Rayén Jara: "Resistance, to be sustainable, has to be joyful"


On the occasion of Decidim Fest, we talk with co-founder of Radical Data Rayén Jara, a collective that, through liberation and joy, reclaims the narratives surrounding technology to enhance the defense of human rights.

Of Chilean origin, Rayén Jara is co-founder of Radical Data, a collective project based in Amsterdam which works at the intersection of art, data, and activism. Together with Jo Jara Kroese, they have established collaborative connections worldwide and move between Berlin, London, Barcelona, and Latin America. In a digitized world where we are increasingly disconnected from the body, they work from bodily knowledge, dance, and performance. From their experience, they urge us to reclaim this relationship, learn from the Global South, and assert joy as a tool for social transformation. We spoke with them within the framework of the Decidim Fest 2023, the festival of technology and democracy held at Canòdrom.

What topics does Radical Data work on? What do you want to raise awareness about?

At Radical Data, we don’t focus on a specific area but are interested in working based on the needs of communities. From there, we determine the name, form, or theme of our projects.

What sets us apart is our perspective of using data, technology, artificial intelligence, and digitization from a subversive ethic. We utilize tools that currently exist and oppress certain groups, repurposing them for emancipation and liberation as an act of resistance.

Some of our projects involve surveillance, the body, digital labor, major pharmaceutical companies, and all are connected by the concepts of enjoyment and communal effort. It’s crucial not to limit ourselves to the idea of technological oppression or dystopia.

Is your subversive defense of joy, pleasure, and enjoyment a reaction to the culture of hate that the Internet is increasingly adopting?

We embody a social struggle and resistance in relation to the contexts of technology, data, and artificial intelligence. Currently, in most activism, the discourse often focuses on how oppressed we are, leading to a sense of hopelessness. However, historically, the Global South has overcome oppressions. At Radical Data, we propose looking to the Global South and learning from how, for example, in Latin America, we have learned to celebrate community resistance as a way of life.

I get the feeling that we only fall into complete despair when oppression occurs globally, whether in the form of surveillance, artificial intelligence, control, disinformation… When in Latin American countries, that oppression has existed for centuries. Yet, we have continued to fight and live.

I come from a generation, a family process, that resisted a dictatorship. And even though there is death, torture, and disappearance, the struggle comes from being together. It’s not learned from an NGO or a squat. Resistance is a way of life that, to be sustainable, must be joyful. Because what is ultimately demanded in these activist contexts is the right to be alive.

How have you put into practice the idea of resisting through your work with data?

I come from a background in dance and body practice, where pleasure, eroticism, desire, and joy converge. When I started working in technological environments, I realized there was a need to connect with the body. Where does the body fit into processes involving bodyless artificial intelligence? What about the bodies experiencing day-to-day life? In a world of dating apps and social media, it feels like there’s a certain derailment. But the body is still there.

Through working with the community, at Self, we asked ourselves how we could use data to understand these existing bodies with thousands of questions: people with chronic fatigue, transgender individuals, people dealing with mental health issues or chronic illnesses. Some individuals involved have shared their experiences: “I wake up every day, and I don’t know how the day will be. How do I conserve energy? How do I understand how what I eat, the medication I take, or the exercise I do affects me?”. We can use body data monitoring to better understand ourselves.

How do we challenge dominant narratives in technology?

There is a lack of information about our bodies, especially concerning female bodies. For instance, 70% of individuals with chronic migraines are women. Faced with this lack of knowledge in the medical field and the massive misinformation present on social media, we aim to be an empowering tool in these contexts.

At Self, we attempt to overturn the discourse of body capitalization, hyper-optimization, and individualistic hyper-productivity prevalent in current body data monitoring applications. This perspective excludes many bodies. We have flipped this view to treat them as a systemic entity to be addressed in the community. When it comes to data, ensuring security, encryption, and local storage are also crucial.

When I entered the tech world, what attracted me the most was its power to connect and organize us. It’s essential to scrutinize how we receive narratives about technology, both in the media and on social networks. The dystopian outlook, the idea of impending doom, is profoundly disheartening and doesn’t allow us to act and take agency. That’s why I believe that activism through data is a powerful tool for social transformation.

If looking to the Global South improves our activist perspective in the present, where do we look to build the future of data, art, and activism?

Even though digital passports and surveillance cameras didn’t exist years ago, there was still a surveillance policy. For me, building the future is about appropriating the past and the present we have inherited: colonialist, North-centric, capitalist, ableist, and fossil-dependent.

To avoid losing the future entirely, I like to look at utopian narratives. If we view the digital revolution from a dystopian perspective, we are annihilated. We need to reclaim political imagination. Things that we once thought were impossible are possible. We must learn from science fiction writers of the 1960s, like Ursula K. Le Guin, and use imagination and the tools we have to prevent the loss of our future.

Normative technology operates from separation and individuation. A collective community technology, like what is done here [at Canòdrom], is also crucial for reclaiming that future.