaran, Syrus Marcus Ware, Nanna Verhoeff & Iris van der Tuin, Olivia Khoo,Grace McQuilten, Chantal Faust, Nancy Mauro-Flude, Sybille Lammes, Larissa Hjorth, Kate McLean and Julienne van Loon.
go Awrygo Awry
INC Theory on Demand #47
Failurists– When Things go Arwy
Edited by: Sybille Lammes, Kat Jungnickel, Larissa Hjorth and Jen Rae
Cover Design: Katja van Stiphout
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Published by the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam 2023
ISBN print: 9789083328201
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Failurists: Methodologies, Motivations and Meanings 9
Sybille Lammes, Kat Jungnickel, Larissa Hjorth and Jen Rae
Making Friends with Failure in STS 33
Jessamy Perriam
‘No Device Found’: Failure and Frustration in
Critical Digital Methodologies
Emma Fraser and Clancy Wilmott
Patent Failure, Researcher Failure, Archive Failure:
Getting Inventive with the Study of Inventions 40
Kat Jungnickel
Failure as Reflexive Method to Think Otherwise 48
Annette N. Markham
Digital Agency and the Authorship of Failure 60
Anna Hickey-Moody
Schematic of an Art Failure (Artwork) 67
Linda Dement
Reworlding: Speculative Futuring in the Endtimes,
in the Everywhen 69
Jen Rae and Claire G. Coleman
Failure and Interruption: Creative Carers in a
Time of COVID-19 79
Julienne van Loon and Kelly Hussey-Smith
Who Cares About Fågeltofta? Failing to Grieve
Landscapes in Transition 91
Li Jönsson and Kristina Lindström
Care-tographies: Finding Failure in Navigational Settings 100
Sam Hind
Failure is Inevitable in Care Activism 108
Lekshmy Parameswaran
A Day Fractured Forever, and Ensuing Change:
The Summer Uprisings of 2020 and Lessons Learned
From the Frontlines 117
Syrus Marcus Ware
Failure is a Project 127
Nanna Verhoe and Iris van der Tuin
On the Joys of Administration: Or Race, Failure
and the Neoliberal Academy 133
Olivia Khoo
Who Can Aord to Fail? Art and Risk in an Era of Precarity 140
Grace McQuilten
Coloring in the Void: Absurdity and Contemporary Art 148
Chantal Faust
Erroneous Interventions into Infrastructure
| The <<< Pirate Girls >>> say... 154
Nancy Mauro-Flude
Failure in Play: Boredom as Meaningful Ludic Moment 159
Sybille Lammes
Failure in the Field: Ethnography, Iternation, Multispecies/
Ecological Relationality and Grief 166
Larissa Hjorth
Snis of Failure: Discomfort, Unease, and Serendipity
in Sensory Communication Design 179
Kate McLean
Twenty Tanka: Ten Australian Researchers on
Playful Research Practices and Failure 190
Julienne van Loon
Acknowledgments 198
Contributor Biographies 199
Introduction: Locating Uncertain Futures
The idea of the Failurists Collective was born out of a creative methods workshop at RMIT
Europe in Barcelona in 2018. We were an interdisciplinary group of researchers and
practitioners interested in how we could recalibrate the role of critical-creative methods in
relation to social justice and the climate emergency context. This workshop was a window
in time before the ‘unprecedented’ European heatwaves, the catastrophic bushfires in
North America and Australia and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing our implicit
culpabilities and vulnerabilities, the sense of urgency to ‘do something’ creatively and critically
engage with this reality was palpable in the workshop.
The exercise was more than just a social innovation agenda. This workshop was about
stretching disciplines, techniques, methods, and knowledge translation for new ways of
knowing that allowed for vulnerabilities and subjectivities to emerge as part of failing as
an act of liminality and deep reflection (see Figure 1.1). For example, the way in which an
ethnographer, if one listens deeply to the field, then transforms the preconceived research
questions through their failure. In what ways could ‘pivoting’ be framed as an iteration in
which codesign and cocreation with the field is a constant process of failing, translation, and
Figure 1.1: Creative Research Methods Approach to Failure. From 2018 RMIT workshop.
Indeed, just the act of conversation between the disciplines is an action of constant translation,
failure, and adaptation — take, for example, how elastic the term codesign has become
across the disciplines and sectors. For some it means ‘I spoke with an end-user’; for others
it is a constant cycle of discussion, debate, translation, and transmission. As a collective, we
explored various modalities of workshopping — its potentialities and limits to create and
curate playful iteration and recalibration.
Since 2018, significant climate-related events in the world at large have demonstrated that
failure is ubiquitous within and across our human systems. And, in turn, disenfranchised
(unacknowledged) grief hangs palpably like a heavy cloud, a distress now coined by Glenn
Albrecht as solastalgia – an ill feeling one experiences when they are powerless and impacted
by significant environmental changes and impacts.1 David Kessler, who with Elisabeth Kübler-
Ross, explored the initial five stages of grief, defined the COVID-19 pandemic as adding
another layer of grief — that of uncertain futures.2
However, for many, this uncertain future in a time of climate urgency has been a long time
coming. So much so that when we hear of heat waves in London of 40 degrees Celsius and
the heat dome in the Canadian town of Lytton (which led to unprecedented temperatures of
nearly 50 degrees Celsius before a wildfire ignited and razed the community to the ground),
we know that it’s more than just a climate emergency. Climate change has always been more
of a communications and engagement crisis than an environmental one.3
The Unprecedented Precedent: Care, Worlding, and Different
Ways of Doing
Figure 1.2: Megan Cope (2020) Unprecedented 2020. Courtesy of the Artist and Milani Gallery.
1 Glenn Albrecht et al., ‘Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change,’ Australasian
Psychiatry 15 (2007).
2 David Kessler (2020) cited in Scott Berinato, ‘That Discomfort you’re feeling is grief’, Harvard Business
Review, March 23 2020,
3 Jen Rae, ‘Interpreting the World: Creativity in Dealing with Disasters’, From Risk to Resilience Summit,
Sydney, Australia, 2022.
Indigenous Australian Qunadamooka artist Megan Cope’s UNPRECEDENTED (2020) is a
wooden board sign in old English script. Made from ochre, burnt Bundjalung country (charcoal),
and glow mineral, the word initially reads PRECEDENT. This work is a powerful statement on
what has now become precedent — unprecedented. With the increasingly climate change-
related natural disasters of fires, floods, and pandemics, the word ‘unprecedented’ fails to
capture the complex layers of material, social, and environmental dimensions facing the globe.
In the emptying out of unprecedented to become precedent, it has become apparent that we
need to change how we do things. Indeed, in the face of such tremendous failure, many have
turned to the Indigenous ways of doing, being, and knowing as a more sustainable way for
the world in the face of Anthropocentric disaster. How we work equitably with and alongside
First Peoples is of upmost priority in these critical unprecedented times, recognizing that
many contemporary concepts around sustainability, kin, and futurisms draw from complex
Indigenous cosmologies, which are sometimes acknowledged but frequently not.
The failure of the Anthropocene — in which human-centeredness has led to destruction of the
environment — has meant that many are rethinking how we relate to and ‘make’ the world,
or what multispecies scholars call our ‘worlding’. Worlding is a phenomenological concept
which describes a move away from divisions between subject and the environment to instead
focus on the temporal, spatial, and corporeal relationality of being-in-the-world. Fundamental
to this approach is how human-animal relations figure in practices of caring — for ourselves,
our others, and the worlds we make.
For Donna Haraway, the failure of science and technology in exacerbating rather than
providing solutions to ecological destruction challenges us to ‘radically rethink’ the
relationship between humans and nature, and dilate our sense of affinity, responsibility, and
care to encompass animals as co-evolutionary ‘kin’.4 According to Gavin Van Horn et al., we
need to radically revise the relationality between humans and more-than-humans in terms
of kinship and kinning.5 How might multispecies theory contribute to media and cultural
studies to enrich our understanding of this kinship across social, digital, and material worlds?
Care is a complex layering of affect that is often entangled with practices of surveillance
and guardianship, both social and benevolent.6 Over the last decade care has become an
important space and concept, particularly for feminist research by feminist scholars including
4 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University
Press, 2016.
5 Gavin Van Horn et al. Kinship, Canada: Centre for Humans and Animals, 2021.
6 Ingrid Richardson, Larissa Hjorth, Yolande Strengers and William Balmford, ‘Careful surveillance at play:
Human–animal relations and mobile media in the home’, in Sarah Pink, Edgar Gómez Crux and Shanti
Sumartojo (eds) Refiguring Techniques in Digital Visual Research, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017,
pp. 105–116.
Annemarie Mol7, Puig de la Bellacasa8, and Haraway9, who directly explore care relationalities
with emphases on media, technologies, and more-than-human agency. As an historically
‘feminized’ concept, care has many dimensions and modes of affective labor and pastoral
guidance which have often been devalued. The COVID-19 pandemic as a global phenomenon
transgresses isolated geographies or nation-states; it has centralized care as a matter of
survival in profoundly visible ways that has forced rich and powerful nations in the Global
North to bear witness to their own vulnerability and failures of equitable care and governance.
Foc us ha s t ur ned t o i dea s lik e m or e- tha n- hum an ki ns hi p10 as a way to recalibrate how humans
co-inhabit the world. More-than-human relations have been the ongoing focus of several
multispecies and animal studies scholars including Haraway11, Anne Galloway12, Thom
van Dooren13, and Eduardo Kohn14 among many others. Their research actively challenges
human-centric approaches to ontology, agency, design, and ethnographic research, providing
alternative ways of thinking about our being-in-the-world. So much so that now there is a call
for critical failure studies as a way to encompass and challenge norms of success as part of
neo-liberal regimes.15
In this way, failure is deeply embedded in our vulnerabilities. It is intrinsic to how we learn,
adapt, grow, and die. It emphasizes the need to enhance our sensory experiences of the
world and to acknowledge the powerful role of smell, touch, and proprioception in our
interpretations of and feelings about the world. And while there has been a lot of celebration
of failure in entrepreneurial technology speak (‘fail bigger and better’), at the core of failure
is to be reflexive to the reality of humanness. For some, failure is not just an experiment —
they don’t have the privilege or power. Scholars in feminist science and technology studies
(STS) and multispecies and environmental humanities have long been fascinated by the role
of failure in methodologies, conceptualization, and ways of being in the world. It can help us
conceptualize concepts such as grief as not neo-liberal individuated feelings but as part of a
7 Annemarie Mol, The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice. Lo ndon: Rou tledg e, 2 008.
8 Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, ‘Nothing comes without its world: Thinking with care’, Sociological Review
60.2 (2008): 197–216,; Maria Puig de la Bellacasa
Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press, 2017.
9 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
10 Van H orn et al., Kinship.
11 Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 2003; Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2008.
12 Anne Galloway, ‘More-Than-Human Lab: Critical and Ethnographic Experiments After Human
Exceptionalism’, in L. Hjorth, H. Horst, A. Galloway, and G. Bell (eds) The Routledge Companion
to Digital Ethnography, London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 470-477; Anne Galloway, ‘Emergent Media
Tec hn ol og ie s, S pe cu lat io n, E xp ec ta ti on a nd H um an /No nh um an R el at io ns ’, Journal of Broadcasting and
Electronic Media, 57.1 (2013): 53-65, 54.
13 Thom Van Dooren, ‘Care: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities’, Environmental Humanities
5 (2014): 291–294.
14 Eduardo Kohn, What Forests Think, Berkeley: University of Cal. Press, 2013.
15 See forthcoming Adriana Mica, Mikolaj Pawlak, Anna Horolets and Pawel Kubicki (eds) The Routledge
International Handbook of Failure, London: Routledge, 2023.
cultural fabric that helps us reflect and learn from experience (rather than just repeating the
same mistake again and again).
Figure 1.3: Critical making in the 2018 Workshop. Photo: Larissa Hjorth.
Failure as Creative Research Practice
Failure is a popular topic of research. It has long been a source of study in fields such as
sociology and anthropology, STS, privacy and surveillance, cultural and media studies,
art, theatre, film, and political science. When things go awry, breakdown, or rupture
they can lead to valuable insights into the mundane mechanisms of social worlds.16 For
instance, Susan Leigh Star has argued that essential infrastructures — such as for water
or electricity — are often overlooked and under-appreciated until something goes wrong;
16 See for example: Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts,
SAGE Publications, 1986; Mike Michael, Technoscience and Everyday Life, The Complex Simplicities
of the Mundane, London: Open University Press, 2006; Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste, Oxford:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc , 2005.
breakdown reveals behind-the-scenes activities ordinarily taken for granted.17 And as Luke
Munn argues, failure is now ‘designed into’ the ‘resilience’ of data center infrastructures
— rendering them operational imaginaries for future possibilities through enactments in
the present.18
Yet, while failure is a familiar topic of research, failure in and as a tactic of research is far
less visible, valued, and explored.
Research failure rarely features in finished scholarly and artwork. More often, it is cleaned-
up in the final polished argument or piece. When it does appear — often in the form of mess,
mistakes, and mishaps — it is framed as unexpected problems to be solved or navigated
around, such as the ‘confessions in the field’ genre.19 Ethnography has a long tradition of
disclosing moments of failure in the field as breakthroughs.20 While providing fascinating
insights in the realities of research, failure of this type rarely challenges methodological
practices, data collection, analytic teachings, or normative research outputs. We seldom
learn from them — except to try to prevent whatever happened from happening again.
In conventional methods textbooks, failing is largely presented as the result of poor
preparation and execution. It is written of in terms of what-not-to-do and workarounds
via a plethora of techniques for erasing awkward data and resolving problems and closing
down the unexpected and tangential. As Christine Hine critiques: ‘Our methodological
instincts are to clean up complexity and tell straightforward linear stories, and thus
we tend to exclude descriptions that are faithful to experiences of mess, ambivalence,
elusiveness and multiplicity.’21 Another type of failure in research resonates with popular
tech-entrepreneurial discourse. Here, failing is viewed as heroic, individualistic, and
heteronormative in tone, and often instrumentalized as part of a linear success story. Some,
like Appadurai and Alexander, argue that this kind of failure is blind to conventional tropes
and, as such, ‘produces and sustains cultural fantasies and regimes of expectations.22
Here we seek to argue that failure isn’t the opposite of success — rather it is a productive way
of being in the world that acknowledges the inequalities, contingencies, subjectivities and
collaboration in, and with, the field. Drawing from stories in the field, we explore how to think
and write about failure in ways that acknowledge it as an important part of the researcher’s
journey — from being reflexive in the field, to designing in contingency through iteration, to
how to understand social impact in dynamic ways.
17 Susan Leigh Star, ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’, In P. Lyman and N. Wakeford. (eds) Analysing
Virtual Societies: New Directions in Methodology, American Behavioural Scientist, 43.3 (1999): 377-391.
18 Luke Munn, ‘Injecting failure: Data center infrastructures and the imaginaries of resilience’, The
Information Society, 36.3 (2020): 167-176.
19 James Cl ifford and Ge orge E. Marcus, Wr iting Cul ture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
20 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books, 1973.
21 Christine Hine, ‘Multi-sited Ethnography as a Middle range Methodology for Contemporary STS, Science,
Tec hn ol og y & Hu ma n Val ue s, 32.6 (2007): 652-671, 12.
22 Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander, Failure, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020, 1.
The authors in this collection are also interested in usurping the idea that failing is only possible
for the successful, beyond the precarity of academic life. Instead, by attempting to reclaim
failure, in multiple forms, we want to ‘escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior
and manage human development’ and which ‘clean boundaries between […] winners
and losers’.23 We are open to practices of failure that de-link from conventional systems of
knowledge and research practice. Taking a decolonizing approach, we set out to rethink and
rework failing in research in terms of the enduring power and influence of ‘imperial legacies
of Western knowledge and the ways in which those legacies continue to influence knowledge
institutions to the exclusions of Indigenous peoples and their aspirations’.24
Figure. 1.4: Images from the workshop. Photo: Larissa Hjorth.
Failure as a workshop
As mentioned, this book emerged from a critical making workshop hosted at RMIT
Europe in July 2018. While the primary theme was failure, it was designed to discuss best
practices for creative, impactful research methods.25 Led by Larissa Hjorth, it featured
23 Jack Halb erstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 3.
24 Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed
Books, 2013.
25 Examples included Lisa LeFevre, (ed) Failure, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.
11 interdisciplinary researchers from a wide range of disciplines including sociology,
anthropology, geography, STS, game studies, digital media, design, and creative arts. They
travelled from Aarhus, Barcelona, Leiden, London, Madrid, Manchester, and Melbourne.
Everyone was asked to present on the following questions:
How has my work or method failed in a particular project?
What do we learn from failure?
What are some of the habitual failure expectations we make when we design our research?
How does failure play into the process of creative research design and practice?
How can we think about doing impactful methods and what are some of the failures?
The goal of this workshop was to explore experiences of research failure and build
conceptual understandings of and practical solutions for innovative creative methods
that address challenges in doing collaborative, interdisciplinary work. Through a series of
scenarios and examples, we mapped it as a generative space for recalibration, adjustment,
and attunement. These examples were then discussed in terms of various contexts:
understanding and working with failure for students; with peers and partners; and future
interdisciplinary collaborative scenarios. Together we explored various tropes around
failure — not just as a creative opportunity for recalibrating methods, research questions,
and external expectations, but also as a way of knowing the world, and, most importantly,
failure as a vehicle for critiquing larger issues around the challenges of the academic
Figure 1.5: Workshopping “Staying with the trouble” 2018. Photo: Larissa Hjorth.
Failurists Collective
This collection has emerged out of continued conversations sparkled by the initial
workshop. It features several of the participants and more colleagues around the world.
In the following pages, interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners share their practice,
insights, and challenges while discussing key tropes in the failurist taxonomy (see Figure
1.5). Disciplines are even more diverse: architecture, digital arts, cultural studies, design,
media studies, sociology, and STS. Everyone was asked to reflect on the following questions
in relation to failure in their own research:
How can we be more faithful to failure in research?
How might failure in research be viewed as a form of disciplined undisciplining?
Can failure be a tactic for wielding, unraveling, or enabling different kinds of power?
Can failing uncover hidden heteronormative and colonial systems of oppression?
How, when, and why should researchers hold onto, value, or argue for failure?
How might failing help us to think, feel, see, smell, speak, act, and know differently?
Together we reflect upon the role of creative interventions as a critical mode for methods,
research techniques, fieldwork, and knowledge transmission (to publics). Here, failure is
considered a productive part of engaging with and in the field. It is about acknowledging
the ‘mess’ of the social and how we need methods, modes of attunement, and knowledge
translation that address this complexity in nuanced ways.26 We organize this eclectic
mindhive for thinking and feeling through failure and failurist actions in four sections:
Section I: Digitality, Archives, and Design; Section II: Care/Activism; Section III: Creative
Critical Interventions; and Section IV: Play and the Senses.
The sections are dynamic and seek to coalesce various ways of thinking about the concept
and practice of failure. The sections weave in different subjectivities, relationalities, and
positionalities — rhythms reflecting the numerous material, social, and digital encounters.
Each subtheme is an invitation to probe certain areas of failure in all its complexity; an
invitation to sit with someone’s own lived experience of failure and how it manifests in
research practice and theory. What does failure mean? What does it do? What does putting
failure under the microscope do to our assumptions around ontology and epistemologies?
How can it be deployed to challenge norms in a time of great uncertainty, crisis, and
anxiety? And what are some of the ways resilience and failure are interrelated?
We begin the book with the Section I: Digitality, Archives and Design, which discusses
classic sites of failure in research. While the fields of digitality, archives, and design can
26 See Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford (eds), Inventive Methods, London: Routledge, 2012.
broadly encompass many things, this section spans research with and on computers,
patent archives, mobile phones, social media, and big data. Few researchers would be
without a story of malfunction, loss, or disruption of some regard to these kinds of essential
tools or sites designed to host, support, or enhance research practice. Our perspective on
failure goes beyond the usual breakdown, complicating the normative binaries of success
or failure, to deliberately blur the idea of something working or not working. Although
moments of crisis might catalyze an initial happening, authors in this section collectively
‘stay with the trouble’ of the unexpected, while simultaneously broadening learnings and
insights far beyond the immediate unfolding issue.27
The authors in this section share and discuss failure in classrooms, museums, archives, on
screen, and in ethnographic fieldwork. They explore it in relation to professional contexts
and personal experience, in the present and in the past. And they ask questions, reflecting
on the feelings and learnings, the impacts on others, and how failure shapes research
planning, questions, and outputs.
