§Cura: care - cure - curate
Hacking maintenance with care. Reflections on the self-administered survival of digital solidarity networks
by Erica Gargaglione

Back in September 2021, when at the beginning of my masters studies I had the very first experience of setting up a web server on a Raspberry pi 4 [1], which afterwards has been named Soupboat, I admit I could barely understand how digital networks worked exactly. I’ve been told not to worry if the notion of “server” wouldn’t make sense on the spot. What was essential to understand in that moment was that the palm-sized printed circuit board was in fact a shared computer which we (my classmates and I) could make use of collectively, that it could be fragile and that it would need to be taken care of by us as a group.

Later on, by learning and practicing some basics of programming, it gradually became clear to me that the answer to the question “what is a server?”, would actually call into question the subject-object relation that the use of a server entails, generating more and more questions, tongue twists, and brain teasers like “what is the server for and who decides it?”, “who creates the services inside the server and which other services the server relies on in turn?”, “who can be served?”, and “who makes sure that the server keeps serving?”. In relation to such questions the ideas of  “collective use”, “fragility”, and “need of care” began to assume concrete weight and meaning beyond the material dimension of a web infrastructure made of motherboards, cables and fragile electric switches. I slowly recognized how both self-hosting and the use of FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source) software in education, and in the cultural field in general, are also a political choice encompassing the continuous negotiation of collaboration, freedoms and power dynamics.

The soupboat, photo sent via message by Francesco Luzzana, 2023

When I think of the Soupboat — which, thanks to a group-led intervention to 3D-print a set of legs on which the computer can now stand, looks like a slow, trouble-making and goofy little critter instead of a server — I think of it as a learning and explorative tool. Sharing code snippets, debugging, finding ways to keep using specific versions of otherwise obsolete and inefficient software, the accidental crash of the server… All this creates frictions that restore the visibility of an infrastructure that has established demanding relations of co-dependency with the social reality that uses and inhabits it. With a bit of attention, the web server is able to reveal and activate the extremely delicate ecosystem of infrastructural relations entangling communities, institutions, and economies on different scales. When things break and interrupt the flow, it is necessary to slow down, which brings into question the need to take accountability for such relations.

From my standpoint, several important take aways arise from the act of running and, most of all, maintaining independent digital infrastructures. On one level, they have the potential to mediate community awareness by embodying a social shared space, and a common resource. On another level, the collaborative maintenance of such infrastructures altogether facilitates a practical hands-on critique of commercial and proprietary software, thus valorizing a learning process re-calibrated on matters like free cooperation, repair, attention for infrastructural and social well-being, and the practice of agency through constraints.

Outside of the educational environment, maintaining independent web infrastructure in the cultural field is certainly a niche practice nonetheless, from its small bubble, such practice is able to open up a discussion that evokes the broader discourse on the commons. Along with invisibilized forms of care, affective, and reproductive labor, and all the activities of preservation and mutual aid, formal and informal, maintenance represents a hotspot in the definition of commons.

According to Silvia Federici «commons are both objectives and conditions of our everyday life and struggles. In their embryonic form, they represent the social relations we aim to achieve, as well as the means for their construction» (Federici, 2019, p. 185). 

From this perspective, Federici describes the production of commons as «the creation of social relations and spaces built in solidarity, the communal sharing of wealth, and cooperative work and decision-making», and in parallel scholars and activists David Bollier and Silke Helfrich propose a similar definition of commoning as the process «of joint action, of creating things together, of cooperating to meet shared goals». However, in another essay Helfrich points out: «[a]fter all, at times it seems more difficult to ‘do commons’ than to ‘imagine commons’.» (Helfrich, 2015). 

When it comes to digital networks, the practices related to the maintenance of socio-technical infrastructure could surely be candidates for a model of commoning, but in fact they struggle to fully accomplish their project: they are entangled with a as larger as suffocating socio-economic reality that is dominated by the logics of efficiency, competition and extraction. While productivity and profit are normalized expectations, the difference between “working-with” and “working-for” remains obfuscated, threatening to turn these practices into a huge dead-end endeavor. 

