As part of the documentation for the first book coming out of the Combinatorial Books Pilot Project, we are introducing the manifold communities involved in making this book and we are sharing some insights on the forms of community engagement we have undertaken.
Writing about the diverse and in part overlapping communities involved in making Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium requires an introductory note: namely on the difficulties of the term “community” itself.
Community is often framed as a “good thing.” The term “community-led” (OA) publishing, for example, is frequently used to refer to a shared identity, a set of values, and a variety of practices formed in opposition to top-down or market-driven versions of OA. However, “community,” if used in a totalising and unspecified manner, also can lead to the homogenisation of differences between members of a community – including the different cultural, epistemological, geographical, or economic contexts community members might be situated in, as well as the different motivations behind their antagonist politics. Furthermore, an undifferentiated notion of community can also overshadow social hierarchies of gender, race, place, or sexuality that, in consequence, may remain unacknowledged in collaborations between community members. Communities, by definition, also lead to exclusion: for a community to exist, someone has to be outside of it.
Within COPIM there has been extensive discussion on this topic. As a result of these considerations, COPIM has chosen the more pluralistic approach of a “community of communities.” This idea is favouring the notion of diverse communities of differentiated stakeholders over the notion of a homogenous community. Such a framing allows a recognition of the various ways in which different groups of people interact and overlap with a research and publishing project; their differing needs and expectations regarding how they are involved; the different ways in which they are situated in academic (and other) institutional frameworks; and the different material, and economic interconnections at play between and among the members of these communities – the latter, particularly also around labour related issues: who does the actual work and when and how is this labour recognised and rewarded? Addressing questions like this is important: collaborative writing and editorial labour, and in particular also experimental engagements and enhancements, are poorly valued and seldomly recognised within academia. Due to systemic pressures (including the increasing amount of administrative workload scholars are confronted with) and due to the privileging within the scholarly reputation economy of singular authorship and research outputs over editorial, collaborative, and more process-focused engagements, more speculative and experimental work often gets relegated to academics’ ‘spare’ time.
An additional way to avoid the solidifying of exclusionary patterns inherent to certain forms of community-building, as Katherine Skinner underlined in the COPIM Community Governance Workshop in May 2020, is to understand communities as processual rather than teleological, as a work that is never complete: community-building requires an eye towards both the community that is and the one that is “coming about” in order to avoid patterns of exclusion to solidify. Consequently, as Janneke Adema and Samuel Moore underline: “Rather than seeing COPIM’s community as one thing to be nurtured, then, we must be open to the linkages and relationalities with other communities that themselves can be nurtured. Community thus becomes less of a standalone thing and instead takes on a more rhizomatic quality that reveals the interconnectedness of our efforts.”
This is part of the context in which our understanding of communities within Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium is situated and from which we depart.
By means of the Pilot Projects we have set-up with publishers and authors within the COPIM project, we have aimed to more closely engage communities of authors, publishers, and technology providers with different, more experimental forms of book publishing and with each other, to explore how such an engagement could be facilitated best, and to experiment with editing and publishing time-lines and workflows that could support this engagement.
Experimentation – with the manifold processes, practices, relationalities, and agencies that make up and may emerge from a book (or, in our case, from re-using an already existing book) – has served as an important conceptual and practical framework for a perpetual community engagement. Experimentation, as a method, takes into account the situatedness of diverse communities, their agencies regarding the publishing project, the relationalities between them, and the shape-shifting character of their collaborative engagement. Collaborative experimentation favours the process over the outcome, it can “never be proceduralised or specified in advance” (White 2007, 226).
Rather than formulating specific methods of community engagement in advance, in the context of Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation, we have aimed to give the various collaborators the possibility to engage with the project at their own pace, according to their own means, and on their own terms (for example, by trying to move forward in the various publishing processes in a way that accommodates the different schedules of communities working in diverse institutional contexts, while taking into account the timelines for both the editorial and technological development). Open-source tools and software such as the open-source collaboration and storage system Nextcloud have helped us to transparently and collectively coordinate resources, processes, tasks, and time across the diverse communities involved; to negotiate the communities’ differing needs, interests, motivations, expectations, skill-sets, and “levels of involvement;” their closer and looser ties to COPIM; and to generate conversations around and input from external partners on specific aspects of our undertaking (for example on re-writing as experimental practice or on the selection of the publishing platform).