We start with Jessamy Perriam, who shares her experiences of researching Instagram,
hashtags and selfie sticks in ‘Making Friends with Failure in STS’. She reflects on ‘rookie
errors’ in past projects, learnings in practice and what happens when ideas develop
along the way. Rather than feeling embarrassed or pressured to make a failed experience
productive, she discusses attempts to make friends with failures, and asks: ‘How do
we think about them not as offcuts of the research, but as a part of our narrative as
Emma Fraser and Clancy Wilmott’s chapter ‘‘No Device Found’: Failure and Frustration in
Critical Digital Methodologies’ starts with the premise of problematic digital media. Many
devices and systems are always in a state of needing updates, maintenance, and ongoing
care and repair. The authors reframe the media and mediums in their practice, shifting
perspectives from what they call ‘perfect machines with imperfect users, to imperfect
machines: glitch-filled, design-limited, dust-ridden, bound by bodged code, and held
together by loose connections’.
Kat Jungnickel then takes us into patent archives to investigate data riddled with gaps,
erasures, and silences in ‘Patent Failure, Researcher Failure, Archive Failure: Getting
Inventive with the Study of Inventions’. She focuses on what archives reveal and conceal
and explores failures from three perspectives: inventors and inventions, researchers and
research, and the archive itself. Throughout, she explores different ways of getting at data
that may not be there and ‘questions the politics that shape collections’.
In ‘Failure as Reflexive Method to Think Otherwise’, Annette Markham explores the
common view of failure as something bad, negative, or the opposite of success. She
discusses how these perspectives can be socialized into researchers, moving from an
experience into a personal attribute and can be difficult to shift. By exploring ideas of
27 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
failure in and outside academia she sets out to ‘build the conceptual notion that failure is
nothing more or less than an outcome of an experiment or action’.
Everyday memory and forgetfulness in terms of gendered research and ethnography is
central to Anna Hickey Moody’s chapter ‘Digital Agency and the Authorship of Failure’. She
focuses on the ‘politics of feeling like a failure’ and how this can shape, and be shaped by,
gendered research experiences. Examples of this might be when researchers get locked
out of devices, get hacked, or lose data in different ways. She asks: ‘how we can reclaim
and articulate that experience of failure in a gendered world of research and digital media?’
All the chapters in this section articulate a more creative, expansive, and open approach
to failure rather than assuming everything is fine, will work, or won’t break. Things rarely, of
course, go as planned. And not everything that goes awry can be necessarily avoided, nor
should be. These authors remind us that research generates not only knowledge and insight,
but also new experiences and more questions. As Linda Dement’s ‘Schematic of an Art Failure’
(artwork) delightfully shows, sometimes art and answers can emerge as ‘leakage from the
wreck’ of a project.
We then move onto Section II: Care/Activism, where authors explore the tensions,
contradictions, intentions, challenges, interconnectedness, and executions of navigating risk
and reflecting on failure (the good, bad, and ambiguous). The unifying theme in this section
is the desire to ‘do something’, whether to pierce through feelings of inertia, to act against
complex systems of injustice, or to offer alternative ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and being
with others. The authors make visible the messy terrain of failure in concept and practice — in
private, public, institutional, and global contexts where navigating complexity, uncertainty and
vulnerability helps to create feedback loops, tools, and scaffolding for experiential learning,
knowledge-sharing, harm reduction, course correction, and radical empathy for self and
others known/unknown, living or yet-to-be-born. Authors in this section are speculative
futurists, artists, scholars — all, could be regarded (if not already self-identifying) as care-
givers and activists or activist researchers.
We begin with Jen Rae and Claire G. Coleman’s ‘Reworlding: Speculative Futuring in the
Endtimes, in the Everywhen’. The authors introduce the ecological state of refugia, an
environment where organisms living in hostile conditions retreat to in order to reorganize
their biological processes. They must adapt to survive. The authors, through the Centre for
Reworlding, ask ‘what are we willing to give up and/or fight for in the greatest challenge facing
humanity? Where to we begin?’ The authors propose ‘reworlding’ as a means of reorganizing
our systems for the health and wellbeing of future ancestors. Through their speculative
futuring practice of reworlding, failure is fodder for navigating risk and decoupling from
maladaptive ways of engaging with the climate crisis (the ultimate failure of colonialism and
capitalism). We adapt or we succumb.
Adaptation is prevalent in Julienne van Loon and Kelly Hussey-Smith’s chapter ‘Failure and
Interruption: Creative Carers in a Time of COVID-19’. Their research engaged with twenty-
two creative practice researchers in Melbourne, Australia working and caring from home
(WCFH) during six lockdowns stretching over 260 days between March 2020 and October
2021. Their research explores the difficult and debilitating impact of juggling work and the
invisible aspects of care labor compounded by stress and anxieties of an uncertain future
and perceptions of failure. By making visible the participants’ experiences, challenges, and
perceptions of failure, new possibilities emerge for adaptation and understanding collective
Li Jönsson and Kristina Lindström’s chapter ‘Who Cares About Fågeltofta? Failing to Grieve
Landscapes in Transitions’ explores the disconnect between anticipatory grief and sacrifice as
a means to probe larger questions of collective failure and how we might find balance between
the destruction of other lifeworlds and the need to ensure a sustainable future. Learning
how their Clayworks project failed to collectively practice pre-solastalgic grief with the local
community opened up some of the tensions and contradictions implicit in transitioning to
a carbon-free society and the values placed on maintaining the status quo of mobility and
modern lifestyles over places of belonging and connection.
Sam Hind’s chapter offers a ‘methodological framework for how to examine navigational
failures considering navigation as instituting networks of care or ‘care-tographies’’ — a means
to mediate care relations between people their worlds, what they do, how they operate, and
what their needs are. By approaching navigational failures beyond specific technological
or systems ‘failure’ and evidenced by protests and autonomous driving, Hind suggest the
framework could provide greater understanding of who is impacted and why, potentially
offering a new evaluative tool for designers, map makers, and software designers.
Lekshmy Parameswaran similarly doesn’t shy away from failure as material informing her
practice at The Care Lab. There is joy in the messy terrain where failure can be a creative force
and in doing so builds capacity to be bold and confident in navigating risk and uncertainties.
In her chapter ‘Failure is Inevitable in Care Activism’, Parameswaran offers the building blocks
of a Failurists’ Toolkit, where failure can support changemaking. Reflections and questions
may offer more effective ways to scale and disseminate new modes of care.
Closing the Care/Activism section is Syrus Marcus Ware’s chapter ‘Failure — A Day Fractured
Forever, and Ensuring Change: The Summer Uprisings of 2020 and Lessons Learned From
the Frontlines’. Like Parameswaran, who seeks to transform public systems of healthcare
through care activism, and Rae and Coleman, who offer a vision of a future created by 100
years of reworlding, Ware seeks to abolish racism, violence, and ableism in law enforcement
through activism and solidarity. Believing there is a better way to have ‘safety, security, and
solutions to conflict, crisis, and harm without carceral violence and punishment’, Ware is a
voice for many silenced by oppression. Ware shares the triumphant story of the Black Lives
Matter and Defund the Police action on the streets of Toronto, Canada, before unpicking the
inequities and multiple failures (personal and systemic) that arose in their follow-on action
to dismantle monuments of slavery and colonialism.
In Section III, we explore the concept of creative-critical interventions as a core principle
for understanding the complexity of failure in research as part of a broader, increasingly
neo-liberal university context. Can failure allow for us to challenge organizational success
matrices and to explore the uneven power relations and how we might radically revise
current processes to address crises and uncertainties? How does failure expose different
textures of practice, infrastructures, and systems? Indeed, this section exposes many of the
tensions around conceiving failure as productive and its relationship to risk, iteration, and
experimentation and how the institution ‘interprets’ these acts.
As Lisa LeFevre notes, failure in art practice has a long history of challenging norms of
success. She argues that artists embrace failure as a theme, strategy, and worldview
— especially in face of growing crises and uncertainty. For LeFevre, ‘between the two
subjective poles of success and failure lies a space of potentially productive operations
where paradox rules and dogma is refused’.28 And yet, how does failure translate in practice
and systemically? Does failure as a process challenge institutional dogma in an age of neo-
liberalism? Or is it just the performance of inclusion? This section examines critical-creative
interventions across macro and micro scales.
We begin with Nanna Verhoeff and Iris van der Tuin’s exploration of ‘Failure is a Project’.
Starting with the Journal of Trial & Error (JOTE) — which focused on publishing short
empirical articles examining ‘what went wrong?’ — they eloquently traverse the ways in
which failure has been addressed by key social and creative scholars. As they note, ‘in
the reality of science in the making, failure is, quite simply, daily practice’. From STS —
which has a long rich history in exposing failure as core part of technological development
and research and Latour, to Appadurai and Alexander’s ‘habitual failure’29 and
Legacy Russell’s paradoxical notion of the glitch, Verhoeff and van der Tuin highlight the
productive role of failure to linger and drift throughout the research process. As they note,
acknowledging failure allows for an emphasis back on the process, constant iteration, and
drafting. This echoes the work of games for change designers John Sharp and Colleen
Macklin, who argue that failure and iteration are a co-dependent and crucial part of the
creative process. 30
We t hen mov e o nto Oli via Kho o’s cri tic al a nal ysis of all tha t is wr ong with ne o-l iber al syst ems
in the academy — especially if one is colored or queer. As she notes, she was deemed by a
colleague as the ‘triple threat’ — Asian, female, and queer. Khoo explores what failure has
to offer race and cultural studies — from Halberstam’s suggestion that failure ‘allows us to
escape the punishing norms that discipline behaviour’31 and Melissa Gregg’s challenge of
the very use of ‘productivity’ as the right measure32, to Arlie Russell Hochschild’s emotional
28 LeFevre (ed), Failure.
29 Appadurai and Alexander, Failure.
30 John Sharp and Colleen Macklin, Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure, MIT Press, 2019.
31 Halberst am, The Queer Art of Failure, p. 2.
32 Melissa Gregg, Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy, Durham: Duke
University P ress, 2018, 4.
33 Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2012[1983].
As Khoo identifies, administration work is about often tacit emotional labor, which often
gets done by women. This complex pastoral work is also often overlooked in favor of the
superstar who avoids administration. The focus on ‘joy’ is partly ironic but also points to
the work in cultural studies to queer such normalized concepts — for example feminist
Lynne Segal has argued against increasing individualism by embracing a collective joy
approach.34 Turning to the important work by the likes of Sara Ahmed, Khoo evocatively
argues for ‘failure as a tactic of new knowledge formation, embodying emotional resilience,
and providing opportunities for us to imagine new ways of “doing” the university differently
outside of the institutionalized mandate to continually succeed and be productive’.
Continuing the theme about systemic inequality and for failure to push against neo-liberal
regimes, we turn to Grace McQuilten’s ‘Who Can Afford to Fail? Art and Risk in an Era of
Precarity’. Focusing on risk and failure in creative practice, McQuilten highlights that the
right to ‘failure’ is a privilege — as she asks: is failure a privilege of those who have the
resources and capacity to fail? Moreover, she argues, ‘how much can we ask people to
contribute — both in human capacity and income — to realize a risky project, and risk
failure?’ Teasing out the tension between risk and failure, McQuilten critically reflects on
two curatorial research projects Remote-Controlled Terrorist Coffin35 and The Magic
We then turn to Chantal Faust’s ‘Coloring in the Void: Absurdity and Contemporary Art’
in which she performs and embodies LeFevre’s notion of failure as a key site for creative
process and rumination. Drawing on the song Boo Boo Bird by the Scottish poet, songwriter,
and humorist Ivor Cutler, Faust investigates the relationship between failing the absurd
and failing as part of what she sees as a new kind of absurdist tendency in contemporary
art practice. As she argues, while failing is about being out of tune, what does this mean
in a world that is increasingly discordant?
The section then finishes with Nancy Mauro-Flude’s art pages Erroneous Interventions into
Infrastructure | The <<< Pirate Girls >>> say... As a feminist artist who exposes inequalities
and injustices around data and code, Mauro-Flude’s work takes Legacy’s notion of the
glitch and failure for a walk. She asks us to consider the agency of technology in our lives
and how feminist practice can provide new interventive ways to challenge the normalizing
In Section IV: Play and the Senses, we explore play in research as intricately related to
failure and multisensorial experiences. Playful approaches and, in particular, its qualities
of probing and experimenting, imply ambiguity and speculative thinking, thus also open the
door to risky, tricky, unscripted, and misunderstood situations. Such glitches and trip-ups
can lead to a deeper insight in underlying concepts and assumptions. Furthermore, they
can also produce unexpected, creative, and imaginary insights, stories, and outcomes.
34 Lynne Segal, Radical Happiness, London: Verso, 2018.
35 US artist/architect Adam Kalkin, 2015.
36 The Social Studio, 2011.
Playful approaches allow us to step out of direct functionality or a wish of a direct or specific
outcome. This is close to what Haraway says about play:
It’s not a matter of direct functionality. We need to develop practices for thinking
about those forms of activity that are not caught by functionality, those which
propose the possible-but-not-yet, or that which is not-yet but still open. 37
That play has the potential to invite failure in research is due to their similarity with (non)
practices. Indeed, as game scholar Jesper Juul pointed out in The Art of Failure: An Essay
on the Pain of Playing Video Games, it would be wrong to simply understand playing games
in terms of fun, as play is far more related to experiences of pain, frustration, and failing to
resolve this pain.38 In this section we push this claim a bit further, by proposing that this
is not only an important part of games, but also of play and creativity in the field and the
methods employed in situ.
Closely related to play and failure is the question of how we account for multi-sensorial
experiences in terms of failure. It can be said that failure can anyhow lay bare parts of
research that are more uneven, visceral, and painful, such as grief, frustration, or hitting a
brick wall. Yet play can transform these experiences into something more openly creative,
reflective, and meaningful. Furthermore play (as closely related to risk-taking) can
encourage researchers to engage with such experiences actively and willfully by searching
for the what-if and probing the evenness, functionally, and viability of the everyday through
playfully engaging with the senses.
The overarching questions of this section are: how do play and playing with the senses
allow for and encourage failure, and how can it be valued as part of research? How can we
conceptualize the relation between methods, multi-sensorial play, and failure? Can this
give an impetus to a different approach to research? By engaging with these questions this
section wants to make a case for including failure, play, and multi-sensorial experiences
as possible parts of research and methods. This can be informative for collaborative and
creative fieldwork, but also for other research practices, ranging from AI (e.g. creative
indicators in machine learning), data sprints, vernacular mapping, and the use of (digital)
research tools.39 It can enable us to feel, do, (for)see, produce, and analyze social realities
and daily practices differently.
All the chapters in this section deal with these aspects in different yet related ways. The
chapter of Sybille Lammes argues that the experience of boredom in play — which is a
failure of action rather than play — can create space for reflection that holds great value
for researchers that use playful methods. In the following chapter, Larissa Hjorth draws
37 Moira Weigel, ‘Feminist Cyborg Scholar Donna Haraway: “The Disorder of Our Era Isn’t Necessary”’,
The Guardian, 20 June 2019.
38 Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, Cambridge: MIT Press,
39 Joe Gerlach, ‘Vernacular Mapping, and th e Ethics of What Comes Next’, Cartographica: The
International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 45. 3 (2010): 165–68.
attention to how her ethnographies, to which playful methods are intrinsic, always entail
kinds of failure. She shows how failure allowed her to develop a deeper understanding of
less human centered multi-species kinship as well as of this failed era of the Anthropocene
and the feelings of grief and loss that are intrinsically part of it.
Kate McLean speaks of failure of smell in her chapter. During her creative smellmapping
fieldwork (such as smellhunts), she focuses on smell as one of the least verifiable senses,
which is therefore scientifically tricky to validate and for some failing research de-facto.
She discusses a series of mini-failures to substantiate how smell can be related to failure
on many levels, from the smell of failure of the Anthropocene (e.g. pollution), to the failure
of design in fieldwork and the failure to capture and record smell.
This section ends with a short provocation by Juliette van Loon about a playful intervention,
in which she invited twenty Australian scholars from different fields to engage with ‘playful
risk-taking’ through writing a Tanka. In these poems they engaged with a playful reflection
on their research practice in which failures of thinking and doing are transformed into more
open ‘admissions’ of feelings of rejection, limitation, grief, frustration, and lack of ideas or
resources. Together these chapters show how play as an approach can help us to appreciate
and openly address failure as an integral part of our research practices and can foreground
feelings, experiences, and the senses as part of that process.
Figure 1.6: #FAILURISTS logo by Naomi Bueno de Mesquita (2018).
A Failurfesto
This book aims to offer provocations to further discussions around failure. In doing so,
we conclude with a manifesto — a failurfesto — as a call to action for future research in
increasingly uncertain and precarious times. Our failurfesto proposes:
We do not seek to fail more or differently.
We do not see failure as something to be avoided, cleaned up, or concealed, nor as a
normative part of the grinding journey to success.
We critically resist separating failure into subject, method or approach. Instead, we view it
as something worthy of considered attention in research that has the potential to unravel,
reveal or open up alternatives, unexpected combinations and narratives, thicken scholarly
practice and onto-epistemologies.
We work together to draw attention to innovative ways of thinking about failure as a
productive constituent of research processes and the impact journey.
We acknowledge the ways in which working in the field of the social involves dynamic
processes that constantly disrupt research questions and methods.
We seek to make visible the processes of uncertainty, risk and play that are core to research.
We aim to lea rn from fa ilu re. We tr y t o w itn ess, ac know led ge, and si t w ith fai lur e. We attempt
to embrace failurism. We need to become failurists.
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Appadurai, Arjun and Alexander, Neta. Failure, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020, 1.
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de la Bellacasa, Maria Puig. ‘Nothing comes without its world: Thinking with care’, Sociological
Review 60.2 (2008): 197–216,
_____. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Clifford, James and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture. California: University of California Press,
Galloway, Anne. ‘Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation and Human/Nonhuman
Relations’, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 57.1 (2013): 53-65, 54.
_____. ‘More-Than-Human Lab: Critical and Ethnographic Experiments After Human
Exceptionalism’, in L. Hjorth, H. Horst, A. Galloway, and G. Bell (eds) The Routledge Companion to
Digital Ethnography, London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 470-477.
Gerlach, Joe. ‘Vernacular Mapping, and the Ethics of What Comes Next’, Cartographica: The
International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 45. 3 (2010): 165–68.
Gregg, Melissa. Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy, Durham: Duke
University Press, 2018.
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke
University Press, 2016.
_____. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, Chicago:
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_____. When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Hawkins, Gay. The Ethics of Waste, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2005.
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LeFevre, Lisa (ed). Failure, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2012 [1983].
Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, Cambridge: MIT
Press, 2013.
Kohn, Eduardo. What Forests Think, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Steve. Laboratory Life: The construction of scientific facts, London:
SAGE Publications, 1986.
Lury, Celia and Wakeford, Nina (eds). Inventive Methods, London: Routledge, 2012.
Mica, Adriana, Pawlak, Mikolaj, Horolets, Anna, and Kubicki, Pawel. (eds) The Routledge
International Handbook of Failure, London: Routledge, (forthcoming) 2023.
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Open University Press, 2006.
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Information Society, 36.3 (2020): 167-176.
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Segal, Lynne. Radical Happiness, London: Verso, 2018.
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The Guardian, 20 June 2019.
I often tell a story to my Masters of Science students in a course called ‘Navigating
Complexity’ about a research experience I had early in my PhD studies. It’s one part failure
narrative, one part lesson in keeping boundaries in science and technology studies (STS),
and another part entertaining story.
A group of us were doing a research project about selfie sticks (forgive us on the subject
matter, it was 2014) with a mixed methods approach. One person in the group did an
ethnography in a museum, another did a Twitter scrape of #selfiestick, and I did a visual
analysis of Instagram images with the hashtag #selfiestick and later a breaching experiment
at an art gallery where the object had been banned. We were using these methods to
look for accounts of the selfie stick being considered disruptive in public places. In some
respects, the research was a failure. The museum ethnography didn’t show anyone being
offended at the selfie stick—in fact, its use was encouraged on the day our researcher
visited. The co-hashtag analysis wasn’t useful from an STS perspective; we had gathered
the data from the Christmas/New Year period, which meant a lot of people had received
selfie sticks as gifts and were tweeting photos along with hashtags such as #love, #family,
#NYE, and #xmas.1
‘Love?!’ remarked one of the researchers, ‘we can’t do anything useful with love in STS!’