Nonetheless, issues of this kind are being largely discussed by many activists, artists, researchers, hackers and other cultural workers who voice the urgency of opposing fairer, solidary and feminist technologies to the predatory logic of an internet hegemonized by the so called GMAFIA [2]. As artist and researcher Femke Snelting confirms, we need much more space for other experiences with technologies  (2021), and also with ourselves. In her essay “Infrastructure solidarity” Snelting writes: «It has become near impossible to imagine a different type of life with digital tools, let alone to dream of solidary digital infrastructures that can be collectively owned, maintained and used […] Infrastructural solidarity only starts with […][developing] relationships with technology that acknowledge vulnerability, mutual dependency and care-taking». (Snelting, 2021, p. 45-47)

In parallel, several Feminist Server Manifesto(s) have been published since 2013 with the intention of articulating a series of fundamental principles calling in for the creation of safer, more sustainable common digital spaces, like «A feminist server […t]ries hard not to apologize when she is sometimes not available» [3]. (Constant, 2015) 

Yet the effective implementation of these principles more than often conflicts with the actual possibility of being implemented. The realism of those cultural initiatives seems to contradict their good intentions, revealing much of their vulnerability to burnouts and neglect, due to inadequate, if not complete lack of resources to sustain a satisfying infrastructural and social well-being. In practice, it seems really hard to adequately support vulnerability, mutual dependency, and care-taking within their working environment. These initiatives are embedded into a larger socio-economical context characterized by a general rise of the costs of life and by precarious working conditions. Within such a reality, the livelihood of solidary digital infrastructure altogether is deeply affected by tighter and gradually more unsustainable relations with cultural funds promoting the financialization of not-for-profit cultural projects, on top of a huge amount of affective and voluntary labor, coming from their already overworked community. 

Several cultural initiatives and organizations started to gather to collectivize these unsolved survival issues, and share practical knowledge around how to self-organize in solidarity without perishing in between the cultural field and the technology industry. Projects of these kinds include, for example, the Digital Solidarity Networks, which «is an online shared listing of tools, practices and readings for digital solidarity» (Varia, 2020); the Transversal Network Of Feminist Servers (ATNOFS), which «engages with questions of autonomy community and sovereignty in relation to network services data storage and computational infrastructures» (ATNOFS, 2022); and other conversations about “Hosting with the others”, like the one that happened in the context of AMRO festival 2022 (Linz).

Under the guidance of Shannon Mattern’s writings, I joined their ongoing discussions embracing maintenance as «a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause» (Mattern, 2018). I started to organize a series of interviews, conversations and collective evaluations, playfully calling them “boiler inspections”, in order to address and problematize the many difficulties and contradictions emerging from the maintenance of such initiatives. The observations collected during the inspections are hereby summarized and organized on the basis of common tropes that I suggest for a more specific zoom-in onto the issue of maintenance: radical administration, caregiving and hacking.


Maintenance as radical administration

In the first pilot of the boiler inspection, I had the chance to interview the current admin of Servus, a cultural association running and maintaining an independent datacenter in Linz. We tried to map together the association’s web infrastructure and discussed about the difficulties of administrational tasks in relation to it.

In the introduction to their RADMIN reader (2020), Kate Rich and Angela Piccinini write about administration and bureaucracy as a central space in participatory art practices, but also as a creative — although boring — and meaningful — although exhausting — work that brings together the struggles of all organizers, accountants, maintainers, administrators and makers. Rich and Piccinini’s understanding of “Radmin” — a contracted form expressing the idea of radical and experimental administration — “it’s not in the workflows or the reporting [… but in] the extra effort implicit in subliminal processes”. 

From the point of view of Radmin, maintenance has to respond to specific concerns related to the continuous disorganization and re-organization of information and resources in order to better support the survival of both the digital infrastructure and the type of organization that forms around it. This enables an overview on the intricate relationships of co-dependency and inter-dependency, allowing for a series of realizations. 

Firstly, not always it is possible to evenly distribute information and resources: the use of free software and self-hosting sometimes contributes to crystallize internal roles and power dynamics. For example for the lack of code documentation and the disproportion of technical knowledge among the members of an organization prevents, on one hand, from sharing responsibilities about technical issues, and on the other hand it makes turnover impossible, which obliges the same people to keep working on the same tasks even if they are volunteering, and they are tired to do so.

Secondly, Independent web infrastructures in the cultural field are often embedded within an economy of subsidies and recuperation, which in combination with the uneven distribution of knowledge, obstructs both long term plans and changes in scale. 

For instance, it might happens that cultural grants dedicated to festivals and cultural programs need to be redistributed to secure the coverage of infrastructural costs, and the wages of the organization’s members, which anyways ends up being underpaid. It follows that the realization of festivals and cultural programs is often undertaken in a deliberate condition of scarce financial support.