Such a way of working implied that the workflow as well as the timelines for both the editorial and technological development of the book have had to be adapted and re-adapted and shifted over time. This required quite a large amount of flexibility, planning, and communication/coordination efforts – not least on the side of the series editors (Janneke Adema, Simon Bowie, Gary Hall, and Rebekka Kiesewetter) and the publisher (Open Humanities Press). The Covid-19 pandemic as well as the project being left without a developer for a significant amount of time, have slowed down the process and required further adaptions in terms of the core team, the workflows, and the timelines. These intricacies and the resulting slowness are not uncommon in comparable multi-actor and community-led publishing undertakings. What often helped us was to sit with the slowdown and to embrace it rather than working against it, a flexibility which is often a necessity with experimental book publishing projects.
Many different communities and stakeholders have been involved in the the process of setting up the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project and the development of the first experimental book in this series, Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium. Some of these communities already existed before the work on the pilot case even started, some started to take shape at its beginning, and some came about in the course of the project. During the process of making Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation we had short-and long-term collaborators that, for example, joined in around specific questions. There are communities that are potentially still “to come.” Such a “community to come,” could also be formed among the readers of the book, for example, and those readers who are interested in re-use might even consider interacting with the books in the pilot project directly: all books in the Open Humanity Press (OHP) series Living/Liquid Books, as part of which Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation will be published, are open to annotate, tag, edit, add to, remix, reformat, reversion, reinvent, rewrite, and reuse by anyone interested in doing so.
The conceptual work around the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers pilot project was initiated between members of the COPIM WP6 project team: Janneke Adema, Marcell Mars, Samuel Moore, and Gary Hall, who is one of OHP’s Directors. OHP understands itself, as Gary Hall describes, as a “network of interlacing scholarly communities whose various activities make up the publishing collective”. As he continues: “While all of these communities are relatively small in size, each operates according to its own scale and schedule, retaining its particular intellectual identity, approach and manner of working.”
Based on the initial idea for the pilot project, OHP asked some of its collaborators – forming a part of their publishing community – whether they would be interested in taking part with a book publication based on re-use. Gabriela Méndez Cota, who OHP worked with before (for example in the series Living Books about Life) was interested in a collaboration as part of her collaborative research and publishing project Filosofía de la Práctica Editorial funded by the Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad de México. Gabriela was already working with the Mexico City-based collective and hackerspace Rancho Electrónico, who joined the pilot project to work out an initial workflow for the book together with Gabriela Méndez Cota, Janneke Adema, Marcell Mars, Samuel Moore, and Gary Hall. After COPIM’s initial developer Marcell Mars left and before Simon Bowie joined COPIM in his place, Rancho Electrónico contributed to the development of the pilot project’s technical aspects and supported the community of co-authors Gabriela conjoined in setting up their collaborative writing environment.
Involved by Gabriela as co-authors have been scholars, technologists, and students from the Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad de México (including Etelvina Bernal, Sandra Hernández Reyes, Sandra Loyola Guízar, Fernanda Rodríguez González, Yareni Monteón López, Deni Garciamoreno, Nidia Rosales, Xóchitl Arteaga Villamil and Carolina Cuevas).
Over the course of the project, through workshops, we engaged external communities and COPIM members from other work packages in conversations around the Pilot Projects more broadly (for example, regarding inhibitions towards and ways to promote experimental book publishing in the humanities), and around Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation and the notion of “ecological re-writing” specifically.
When Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation was written, we as editors also had to look at what would be a suitable open publishing environment to accommodate the collaborative and experimental work mode and to engage different communities in the writing and editorial work, as well as the conceptual and technological requirements of the envisioned book. During the process of choosing this publishing platform, Simon Bowie contacted several communities and platform providers and developers, including Manifold and PubPub. These platform providers previously took part in one of our workshops which brought together diverse open source and platform providers with a selection of scholar-led and new university presses to explore questions such as: how can we better enable the production and publication of experimental books; and what is already out there to support this?