I tell that story to my students and emphasize the punchline to make the distinction between
doing an STS-style controversy mapping, with the focus on objects and actors, and a cultural
or media studies project, where an analysis could have been made of the tweets and their
co-hashtags. I also follow up by reassuring students that within the bounds of the course
where they are required to use digital methods to visualize and analyze a research question
of their own choosing, that failure does not lie in the data collection activities itself.
For many students, it is the first time they have done research design with digital methods
from a feminist STS standpoint. I make a point that digital methods projects such as these
are inherently inductive. While the researcher can control the search queries they make
to the application programming interface (API)2, they are largely at the mercy of the what
the API serves up based on those queries and what any given user is tweeting about on
that day with those hashtags. For the purposes of the students’ projects, failure lies in a
1 This co-hashtag scrape on Twitter happened during a time where Instagram users could also directly
post to Twitter from the platform. The two platforms are now less coupled together in this way. This had
an impact on the types of posts that appeared in our scrape.
2 The application programming interface (API) is the piece of code that allows the researcher to ask a
platform to gather data. The API usually gathers a sample of content, rather than the entirety of what
has been posted due to large volumes of data.
lack of working with the data they have collected to tell a narrative in relation to the course
syllabus, which deals with methods, standpoints, data feminism, mapping, and analysis,
along with the absence of data.
In the data collection and visual analysis of Instagram images tagged with #selfiestick, I
was looking at the configuration of the images and specifically asking: what are selfie stick
users taking pictures of and with? I was hoping to find some posts of people being annoyed
at selfie stick users. After analysing more than 10,000 posts, I was somewhat surprised at
what I found. Rather than producing a data visualization, I had managed to put together
a typology of selfie stick posts. But the original intention of trying to find accounts of the
selfie stick being disruptive or derided? There were only a few posts that backed that up.
In hindsight, it’s clear that this was a failure that lay in the research formulation. The
research question (if there was one at the time) was as close to being deductive as one
can get with qualitative digital research. There was the assumption that both selfie sticks
are disruptive and that they were disruptive enough for people to post about them on social
media. It was a rookie error; one that I would have encouraged my current students to avoid.
But the error had been made and happens so often (especially when doing digital methods
research)—you go in looking for accounts of the selfie stick being disruptive and end up
with a typology that includes people using a selfie stick while posing with their pet.
The final failure in that project has turned into another one of those research stories that I
milk for entertainment value with colleagues and friends. The breaching experiment was
the most amusing research failure of all. A breaching experiment is a research method
used almost exclusively by ethnomethodologists to try to uncover the reasoning for taken
for granted behaviour. Breaching experiments usually consist of the researcher breaking a
publicly accepted, taken for granted social norm or rule to deliberately get caught, with the
intention of then asking the person responsible for keeping the rule why the rule exists in
the first place. Some contemporary STS-based examples of breaching experiments come
from Woolgar and Neyland, involving researchers taking more than 100 millilitres of liquid
through airport security to try to uncover the reasoning for the rule and how it is enforced.3
Breaching experiments were initially devised by Harold Garfinkel, who rather tellingly made
his students do the research work that laid the foundations for this method.4
My encounter with breaching experiments led me to purchase a selfie stick and take it
with me on a visit to the National Gallery in London. The gallery had recently banned the
selfie stick. The plan was that I would get caught using the selfie stick and then ask follow
up questions as to why. In practice, I am a rather introverted person who dislikes breaking
rules, especially in a conspicuous way. Perhaps doing a breaching experiment was not the
research method best suited to my temperament, so I took my flatmate as moral support.
3 Steve Woolgar and Daniel Neyland, Mundane Governance: Ontology and Accountability, 1st edition,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
4 Haro ld Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, 1st edition, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1991.
When we arrived, we found out that many of the National Gallery’s docents were on strike,
so there was a reduced security presence. We were browsing the galleries and started taking
photos using the selfie stick in front of artworks that piqued our interest. We were initially
timid but became more brazen as we realized none of the docents or security guards had
noticed our deviant behaviour enough to ask us to stop. By the end of our visit, none of
the gallery staff had intervened in our selfie stick use. The indifference of the gallery staff
meant that the breaching experiment was a failure in terms of uncovering an institutional
explanation for restricting the selfie stick in the space.
However, despite the failure of the breaching experiment, the exercise was not wasted.
It generated a rich, autoethnographic account of selfie stick use in galleries, particularly
in relation to how visitors might navigate the space differently with selfies in mind. While
it didn’t end up being a breaching experiment, it was also somewhat an instance of the
walkthrough method5, as I had not used a selfie stick before the breaching experiment.
The experience of navigating the gallery was also an experience of learning how to use the
selfie stick.
I tell these stories to also make failure relatable. It happens to many of us, and yet we
are not encouraged to publish about it, so as to falsely emphasize our infallibility as
researchers. Twenty-five years after Haraway6 wrote about the modest witness, we as a
research community still do not acknowledge mess, failure, and conflicting standpoints
in our outputs.6 Only the sanitized, wrinkles-ironed-out version of research activities and
their analysis is worthy to be told to the broader academic community, or actioned upon
by a business or government.
My PhD almost failed, and it resembles little of the selfie stick descriptions contained in the
last few hundred words. It pivoted to become a digital ethnography of how mundane failure
is demonstrated on digital and social media7. The failure of the selfie stick still makes an
appearance as a chapter that reflects on methodological failures of researching disruption.
If your entire PhD thesis deals with how commuters, public institutions, cybersecurity
experts, and researchers talk about failure and breakdown, it takes the sting out of talking
about your own failure. I rarely talk about this failure, but I own it and its contribution to my
formation as a researcher.
But there has also been an urge in recent years to ensure that failure be generative, as some
form of consolation prize for things not going to plan. Is that a neoliberal way of looking at
failure? Everything must have value squeezed out of it, even our screw ups. As the British
artist David Shrigley (2021) so astutely put on a poster: ‘When life gives you a lemon/ you
5 Ben Light, Jean Burgess, and Stefanie Duguay, ‘The Walkthrough Method: An Approach
to the Study of Apps,’ New Media & Society 20. 3 (1 March 2018): 881–900. https://doi.
6 Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism
and Technoscience, New York: Routledge, 1997.
7 Jessamy Perriam, Theatres of Failure: Digital Demonstrations of Disruption in Everyday Life, PhD diss.,
Goldsmiths, University of London, 2018.
must eat the lemon/ all of it /including the skin’.8 Sometimes we as researchers are in the
position of eating the skins of our research lemons.
So how then to talk about failure in research? How do we work with failure in such a way
that we do not feel shame about it, nor do we feel urged to capitalize on it? In short: how do
we let failure be what it needs to be within our research?
Some colleagues of mine have run workshops that encourage participants to ‘talk to
texts that they’re struggling to write.’9 They consider the troubling parts of their work in
the ‘monster writing’ process, but in framing these troubles as monsters, the troubles
are rendered addressable. Part of the exercise involves addressing the text and honestly
admitting the struggles that they’re having with it as a form of moving forward—either to
closure or working more on the text with a renewed understanding of its place in the world:
What responsibilities does the writing self have toward the written creature, the
written body, the body of text as it is set lose to roam the world? This creature is part
self, part other, never at rest; in its hybridity and in its undoing of stable boundaries
between self and other, this text-creature is a monster. How might one learn to
live in the company of one's text monsters, both while writing them and while they
roam this world, co-creating it as they go, separate from their creator but never fully
What responsibilities do we have towards our failures in STS research? How do we think
about them not as offcuts of the research, but as a part of our narrative as researchers? By
addressing our failure and introducing it to others like an old friend, we are able to share it
but not exploit it under the weight of the constant pressure to be generative.
Garfinkel, Harold. Studies in Ethnomethodology, 1st edition, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1991.
Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse
Feminism and Technoscience, New York: Routledge, 1997.
Henriksen, Line, Katrine Meldgaard Kjær, Marie Blønd, Marisa Cohn, Baki Cakici, Rachel Douglas-
Jones, Pedro Ferreira, Viktoriya Feshak, Simy Kaur Gahoonia, and Sunniva Sandbukt. ‘Writing
Bodies and Bodies of Text: Thinking Vulnerability through Monsters,’ Gender, Work & Organization
29. 2 (March 2022): 561–74.
Light, Ben, Burgess, Jean, and Duguay, Stefanie. ‘The Walkthrough Method: An Approach
to the Study of Apps,’ New Media & Society 20. 3 (1 March 2018): 881–900. https://doi.
Perriam, Jessamy. Theatres of Failure: Digital Demonstrations of Disruption in Everyday Life, PhD
8 David Shrigley, When Life Gives You A Lemon, 2021, poster, 80 x 60 cm.
9 Line Henriksen, Katrine Meldgaard Kjær, Marie Blønd, Marisa Cohn, Baki Cakici, Rachel Douglas-Jones,
Pedro Ferreira, Viktoriya Feshak, Simy Kaur Gahoonia, and Sunniva Sandbukt, ‘Writing Bodies and
Bodies of Text: Thinking Vulnerability throu gh Monsters,’ Gender, Work & Organization 29. 2 (March
2022), 565.
diss., Goldsmiths, University of London, 2018.
Shrigley, David. When Life Gives You A Lemon, 2021, poster, 80 x 60 cm.
Woolgar, Steve and Neyland, Daniel. Mundane Governance: Ontology and Accountability, 1st
edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
From their inception, all digital media technologies are failing.
Our everyday devices, phones, and computers are digital media machines, and from the
moment new computation technologies are developed they enter a cycle of inevitable
obsolescence. As such, the defining moment of a piece of digital media technology is in its
relation to perfection and failure. Each release is more advanced and complete and more
perfect, than the technologies that came before.1 Simultaneously, the success of digital media
is already eclipsed by whatever new computational innovation is on the horizon. Every new
app, platform, or piece of hardware or software is implicitly a failure in relation to the next
more perfect update, version, or model.
In Updating to Remain the Same, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that in order to maintain the
status quo of media consumption, constant updates to software and hardware are needed in
an enduring cycle of crisis and digital maintenance.2 This chapter presents a reconfiguration
of Chun’s original position: rather than updating to remain the same in a constant state of
renewal and progression, we argue that all digital media technologies are never finished or
complete, but always in a state of comparative and increasing failure and decay. As Chun
writes in her conclusion, what matters is ‘what and how things linger’, rather than ‘the new
and fading—the bleeding edge of obsolescence’.3
From this position, we ask: what would it mean to encounter digital media as already failing
— and what would it mean to use this as a starting point for establishing a different kind of
critical digital methodology which critiques notions of contemporaneity and completeness?
Such questions shed new light on our relation to all — past, present and future — digital
media technologies. We have never been modern.4 Software and hardware (like fashion)
have never been up to date.5
1 Wen dy H ui Kyo ng Chu n, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual Media, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2016.
2 Chun, Updating to Remain the Same.
3 Chun, Updating to Remain the Same, 171.
4 Bruno Latour, We Hav e N eve r B een Mod ern , trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1991.
5 For Walter Benjamin, for example, history is antiquity dressed up as novelty, though everything —
including fashion and media — immediately becomes out of date. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project,
trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard
University Press, 1999.
If we accept that digital media fail to be emergent, and only succeed in being outmoded
and perpetually unfinished (lingering on as the ephemera of the contemporary technological
moment that is always in-progress), we can develop a critical and pedagogical frame informed
by Chun and others’ critiques of both digital media technology, and dominant framings of
computation and technological development. Central to this approach is a move away from
the fetishization of the new, opening up playful and critical encounters with contemporary and
historic digital media technologies as spaces of perpetual failure and reframing them from
perfect machines with imperfect users to imperfect machines: glitch-filled, design-limited,
dust-ridden, bound by bodged code, and held together by loose connections.
Device Not Found
In digital media technologies — unique compositions of software and hardware, computation,
and silicon — failure is apparent across the material and the symbolic. Consider two computers
sitting side-by-side in a teaching studio: a Macintosh 512k (c.1985), and a Macintosh SE (c.
1987). Their exteriors are covered in a residue of dust and grime left behind by many hands
and many commands ground into their ‘Snow White’6 design over the years, the patina of
old technology.
Curious students discover with disappointment that the Mac 512k is broken. A feature of the
Mac 128k/512k is a small parameter RAM (PRAM) battery slot in the back, which was used
to hold basic memory functions while the computer was off — a technical fix for the problem
of a portable computer that would otherwise wipe essential data (like time and date, or user
data) whenever it was unplugged and transported. A portable personal computer that was
already failing in its most basic function from the very start. At some point in its previous 38
years of life, a small 4.5v Eveready No. 523 battery has been inserted into this slot and then
forgotten — left to corrode, and eventually burst open. As a result of design failure and human
neglect — but also entropy and obsolescence — corrosive material now coats the battery
slot and has begun to corrode the computer’s circuitry itself.
The newer version — or a more recently failed version — of this early model, the Mac SE,
was released without this external PRAM battery feature, and as such it still turns on and
functions as designed. For students encountering this machine, the imperfections and failures
of the much-fetishized original Mac combine with a strong familiarity with the fundamentals
of its design. The antecedents of their own screen, keyboard, and mouse and the Apple
ecosystem provide a strange encounter with failure as both a problem and possibility of
modern technology. Once they identify the power switch on the back, the Macintosh SE
turns on with a chime once familiar to many, but largely unrecognizable to this generation of
students. Students begin to explore a suite of System (Mac O.S.) 4 software and applications,
exclaiming as they make links between old and new interfaces (playing with menus and
system preferences), and as features they take for granted (like the Spotlight search) are
6 ‘Snow White’ describes the minimalist design principle of the early Macintosh computers, with very
little ornamentation, casings lightly colored with a fog color or similar (like putty or platinum), and using
horizontal and vertical lines to hide ventilation and other functions.
frustratingly absent. Searching through their own indexes of computation technology, they
experiment between the awkwardness of the machine and the magic of computing.
Between material and usability failures, students learn that digital media technologies
are bound to let us down, to break, to fail. With the appropriate attitude, they can be met
intentionally in their imperfect state — expressly, critically. Here we understand ‘digital
instantiations of imperfection as elements of friction capable of challenging the digital’s
problematically frictionless veneer’.7 This frictionless veneer is in part a cultural perception
that overlooks ‘social and machinic relations’ in order to fetishize the ‘magic’ workings of
source code and programming, and invisibilizes the contact points between user, ‘machine’,
hardware, and software.8 It also includes the mystifying, ideological framing of computation
as the drive to perfect code and representation; computers as machines that simply execute
the desires of the masterful programmer.
Consolidating knowledge, information, process, and meaning, code becomes logos. Code-
as-logos inserts the abstraction of ‘software’ in place of executed code and conflates
meaning into action in the pursuit of some essence of command and control through
calculation.9 Automated code (in the form of, for example, compiled instructions or higher-
order programming languages that short-cut the dreary repetition of raw computation via
libraries and source code) becomes an exercise in truth-telling. To command code is to render
knowledge and information into a unified language or form, to control a language without
ambiguity that simply ‘does what it says’; instruction and result in tandem.10 In programming
languages, ‘[o]ne’s word creates something living’11 — yet this creation is, always, imperfect,
whether in the gap between meaning and action, user and machine, software and hardware,
or writing and execution, or in the friction between instrumental reasoning and perpetual,
illogical, obsessive reinvention.
Against such perfection and efficiency and the alchemical ‘sourcery’ of source code,12 we
develop a pedagogical framing of failure as an alternative mode for the study and design
of all computational technologies. The tension between playful, disruptive, and messy
experiences of technology, and the idealized fetish of mastery and completion is the source
of our claim that all digital media technologies are always failing: not just in the way that
media in general fail to neatly signify (one of the interpretations of logos), but in the way that
computational technologies at the heart of the digital media ecosystem fail to be error-free,
fail to remain up-to-date, fail to function as expected or intended. In their failure, digital
7 Jakko Kemper, ‘Silicon Ashes to Silicon Ashes, Digital Dust to Digital Dust: Chronolibido and
Tec hn ol og ic al F ra gi lit y in Glitchhiker’, in Caleb Kelly, Jakko Kemper, and Ellen Rutten (eds),
Imperfections: Studies in Mistakes, Flaws, and Failures, New York, London and Dublin: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2022, pp. 165-188, 167.
8 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2011,
9 Chun, Programmed Visions, 20-23.
10 Chun, Programmed Visions, 22.
11 Chun, Programmed Visions, 47.
12 See chapter ‘On Sourcery and Source Codes’ in Chun, Programmed Visions.
media technologies demand that we (academics, students, designers) figure out through
trial and error; that we push past the veneer of perfection to find the productive frictions
between function and obsolescence, which rest in failure.
States of Failure
The challenge for us as researchers and educators is to find critical digital methodologies
that reveal the frictions and patinas of digital media technology from the point of failure,
rather than the axiomatic framework of perfect execution, novelty, and newness — at both
the level of pedagogy and of research. Key to this is a resistance against the fantasy of
command and total control that comes with what Chun describes as the ‘executive power’13
in programming — in our case, by making room for students to explore so-called ‘old’
digital technologies without guides or instructions, without prerequisite knowledge, and
without the default assumption of immediate success or legibility. Old technologies provide
an insight into the past and future of contemporary tech, but also a uniquely low-risk space
in which failure can be embraced. In failure, the ‘executive power’ is humbled, and we see
ourselves and our computation critically. Further, this failure is more transparent — we
can pick apart the intersections between machine and code and see the system more
clearly in its unfamiliar familiarity.
Thus, we invite students to sit with frustration and uncertainty, to flounder or make
mistakes that might result in dead machines, missing files, incorrect outputs, or error
messages. ‘Device not found’ here means execution incomplete; connection not quite
made; attempt failed. But it also marks the meeting point of user and machine and
failure and method. What does it mean for a device — a physical object that you can
see and touch — to be invisible to another device? What problem does it pose, and what
is the real failure here? Is it one of knowledge; of hardware; of code or compatibility; of
representation; of obsolescence? Or is it the wider failure of the ever-present expectation
that a machine (anthropomorphized by language and logos) knows something we don’t?
That the machine’s code and software does something magical that we ourselves cannot
do? Is it we who are failing to work with the machine, or is the machine always failing to
meet us where we are?
By asking students to engage with technologies as they have (always) failed, we also aim
to draw students away from what Chun calls the ‘sourcery’ of source code: the reification
of the executable command that invisibly stitches language to action, reducing, or
rendering invisible, the steps of compilation and interpretation in-between.14 Practically,
this approach requires a veritable scrapyard of ‘old media tech’ — failed tech: Apple
Macintoshes from the 1980s; Blackberries and Palm Pilots; a Nokia 3310; Atari and
ColecoVision gaming consoles; floppy disks; and outdated operating systems like Fortran.
Importantly, it is not only devices familiar in the history of computing — like the Macintosh
Classic — that should be included, but those which have failed to have any significant
13 Chun, Programmed Visions, 27-28.
14 Chun, Programmed Visions, chapter ‘On Sourcery and Source Codes’.
legacy at all, like the lesser-known Intellivision gaming console by Mattel, or the iPod’s
(more) failed peers like Microsoft Zune or SanDisk Sansa.
From the moment it was developed, the Macintosh 128k was already failing in relation to
its successors: the 512k, which provided a more appropriate quantity of RAM to run the
desired programs of the time, but also the Apple SE, the Macintosh Plus, and the (now
classic) Macintosh Classic, all of which contained updates to their hardware and software
that addressed prior failures and rendered existing models obsolete. To use a computer from
1984 today is to encounter failures known at the time, but also the failures that emerge more
clearly as we have become accustomed to working with these machine’s successors. These
are failures of design (the choice of 128k RAM to keep costs down meant the first Macintosh
couldn’t run many common programs), time-induced hardware failures of disk drives and
batteries, but also stark software failures with respect to accessibility and usability.15
Simple tasks — finding the power button, for instance — become an exploration of failure. Not
just failure of the broken machine, but of connection, and of recognition. ‘Why that symbol?’,
students ask, referring to the ‘0’ and ‘|’ at the top and bottom of the power switch. These seem
familiar, because they are contemporary signifiers for powering on and off (see Figure 2.1).