Another dilemma emerged in the conversation with Servus’ admin, who lamented how the current rise of energy costs is adding up a good dose of extra worries to their already worrisome financial situation. This could be improved by either increasing the membership fee coming from the users of the datacenter, or increasing the number of users. But on one side the association wants to limit the excessive rise of fee costs, and on the other side a bigger amount of users would contribute to the overwork of its core team. 

And finally, it is worth giving proper attention to the emotional and psychological efforts that dealing with bureaucracy and administrational inertia entails. These efforts are exemplified in a letter that artists Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico wrote last year: «For a year we only talked about work [with a professional psychologist]: not about ts precarity nor of its absence, but about the struggle of dealing with bureaucracy, calculation, administration, and the violence of cultural farm-like planners, which organizations are pushed to become in their race to grants and funds. Our psychologist was a business cost. For this reason, in our experience the first sustainability to take care of is the psychological one. In doing so, we will be compelled to deal with the raw nerves of our societies, down to the marrows» [4] (Iaconesi, Persico, 2022).

Maintenance as caregiving

Some of the boiler inspections included the spreadsheets, questionnaires and other bureaucratic amenities used as props in order to trigger and at the same time facilitate the conversation. This was the case for the inspection conducted at Varia, a collective space in the south of Rotterdam that is self-run by a group of artists, designers and programmers dealing with “everyday technology”.

Boiler inspection at Varia, Rotterdam

“Is the current funding model/schema collectively sustainable? (please elaborate)” was one of the questions present inside the questionnaire that was printed and distributed to Varia’s members and other friends who joined for the inspection. Hereby follows the series of answers resulting from the collected questionnaires:

— no. —
— nope. —
— mmmmmm NO * 1 of the biggest trauma point —
— no, maybe too much relying on public funding? !!! p r e s s u r e p o i n t !!!—
— No. maybe? too much relying on public funding, episode 2 —
— Remains to be seen. Too reliant on public funding. ALERT TRAUMA POINT —
— NO too relying on to public funding… the biggest pressure point —
— NO. too reliant on public funds… TRAUMA ALERT! ⚠️ —

The full consensus among the answers triggers further conversation on financial sustainability and on how it seems to be the most feared wicked problem. What emerges from the discussion is that the idea of sustainability is not only related to economic survival but also to the extra time needed to support the whole apparatus of specific infrastructural choices, from ways of organizing and collaborating to the refusal of commercial tools and software, which also needs extra time and resources. The time dedicated to the collective is also competing with that required by the multiple, and often volunteer jobs that its members have, bringing neglect to personal needs as a consequence. 

This last reflection is emphasized even more by the answers given in the last section of the questionnaire, in which it was asked to evaluate some aspects of personal well-being and reciprocal care among other things. The results reported moderate levels of frustration, anxiety and burnout, and high degree of mental load. This concept of mental load, in particular, is a terminology that loomed in a previous conversation with one of Varia’s members. It indicates the feeling of saturation and overload derived from the adding up of worries and extra time dedicated to work outside of designated hours. In parallel, another previous interview reported how working with friends and communities might exacerbate mental load and even burnout for the increased emotional attachment that such work inevitably implies.

Interestingly enough, the word maintenance originally means “holding with hands” (from Latin “manu tenere”), support and preserving, recalling an infinitely intimate and caring dimension of touch connecting one’s hands to another body. Despite this image, nowadays maintenance rather signifies “holding with handcuffs”, enmeshed within the gears of technology, efficiency, and security. Along with that, it is necessary to acknowledge that behind the word care resides a long history [5] of misuses and abuses too, through which our ability to care and being cared in our own terms has been gradually disenfranchised.

In a presentation of her project “hacking with care” the artist and caregiver Emily King proposes an extremely personal definition of care, connecting it with the actions of nurturing common goodness and finding a sustainable balance in one’s relations with the world, with the other beings in the world, and with oneself as well (2016). She also specifies: «care is not defined by a particular set of skills, it has to do with presence, attention, intention» (King, 2016).

In line with King’s definition and the Care Manifesto, I would like to reconsider the meaning of maintenance oriented within a dimension of care as «a social capacity and activity involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of life [… ; including] political, social, material and emotional conditions [allowing] to thrive» (2020, p. 5-6). 