The selected publishing platforms were tested by Gabriela Méndez Cota and the COPIM members in close exchange with the platform providers and developers. After having settled on PubPub (primarily because it could best accommodate our workflow) Simon Bowie stayed in contact with the platform providers mainly over their github page to suggest possible adaptions and further developments of their editing and publishing environment based on technological issues and requirements emerging in the process of making Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation.
Further communities will still be involved in and will evolve from the bi-lingual open peer review process that will take place towards the end of the pilot project as well as from a tech review in collaboration with COPIM researchers from other work packages planned to take place at around the same time.
Throughout the project, we have tried to adopt a welcoming stance towards all who have joined and will join the process of making and publishing Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation. An important way in which we tried to enact community involvement and development as well as build trust among the different collaborators during the process of making the book was through numerous online meetings, discussions, workshops, email exchanges, and chats, in various formations and sub-formations. Furthermore, collaboratively shared online documents have been used to develop the project, workflows, and processes. We have worked for example, on the open file-sharing and syncing-platform Nextcloud, on the open-source, web-based, self-hosted, collaborative markdown editor HedgeDoc, and on the open-source collaboration suite CryptPad: in smaller and larger groups, in different constellations. These digital technology-enabled gatherings have helped us to collaboratively engage in finding ways to transparently and collectively coordinate resources, processes, tasks, and time across the diverse ecologies of partaking communities; and it enabled us to generate conversations and input from external partners on specific aspects of our undertaking (for example on re-writing as an experimental practice through the workshop Tentative Florilegium: Experiments & Recipes for ReWriting Books) or on the selection of the publishing platform (through 1:1 conversations between the COPIM team and platform providers).
Promoting experimental publishing as well as tending to the diverse communities involved in making Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation ultimately has been a shared task between publisher, series editors, authors, and every single person involved in making the book – in different constellations, in exchange with different communities.
However, maintaining such an engagement and tending to the attachments with and between diverse communities throughout the project, has not been easy. Experimental publishing is a labour-intensive task and often requires diverse communities (such as the publisher, the editors, the authors, the developers, and designers) to stay involved during all stages of the project, from the very beginning of concept development until its release as a book, while other communities’ contributions are temporarily more confined. Consequently, the horizontal and collaborative nature of the project has not included everyone to the same degree, in every aspect of the process. For example, by designing the conceptual framework of the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project and book series, the COPIM team and OHP have taken a curatorial role related to a specific interest and agenda regarding the types of re-use the publisher and editors were interested in exploring. This influenced the ways in which Ecological Re-writing has further been conceived. For example, certain conditions, such as the use of open-source software and tools, had been set from the beginning, as well as the tentative workflows the collaboration evolved upon. This workflow, the specific tasks within it (such as open peer review), as well as the timeframe of the project has been continuously adapted by the COPIM team to support and accommodate the interests, needs, availabilities, and expectations of the diverse communities involved. We did so in consultation with Gabriela Méndez Cota who acted as a conceptual, organisational, and linguistic translator bridging between the COPIM team, Rancho Electrónico, and the community of collaborators she engaged with. Gabriela also took on the responsibility for developing and coordinating the conceptual co-design and the co-writing taking place within Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation. We will share detailed insights into this workflow in the subsequent blogpost in this series.
We consider the perpetual process of translating, mediating, and negotiating ideas, concepts, and inputs as especially important for the kind of horizontal community engagement we have enacted in the process of publishing Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation. This process has required several iterations and rounds of discussion between the diverse communities involved, regarding the conceptual framing of the book or its technological set-up and design, for example, to make sure the nuances of the relational, contextual, and open-ended nature of Gabriela’s and her co-writers’ work were all captured.
There are diverse motivations involved in the decision to engage with scholarly research and publishing in a more experimental way. For the most part, a shared understanding of experimentation existed among the authors, editors, publishers, and developers involved in the Pilot Project ( the result of various discussions before and after work on the Pilot started). However, throughout the project we experienced difficulties in explaining (or translating) the scope and relevance of this experimentation, both to people external to the project and in the exchange with communities that have not been long-term collaborators on the Pilot Project.