The answer lies in the basic function of the machine: it depicts an electric circuit, closed or
open — the most fundamental aspect of analogue computers and binary code: on and off —
obfuscated by the increasing distance between command and execution, action, meaning,
and function with each iteration of computing.
Figure 3.1: The evolution of the ‘power’ button on Mac, 1984-2020.
This isn’t simply a failure of young people with old tech. This common experience of failure is
cross—generational and speaks to the permanent failure of all digital media technology in one
way or another: we (the authors) did not know how to turn on and off our new Macbook Pro
machines. The on/off signification has been ‘smoothed’ over in newer models, demonstrating
— through failure — that the distance between command and action is increasingly obscured
by ‘the digital’s problematically frictionless veneer’.16 In older technologies the same failure
15 Of course, the Apple II was also a successful product (manufactured from 1977-1993), and there were
many contemporary competitors and precursors like the IBM Personal Computer or the Commodore 64.
16 Kemper, ‘Silicon Ashes,’167.
resides in a boxy mouse that is difficult to maneuver, a cursor that drags across the screen
more slowly than we are used to, a program that requires shortcuts to run (and the associated
knowledge), or a switch or button where there might now be a menu or a voice command.
What we can learn from these moments of failure and disconnect is the fetishization of code
and programming, which invisibilizes hardware, but also the fundamental experience of using
technology as one of never quite being there, never finally arriving, and never actually taking
off: a promise that is never really fulfilled.
Critical Digital Methodologies
In digital media ‘the ephemeral endures’ — even as it fades. Just as our old Apple Macintosh
hardware is degenerating, our social-technological relations are determined within a ‘present
that is always degenerating’, but simultaneously resuscitated from ‘undead’ information
accessed via digital media machines.17 When the students finally get the Apple SE working,
they view files unchanged since the 1990s: saves of undergraduate essays and PhD data,
ephemeral media salvaged through lines of code and saved in file sizes (4kb, 8kb) that they
find difficult to comprehend. ‘This is hard’ they say, as they play games like Lode Runner (see
Figure 2.2), struggling with the slow feedback from the keyboard and the blunt space of the
blocky black and white landscape. ‘You have to think ahead. Press the spacebar early!’ Too
late, another death and another failure. The game restarts and another student takes the
keyboard. Another set of hands wear down the plastic, the connections, and the circuitry,
trying to ‘figure out how’ in the space between execution and action.
Figure 3.2: Screenshot of Lode Runner (128k port for Macintosh, c.1985).
We developed this pedagogical approach with failure as guiding principle from the start.
Coding and programming are forged in failure. Machines and code are fetishized as world-
making media even as they degenerate. As a result, our students don’t encounter technology
just expecting it to successfully run or function. Through doing, they learn to understand
17 Chun, Programmed Visions, 172-173.
digital media technologies as systems, devices, and interfaces that never ‘just work’, but
in fact constantly fail. Without critical intervention, source code remains a mysterious
backend, obfuscating the machine in a way that emphasizes the power of the programmer
as commander, without questioning this knowledge, and without thinking about the gaps
between meaning and execution.
Critical digital practices can operate in a mode perpendicular to more traditional forms of
computer science; where the latter tries to solve problems through technology, the former
attempts to intervene in technology as both problem and possibility. If we only focus on
teaching students perfect mastery of program, code, and hardware, we deny them space
to work things out through play, to learn from errors and disconnections, and to understand
computation not as the increasing collapse of meaning and action, or an idealized practice
that will eventually disappear the machine, but in fact a profound meeting of intention and
chance, user and hardware, mistake, cover-up, invention, and perpetual failure. Rather
than approaching failure as a nuisance element of computational practice — an element
that stymies the search for perfect execution, and which is the exception rather than the
norm — this chapter has argued that critical practices must embrace the constant frustration
and uncertainty of computing, particularly in the digital media sphere. This awareness can
be built up through working with old technology and broken components and sensors and
working against the culture of novelty, mastery, and invisibility built through computational
disciplines. It can also be recognized in the many false starts, misfires, and random
connections of contemporary technological design. To resist the fetish of computing18, digital
and computational pedagogy and research must engage in a more failure-oriented method of
teaching and interpreting digital media technologies, a method that challenges the smooth
veneer of perfection, where critical potential can be found against the illusion of frictionless
computation, the mastery of programming, and the hubris of the new.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA
and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual Media, Cambridge MA: MIT Press,
____. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.
Kemper, Jakko. ‘Silicon Ashes to Silicon Ashes, Digital Dust to Digital Dust: Chronolibido and
Tec hn ol og ic al F ra gi li ty in Glitchhiker’, in Caleb Kelly, Jakko Kemper, and Ellen Rutten (eds),
Imperfections: Studies in Mistakes, Flaws, and Failures, New York, London and Dublin: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2022, pp. 165-188.
Latour, Bruno. We Ha ve N eve r B een Mod ern , trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1991.
The Internet Archive,
18 Chun, Programmed Visions, 18.
Figure 4.1: Drawings from Sidonie Meißner’s 1893 patent for a ‘Garment for Lady Cyclists’
I,SIDONIEMEIßNERof Grosse Brudergasse, Dresden, in the German Empire, Spinster, do
hereby declare the nature of this invention […] to provide for lady cyclists a garment which
allows of a convenient working of the treadles, serves as a protection against dust and dirt and
keeps covered the upper part of the leg. The garment terminates at bottom in a trouser, the two
lower ends of which are drawn in by rubber or elastic binding. The garment is buttoned down
the front as shewn [sic] and may have the form of an ordinary coat with trouser like extensions
which in use are drawn upwards within the body and it is drawn in at the waist in the ordinary
manner at the upper band. Suitable pockets may be provided.
I start this chapter with drawings and words by Sidonie Meißner, an inventor living in Germany
in 1893. She applied for a patent for a ‘Garment for Lady Cyclists’ at the British Patent Office
— with the assistance of Patent Agents in Chancery Lane, London — on 11th July, and it was
accepted on 23rd September in the same year. It responded to a cycling craze sweeping
Europe in the late nineteenth century. Both women and men were enthusiastic early adopters
of the bicycle, but they experienced it very differently.1 Early women cyclists suffered
intense social scrutiny, because like many Victorian sports, cycling was considered the
‘natural domain of men’.2 They were pressured to maintain ‘feminine dignity’ regardless
of the activity, and to avoid looking hot, dishevelled, or dirty.3
Yet, cycling was not only a highly public activity but also an intensely physical one. Long
skirts appropriate for walking were largely incompatible with the moving machinery of
the bicycle. In many cases looking dishevelled was the least of their problems. Materials
caught the wind and blew up, revealing legs, and tangled in wheels and pedals.
Newspapers regularly reported on deaths and disfigurements from cycle crashes caused
by women’s clothing. Unsealed roads were also a reality which made cycling a dusty and
often muddy experience. While wearing more ‘rational dress’ such as shorter skirts or
swapping them entirely for bloomers or knickerbockers might have been safer and more
comfortable, it exposed the wearer to different dangers. Writing about the experience of
cycling in England in the 1890s, Irene Marshall4 explains:
Caps, stones, road refuse— anything was then flung at the hapless woman who
dared to reveal the secret that she had two legs. And the insults were not confined
to the lower classes. Well-dressed people, people who would be classed as ladies
and gentlemen, frequently stopped and made rude remarks.
Yet nothing was going to stop women from cycling once they experienced the freedom
and independence promised by the bicycle. Late Victorian Britain was an exciting time
for new ideas, technologies, and media. The cycling boom corresponded with patent
system reform and opened the process of claiming an inventive idea to a broader range
of inventors. Along with the many social and sartorial challenges facing women, these
conditions catalysed much inventive activity by and for women. This chapter focuses on
inventions for convertible cycling skirts which enabled wearers to safely cycle while also
concealing evidence of their athletic activities as and when needed.
Sidonie Meißner’s invention does this and more. From the outside her ‘Garment for Lady
Cyclists’ looks like an ordinary long skirt yet it includes excess fabric shaped into ‘pop out’
leggings concealed under the lower hem. She explains it’s triple aim; to provide freedom
of movement to cycle, to keep pedalling legs covered, and to protect the wearer from ‘dust
and dirt.’ Her suggestion for ‘suitable pockets’ is also reflective of independent women’s
desire to carry goods and free their hands. ‘No pocketless people’, asserted a male New
1 For mo re di sc uss ion i n t he se iss ue s s ee Ka t Jun gni ck el, Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors
And Their Extra-Ordinary Cyclewear, London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018.
2 Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports,
London and New York: Routledge, 1994, 43.
3 ‘Bicycling News and Sport and Play. Lines for Ladies by Marguerite’, quoting from ‘The Compromises of
Cycling’ in Hearth and Home, 28 May 1895, 34.
4 Irene Marshall. The Rational Dress Gazette, Organ of the Rational Dress LeagueCorrespondence, No.
10, July 1899,40.
York Times writer in 1899, ‘has ever been great since pockets were invented, and the
female sex cannot rival us while it is pocketless.’5
I know all these related contextual insights from years of research on this topic. While
Sidonie Mießner’s patent data is valuable and points to lots of rich topical issues to explore,
I’m looking for more. Yet her patent only provides half a page of text and two intriguing line
drawings. It is tantalisingly brief. And I haven’t been able to access anything else more
directly related to her. As a result, I know very little about the inventor or what happened
to her specific invention.
There are several potential reasons for this.
My initial response is to worry that I had failed as archive researcher. Did I miss extra data
about her life in the archives? Did I overlook a critical fragment of her life somewhere? Was
there a snippet of text or an image I flicked past that would have led me down new and
untravelled paths? Maybe more is still out there. As researchers, we seek threads across
archives; serendipitous connections, sharp moments of association when a visual fragment
from one archive suddenly slots into place with text from another. I know this feeling. I have
celebrated on my own very quietly in dusty stacks with joy and relief when something like
this happens. But not here. Not now. Sidonie Mießner’s life eludes me.
Another possibility is that the inventor failed. Perhaps this is all there is. Was she unsuccessful
in securing a future for her patent? Did her invention fail to leave the patent office records?
Did no one see any potential in it? There is no trace of it being commercialized or distributed.
There was no launch event. There is no evidence that anyone talked about, made, or wore it.
There is nothing about her or her invention in newspapers, magazines, or periodical archives.
Data: Too Much, Not Enough
In past projects I conducted ethnography with live people. I visited them in their homes,
climbed onto their rooftops, spent time in their backyard sheds, went cycling with them,
and discussed their relationships with technology, public space, and each other. Data was
everywhere. All too frequently, issues in research emerge from having too much of it. 6
Ethnographic texts commonly discuss being ‘overwhelmed’, ‘unnerved’, and ‘daunted’ by
data. Learning how to make sense and order it is much harder. Archival analysis can feel
similar, in many circumstances. For example in Dust, Carolyn Steedman writes at length
about the overwhelming feeling of dealing with a tsunami of stuff people have left behind:
Archive fever comes on at night, long after the archive has shut for the day….
Everything. Not a purchase made, not a thing acquired that is not noted and
5 The New York Times, ‘World’s Use of Pockets,’ 28 August 1899, 7.
6 See for example Martin, Hammersley and Paul Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 3rd edition,
Oxon: Routledge, 2007; David, M. Fetterman, Ethnography: Step by Step. 3rd edition, Applied Social
Research Methods Series 17, London: Sage, 2010.
recorded. You think: I could get to hate these people and, I can never do these
people justice, and, finally: I shall never get it done […] Your anxiety is that you will
not finish, that there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed […] Your
craft is to conjure a social system from a nutmeg grater.7
But, what do we do with a nutmeg grater and very little nutmeg?
I felt adrift and mildly panicked the first time this happened. The feeling was amplified as
I had just spent a giddy few days finding many exciting connections across archives about
another inventor. Now, I had this. Nothing. Zilch. Sidonie Mießner was nowhere to be found.
What would I do if I couldn’t find anything about her or her invention? What kind of a patent
researcher was I? What could I do in this research dead end? What would I write about?
But, maybe it wasn’t just Sidonie Meißner’s or my fault.
Another site of failure lies with archives themselves. Not everything is recorded about
everyone. Or even if they are, over time archival data can get lost, ignored or systematically
Sidonie Mießner may have filed her patent in Britain, but she resided in Germany. Lots of
archival data went missing or was destroyed in wartime. Apparently, ‘World War II resulted
in the greatest loss and displacement of cultural treasures, books, and archives in history.8
While her name seems distinct, and generates several promising genealogical results,
nothing can be certain. This is partly because she self-identifies as a spinster. Even though
their last names change, it is sometimes easier to find women if they are married (as there
are more records about the men in their lives).9 Her patent unfortunately doesn’t provide
any information about her vocation (either she didn’t have one or it wasn’t considered
important, as was the case for much women’s documentation in archives).
Many inventions, especially those of women, were renamed when they were commercialized,
which makes them even harder to trace. Being a woman made it even harder to succeed in
business at the time (as she most likely lacked socio-political capital, networks, and funds).
Even worse, being a spinster was viewed as a failure by parts of society. For some ‘the state
of singleness for women was a most “unfortunate” condition.10
7 Caroline Steed, ‘Something She Called Fever: Michelet, Derrida and Dust’, The American Historical
Review, 106.4 (2001): 1159-1180, 1164-5
8 Patri cia Kenn edy Grim stead, ‘Spoils of War Re turned’ , Prologue Magazine, 34. 2 (2002), https://www.
9 For example, ancestry records provide lots of accounts of Sidone Meißners. A Sidonie Elise Mießner
was born 29 Feb 1868 in Erfurt, Germany. This would make her quite young, 21 years old, at the time
of her patent. However, she was married to Emile Richard Fuhrman. Another Sidonie was born 1855 in
Dresden (making her 42 in 1897). She was also married to a Hugo Roßner.
10 Katie Holmes, ‘‘Spinsters Indispensable’: Feminists, Single Women and the Critique of Marriage, 1890-
1920,’ Australian Historical Studies, 29.100: 68-90, 68.
Archives: Biased, Messy, and Troublesome
Archives always tell certain stories about specific people, places, and times. Much like
maps, archives are powerful devices that simultaneously convey and conceal knowledge,
are shaped by political norms and beliefs, and predominantly assembled by a victor with
an explicit purpose in mind. Archives ‘are not innocent sites of storage’ but rather ‘already
texts shaped according to interests and needs of certain groups’.11 Queer and feminist
archivists and historians have long drawn attention to and questioned the politics that shape
collections and encourage readers to see not only what is present but also what is absent.
As technofeminist Ruth Schwartz-Cowan reminds, ‘the absence of a female perspective
in the available histories of technology was a function of the historians who write them
and not of the historical reality.’12 For Anne Stoler, a feminist turn in the archives involves
a ‘move from archive as source to archive as subject.’13 She talks about ‘archiving as a
process’ rather than ‘archives as things.’14 This work reorients the reading of the past as
a way to critique the political and colonial contexts of knowledge and knowledge makers.
The lack of data about women is especially troublesome. Women tend to go unrecorded
in official accounts, especially technological and cycling histories. Patents are valuable in
this context as they ‘present a valuable perspective on female inventive activity and market
participation in an era when marriage meant the virtual “invisibility” of married women in
terms of objective data.’15
None of this means that Sidonie Mießner didn’t exist, of course, or that her patent wasn’t
successful or that her invention wasn’t made, worn, and enjoyed by early women cyclists.
The task becomes how to reconstruct her life and invention when there are few traces in
the archives.
What to do with flawed archival data? Or in this case, the lack of flawed archival data?
Experimental Approaches to Archival Research
Inspiration can be found in many creative and experimental approaches to archive research.
Writing about queer filmmaker Cheryl Dunye’s practice, Julia Bryan-Wilson explains how
‘Dunye has consistently explored the affective potency that lies within historical records
and the gaps in those records — to explore how fictional archives might be necessary for
queer lives in the present as well as for imagined futures’.16 Feminist archivists Nydia Swaby
11 Griselda Pollock, ‘Trouble in the Archives’, Women’s Art Magazi ne 54 (1993): 10-13, 12.
12 Ruth Sch wartz-Cowan, A Social History of American Technology, Oxford, UK:Oxford University Press,
2007, 120.
13 Kate Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’, Archival Science 2 (2002): 87-109, 93
14 Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives’, 87.
15 Zorina B . Khan, ‘Married Women ’s Property L aws and Fema le Commercial Activity: Ev idence From United
States Patent Records, 1790-1895’, The Journal of Economic History 56.2 (1996): 356—388, 365-6.
16 Julia Bryan-Wilson and Cher yl Dunye, ‘Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue’, Art Journal, 72.2 (2013): 82-89,
and Chandra Frank take a different sensory approach: ‘We are invested in exploring the
experimental as a means to read, experience, feel and touch archives’ and ‘as an imaginary,
in which we deliberately make space for play, refusal and artistic renderings of archives and
their materiality’.17 They also ‘propose experimentation as a form of dwelling and lingering
in the archive to subvert linear notions of time and place’.18
Even more directly, African-American scholar Saidiya Hartman creatively challenges the
authority of historical data that ‘dictates what can be said about the past and kinds of stories
that can be told about the persons catalogues, embalmed, and sealed away in a box of files
and folios’.19 Her powerful work reads ‘against the grain, disturbing and breaking open the
stories’ which requires her ‘to speculate, listen intently, read between the lines, attend to
the disorder and mess of the archive, and to honor the silence.’20
Although diverse, these writers collectively take political positions in their work by identifying
and rendering visible the ‘telling blanks and perverselywilfulholes’ in archives.21 Guided by
this inspiring interdisciplinary work, failures and gaps in archives can be seen as invitations
to find, piece together, and convey new stories or alternate perspectives on existing ones. A
dead end in the archives is not terrible. It does not mark the end of a project. Rather, as I am
learning, there are many ways of responding to it. In the case of Sidonie Mießner’s patent,
it enabled me to get inventive with the study of invention. As Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford
have argued, ‘Inventive methods are ways to introduce answerability into a problem […] if
methods are to be inventive, they should not leave that problem untouched’.22
My practice involves the use of what I term ‘speculative sewing’, whereby I ‘stitch
data, theory and fabric into inventions described in patents and analyse them as three-
dimensional arguments’.23 The lack of surviving data about the invention and/or the
invention itself can be partially rectified by remaking it. The patent after all is a step-by-step
series of instructions for future users to replicate an inventor’s idea. For my research team,
the process of researching, reconstructing, and re-imagining lesser known technoscience
stories into material forms offers ways to spend time with the inventor, interview her about
her practice, make mistakes, take tangents, and reflect on the process.
17 Nydia A Swaby and Chandra Frank, ‘Archival Experiments, Notes and (dis)Orientations,’ Feminist
Review 125 (2020): 4-16, 4.
18 Swaby and Frank, ‘Archival Experiments’.
19 Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, London: Serpent’s Tail,
2007, 17.
20 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls,
Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals, London: Serpents Tail, 2021, 34.
21 Bryan-Wilson and Dunye, ‘Imaginary Archives’, 82.
22 Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford (eds), Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, London and New
Yor k: R ou tl ed ge, 2 01 2, 3 .
23 Kat Jungnickel, ‘Speculative Sewing: Researching, Reconstructing And Re-Imagining Clothing
Inventions As Wearable Technoscience’, Social Studies of Science, online first 16 Aug 2022, https://
This practice reveals the complexities of the invention often hidden in (brief) texts. Physically
getting up close to and into the research and reflecting on the intimacy of making and wearing
other people’s clothes adds new and different textures and layers to the analysis. This
approach to failure can be seen as a political act of visibility. The materiality of a convertible
cycling skirt marks a firm counter argument to the invisibility of the inventor in other forms
of official and formal records.
Getting Inventive with Failure
This chapter started with questions about failure. I asked who or what was central to the
problem of not finding data about the inventor Sidonie Mießner’s life and her invention.