From a caregiver perspective maintenance must be recognized as a form of care and affective labor. 

Maintenance as caregiving is the training of sensitivity towards the presence of collective struggles excluding well-being from the emotional, psychological and experiential account of the working conditions. It is the attention to the boundaries and the qualities of all the relations at stake: when do relations of friendship become working relations? When do relations of care become relations of control, or even of exploitation? And ultimately, it is the support of intentional choices about what needs to be cared, what needs to be repaired, and how. 

As of today maintaining as a caregiver remains one of the most difficult tasks that self-organised cultural initiatives have to face, and the very work of caring is still a source of burnout.


Maintenance as hacking 

A third perspective on maintenance I would like to suggest is rooted in the tradition of hacking practices. Gabriella Coleman extensively wrote about how, hackers have built an extensive practice of pragmatic and technical production that would playfully and experimentally turn a system against itself (Coleman, 2013, p.98-99). Similarly, the internet activist Jèrèmie Zimmerman proposes, in collaboration with Emily King and the collective Hacking with Care, a definition of hacking that reflects Coleman’s writings: «[Hacking is an] emancipatory practice of humans versus systems or tools. It is a systemic approach where you have to understand the whole box in order to be able to think outside of it […] It is a set of ethical values; it is the free flow of information; the free sharing of knowledge; and it’s about enabling others to participate» (King, 2016). 

And indeed, behind the frustrations and pleasures of hacking resides a much deeper freedom: that of sharing knowledge through a common social space, and through a sustainable collaboration beyond the coercion of scarcity and precarity.

The ideas of free cooperation strongly emerged in a boiler inspection conducted with a member of Autonomic, a cooperative owned by its workers dealing with the hosting and developing free software, websites and digital infrastructures. During the inspection, he explains how central is defending the cooperative’s own financial and infrastructural autonomy from technology industry. Then it follows a series of pros and cons about working with others according to a set of principles that prioritize the freedom of cooperating, the well-being and the autonomy of the group. Maintaining such freedom is not always easy, because it requires to be flexible and stretch working hours in order to catch the so called “apply wind” of opportunities, calls and funds, which makes the cooperative vulnerable to precarity too. However, it seems that by pushing forward clear values through their webpage,  Autonomic’s members managed to be surrounded by, in their terms, “nice™ people”. For instance their handbook and their statement “We Are More Important Than The Work”, take the next step in constituting an entry point for an unapologetic negotiation of their desired working conditions. It is indeed vital for them to recognize how refreshing it could be to choose their own collaborators, and to work on projects that they find meaningful, even if this implies a chaotic and at times overwhelming process. 

We Are More Important Than The Work, screenshot taken from the website autonomic.zone

In closing, I would like to propose a definition of maintenance as a playful reworking of the statement n.70 made by McKenzie Wark in her “A Hacker Manifesto”: «To [maintain] is to express knowledge in any of its forms. [Maintainers’] knowledge implies, in its practice, a politics of free information, free learning, the gift of the result in a peer-to-peer network. [Maintainers’] knowledge also implies an ethics of knowledge open to the desires of the [maintaining] classes and free from subordination to commodity production. […] When knowledge is freed from scarcity, the free [maintenance] of knowledge becomes the knowledge of free [maintainers]» (2014).


An approach beyond survival

By observing the many scales and dimensions of the everyday struggles experienced within the niche practices of self-organizing in solidarity with independent web infrastructures in the cultural field, what emerges from my study is that maintenance pragmatically points towards the how-tos for an effective circulation of resources and, at the same time, it addresses the status quo as the whole of the systemic relations of inter-dependency. Besides, it exceed a one-size-fits-all definition. As such it should be interrogated through a situated observation rooted in the specific context of each cultural initiative, association, collective, cooperative, and any formal and informal organizational form. The boiler inspections have been, so far, a helpful methodology for such inquiry, through which ways of maintaining are collected and shared, within a playful and metaphorical space. The inspections reported how these methods of maintenance remain contradictory: they only partially work if considered in their relation to financialized cultural production, and to a larger context of generalized precarity and massive rise of the costs of life.