We consider this sort of ongoing negotiation, conversation, and translation as an intrinsic and important part of our work on experimental book publishing, as it helps us to interrogate and adapt our approach towards and with diverse communities, taking into consideration their specific understandings and motivations.
What also has to be taken into account, is how technical know-how varies between different research and publishing communities. Tara McPerson, in one of the workshops we organised, argued for the need to “provide comfort” to collaborators “who may be alienated by technical requirements or overwhelmed by the possibilities that experimentation offers.” To provide this comfort towards and within a collaborative working environment (at different stages of the project and in response to to different communities), is a matter of community care, involving sharing expertise and experiences, explaining, explaining once again, discussing, negotiating, and co-learning. In the case of Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation, this labour, especially with regards to the technical requirements, has been mainly taken on by the programmers and developers involved in the project, Marcell Mars, Simon Bowie, and Rancho Electrónico.
What has become clear again through this process is that the intricate processes of community collaboration cannot always be institutionalised or systematised, as they are highly situated and involve organic, continously developing relations. Nonetheless, in the next blogpost of this series, we will share the tentative workflow(s) we developed (and redeveloped) during the work on this Pilot Project. We describe their uptake, re-use, and adoption within diverse communities working in different contexts.
We do not want to end this blogpost without acknowledging, paying reference to, giving tribute, showcasing, and letting resonate the voices of the individuals that formed part of the shape-shifting and overlapping communities emerging and forming through the activities and interactions that make up Re-writing as Disappropriation: Situated Engagements with the Chernobyl Herbarium. From those who have been involved since the beginning (for example, the authors, editors, the programmer, and the publisher(s)), to the ones that have drifted in and out of the process (for example, the participants of the workshop Tentative Florilegium: Experiments & Recipes for ReWriting Books, in which we explored what the behaviour of different plants could offer regarding the rewriting, publishing, composting, and circulating of sources and resources). But also those communities whose relationship solidified temporarily around specific issues and stages in the research, writing, and publishing process (around a specific challenge or task, such as choosing the most appropriate open-source platform to publish Ecological Re-writing as Disappropriation on, or around the open peer- and tech-reviews).
Authoring (as Re-writing): Xóchitl Arteaga Villamil, Etelvina Bernal Méndez, Carolina Cuevas, Deni Garciamoreno Becerril, Sandra Hernández Reyes, Sandra Loyola Guízar, Gabriela Méndez Cota, Yareni Monteón López, Fernanda Rodríguez González, Nidia Rosales Moreno
Conceptualising: Janneke Adema, Simon Bowie, Gary Hall, Rebekka Kiesewetter, Gabriela Méndez Cota
Curating: Janneke Adema, Gary Hall, Rebekka Kiesewetter, Julien Mchardy, Gabriela Méndez Cota
Designing: Janneke Adema, Simon Bowie, Rebekka Kiesewetter, Gabriela Méndez Cota
Developing: Simon Bowie, Marcell Mars, Rancho Electrónico
Editing: Janneke Adema, Gabriela Méndez Cota
Project-managing: Janneke Adema, Gary Hall, Rebekka Kiesewetter, Gabriela Méndez Cota, Tobias Steiner
Publishing: Gary Hall & Open Humanities Press
(Tech-)Supporting and Advising: Simon Bowie, Marcell Mars, Rancho Electrónico, Terence Smyre, Tobias Steiner
Translating: Gabriela Méndez Cota
Workshopping: Janneke Adema, Marta Cabrera, Carolina Cuevas, Rachel Douglas-Jones, Mariana Florian Tirado, Oscar Guarin, Gary Hall, Kat Jungnickel, Rebekka Kiesewetter, Julien McHardy, Gabriela Méndez Cota, Tobias Steiner, Simon Worthington
As the book is currently still being finalised at the time of this blog post’s initial publication, the list of names and the multi-vocal choir will grow over time.
In the next blogpost in this series, we will share and discuss a tentative workflow for the experimental re-use of already existing publications that has been developed during the Combinatorial Books: Gathering Flowers Pilot Project.