Research rarely takes us in the direction we initially expect. And even, as mapped out above,
when we start to approach seemingly stressful dead ends there are sometimes inventive
ways out. Reflecting on the work of scholars who approach failure in archives in creative and
experimental ways encourages us to read ‘against the grain’.24As Swaby and Frank remind
us, ‘the archive is as much a site of loss as of abundance’.25
‘Bicycling News and Sport and Play. Lines for Ladies by Marguerite’, quoting from ‘The Compromises of
Cycling’ in Hearth and Home, 28 May 1895, 34.
Bryan-Wilson, Julia and Dunye, Cheryl. ‘Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue’, Art Journal 72.2 (2013):
Fetterman, David, M. Ethnography: Step by Step. 3rd edition, Applied Social Research Methods Series
17, London: Sage, 2010.
Hammersley, Martin, and Atkinson, Pau. Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 3rd edition, London and
New York: Routledge, 2007.
Hargreaves, Jennifer. Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports,
London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls,
Trou bles ome W omen and Quee r Ra dical s, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2021.
____. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007, 17.
Holmes, Katie. ‘‘Spinsters Indispensable’: Feminists, Single Women and the Critique of Marriage,
1890-1920,’ Australian Historical Studies, 29.100: 68-90.
Jungnickel, Kat. ‘Speculative Sewing: Researching, Reconstructing And Re-Imagining Clothing Inven-
tions As Wearable Technoscience’, Social Studies of Science, online first 16 Aug 2022, https://journals.
____. Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors And Their Extra-Ordinary Cyclewear, London:
Goldsmiths Press, 2018.
Kennedy Grimstead, Patricia. ‘Spoils of War Returned’, Prologue Magazine, 34. 2 (2002), https://www.
24 Hartman, Wayward Lives, 34.
25 Swaby and Frank, ‘Archival Experiments’, 11.
Khan, Zorina B. ‘Married Women’s Property Laws and Female Commercial Activity: Evidence From
United States Patent Records, 1790-1895’, The Journal of Economic History 56.2 (1996): 356—388,
Lury, Celia and Wakeford, Nina (eds). Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, London and
New York: Routledge, 2012.
Marshall, Irene. The Rational Dress Gazette, Organ of the Rational Dress League - Correspondence, No.
10, July 1899,40.
Meißner, Sidonie. Patent GB189313442A ‘Garment for Lady Cyclists’, 23 September 1897, www.epo.
The New York Times, ‘World’s Use of Pockets,’ 28 August 1899.
Pollo ck, Gris elda. ‘Trou ble in the Arch ives’, Women’s Art Magazine 54 (1993): 10-13.
Schwartz-Cowan, Ruth. A Social History of American Technology, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press,
Steed, Caroline. ‘Something She Called Fever: Michelet, Derrida and Dust’, The American Historical
Review, 106.4 (2001): 1159-1180.
Stoler, Kate. ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’, Archival Science 2 (2002): 87-109.
Swaby, Nydia A and Frank, Chandra. ‘Archival Experiments, Notes and (dis)Orientations,’ Feminist
Review 125 (2020): 4-16.
I fail. I failed. I have failed.
It failed. It is a failure.
I am a failure.
Failure. The term gets used all the time, in both scientific communities and everyday
conversations. It means very different things to different people, once you start to unpack
the use of the term in its specific context, or listen to how people describe how they define
failure. This chapter takes as its departure point the colloquial definition of ‘failure’ when
used in everyday conversations among researchers, like social science and humanities
doctoral students I have mentored over the years, as they talk about what did or didn’t
work in the practical and logistical accomplishment of their scientific research.
While the negative valence of failure is resisted in contemporary critiques, such as the
work of Jack Halberstam in the Queer Art of Failure, failure in the everyday sense is still
considered something to avoid, overcome, or obscure.1 In more than 30 years of mentoring
early career researchers, I have come to realize labelling one’s own work a failure can
cause a researcher to pull up short, come to a full stop, and turn away from rather than
toward these critical junctures. In this piece, I present three heuristic principles for
rethinking what failure actually constitutes in the course of inquiry, to build the conceptual
notion that failure is nothing more or less than an outcome of an experiment or action.
This is an effort to recast ‘failure’ as merely a critical juncture, an essential core process
of sensemaking. I have used these heuristics in my own teaching to help build a mindset
and methodological vocabulary as a practical guide for especially those researchers who
want to resist or work around the debilitating vocabularies of failure.
In popular culture, business, career, and relationship advice books, the term ‘failure’ is
used to describe something bad, wrong, not working as expected, intended outcomes,
or lack of success. ‘Success’ is a state typically achieved by attaining money, fame, love
1 Jack Halb erstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
or at least a stable relationship. Following the typical — and very Western — hierarchy of
needs proposed by Abraham Maslow, the pinnacle of this success story would be ‘self-
actualization.’ All of these forms of success are presumed to be achievable through — and
the result of — motivation + effort. For example, in business, I’m likely to be ‘a failure’ if I
(a) am not seeking success or (b) have not succeeded. Therefore, if a person is a failure,
that person has not tried hard enough.
Of course, there have been many efforts in past decades to flip failure into a concept with
a positive valence. In the 2013 book Fail Fast, Fail Often, authors John Babineaux and Ryan
Krumboltz insist that failure is a good thing, something we should embrace.2 But as one
reads deeper in this or other popular texts (like business blogger Megan McArdle’s 2014
book, The Upside of Down3), one will learn that failure is not good in itself, but is valuable
because it is a point or moment of identification that you should change something, or that
you’re enroute to getting past failure in the ongoing progression toward success.
Failure, in this pop culture world of blog and book advice for business, innovation, creativity,
or relationships, is portrayed as natural and normal, something to accept and embrace. But
this is not because failure is a place to stay or an acceptable way of being. Rather, failure
becomes something to overcome in the ambition to achieve the state of non-failure. Fail
Fast, Fail Often is littered with excellent examples of famous people or well-established
companies following what they describe as a natural linear progress toward achievement:
Since success is usually preceded by bumbling starts and botched eorts, you can
think about anything you would like to succeed at in terms of how you must first be
bad at it. You can put it in this form: If I want to succeed at ________, I must first
be bad at ________.4
Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa, Canadian social scientists and qualitative methodologists
who have written various pieces on failure in academia5 resist this sort of ‘failure is part
of a linear progression toward success’ logic. They suggest failure is not something to
get beyond. Instead, it is an inherent part of research. Yet even as much as the concept
of failure is lifted up as a good thing, and elaborated in refreshingly nuanced ways, their
conceptualization and use of the term still reinforces a negative valence. In their call for
papers on failure, Sousa and Clark define research failures as ‘situations or events of
consequence in which your choices, presence, or influence contributed conceivably to
2 John D. Babi neaux and Ryan Krumboltz, Fail Fast, Fail Often : How Losin g Can Help You W in, Penguin,
3 Megan McArdle, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, New York, New York:
Viking Adult, 2014.
4 Babineaux and Krumboltz, Fa il Fast , 50.
5 Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa, ‘Academics: You Are Going to Fail, so Learn How to Do It Better,’
The Guardian, 4 November 2015, sec. Education,
network/2015/nov/04/academics-you-are-going-to-fail-so-learn-how-to-do-it-better; Bailey Sousa and
Alexander Clark, ‘A Manifesto for Better Research Failure,’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods,
an adverse or undesirable research process or outcomes’.6 While expanding the notion of
failure as inevitable and natural, these authors still situate these moments as wrong and
unwanted. They suggest, in a different article published for The Guardian, that academics
should learn to fail better, so the negative outcomes are minimized: ‘When failure happens,
be grateful that it occurred but was not bigger, more damaging or more complex’. 7
The storyline in the self-help sections of bookstores is not markedly different from the
typical academic environment where early career scholars are socialized into what it
means to do good research, unfortunately. Failure remains the opposite of success. Within
this framing, while failure is something we might accept, it is still bad or wrong, implying
that if one were only a better researcher, it wouldn’t have happened. The discursive impact
of this negative valence can be internalized over time from simply an account of what
happened (‘It failed’) to an attribute of a person (‘I’m a failure’).
It is no surprise to me that across academic research environments, especially in fields
that are continuously criticized for being less scientifically rigorous than the hard sciences
(i.e. the humanities or social sciences), failure is almost always cast as something to avoid,
and when something fails or is deemed a failure, it is likely hidden behind the cleaned-
up explanation of one’s practices in a written report. Despite the many philosophical
and critical discussions to the contrary, everyday discourses around failure remain
strongly negative and fall into the ‘blameworthy’ end of a spectrum of causes, rather than
‘praiseworthy,’ according to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. In her
piece exploring the misguided beliefs about failure, she explains:
When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of
the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually
in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as
blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%.8
This attitude among my own doctoral students is certainly exacerbated by the persistent
injunction of academic institutions to conduct research with the goal of success, a goal
that has been heavily scaffolded by the classic scientific model and driven by the models
of an ideology that science should be in a continuous state of progress.
What happens when we simply define failure as an ‘outcome’ and then accommodate
failure as a common type of outcome, an inherent and necessary part of inquiry practices,
creating critical junctures where we might pause, reflect, and possibly think otherwise?
Especially in research models involving emergent or open-ended practices of engagement
in social contexts or working with human-generated data, the researcher is not a passive
observer of processes or a neutral agent, but the primary filter through which cultural and
6 Sousa and Clark, ‘A Manifesto’, n.p.
7 Clark and Sousa, ‘Academics’.
8 Amy C. Edmondson, ‘Strategies for Learning from Failure,’ Harvard Business Review, March 2011,
material data passes to be interpreted. Within this idea, what is the value or role of inquiry
processes that take an unexpected turn, or tools that don’t operate as expected? If we take
failure out of the realm of something to avoid, and detach failure from a negative personal
attribute, how can it function as a more positive part of discovery and sensemaking?
Rethinking Failure: A Model for Using Failure as Part of
In developing models that embrace failure as useful and natural, the humanities or social
science researcher can take a cue from the hard sciences, particularly those fields where
experimentation is a standard practice, such as chemistry, design, or engineering. Here,
failure is common and expected. In engineering, for example, failure is traditionally an
attribute given to processes or mechanisms that don’t operate as expected, or stop
operating as expected, as in ‘the termination of the ability of an item to perform a required
In designing things for use-in-the-world, it is necessary to test various aspects of efficacy
by trying to get to the failure state. Here, failure has high information value for further
development. It’s a form of what engineers or designers call ‘stress testing,’ whereby
the researcher can push a system or structure to the breaking point in an accelerated
manner to ‘identify non-intuitive failures that would normally require months or years in
the field to identify’.10 In laboratory or bench research like chemistry, failure happens so
much it’s hardly the best explanation for what’s occurring. When one notices how much
failure is happening, cognitive scientist Ann-Sophie Barwich notes, one might wonder
how science makes any advances at all. But on the contrary, she suggests, science is
successful precisely because of these failures.11
As Barwich explains, science ‘must fail to achieve an important job it sets out to do:
discovery. For scientific research to exceed our initial modelling assumptions and to
continuously supersede our ever-adjusting experimental limits, things have to go wrong’.12
Failure is information that can be used to disrupt the taken for granted strategies and
models. There is strong heuristic value in failure.13
Taking a cue from authors seeking to build failure more positively into academic research
practices, I use this opportunity to outline a model where outcomes discarded or dismissed
9 K.M. Blache and A.B. Shrivastava, ‘Defining Failure of Manufacturing Machinery and Equipment,’
in Proceedings of Annual Reliability and Maintainability Symposium (RAMS) (Annual Reliability
and Maintainability Symposium (RAMS), Anaheim, CA, USA: IEEE, 1994), pp. 69–75, https://doi.
10 Alex Porter, ‘Success through Failure with Accelerated Stress Testing,’ Intertek, 8 June 2021, https://
11 Ann-Sophie Barwich, ‘The Value of Failure in Science: The Story of Grandmother Cells in Neuroscience,’
Frontiers in Neuroscience 13 (24 October 2019): 1121,
12 Barwich, ‘The Value of Failure in Science’, n.p.
13 Barwich, The Value of Failure in Science’, n.p.
as ‘failures’ can be put back into the stacks of usable moments and materials in a project
to prompt reflexivity about the levels of fit between research questions and research design,
the role of the researcher, assumptions about participants, and assumptions about how
one’s tools are working. Inserting failure repeatedly in the process is to ask for opportunities
to think otherwise.
The point I’d like to make here is that we can go some steps beyond the idea that failure
is necessary, normal, or essential, as authors like Babineaux and Krumboltz, Clark and
Sousa, and Barwich have stressed in their various works, respectively, and to insist that
failure is central to any sensemaking. As a central component, whatever we might label as
‘failure’ during the process of inquiry should be included and highlighted more deliberately
in models for social research design. This discursive reframing is also an effort to correct
the imbalance caused by the persistent negative framing that occurs when something is
labelled as a failure.
Building from the more abstract manifesto of Sousa and Clark14, the three principles
below seek to build a methodological vocabulary and heuristic as a guide for researchers,
especially those who seek to resist the negative valence of failure or consider how they can
use these moments more fruitfully and reflexively in their own practice. Notably, the three
principles below don’t outline methods, or explicate instances of failure, but describe some
epistemologically-driven, generative questions that emerge at various points throughout
a study.
Figure 5.1: The iterative inquiry spiral. Source: Annette Markham. Used with permission.
14 Sousa and Clark, ‘A Manifesto,’ n.p.
Failures as Outcomes: Identifying Critical Junctures in
Iterative Spirals of Inquiry
Based on a previous model of reflexive practice that emphasizes inquiry as iterative
spirals,15,16 any decision that leads to action constitutes a critical juncture where one
ventures into experimental territory, a sort of venturing forth into the unknown to see what
happens. The outcome of this experiment can be considered another critical juncture
where we can examine what happened and explore where to go next. These continual
junctures or turning points are encountered again and again as one returns repeatedly to
interrogate the research, in all stages and processes. This idea is depicted in Figure 4.1.
At each of these critical junctures, one might invoke Donna Haraway’s practice of
speculative fabulation17 to ask a series of ‘what if’ questions. This practice of examining
the moment as a temporal possibility invites speculation along a number of different lines.
One can explore ‘What if it had been otherwise?’ or ‘Why did this happen versus that?’
Prompts like these enable reflections about what is happening, or what just happened, or
what might have happened otherwise. This sort of check-in is not with the intent to verify
that the process is valid, but to acknowledge that the process of inquiry is inherently a
matter of choices that have consequences, and there are innumerable other choices
that could be or could have been made, which would lead to alternate consequences.
Continuing with the inspiration of Haraway’s later discussion of string figures,18 discovery
comes into and out of view iteratively. By focusing on these moments with some detailed
‘what if’ questions, the researcher can find gaps or absences. This is part of what Haraway
means by her concept of ‘staying with the trouble’.19 These in turn might highlight certain
other ‘failure points,’ which can in turn help us think about shifting the lens or direction
of gaze or sensemaking practice slightly to get a better (more productive, more ethical,
more daring, more meaningful) angle.
Alternately, this can be a moment to pause, slow down, and reflect. By allowing the
process, event, or moment to breathe more fully, one can gain a renewed sense of
priorities, or maybe discover some limitations, turning points, or blockages in the current
way of going about things. Or, this sort of critical interrogation might also reveal rich
possibilities and new potentialities, making room for new directions of fruitful inquiry or
even inviting more radical transformations of the core goals or audiences for the project.
15 Annette Markham, ‘Ethic as Method, Method as Ethic: A Case for Reflexivity in Qualitative ICT
Research,’ Journal of I nformation Ethics 15.2 (2006): 37–54,
16 Annette Markham, ‘Reflexivity: Some Techniques for Interpretive Researchers,’ Annette Markham, 28
February 2017,
17 Donna Haraway, ‘SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far,’ Ada: A Journal of
Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3(2013), doi:10.7264/N3KH0K81.
18 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.
19 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
The process of reflection occurs repeatedly, but at different levels. This may not always be
comfortable and is, in a practical sense, time consuming. Yet once we start to pay attention
to these critical junctures, we might realize that the label of failure is somewhat arbitrary
and certainly capricious. In some circumstances, the outcome will be labelled ‘failure,’
whereas in other cases, it will simply be labelled ‘a turning point’, or maybe an event that
shifted one’s practice.
Failure as Information: Locating Movement, Positionality, and
As we move — through the world, through field sites, through different experiments,
through research projects — we are positioning and repositioning ourselves to various
sites of meaning. Whether or not we notice, our habitual and trained modalities of attention
are generating layers and layers of data — or perhaps more appropriately put, stimuli
that becomes data when we use it as information to interpret situations or make meaning.
Each of our movements, actions, or swings of attention create a slightly different lens or
perspective. These are tacit tools for observation, engagement, and analysis embedded in
our everyday trained sensibilities.
What does this have to do with ‘failure’? Well, when nothing goes wrong, so to speak, we
likely never notice the methodological function of the various lenses emerging from our
attention, yet they are in continual operation. They become visible only when we stumble,
glitch, or otherwise do something that brings our working assumptions or tacit ways of
knowing to the surface. Then, they become something to scrutinize. In this way, anything
labelled as ‘failure’ can be reflexively considered as reflections or products of particular
modes of attention, ways of working, or other operationalizations of our ontologies and
No matter how much we might think we comprehend our own worldview or stance, critically
interrogating outcomes or end results — whether we call these ‘failures’ or not — can
function as a form of identifying and then scrutinizing the obvious methods as well as the
more tacit practices or ways of knowing that were operating that might have influenced
these outcomes. Reverse engineering is one way of unpacking various components of
end results or products; each component in turn reveals or recreates micro-moments of
processes that could have led to the outcome. In connecting to the idea of one’s movements
or attention as tools of methods, one is trying to connect one’s trained practice to one’s
movements (and habitual actions of attention) more visibly, which gives reflexive focus on
how one’s position is influencing decisions that may have led to this versus that outcome.
This scrutiny may change one’s perspective, technique, or habit of attention, as is often
the case when this scrutiny is used in a chemistry lab to tweak an experiment’s protocol.
But it also might simply generate more reflexively oriented information. This principle of
conceptualizing failure as information leaps over the simplification that failure is ‘wrong’
and transforms it into a functional and ever-present component of reflexive practice.
Failure as Indicators: Interrogating Stakeholders and Power
In most situations of scientific or artistic endeavour, individual practices in the lab, field,
or studio don’t emerge tabula rasa, but operate within larger communities of practice,
disciplinary or historical traditions, and systems of cultural and conceptual frameworks.
What and whose priorities are valued or devalued when the label of failure is applied? The
most powerful influences on our practices are indirect, when norms are embedded in
infrastructures, or when decisions are disconnected from the person through neutralizing
phrases like ‘that’s just how it’s done’ or ‘in this field, we use X tools.’ Sure, we might
assess a ‘failed’ project or method through our own careful determination, but in many
circumstances, the decision to describe something as a failure is externally prescribed,
by which I mean we’ve applied a label because we are using external prescriptive and
normative advice to inform the categorization of something as ‘failed’ or ‘a failure’.
Something (a procedure, an outcome, an encounter, an engagement) does not meet an
external expectation.
The question this leads to a question raised in many ways throughout this volume: where
does that expectation come from and what does this expectation prioritize? Success?
Functionality? Adherence to a norm? Quality? Reflecting on the underpinnings of the
expectation reveals layers of norms, structures, and rules. Here, one can also identify and
scrutinize some of the stakeholders, human and nonhuman influences on the foundations
of our academic approaches. So, when something ‘fails,’ there are troubling but important
rabbit holes to travel down, for at least two reasons. First, this interrogation opens up
multiple string figures20 of potential dynamics, relationships, or socio-political structures
influencing the shape and conduct of one’s choices of methodological tools or practice
overall. Second, and far more poignant, it can be an act of resistance against personal
and future potential damage.
The label of ‘failure’ or ‘failing’ can damage the state and progress of one’s project, not
because it is ‘correcting’ or ‘assessing’ but because it immediately denies and negates,
potentially stalling the important experimentation and invention fundamental to discovery.
That’s one level of damage. The personal and professional impact of ‘failure’ can also
be quite striking. How might the practice of labelling something a ‘failure’ do damage?
How does the label and negative valence of failure work over time to foster an equally
negative sensibility toward change or approaches that seek to transgress boundaries?
While invention and experimentation are encouraged in the hard sciences and failure
is actually expected, ‘transgressiveness’ is discouraged in fields where adherence to
disciplinary standards is a powerful delimiter of experimentation and risk.