The descriptions of maintenance from the perspective of radical administration, of the caregiver and of the hacker do not expect to provide an exhaustive analysis and solution to the concerns of maintenance. They rather suggest three points of view that try to separate and highlight specific concerns within the chaotic chain of systemic implication and complications intersecting organizing, infrastructuring, resourcing, care-taking, curating, creating and collaborating in autonomy. These perspective will hopefully suggest an approach that could point towards the need for maintaining livelihood, well-being, and solidarity beyond the condition of scarcity dictated by the constant state of mere survival of the material, social and technological infrastructure. The research done within the context of self-administered digital infrastructures reveals that, in Shannon Mattern’s terms, maintenance “is necessarily a collective endeavor” and that “labor is essential to [all] maintenance”. Finally, as an extremely valuable form of vital social knowledge, maintenance deserves to be further investigated both theoretically and practically along with other forms of producing ‘commons’, in (not only) the cultural field, and supported with more appropriate policies and funding models.


[1] Raspberry pi 4 is a small single-board computer(SBCs) developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
[2] GMAFIA is an acronym used to refer to the Big Tech and service providers: Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple.
[3] The quote comes from the version published by Constant, a cultural organization in Brussels, in the publication Are You Being Served? (2015).
[4] my translation from Italian. Original: “Per un anno abbiamo parlato solo di lavoro: non della precarietà o della sua assenza, ma della sofferenza di avere a che fare con la burocrazia, il calcolo, l’amministrazione e la violenza dei progettifici della cultura in cui le organizzazioni sono spinte a trasformarsi nella corsa a bandi e finanziamenti.
Il nostro psicologo era un costo aziendale. Per questo,nella nostra esperienza la prima sostenibilità di cui prendersi cura è quella psicologica. Facendolo, saremo costretti ad occuparci dei nervi scoperti delle nostre società, fino ai midolli.” (Iaconesi Persico, 2022).
[5] From the tradition of invisibilized women’s domestic, reproductive and affective labour, to all kinds of devalued and informal mutual aid, to the financiarization of care including the reorganization of all aspects of life around the interests of financial capital (The care collective, 2020, p.3).
[6] The text and all the images are released under the Free Art License 1.3 (FAL 1.3) [copyleft attitude].


VV.AA., A Transversal Network Of Feminist Servers, ATNOFS, 2022.
Coleman E.G., Coding Freedom. The ethics and aesthetics of hacking, Princeton University Press, 2013.
Constant, Are You Being Served? (notebooks), edited by Anne Laforet, Marloes de Valk, Madeleine Aktypi, An Mertens, Femke Snelting, Michaela Lakova, Reni Höfmuller, Brussels Constant, 2015.
Federici S., From Crisis to Commons: Reproductive Work, Affective Labor and Technology, and the Transformation of Everyday Life, in Federici S., Re-enchanting the World. Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2019.
Helfrich S., Patterns of Commoning: How We Can Bring About a Language of Commoning, in Bollier D. Helfrich S.(Editors), Patterns of  commoning, The Commons Strategies Group, 2015.
Piccinini A., Rich K., RADMIN Reader, Feral Business Research Network, 2020.
The care Collective, The care manifesto: the politics of interdependence, Verso, London, 2020. 


VV.AA, Hosting with, Linz, AMRO festival, 2022.
VV.AA, Digital solidarity network, Rotterdam, Varia, 2021.

Web publications

Autonomic.zoneWe Are More Important Than The Work, LINK (last accessed, April 13, 2013).
Iaconesi S., Persico O., L’insostenibile inefficienza del calcolo, 2022. LINK (last accessed February 27, 2023). 
King E., Zimmerman J., Hacking with Care, 2016. LINK (last accessed April 12, 2023)
Mattern S., Maintenance and Care. A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations, published in Places Journal, 2018. LINK (last accessed April 12, 2023). 
Bollier D., Helfrich S., Patterns of commoning, 2016. LINK (last accessed March 30, 2023). 
Snelting F., Infrastructure Solidarity, Ardeth, 2021. LINK (last accessed October 30, 2021).


This work has been produced in the context of Erica Gargaglione’s graduation research of from the Master of Arts in Fine Art and Design Experimental Publishing (Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences) that focuses on the intents, means and consequences of making things public and creating publics in the age of post-digital networks.

Erica Gargaglione is an artist and cultural worker, who is constantly changing her bio depending on her collaborations. Her work evolves around digital tools and situated small-scale infrastructures that can  enable public spaces for communities, relations of care and collaborative autonomy. Her projects have been presented in cultural spaces like Varia (Rotterdam), Page Not Found (The Hague), Institute for Network Culture (Amsterdam), La Gènèral (Paris), and Cultìna (Cagliari), among others.