This can be taken further by returning to the classic feminist critiques of positivist science
by such authors as Sandra Harding21 or the complications of sensemaking elaborated by
20 Haraway, ‘SF’, n.p.
21 Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Cornell University Press, 1986.
such scholars as Haraway22 and Karen Barad.23 The value of building from these works is
to continue the long effort to resist the hegemonic power of everyday discourses around
how inquiry happens. In this, Gramscian inspired critical theory is valuable as a way of
recognizing that failure is part of a larger structure that over time becomes naturalized
and neutralized, whereby certain ways of doing things become accepted and consensual
yet still privilege certain stakeholder interests over others’ by valuing only particular ways
of doing and being. Regaining the connection between our embodied, knowing, culturally
specific senses and the moments of keen learning — labelled failure or not — is an open-
ended exploration, a way of reflecting on our reflections of our own practices within The
It is a politic and ethic of resistance, one that contributes to the longstanding and
continuing efforts to decolonize narrow Western ideas about causality, scale, knowing,
and sensemaking. This goes beyond simply challenging the negative valence of failure. It
is a matter of deliberately and robustly interrogating how the attribution of failure happens,
with what potential or actual consequences —both positive and negative — for the people
involved as well as for future infrastructures of inquiry practices.
What if failure didn’t really exist?
The three principles above are examples of rethinking how failure functions, or ways of
resisting the label in one’s own practice, to gain more specificity about what is really
happening, since ‘failure’ is such an all-encompassing yet somewhat meaningless term.
There are other principles that can emerge as one creatively digs beneath the surface
to consider how recasting the term or playfully rejecting it might be useful to one’s own
And it’s worth noting that these creative or playful practices of reconsidering the definition
and utility of the concept of failure may require building phrases or mantras to repel or push
back against the dominant narratives that repeatedly tell us that failure is the opposite of
success. Even doodling can help provide these mantras, as you see me doing in the middle
of a workshop in 2018, in Figures 5.2 and 5.3.
22 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
23 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and
Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Figure 5.2: Rethinking the concept of failure as a type of infinity spiral. Sketches by the author from a 2018
workshop in Barcelona. Source: Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 5.3: Asking a speculative ‘what if?’ question about ‘Failure’ as a traveling club. Source: Annette
Markham. Used with permission.
As I conclude this chapter, I must admit that I have never believed in failure. Everything
labelled as failure is nothing more or less than an outcome. Within this definition, fail-
ure never actually exists as ‘failure.’ When it involves research, if we think of the action
preceding an outcome as ‘experiment,’ we can gain knowledge from scrutinizing how
and why certain outcomes happen, versus other possibilities. Removing the negative or
positive valence removes the label itself. The only exception is when failure is used to
describe a mechanism that no longer functions as intended, as mentioned at the outset
of this essay, as when a spark plug on a combustion engine no longer fires, or the key
gets stuck in the lock. Otherwise, anything we label as failure simply highlights a critical
juncture, inviting us to pause, look around, and reflect for a moment as we make another
decision to do the next thing, which will inevitably turn us this way or that on whatever
journey we are on. Recast in this way, we can further specify failures as informational,
indicators of pathways, and pointers for thinking otherwise.
Babineaux, John D. and Krumboltz, Ryan. Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win,
Penguin, 2013.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter
and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Barwich, Ann-Sophie. ‘The Value of Failure in Science: The Story of Grandmother Cells in
Neuroscience,’ Frontiers in Neuroscience 13 (24 October 2019): 1121,
Blache. K.M. and Shrivastava, A.B. ‘Defining Failure of Manufacturing Machinery and Equipment,’
in Proceedings of Annual Reliability and Maintainability Symposium (RAMS) (Annual Reliability
and Maintainability Symposium (RAMS), Anaheim, CA, USA: IEEE, 1994), pp. 69–75, https://doi.
Clark, Alexander and Sousa, Bailey. ‘Academics: You Are Going to Fail, so Learn How to Do It
Better,’ The Guardian, 4 November 2015,
Edmondson, Amy C. ‘Strategies for Learning from Failure,’ Harvard Business Review, March 2011,
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Haraway, Donna. ‘SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far,’ Ada: A
Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013), doi:10.7264/N3KH0K81
____. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press,
Harding, Sandra. The Science Question in Feminism, Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Markham, Annette. ‘Ethic as Method, Method as Ethic: A Case for Reflexivity in Qualitative ICT
Research,’ Journal of Information Ethics 15.2 (2006): 37–54,
____. ‘Reflexivity: Some Techniques for Interpretive Researchers,’ Annette Markham, 28 February
McArdle, Megan. The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, New York: Viking
Adult, 2014.
Porter, Alex. ‘Success through Failure with Accelerated Stress Testing,’ Intertek, 8 June 2021,
Sousa, Bailey and Clark, Alexander.A Manifesto for Better Research Failure,’ International Journal of
Qualitative Methods, 2020,
In this chapter I intentionally problematize popular ways of valuing research and shift
registers for what we might expect to see when reading ‘research.’ Empirical research
assemblages call researchers to inhabit diverse forms of radically different worlds. These
worlds can profoundly dis-organize and re-distribute us as ethnographers and people.
Often, communication across and within worlds relies on algorithmic forms of mediation
or digital platforms.
I contend that we need more academic work unpacking the politics of feeling like a failure
in ethnographic fieldwork and exploring the complex agencies of research assemblages,
which modulate the subjectivity of empirical researchers. I argue that digital agency is
gendered and is part of the algorithmic worlds in which feminist digital researchers work.
As such, we need to develop our own failure archives of the roles played by digital agency
and digital failure in the production of experiences of failure in research assemblages.
Digital psychopaths?
Machines have no humility. Artificial intelligence and algorithmic assemblages have no
feelings, no ethical conscience, no capacity to relate on interpersonal levels. In human
terms, machines, algorithmic assemblages, forms of artificial intelligence, are, effectively,
psychopaths. That is, if we take a psychopath to be a body (assemblage) suffering from
an ‘(antisocial) disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior,
shows a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, expresses
extreme egocentricity, and demonstrates a failure to learn from experience and other
behaviors associated with the condition’1, then a machine would be diagnosed as having
psychopathy. This is not to reduce the complexity of mental illness or equivocate mental
illness to a non-human characteristic, but to point out the fact that digital technology
has no remorse (indeed no capacity for remorse) and a complete absence of empathy for
others. Despite this fact, humans need to relate to and rely on digital technologies and
the agency of digital technologies in ways that are comparable to the kinds of reliance
we have on other people. Shared memories, information, thoughts, notes are held in this
Algorithms do not have personal relationships. They are designed to make money. There
is an irony here, however, in the fact that algorithms have been developed to facilitate
1 Henry Hermann, ‘Alternate Human Behavior,’ in Henry R. Hermann (ed), Dominance and Aggression in
Humans and Other Animals, San Diego: Academic Press, 2017, pp. 139-57.
personal relationships even though they do not have personal relationships themselves.
Despite this, and through necessity, I outsource so much of my memory work, archival
work, and research recording to machines, digital spaces, and algorithmically mediated
Building on my recent work on experiences of failure in the gendered research
assemblage,2 I argue that thinking critically about digital agency and digitally orchestrated
failure really mattersinsupporting the work of emerging feminist digital ethnographers.
This approach is important for understanding how, as researchers, our own experiences
of failing in the field are produced. Losing data, being locked out of online accounts,
electronic equipment breaking, being hacked, video and sound recording errors: digital
technology brings with it a distributed network of increased possibility for failure. When
we outsource memory and data recording we distribute the network we rely on for recall
and recording and increase possibilities for failure.
I already suffer from forgetfulness. I have a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, which impairs one’s
memory, and I live with a significant level of professional stress which impacts memory. I
often ask digital devices to help me retain information. However, as I have learnt, digital
devices, algorithms, and mediated platforms can lose more information in one moment
than I ever have (as yet). This is difficult to recuperate.
Jack Halberstam has suggested that forgetfulness can be queer, or queering; it can be a
problematization of the known.3 Yet as Halberstam4 also reminds us, even forgetting can
become over coded by capitalism:
Forgetfulness is not always queer, of course; indeed in the early twenty-first
century it has become a major trope of mainstream cinema. But while most forms
of forgetting in mainstream cinema operate according to a simple mapping of
memory onto identity and memory loss onto the loss of history, location, and even
politics, a few films, often unintentionally, set forgetting in motion in such a way as
to undermine dominant modes of historicizing.5
Even failing and forgetting can become a trope and can be purposed for financial gain.
Further, feeling like a failure in the research assemblage is an experience that is not
often discussed in the literature onresearch methods, particularly in relation to digital
methods. For example, Catherine Dawson’s A-Z of Digital Research Methods,6 Peter
Halfpenny and Rob Proctor’s Innovations in Digital Methods,7 and Cristina Costa and
2 Anna Hickey-Moody, ‘Three Ways of Knowing Failure’, M.I.A: Feminism and Visual Culture, 4.4 (2019):
3 Jack Ha lberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
4 Halb erstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 74.
5 Halberst am, The Queer Art of Failure, 74.
6 Catherine Dawson, A-Z of Digital Research Methods, United Kingdom: Taylor and Francis, 2019.
7 Peter Halfp enny a nd Rob Procto r, Innovations in Digital Methods, United Kingdom: SAGE, 2015.
Jenna Condle’s Doing Research in and on the Digital: Research Methods Across Fields
of Inquiry8 respectively offer comprehensive examinations of digital research methods,
none of which examine the extended possibilities of failure and loss that accompany the
digitalization of research data collection and storage. Failure is seemingly not conceived
as an embedded aspect of method, although failure is, in fact, embedded in everything
we do. Women are often especially aware of this.
Women are consistently positioned as failing to achieve their gender successfully.
Being too large, too loud, infertile, critical, or bossy are all qualities that are popularly
turned ‘against’ women as examples of failure to achieve their gender successfully. This
experience of failure is echoed in the research assemblage through concerns about
developing a ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ data set, discussions of strong and weak data, and
rhetoric recounting successful analysis. Gendered tropes of mastery prevail in how
embodiment is policed, remade, performed, taught, and understood. Failing to achieve
mastery, loss, emptiness, and forgetfulness are constituent aspects of the very ideas of
mastery, achievement, success, achievement, and recall.
Contemporary research and communication assemblages have become entwined in
digital platforms in ways that researchers are not able to avoid. There are intersections
of the personal and professional that are mediated by digital platforms. In what follows,
I offer an auto-ethnographic account of my own journey of digital forgetting and the loss
of enmeshed personal and research data. This was an experience that made me reflect
upon the extent to which I have come to rely on digital platforms as a form of professional
and personal memory.
Outsourcing Memory and Media Rituals
José van Dijck has suggested:
as memories are increasingly mediated and thus constructed by networked
technologies, the boundaries between present and past are no longer given, but
they are the very stakes in debating what counts as memory. Memory, after the
connective turn, is a new mediatized memory that challenges currently dominant
concepts of time and space.9
Andrew Hoskin also argues that contemporary memory is distributed through digital
networks and embedded in socio-technical practices and calls for networked memory.10
My own experiences of outsourcing memory and distributed media rituals supports these
8 Cristina Costa and Jenna Condle, Doing Research in and on the Digital: Research Methods, United
Kingdom: Routledge, 2018.
9 José Van Dijck , ‘Flickr and the Culture of Connec tivity: Sharing Views, Experienc es, Memories’, Memory
Studies, 20.10 (2010), 4. See also José van Dijck, Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2013.
10 Andrew Hoskin, ‘Digital Network Memory’, in Astrid Erll and Ann Rigny (eds), Mediation, Remediation
and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
arguments. On the 17th April 2012 in Shoreditch, East London, I made the first post to my
current Instagram account. My previous account was lost to me due to a work email change
when I moved to London to teach at Goldsmiths, and with it my access to control over the
digital archive of my memories. In my new account, I posted a giant green flying bee or wasp
painted on a historic wall in Shoreditch, the blue and white national trust plaque not quite
readable in the top right-hand corner of the image. This was not a political statement—
just an expression of a being-in-placeness of my contemporary moment. Images marking
significant life events (finishing a book, getting married), experiences (The Sisters Hope show
in Mälmo), places (London Pleasure gardens, the black heart bar, street shrines, Cambridge),
populate my early timeline. Meeting my brother in Bratislava, spending time with him in
Vienna, getting to know his wild, anarchist housemates and then heading to Paris for the
International Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference are events only documented on my
Instagram account.
Previous workplaces, homes, social events, desserts shared with students (one of whom is
now dead), conferences organized, vows witnessed, romance. Teaching in the Louisiana
Museum of Art (Denmark), time with family in Dublin, holidays in Milan. A cycling holiday
with my girlfriend to Lulworth Cove. Keynotes given in Mälmo (Sweden), Aarhus (Denmark),
Maribor (Slovenia). These are events I have no documents recording, other than those
technically owned by Meta. I can’t remember my password to download the data. I think
it’s written in a diary I have somewhere. I must remember to look when back from fieldwork.
Over the 10 years since I started this account, it has become my most significant archival
practice for work (including research milestones and significant fieldwork moments), travel,
significant life events. In retrospect, I realized that a lot of what I lost was generated through
what we might call a media ritual: the marking of an important life moment through posting it
on social media. In their book Everyday Data Cultures, Burgess et al. discuss ‘media rituals’11,
drawing on Lee Humphries’12 discussion of practices of documentation, which turn everyday
mundane activities into what Humphries calls ‘media accounts’. These media accounts add
up to a public record of everyday life that have real meaning for people. Media accounts
show us how people connect to and shape online identity in both personal and professional
capacities. Often the two are intentionally blurred thorough the digital platforms they mobilize.
Some fieldwork data is only on my personal Instagram — snaps of artworks taken in the field
that turned out to really capture a work or a moment very effectively. I have naïvely backed
myself into a corner: so many things that matter to me are remembered and indeed owned
primarily by a digital platform with no ethics, no relationality, no humility.
One day it was all deleted. Someone tried to hack into the account and Meta wiped it. I
had outsourced my memories and the algorithm stole my past. I had archived my thinking
11 Jean Burgess, Kath Albury, Anthony McCosker, and Rowan Wilken, Everyday Data Cultures, United
Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, 2022.
12 Lee Humphreys, The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life, Cambridge: MIT
Press, 2018, 35.
digitally, on Instagram, a platform owned by global corporation Meta, and my intellectual
and emotional labor was destroyed. I was left wondering: what does this ritualized attention
to a mutable and fallible memory archive say about memory in late capitalism? What does it
mean for identity? After a couple of weeks I had the content restored, and have most certainly
learnt my lesson that the content is not owned by me.
When we rely so heavily on digital platforms to retain, organize, and share the products
of our labor, we also rely on them to record and memorialize our most precious moments.
Simultaneously, we give these digital platforms the power to forget for us. Halberstam13
suggests there are no fixed values between remembering and forgetting. Memory can be
a disciplinary thing that makes one think about the past in certain ways, and in relation
to certain disciplines. Forgetfulness has the potential to allow for new narratives to be
created. There are conservative forms of forgetting — forgetting that is designed to allow a
continuation of forms of the same. National memories of colonial countries are filled with
forms of amnesia that have an ideological value for regimes that want to cover up bad deeds.
However, what Halberstam is interested in is the possibility of queering family reproduction
and traditional identity narratives through forgetting information, bloodlines, memories.
Digital amnesia orchestrated through capitalist platforms has no political purchase or
significance. It is mindless loss.
Digital Failure Archives
As I have noted, Jack Halberstam14 suggests that failure is one of the ways that we can
escape the normative constraints of ‘success’. Implicitly, failure can be seen as a critique
of the terms of success. Indeed, within failure is embedded a fierce critique of all that is
embedded in normativity, as normativity implies success. Thinking back on my experience
of working with digital technology to collect data for fieldwork, I can see an archive of failure;
an archive of moments and episodes of loss. Video cameras not working, devices being used
in the wrong way, children photographing strange objects, being locked out of digital devices,
losing passwords. The internet now houses vast quantities of information I generated but can
no longer access and information that I did not mean to generate but is digitally archived in
my name, or stored on a profile I own. Children taking research equipment have generated
a decent amount of the data I have generated but do not own.
This brings us back to the question of externalized memory on commercialized platforms.
Data might be in our name, but often we do not own it. Further, what is our relationship to
material generated by others on our platforms or that we have reshared? Digital archives
documenting my research failures, or moments of failure in research which I organized, are
collected in virtual spaces — only some of which I can access. What will happen to these
digital catalogues of my fieldwork? Can anyone access them? Will they ever be able to be
retrieved? I suspect these are questions which will never be answered. In contemporary
research cultures, machines can fail for us.
13 Halberst am, The Queer Art of Failure.
14 Halberst am, The Queer Art of Failure.
This writing is an exploration of intersections of experiences of failure in fieldwork. I am not
looking to advance a specific pedagogical or conceptual point, but, rather, I see utility in
creating space to discuss the everyday nature of failure that we experience. As Raymond
Williams’15 thoughts on structures of feeling have taught us, what ‘feels’ everyday is wrought
with structural issues and politics. The intersection of this is our consciousness. Specifically,
in this example, I want to start to think about the power to fail, and the power to create
failure, that digital platforms now possess within our research assemblages.
Through drawing on my experience as a woman researcher undertaking digital ethnographic
fieldwork, I am trying to normalize the articulation of experiences of failure. More than this,
though, I am explicating how the distributed agency of digital platforms and algorithms
exponentially increase the possibilities for experiencing failure in the field. Not only might
I forget the occurrence of an event, but all documentation of the event may indeed be lost
due to a technological error.
So much of the data I have worked to create is lost to me, but it still exists somewhere
in the digitalized world where it may or may not be ‘owned’ and farmed in a capitalist
system. This creates an interesting entanglement between queer failure as a resistance
to capitalist heteronormativity and the capitalist mechanics of the world we live in. Is my
failure feeding capitalism? My thinking here circles back here to the question of gender
and digital agency with which I opened the essay: who ‘owns’ failure, or who (or what)
fails, and how we can reclaim and articulate that experience of failure in a gendered world
of research and digital media? Can there be an outside to digital failure that does not
result in capitalist gain? In a move to ‘do queer failure better’, I want to be that outside.
Burgess, Jean, Albur y, Kath, McC osker, Anthony, and Wi lken, Rowan. Everyday Data Cultures, London:
John Wiley & Sons, 2022.
Costa, Cristina, and Condle, Jenna. Doing Research in and on the Digital: Research Methods, London:
Routledg e, 2018.
Dawson, Catherine. A-Z of Digital Research Methods, London: Routledge, 2019.
Halberst am, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Halfpenn y, Peter and Proctor, Rob . Innovations in Digital Methods, London: Sage, 2015.
Hermann, Henry. ‘Alternate Human Behavior,’ in Henry R. Hermann (ed), Dominance and Aggression in
Humans and Other Animals, San Diego: Academic Press, 2017, pp. 139-57.
Hickey-Moody, Anna. ‘Three Ways of Knowing Failure’, M.I.A: Feminism and Visual Culture, 4.4 (2019):
15 Raymond Williams, Politi cs and L etters: Interv iews wit h the N ew Left Review, London: New Left Books,
Hoskin, Andrew. ‘Digital Network Memory’, in Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney (eds), Mediation, Remediation
and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2009.
Humphreys, Lee. The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life, Minneapolis: MIT
Press, 2018.
Van Dijck, José. ‘Flickr and the Culture of Connectivity: Sharing Views, Experiences, Memories’,
Memory Studies, 20.10 (2010), 4. See also José van Dijck, Connectivity: A Critical History of Social
Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Williams, Raymond. Politics and Letters: Interviews with the New Left Review, London: New Left
Books, 1979.
Figure 7.1: A Schematic of Failure in Art Making. Source: Linda Dement. Used with permission.
Activities by the Centre for Reworlding are made possible while living on the unceded lands
of the Wurrundjeri, Taungurung, and Dja Dja Wurrung peoples. We pay our respects to their
ancestors and elders past and present.
In ecology, when external conditions become hostile, organisms gain a higher chance
of survival in refugia. In isolation, they reorganize their biological process to increase in
numbers or strength until the disturbance abates. They must evolve to survive to gain a
possible future. The risk of failure is extinction.
Our moment in the spacetime of the world is one in which we as humans have failed to
exist in an equilibrium with nature and in which our connections with our non-human
ancestors are broken. Complex and compounding human system failures have placed
our species and our non-human relations on a long march towards the next extinction
event, one that we created and one that will likely lead to great suffering. Adaptation is
our only recourse. We must evolve to gain a liveable future.
In our increasingly climate-change impacted future, we at the Centre for Reworlding ask:
What are the conversations that we aren’t having now that might aid us, our loved ones,
and our future ancestors?
What are the skills and knowledges at the thresholds of being forever lost, overlooked, or
undervalued that our future generations may need for survival?
And what are we willing to give up and/or fight for in the greatest challenge facing
Where do we begin? How will we reorganize?
We begin by reworlding.
This chapter reflects upon and weaves together some of the stories emerging from our
collaboration on REFUGIUM (2021),1 an Incinerator Art Gallery award-winning short film
1 Jen Rae and Claire G. Coleman, Refugium, 2021. Centre for Reworlding.
of speculative fiction in the climate emergency context, and the activities of the Centre for
Reworlding, a collective formed around our collaborative work intersecting art, disaster
risk reduction, and resilience within the climate emergency context. Our practice centres
First Nations knowledge systems and protocols, where time and compounding existential
crises converge to delve into moral dilemmas of life and death, and where we hone in on
themes of child-centred trauma prevention and intergenerational justice in the coming
collapse. Speculative futuring is a way of decoupling from maladaptive ways of engaging/
disengaging with the climate emergency context to reorganize our relational thinking
and being.
Engaging with the discipline of the imagination allows us to take calculated risks,
experiment, understand our capacities, and fail together in creative hypothetical practices
so we may change course, reorganize, and hopefully create a thriving and liveable world
for future generations. Failure through speculative futuring is creatively and critically
holding calculated risk in one hand, adapting and preparing for potential threats in the
other, and simultaneously it is an outcome to avoid at all costs.
‘Reworlding’ was coined in Jen Rae’s speculative fiction story Centre for Reworlding:
Umbilica Homepage (2020) as it relates to three Indigenous futuring and survivance
relationships — rematriation, reconciliation, and resurgence — acknowledging some of
the tensions and contractions these concepts have in Indigenous and non-Indigenous
usage. Jen refers to Métis Elder Maria Campbell’s oration on the role of artists in
reconciliation as described by Métis author Erica Violet Lee in her essay discussing
Indigenous futures. Campbell says that artists and writers are mirrors to people showing
them ‘we build what could have been or should have been’ prior to colonial disruption,
through which Lee writes that by cultivating an understanding our relationships to
histories, kin and land, we can begin to build new worlds2 drawing from our complex
cosmologies and reconnecting storylines.
While ‘worlding’ has been explored by scholars such as Haraway3 and Spivak4, the
authors of this chapter are Indigenous and write from this perspective through praxis
and art as ‘this decolonization/Indigenization is necessary in order to bring Indigenous
epistemologies, ontologies, and practices to the fore in a meaningful and ethical way’.5
Reworlding also considers the ‘everywhen’ — a time that is outside of time where
everything can be seen at once and where nothing new can be created, only discovered —
2 Erica Violet Lee, ‘Reconciling in the Apocalypse,’ The Monitor, 1 March 2016, https://policyalternatives.
3 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016).
4 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives," History and Theory
24, no. 3 (1985).
5 Zoe Todd, "Indi genizing the Anthropocene," in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics,
Politi cs, Env ironment s and E pistemol ogies, ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open
Humanities Press, 2015).
a term originally coined by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner in his 1956 essay The Dreaming,6
a highly regarded piece of writing on race relations and Australian Aboriginal culture. The
everywhen acknowledges that time is non-linear encompassing past, present, and future
simultaneously and is integrated as a way of life for many First Peoples. Reworlding is
an active presence of looking back to look forward, always acknowledging the eternal
now. This time we live in, the Anthropocene, is therefore also part of the everywhen. The
questions explored in our film REFUGIUM (2021) is the unearthing and what we attempt
to do together through the Centre for Reworlding (CR) is the reorganising — refugia.
Speculative practices can provide the ability to see and shape the world in a different
way — to divide our reality from our imaginings, and to decouple our history and future
from time in the everywhen.The long imaginary helps us prepare, prioritize, and know
what’s worth fighting for when hope becomes fleeting — as written on our first banner
COLLAPSE//SURVIVE (2020). To collapse is to honour the bully, the colonizer, the
capitalist, the future-killer, and bask in the failings of centuries of extractive genocidal
mania. To survive, unfuck, and reworld is to honour resurgence, intergenerational justice,
rematriation, and culture — as written on our second banner UNFUCK>>REWORLD
Social change has always been a topic for speculative fiction — to transcend realities
and corporealities. In the climate emergency context, as global temperatures rise at
accelerating rates, timescales and impacts expand and detract, and we become numb
to lives lost daily from disease and disaster. Now more than ever, there is a role for arts
and culture to lean into the tensions, to tell the unpalpable stories along with the rousing,
and to ensure we have skin in the long game.
Exploring risk through experimental speculative practice invites failure as fodder
for learning together with audience, communities, and participants. It is part of the
reorganising of thinking and relations. One of the limitations and challenges of climate
emergency communication is its ‘failure to activate the public imagination to the potential
risks and consequences of disaster especially in an urban context’.7 Whereas artists are
deeply embedded in the discipline of the imagination, allowing us to see with collaborators
and audiences alternate futures, delve into scenario mapping, and practice hypotheticals
where the stakes are lower, risks can be explored and failures allow for course correction/
To put the Centre for Reworlding in context, the impetus for us to begin collaborating
began in early 2020 when we were both invited to participate in a two-week artist-
6 William Edward Hanley Stanner, ed. The Dreaming, Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological
Approach (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).
7 Alison McMillan, Alan March, and Jen Rae, Arts House Listening Program, podcast audio, REFUGE:
Adaptation 2017,
exchange residency in Sydney, hosted by Sydney Festival (Australia) and Other Sights
for Artists’ Projects (Canada) and curated by Vanessa Kwan, Barbara Cole, Lorna Brown,
and Sunshine Frère. Sandwiched between the catastrophic Australian Black Summer
bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, The Future is Floating residency centred
intersectionality, often underrepresented in dominant climate emergency discourses,
which is now recognized as a failing in communicating to diverse publics as demonstrated
in many climate emergency action plans. The residency brought together settler, Black,
and Indigenous artists to connect and create a culture of exchange to discuss shared
colonial histories, art, futures, and collectivity — water, sound, activism, and performance
being common threads between the artists. The water on which we floated, the Parramatta
River and Sydney Harbour, were poisoned, polluted, and severely wounded by the ongoing
colonization event giving our works a mournful but urgent energy.
The invitation to be in ceremony and learn from Elders of the Simms, Timbery, and other
La Perouse Kameygal families, the experience of being aboard the Aboriginal-owned Tribal
Warrior boat for the residency events, performances, and programs, and the contested
political climate in Australia left strong impressions and influenced some of the artist’s
creative responses including ours. The experience of collaborative art making grew into
a practice of collective protest. The making and performance became a methodology for
activism. Many works developed with extinction peri-colonization as their themes.
All artists were preselected by the curators into four collaborative performance groups.
We were placed in a group with Tkaranto (Toronto)-based artist-scholar-activist Syrus
Marcus Ware and Dharug-Dharwal artist Venessa Possum. Claire performed a reading
of WE ARE WATER (2020), a poem speaking about the loss of land and water during
colonization, and the connection between colonization and the loss of everything that
matters to Indigenous people. Central to the work was an understanding of the difference
between Indigenous notions of sacred water and the failure of Western developments that
see water as a commodity at best and a garbage dump at worst.
Jen performed Sleepwalking into Extinction (2019) as the persona Ellis, who arrives
from the year 2130 with a call from the future speaking to the rise of nihilistic and
fundamentalist thinking in the climate emergency. She offers do-it-together instructions
on how to defeat the fanatic and halt the sixth mass extinction event. To the audiences’
surprise, the Tribal Warrior was then steered as close to Kirribilli House as possible (then
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s official residence in Sydney Harbour), blaring Jen and
Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound-score Evacuate (2019).
Evacuate is an intense 12-minute journey that starts with the ‘simplicity of a beckoning
church bell and builds to a maniacal cacophony of alarms, sirens, and emergency
announcements […] reaching a crescendo where the mind imagines near-apocalyptic
scenarios […] [until] the sound gradually subsides to the gentle lapping of water’, as
described by art critic Jennifer Barry.8 The public audience were then encouraged by
8 Jennifer Barry, ‘Review: Refuge 2019: Displacement, Arts House (Vic),’ Arts Hub, 3 September
Ellis to partake in a protest stance aimed at Scott Morrison’s government for their abject
failure to act on climate change and the catastrophic bushfires.
Our first collaborative banner COLLAPSE//SURVIVE (2020) hung from the bow of the boat
(Figure 8.1) and was later carried in the Sydney Invasion Day Rally (Figure 8.2). The text
highlighted the prophetic doomsday tensionspresent in contemporary discourses on the
compounding human and ecological systems failures we now call the climate emergency
or what Margaret Atwood more appropriately calls ‘everything change’.9 It also called for
the collapse of colonial and capitalist power systems and transcending reconciliation
towards Indigenous resurgence where we all have the ‘courage and imagination to
envision life beyond the state’.10
Figure 8.1: Collapse//Survive (2020) banner tethered to the Mari Nawi — Tribal Warrior boat. Photo:
Vaness a Kwan. Use d with p ermissio n.
9 Margaret Atwood, ‘It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change,’ Medium, 27 July 2015, https://
10 Jeff Corntassel, ‘Re-Envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable
Self-Determination,’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012): 89.
Figure 8.2: Collapse//Survive (2020) banner carried in the Sydney Invasion Day Rally on Gadigal lands, 26
January 2020. Phot o: Salote Tawale. Used with per mission.
The Future is Floating experience and the content of our respective performances aboard
the Tribal Warrior led us both to commit to exploring how we might further collaborate, as
it was apparent we were creatively operating within the same zeitgeist. We recognized that
we are both interrogating through speculative futuring the existential crisis of the times.
The opportunity came through Melbourne performance venue Arts House, where we
proposed an experimental performance work within their multiyear REFUGE program.
However, due to the Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in March 2020 and the
professional impact of project suspensions, our creative development moved online and
resulted in almost weekly Zoom meetings.
In April 2020, it became more evident that our future imaginings were rapidly becoming
current realities thus opening new crevices to explore in our collaboration. As speculative
futurists we noted that events of early 2020 and the socio-political fallout in Australia and
other Western nations mirrored colonial histories and stories within science fiction films
and literature (e.g. Soylent Green (1973), Foundation (1951), The Sea and the Summer
(1987), etc.).
This realization propelled us to ask in our discussions: what are the conversations that
we aren’t having now that might aid us, our communities, and our future ancestors?
Answering this question requires a preparedness mindset with many tendrils, trajectories,
and temporalities. It speaks to accountability, empathy, and intergenerational justice
themes often absent in Western discourses, especially in relation to climate resilient
A few months later, we both participated in artists’ Alex Kelly and David Pledger complex
digital project Assembly for the Future11 for the BLEED festival — a project exploring
multiple near futures. Claire’s provocative oration Beyond WhitenessThe Rise of
New Power spoke from an imagined future about the end of racism, the beginning of
a healthy post-colonial culture, and how it was achieved. Jen Rae’s ‘Dispatch from the
Fut ure’ re spon se t itl ed Centre for Reworlding: Umbilica Homepage (2020) was a short story
marking the 10th anniversary of a fictional underground group of mothers, grandmothers,
sisters, and aunties who mobilize in the collapse to support one another and the next
generation through the practice of reworlding, an integrated practice of knowledge sharing,
radical empathy, and child-centred trauma prevention.
Jen’s short story was influenced by her then present experience of living within 20 metres
of Australia’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, witnessing and shielding a young pre-schooler
at home to the human tragedy unfolding nearby. In hindsight, this experience and our
participation in Assembly for the Future formed a second critical turning point in our
collaboration with the lingering questions: can we imagine a world without racism? Can
we imagine a world where in one hundred years, children aren’t traumatized by the impacts
of climate change as they continue to unfold as a way of life? What can we unearth from our
ancestral knowledges and other overlooked knowledge systems to support a new imagining,
knowing and being for the future?
This last question references what we now call ‘reworlding’ and the conceptual framework
came together in our short film REFUGIUM (2021).
It is the end of the world as we know it. Every beginning is an ending with a backstory, a
right now, the unimaginable, the inevitable, and the beyond of what might be possible. The
ending teaches us where to start. Reworlding imagines a world that could have been —
before colonial disruption — as our beginning. The film begins with Claire in 2042 at the
age of 68 in an undisclosed bunker attempting to log into the Bilya portal in a futile effort
to warn other reworlders about a raid.
Claire is the sentinel of the Centre for Reworlding, the last person standing per se. Everyone
has dispersed and she is alone. She descends into a nihilistic spiral, half-way believing
that all efforts at reworlding were for nothing. ‘We failed’, she says, and attempts to
communicate with those back in 2021 to save themselves and abandon reworlding and
each other. For the sake of future generations, Jen’s great-granddaughter Ellis in 2121 is
tasked with intercepting Claire’s transmission, and a dialogue ensues. Difficult questions
11 Alex Kelly and David Pledger, "Assembly for the Future," (Melbourne: Arts House, 2020).
about the future are answered. REFUGIUM becomes a sort of Zoom call of transtemporal
proportions. The audience-listener is witness and becomes implicated as a collaborator in
the project by their presence. Ellis offers a blueprint for reworlding. There is a provocation,
tasks, and protocols to follow, and everyone has a role.
Figure 8.3: Jen Rae and Claire G. Coleman, REFUGIUM (2021), digital still. Photo: Devika Bilamoria. Used
with permission.
Centre for Reworlding — Climate Leadership and Creative +
Cultural Resilience
REFUGIUM, when created, was intended to be a stand-alone artwork. It premiered
at the First Assembly of the Centre for Reworlding at Arts House in April 2021. In the
lead up, we asked and others asked ‘what would it take to turn this work of speculative
fiction into a reality?’ and ‘how can we prepare the world to maintain culture and foster
intergenerational justice in the inevitable apocalypse?’ as the film imagines. At the First
Assembly, it became apparent that the Centre for Reworlding had already begun, albeit
different than how it originates in the film. With support of the original eight reworlders
and the beginnings of our Council of Grandmothers, Mothers, Aunties, and Sisters, the
Centre for Reworlding is forming.
With the support of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Centre for Reworlding (CR)
is now a collective of Indigenous, people of colour, settler, and LGBTIQA2S+ artists,
scientists, thinkers, and change-makers with a track record of collaboratively working at
the intersections of art, disaster risk reduction, and resilience and the climate emergency
leadership. To reworld is to decolonize, Indigenize, and collectively imagine into action
a ‘world worthy of its children’12 for the sake of all our future ancestors. Through our
12 Albert E. Kahn and Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals as Told to Albert E. Kahn.,
Creative Resilience Lab, palavers, events, workshops, and projects, the CR aims to
bolster inclusive collaboration and creative leadership in climate emergency response
and action including prioritising the mainstream integration of arts and culture in national
climate emergency discourses, policy frameworks, and tertiary education.
In Melbourne, our co-curated exhibition the Centre for Reworlding presents RESURGENCE,
at Incinerator Art Gallery (June/July 2022) offered a new provocation in the form of a
second collaborative banner handmade with the assistance of another group of artists
in residence at Commonground, in Seymour, Victoria. Barkandji woman, researcher,
curator, and collaborator Zena Cumpston reminded us that to fast forward to reworlding
means a whole lot of ‘unfucking’ needs to happen, thus the positioning of unfuck in the
UNFUCK>>REWORLD (2022) banner that greeted gallery visitors at the entrance of the
exhibition. Visitors could choose which way to enter the space, to begin with REFUGIUM
or to end with it. The exhibition is about truth-telling, future-back stories and brave
unfailing where facts reveal fictions and mnemonics help you to remember so action
and relationships with others embed. It’s heavy in speculative imagining and offerings to
the eye, ears, heart, and gut.
Figure 8.4: UNFUCK>>REWORLD (2022), Claire G. Coleman, Jen Rae, Venessa Possum, and Marcus
Syrus Ware, fabric prot est banner, Incinerator Art Gallery. Photo: Lucy Foster. Used with permission.
ed. Albert E. Kahn, United Kingdom: Macdonald and Co. Ltd., 1970, 183.
Unfucking to Reworld in the Endtimes in the Everywhen
Climate/everything change is upon us.
While it is possible to imagine futures where heroes and technology ‘save us’, where Mars
becomes habitable, and underground bunkers become the norm, the reality is that these
visions aren’t going to do the deep work needed to ensure a liveable future for our future
ancestors to thrive. The elite aren’t making decisions for the commoners, the preppers
aren’t stocking for communities, and the grass is not always greener on other planets.
Only in togetherness can we unfuck and reworld. We can collectively destabilize
these nihilistic and fundamentalist ambitions and powers by imagining and acting for
futures we want for our young and future generations. There is not the luxury of time for
contemplation. Join us. Your time begins now in the everywhen.
Atwood, Margaret. ‘It’s Not Climate Change — It ’s Everythin g Change,’ Medium, 27 July 2015, https://
Barry, Jennifer. ‘Review: Refuge 2019: Displacement, Arts House (Vic),’ Arts Hub, September 3,
Corntassel, Jeff. ‘Re-Envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable
Self-Determination,’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012): 89.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
Kahn, Albert E. and Casals, Pablo. Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals as Told to Albert E.
Kahn, ed. Albert E. Kahn, United Kingdom: Macdonald and Co. Ltd., 1970,
Kelly, Alex, and Pledger, David. Assembly for the Future, (Melbourne: Arts House, 2020).
Lee, Erica Violet. ‘Reconciling in the Apocalypse,’ The Monitor, 1 March 2016, https://
McMillan, Alison, March, Alan, and Rae, Jen. Arts House Listening Program, podcast audio, REFUGE:
Adaptation 2017,
Rae, Jen and Coleman, Claire G.. Refugium, 2021. Centre for Reworlding.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ‘The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives,’ History and
Theory 24.3 (1985).
Stanner, William Edward Hanley (ed). The Dreaming, Reader in Comparative Religion: An
Anthropological Approach, New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
To dd , Z o e . I n di g e n i z in g t h e An t h r o p o ce n e , in H e a t h er D a v i s a n d E t ie n n e Tu r p in ( e d s ) , Art in the
Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, London:
Open Humanities Press, 2015.
Figure 9.1: Participant C’s map of their domestic space while working and caring from home.
Recent research indicates that parents and carers were interrupted up to 15 times per hour
while working and caring from home (WCFH) during the COVID-19 pandemic.1 In this chapter,
we explore the relationship between interruption and senses of failure as experienced by 22
creative practice researchers in the context of WCFH between March 2020 and October 2021
in and around Melbourne, Australia. We ask: what affective impact has the intensification of
‘work’s intimacy’2 had on creative industries researchers working and caring from home during
1 Suzanne M. Edwards and Larry Snyder, ‘Yes, Balancing Work and Parenting Is Impossible. Here’s the
Data,’ The Washington Post, 10 July 2020,
2 Gregg, Melissa, Work’s I ntimacy, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013, 2.
the intense ‘lockdown’ phases of the COVID-19 pandemic? How have constant interruptions
affected their capacity to maintain continuity in their intellectual and creative work? Further,
how have the senses of failure widely reported by those WCFH been articulated and expressed
through creative methods?
We use th e phr ase ‘w ork ’s int ima cy’ in th e sen se emp loy ed by med ia stu die s sch olar M eli ssa
Gregg to describe and ‘demonstrate the increasingly intimate relationship salaried professionals
have with their work’ and in particular the role of new media technologies in that development.3
Our chapter begins with a concise overview of recent literature on failure and interruption
during the time of COVID-19. We then provide a brief outline of the methodology and methods
we have employed to address our key questions in this study. We consider the domestic as a
space interrupted under the pressure of work’s intimacy during periods of WCFH. Through
discussion and analysis of data collected through the Work, Care and Creativity Study4 we
explore perceptions of failure among participants with a focus on how these perceptions relate
to real and perceived interruptions to their careers and creative work. Finally, we discuss
adaptation and adaptiveness, exploring the possibilities for an affirmative political reading of
failure and interruption.
Failure and Interruption
There have been mixed debates about the impact of working and caring from home. For
some creative workers it was ‘a surprisingly creative time’,5 but for many it was a difficult and
debilitating phase of work and family life. Australian research published since the arrival of
the pandemic has shown that women ‘continued to shoulder the burden of unpaid domestic
and caring work’6, raising concerns about a significant worsening of existing inequalities in the
workforce. The negative impact on women in academia has been notable, with many studies
confirming reduced productivity7 and a ne gative im pact on c areer momentu m.8 Further, workers
in the arts and creative industries were particularly vulnerable to career disruption during
COVID-19, and this was especially so in Melbourne, Australia, where our project participants
were based, and where lockdown conditions were among the world’s most restrictive.9
3 Gregg, Work’s In timacy, 2.
4 Larissa Hjorth, Gretchen Coombs, Kelly Hussey-Smith, and Julienne van Loon, ‘Work, Care and
Creativity in A Time of COVID-19: Creatively Mapping Presence Bleed in the Home’, Digital Creativity
(13 June 2022),
5 Katrina Sedgwick, ‘Working From Home Means More Creativity’, Australian Financial Review, 5 August
6 Fiona MacDonald, Jenny Malone, and Sara Charlesworth, Women, Wor k, Care and Covid, RMIT
University, Melbourne: Centre for Peop le, Organisation and Work, 2021.
7 Rashmi Watson, Upasana G. Singh, and Chenicheri Sid Nair, ‘Experiences of Female Academics in
Australia During COVID-19: Opportunities and Challenges’, Journal of University Teaching & Learning
Practice, 19.1 (2022): 176-198.
8 Cronley, Courtney, and Kirsten E. Ravi. ‘Maintaining Career Momentum: Women-Centered Strategies for
Social Sciences Career Success in the Context of COVID-19.’ADVANCE Journal2.3 (2021); MacDonald
et al., Women, Work, Care and Covid.
9 Jacinthe Flore, Natalie Ann Hendry and Averyl Gaylore, ‘Creative arts Workers During the COVID-19
While precarity in the arts and higher education sectors in Australia pre-dated the pandemic10
and working parents and carers are not new to career disruption, the pandemic enabled a
perfect storm. The intensification of work’s intimacy kept prescient the feeling that these ‘new’
conditions may have no end.11 Among the 22 participants in our study, WCFH led to increased
anxieties about failure, sparked in large part by the perception that focus of any kind for an
extended period was no longer possible. Lived experience, for those WCFH during COVID-19,
was life perpetually interrupted.
Large scale studies conducted prior to COVID-19 found that constant interruption was a key
source of stress at work12 and that knowledge workers are interrupted on average 85 times per
day.13 Related international studies have indicated that frequent interruptions have a negative
impact on emotions, wellbeing, and performance14. The constant interruption while WCFH
during the pandemic was cited consistently among our participants as a source of stress and
anxiety about the future.
For psychosocial theorist Lisa Baraitser, interruption is not a deviation but the norm for the
maternal subject.15 Similarly, gender and equality studies scholar Moynag Sullivan observes
that creative work that engages with an aesthetics of interruption rethinks the possibilities of
subjective experience by ‘bear[ing] witness to the fragmented, interrupted consciousness of
the mother’.16 For scholar and artist E.L. Putnam, an aesthetics of interruption encompasses an
ethics where ‘breaks, jagged edges, absences, silence and noise are not glossed over through
illusions of perfection but these qualities point to the glut of experience and how it exceeds the
limits of representation.’17 Our study proposes that surfacing the affective dimensions of these
interruptions places value on the fragmented, affective, and invisible aspects of care labor.
Pande mic: Soc ial Ima ginaries in Loc kdown.’ Journal of Sociology (August 2021), https://doi.
10 Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, London: PlutoPress,
2010; Lara McKenzie, ‘Un/Making Academia: Gendered Precarities and Personal Lives in Universities’,
Gender and Education, 34.3 (2022): 262-279.
11 Gregg, Work’s Intimacy.
12 Anja Baethge, Thomas Rigotti and Robert A. Roe, ‘Just More of the Same, or Different? An Integrative
Theoretical Framework for the Study of Cumulative Interruptions At Work’, European Journal of Work
and Organizational Psychology, 24.2 (2015): 308-323.
13 Judy Wajcman and Emily Rose, ‘Constant Connectivity: Rethinking Interruptions at Work’, Organization
Studies 32.7 (July 2011): 941-961.
14 Fred R.H. Zijlstra, Robert A. Roe, Anna B. Leonora, and Irene Krediet, ‘Temporal Factors in Mental Work:
Effects of Interrupted Activities’, Journal of O ccupational and Organizational Psychology 72.2 (1999):
15 Lisa Bareitser, Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption, London: Routledge, 2008; Lisa Baraitser,
‘Communality Across Time: Responding to Encounters with Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of
Interruption’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 13.2 (2012): 117-122.
16 Moynag Sullivan, ‘An “Unthought Known” of Her Own: The Aesthetics of Interruption’, Studies in Gender
and Sexuality 13.2 (2012): 108.
17 EL Putnam, The Maternal, Digital Subjectivity and the Aesthetics Of Interruption, London: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2022, 12.
Building on Gregg’s notion of work’s intimacy, we propose that the relational intensities of the
pandemic created new forms of ‘intimacy work’ where many people experienced an accelerated
sense of failure around the daily demands of life and labor, which significantly disrupted creative
and academic work. As queer and feminist theorists have highlighted, the Western concept of
failure is bound up in capitalist value systems and binary thinking,18 which leads to individualized
conceptions of failure that don’t recognize how failure is ‘institutionally contextualized and
cooperatively understood’.19 While w e acknowl edge that failure ha s ‘subversive poten tial’,20 we
also recognize that it is painfully experienced, particularly when framed as an individual problem.
Our work aims to surface the intangible affects and residues that emerge from this sense of
individual failure, understanding that collective failure can make a productive contribution to
feminist subjectivity.
Methodology and Methods
During 2020 and 2021, we collaborated with digital ethnographers Larissa Hjorth and
Gretchen Coombs on the Work, Care and Creativity Study.21 The aim was to understand the
experiences of primary carers working from home, specifically carers who were creative arts
practitioners associated with the university sector. We were interested in deploying creative
practice ethnography techniques to elicit participants’ lived experiences of WCFH during the
pandemic. These methods enabled our participants to articulate often overlooked perceptions
and experiences through creative writing, drawing, and photography. The call was circulated on
social media through snowballing (contacts of contacts) in early 2020. Twenty-two participants
responded to creative prompts and we followed up on their submissions with narrative interviews.
This mixed methods approach provided insights into the affective experience of during the
pandemic. Here, we draw on the creative prompts and the interview material we collected in
order to discuss and analyse senses of failure and their relation to extended periods of constant
In our study, many participants expressed a heightened sense of precarity and fear about the
future during their time WCFH. This was likely exacerbated by the fact that project participants
work in industries that, in addition to being precarious, often demand additional and invisible
labor.22 An inability to perform this additional labor disadvantages those with caring roles — a
reality that disproportionately impacts women and was exacerbated by the pandemic.23 The
18 Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; Jack Halberstam, The
Queer Art of Failure, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
19 Nicole Laliberte and Alison L. Bain, ‘The Cultural Politics Of A Sense Of Failure In Feminist Anti-Racist
Mentoring’, Gender, Place & Culture 25.8 (2018): 1093.
20 Arjun Appadurai, and Neta Alexander, Failure, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019, 7.
21 Hjorth et al., ‘Work, care and creativity’.
22 Gregory Shollette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, London: Pluto Press,
23 Jessica Malisch, Breanna N. Harris, Shanen M. Sherrer, Kristy A. Lewis, Stephanie L. Shepherd,
Pumtiwitt C. McCarthy, Jessica L.Spott, Elizabeth P. Karam, Naima Moustaid-Moussai, Jessica McRory-
Calarco, Latha Ramalingami, Amelia E. Tally, Jaclyn E. Cañas-Carrell, Karin Ardon-Dryer, Dana A. Weiser,
Ximena E. Bernal and Jennifer Deitloff, ‘Opinion: In the Wake of COVID-19, Academia Needs New
Solutions To Ensure Gender Equity’, PNAS, 7 July 2020, doi:10.1073/pnas.2010636117.
sense of failure experienced by many working parents and carers during COVID-19 brought
these gender and caring inequities into view.
Playful and modest forms of creative practice — in the form of brief prompts — offered our
participants the opportunity to express humor, irony, and forms of feminist resistance that
acknowledged failures small and large by giving expression to competing subjectivities and
tacit labor under difficult conditions. Our lived experiences as creative academics working and
caring from home in the longest locked-down city in the world24 influenced the framing and
interpretation of our research. This included bringing humor and care to the research process
and acknowledging our limits at a time of constant interruption. Modes of humor that found
expression through this project made possible a shared recognition of collective fears and
anxieties about the status quo, particularly its potential to be maintained by patriarchal and
labor market forces. Shared career and parenting failures and a heightened sense of irony
around everyday failure, in this context, became something our participants could draw on to
create a sense of hope for an affirmative politics.25
An Aesthetics of Interruption: The Spatial and Relational
Intensities of the Home
Figure 9.2: Participant E’s response to ‘work/life balance’ while WCFH, 2020.
24 Caitlin Cassidy, ‘Melbourne Freedom Day: World’s Most Locked Down City Takes First Cautious Steps
to Re-Opening’, The Guardian, 2 October 2021,
25 Maud Ceuterrick, ‘An Affirmative Look at Domesticity In Crisis: Women, Humour and Domestic Labour
During COVID-19’ Feminist Media Studies. 20 .6 ( 2020) : 89 6-90 1. htt ps:/ /doi. org/ 10.1 080/ 14680 777. 2
One of the creative prompts we produced asked for a description, sketch, or photograph of the
improvised home workspace during the height of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown. During this
intensive phase, the space of ‘the office’ at home, often improvised and shot through with the
noise and movement of children, appeared in participant responses as a site interrupted. One
respondent, in her creative writing prompt, wrote, ‘my office is a magic trick, an illusion.’ Figures
9.3 and 9.4 represent additional responses to this same prompt.
In the background of my ‘oce’ — which cannot be shut to the rest of the house —
is the noise of two seven-year-old girls. It is the last day of school holidays and I feel
like a husk. They are supposed to be keeping quiet, but they are not. Some sort of
argument is bubbling and so my ears are pricked up, my body coiled for intervention.
Figure 9.3: Participant A’s response to our creative writing prompt while WCFH, 2020.
I have a door. I have a lock. But sound carries. There’s a big gap at the bottom of my
door that my eldest slipsnotesunder. They can’t write yet, but there’ll be letters and
drawings. The gist of the notes is always:come out. Sometimes the notes are angry,
with a picture of me at my desk with a cross through it. Sometimes the notes have
love hearts, things that say I love you, I miss you. Sometimes they just yell at the door.
Figure 9.4: Participant B’s response to our creative writing prompt while WCFH, 2020.
Those participants who responded to the prompt visually, as seen in Figures 9.1 and 9.2,
foregrounded forms of fragmentation, intensity, or disruption that commonly accompany digital
technologies. The cumulative effect of constant and persistent trespasses at the edges of the
improvised ‘workspaces’ while WCFH is a noticeably negative impact on the kinds of thinking
or practices that could be performed there. Forms of improvisation or ‘making do’ were also
emphasized in the creative prompts we collected, underlining a setting in which caring is also
present, such as the precariously balanced laptop in Figure 9.5, where the presence of domestic
chores lies somewhere just beyond view.
Figure 9.5: Participant J’s workstation while WCFH, 2020.
Our research demonstrates that the confidence with which those WCFH can ‘hang on’ to their
critical thinking skills or creative practice is impacted by their WCFH circumstances. This also
affects their hopes and plans concerning career continuity, career development, and major
creative or intellectual work. As one participant expressed in her interview:
I think what is more dicult to communicate is, is the sense of, I could kind of tear up
thinking about it, but I think it’s not even the mechanics of the idea that you’re going
to beinterrupted or that you might beinterrupted. It’s what itactually kindof does for
any deep work, which might be a relationship or yourself or a creative work or critical
[work] or being responsive to another human in a work way, you know, any, any deep
engagement I think becomes compromized. [Participant Q, interview, 2020]
In Figure 9.1, the scribbled ‘maps’ of the improvised WCFH space offered to us by Participant
C provide an absurdist take on the working carer’s subjective experience of the lockdown.
There is no guidance in this map: meaning has broken down. Overlapping lines of text could
be the rough play squiggles of a child who took hold of the pen in an act of defiance just at the
wrong moment; alternatively the lines may show the negative impact of interruption on the
carer’s emotional state.26 This is an instance of artwork that, as Putnam observes, challenges
our desire for coherence, giving us instead ‘a sensory experiential phenomenology of co-being
in which “the forward thrust of our lives” is interfered with’.27 In this way, it is also an instance
of Sullivan’s aesthetics of interruption and emblematic of the lived experiences of many
participants in our study. In follow up interviews, our participants spoke at length about the
problem of interruption. This flags a deepening concern about how WCFH periods, still being
experienced by many of our participants as we finalize this chapter in 2022, will impact their
intellectual and creative work and their well-being into the future.
Perceptions of Failure
While some participants spoke about ‘frantically’ producing creative work, or productively
adapting to their limitations, others saw a complete erasure of this part of their life. For some,
the erosion of time for academic and creative work was compounded by an internalized and
ubiquitous sense of failure:
I totally failed at the PhD […] I had no mental space, no emotional space, it just
became this big black abyss, that I felt like every day went by, I was failing even further.
[Participant E, interview, 2020]
I know I’ve failed at my creative work: I’ve not even attempted it once. [Participant D,
interview, 2020]
26 Ziijlstra et al., ‘Temporal Factors in Mental Work’, 163.
27 Sullivan, ‘An “Unthought-Known” of Her Own’, 109.
As one participant remarked about the challenges of home schooling a young child, ‘it was like
having a baby again, I couldn't do anything. Whilst I was with him, I couldn't do anything for
myself’ [Participant J, interview, 2020]. This feeling of stuckness relates to other participant
responses that detailed the frustration of living in the fluidity and unfixedness of do mestic sp ace.
Figure 9.6 shows how Participant A perceived ‘accusing’ objects that sat beyond the flimsy
boundary of the screen; while in Figure 9.7 Participant F highlights the competing modes of
co-presence within the home by commenting on the aesthetic shifts caused by the pandemic.
To t h e l e ft o f m y d e s k s i t s t h e c a t l i tt e r t r a y . To t h e r i g h t , t he l a u n d r y b a s k e t i s
accusing me with laundry. Everywhere I look there are other things I have to do.
Figure 9.6: Participant A’s response to our creative writing prompt while WCFH, 2020.
Each day there are new things in the hallway […] I refrain from comment because I
don’t care and I don’t want to discuss the pile — it’s like a social experiment except
the pandemic is real and it brings stu out of people’s bedroom and into the hallway.
Figure 9.7: Participant F’s response to our creative writing prompt while WCFH, 2020.
Other participants commented on the gendered tropes of domesticity and childcare that
bled into professional spaces. A number of them spoke about the complexities of ‘opening’
their home to colleagues and students. Participant R described how she arranged her Zoom
background to avoid any sign of domestic work or childcare stating that she didn’t want people
to ‘see what I'm doing or even associate me in my professional life with domestic chores’
[Participant R, interview, 2020].
Humor helped participants to cope. Participant G’s response to our creative prompt to write a
set of instructions on how to get through the day at home while balancing work and domestic
and emotional labor is presented in Figure 9.8.
1. Login to the X as Y. Login to the Y as Z. Login to the E on behalf of F, then log
into the usual place as yourself.
2. Your password is incorrect. Please reset your password. Your username
is incorrect. Please find your username. Sorry, please contact the school
administrator. You've been locked out of the system.
3. Answer this question: ‘Mum? Can you spell everything?’
‘No, mum, can you spell everything?’
‘No. I’ll just tell you the words I need. I’ll just call them out and you can spell
them, okay?’
4. Quick, get changed. Wait — ‘Mum?’ — get changed. You haven’t brushed
your hair. When did you last brush your hair? Wait —‘Mum?’ — the washing.
You can’t have that laundry thing hanging there. The meeting’s already
started. Close the door. Turn the camera o. Put the washing away.
5. Answer this question: ‘Mum?’ Answer this question: ‘Mum?’. Answer this
question: ‘Mum?’
6. A definition of workload: the maximum load possible in normal working
conditions. A definition of working girl: a girl or woman who is employed
as a prostitute. A definition of the working day: the amount of time that a
worker must work for agreed daily wage. A definition of working men: men
employed or skilled in some form of labor. Full stop.
Figure 9.8: Participant G’s response to our creative writing prompt while WCFH, 2020.
Collective Failures as Adaptation
Our research uncovered several possibilities for adaptation and transformation taken up
by participants WCFH under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Feminist humor and irony
played an important role for many of our participants, offering light relief and shared
laughter under pressure. Despite widespread perceptions of failure, a number of our
participants found that the consistent lockdowns in Melbourne also led to new ways of
making and doing. One participant said:
I wrote dierently, I wrote shorter pieces […] I always have written […] from
conundrum and contradiction,from an idea or a problem that doesn’t make sense
to me.But thething about thebeginning of the pandemic […] was that we were
riddled with the unknown. What did it mean? [...] What was it going to mean?I
wrote frantically. (Participant F, interview, 2020)
One of our respondents, a long-term carer for a child with a disability, observed a
widespread cultural shift that meant many of the things she’d been struggling with alone
as someone regularly WCFH became mainstream:
InCOVID-times my son and I seem to be coping better with ‘social distancing’ and
‘isolation’ than many other people. We have been socially isolated most of the past
twenty years. The dierence now is that other people start to understand how
limiting it is to have a life mainly spent at home in a hostile world. The dierence
now is that other people begin to experience the challenge of acute anxiety. The
dierence now is the general community has to recognize that life is contingent,
health is temporary, and society matters.(Participant S, interview, 2020)
Here, one person’s experience of social failure due to structural and cultural isolation
becomes a shared phenomenon. Film and digital media researcher Maud Ceuterick
argues that while the pandemic has increased the urgency with which gender inequalities
need to be addressed, an affirmative politics approach can allow us to see that ‘power
relations are not immutable, but rather are in constant transformation’.28 Ceuterick sees
the pandemic as providing an opportunity to make structural inequalities more visible,
suggesting that ‘the spatial merging of the professional and domestic spheres opens up
alternatives to the status quo’.29
While our participants often took a humorous or ironic approach in their responses to
creative prompts, the transcripts of our interviews reveal a darker tone. In the confessional
mode of the one-to-one interview, humor and irony were less likely to be present. The
pandemic exposed that the gains of women in the arts and in academia were more
tenuous than they may have previously appeared. The collective exhaustion that emerged
from this recognition was also experienced as personal failure. Our study found that
despite knowledge that the problems of precarity were structural rather than personal,
the internalized niggle to take responsibility for external circumstances remained.
As a feminist concept, collective failure resonates with notions of queer failure; specifically,
that the values that constitute ‘failure’ are often based on capitalist formations of identity
that deny the various forms of labor, insight, and value that parents and carers might
generate. We have used creative practice methods to attempt to surface this sense of
personal, professional, and creative failure that many people experienced while WCFH.
By highlighting senses of failure and exhaustion through creative practice methods, we
have considered what these interruptions and failures might tell us about the subjectivity
of those WCFH. Rather than positioning these experiences as something to be hidden, we
propose that surfacing these dimensions places value on the fragmented, affective, and
invisible aspects of care labor, and as such, has much to offer conceptions of feminist
Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; Jack Halberstam,
The Queer Art of Failure, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Appadurai, Arjun, and Alexander, Neta. Failure, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019, 7.
Baethge, Anja, Rigotti, Thomas, and Roe, Robert A. ‘Just More of the Same, or Different? An
Integrative Theoretical Framework for the Study of Cumulative Interruptions at Work’, European
28 Ceuterick, ‘An Affirmative Look at Domesticity’, 1.
29 Ceuterick, ‘An Affirmative Look at Domesticity’, 4; see also Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, Cambridge:
Polit y, 2013.
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Bareitser, Lisa. Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption, London: Routledge, 2008;
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity, 2013.
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