art book complaints

Occupied spaces: Hidden Hostility

A close friend called me one afternoon a few weeks ago and asked me how and what I was doing. “I am doing great. I am currently taking pictures of benches in the train station”, I answered. This happened right after I read Chapter 4 of Sara Ahmed’s »Complaint!« in which she addresses the issue of power structures, more specifically occupied spaces. With the following quote, she primarily referred to mental spaces and invisible institutional structures that exclude and discriminate against people with certain characteristics: 

“When spaces are intended for specific purposes, they have bodies in mind.”

(Ahmed 2021: 137)

However, it reminded me of classical music being played loudly in train stations during the night, spikes on balustrades and benches divided by arm rests. Those are all types and mechanisms of »Hostile architecture«. Hostile architecture describes design practices that shape public spaces to allow only the use intended by the owner (cf. Hu 2019). Through this, “a subtle expression of social division through urban design, mostly associated with the homeless” is transported (Karthik & Sanjiv 2020:  247). More specifically, hostile architecture purposefully discriminates, especially against minorities.

»Hidden Hostility« by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner

The art project »Hidden Hostility« by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner aims to create awareness for invisible design strategies by directing the view of people on the pedestrian zone on examples of hostile architecture. To achieve this, the artists selected archetypal examples of hostile architecture expressed in benches and seats and dealt with them in various installative ways. (cf. Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)

Hidden Hostility (Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)

For instance, they have wrapped various materials, like barrier tape, foam material and metal wire around public seating facilities. Watching the wrapped benches, it becomes visible how either gaps or arm rests ensure that nobody can lie down or even linger comfortably for a longer time. 

In addition to using different materials, the artists also employ statements, graphics and questions to draw attention to the mechanisms of discrimination and control inherent in the public furniture presented. Metal signs, which are attached to benches and seats by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner, play a particularly central role in conveying these statements. Phrases like “Der Feind ist der Freund dieser Bank” (Engl: The enemy is the friend of this bench) (Güldenberg & Meißner 2022) and illustrations, like the ones on the pictures below, express criticism and stimulate the pedestrians to think. 

In the various installations of “Hidden Hostility,” the two artists repeatedly refer to a central point that constitutes the core of their work. Thus, they state that hostile architecture serves social control, unnoticed but aggressively expressing political power in public space. (cf. Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)

»Hidden Hostility« and »Complaint!«

In addressing design mechanisms that are politically used to discriminate against minorities, the artists take up what Sara Ahmed refers to as  invisible power structures. The key point here is that these mechanisms usually remain hidden. In the case of hostilely designed seating in public spaces, this means: as long as you don’t have to spend a longer time in public, or even sleep there, you won’t be irritated by uncomfortable benches. Invisible power structures define whose feelings matter more (cf. Ahmed 2021: 169) – the feelings of supposedly “normal citizens” are more important than those of homeless people. 

On closer examination of hostile architecture against the background of this argument, it becomes clear: public space becomes an occupied space in Ahmed’s sense through hostile design mechanisms. As Sara Ahmed puts it: “you notice a structure when it stops you from getting somewhere or from being somewhere: it can hit you” (Ahmed 2021: 141). This means that even if our society is claimed to be social and solidar, it systematically discriminates against homeless people.

The way Theresa Güldenberg and Magdalena Meißner approach this fact in their installations can be understood in itself as an act and expression of a complaint. In particular, the metal plaques with messages are an expression of complaint in Ahmed’s sense and, at the same time, have an activist character due to the aim of making people think. However, the artists do not complain about a specific institution and thus not to a specific person in charge, but address society as a whole. With their work, they try to invite people to hear their thoughts, pick them up and turn them into other complaints.

Reflection on hostile architecture

Understanding both, the art project »Hidden Hostility« and Sara Ahmed’s book »Complaint!« as an invitation for reflection, I took pictures of hostile architecture in my regular surroundings, as mentioned in the beginning.

In these pictures you see a train station that I frequently use – a train station that is equipped with divided benches and that plays loud music in the hallways the whole night. A train station that claims to be part of  public transport, but in fact excludes people who can not afford  to take trains, but intend to use it as a shelter in the public. Feel free to do the same and scan your environment with a critical eye, being conscious that hostile architecture turns our environment into an occupied space. And feel free to complain about it in a creative way. 


Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.

Güldenberg, Theresa; Meißner, Magdalena. Hidden hostility, 2022.
Retrieved from:

Hu, Winnie. ‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out, 2020. 

Retrieved from:

Karthik, Chadalavada; Sanjiv, E. Sripadma. Defensive architecture – A design against humanity. In: International journal of advance research, ideas and innovations in technology, 2019, Volume 6, Issue 1). 

book chapter complaints ideas

Complaint activism: A self reflection

Thoughts on myself and my complaint practise

I am young, white and was born into a middle-class family in the north of Germany. Based on these facts alone, I pass many marking systems, probably barely registering that they exist. For example, I started my studies right after school and even got a scholarship, I can go into a regular drugstore and find make-up that matches my skin tone and I can travel around Europe without even being asked for my passport. 

To me, this sounds like the archetype of a person that could benefit from »white liberal feminism« which Sara Ahmed describes as a state “when career advancement for individual women is dependent on the extent to which they show they are willing not to address institutional problems” (Ahmed 2021: 254). Scanning my life, I see traces of »silence as promotion« – I have to admit it, although I am not proud of it. For example, I got an internship via my boyfriend’s personal, mainly male network without having to go through the company’s regular HR process. I had mixed feelings at the time: On the one hand, I really wanted to do this internship at this company, but on the other hand, it was completely against my values that no open recruitment process was taking place. I took the internship offered to me and by that I played by the rules of a mainly patriarchal system in this situation of my life, without pointing out that this system is simply not fair, especially to FLINTA*-people. 

But even if I see those traces of »white liberal feminism« in my life, I refuse to categorize myself as a »white liberal feminist«. Hearing phrases like “you as a woman have the same chances of having a career as a man of your age and position”, “gendering makes the language look ugly and I don’t see the point of it” or “to me, the women I (sexually very active man) am dating, had to many sex partners already”, I need to complain and make my position in these debates clear. No matter if it is said in a personal conversation or an institutional context and even if this might cause damage to my personal position.

In several areas of my life, I feel the need to work on the transformation of institutional and systemic practices  through complaint and activist work. I came to an interesting realization while reading the chapter »Complaint activism« (cf. Ahmed 2021: 283- 300). On an institutional level, I tend to skip the step of complaint, even if I know it exists, because I have had the experience that complaining, even as a group, doesn’t lead to a change. One specific example of this came to my mind: In my current study program we had an external lecturer who gave an extremely poorly prepared presentation that had not been updated in a long time, which used racist cultural stereotypes and animated us to reproduce them. Almost everybody in the class felt uncomfortable with that and we expressed that personally in the feedback session of each block seminar as well as in our teaching evaluations that were handed over to the faculty. At first, the responsible coordinators seemed concerned and said that they would have a clearing conversation with the lecturer and might not continue the cooperation. But in the next winter semester we found out that nothing had changed. The course was still held by this lecturer; the content was the same and even the final task was still the same. So, even with the lobby of about 30 students from the same program, we couldn’t stop the reproduction of institutional practices by our faculty. Experiencing being stopped by not being heard and the ineffectiveness of institutional complaint procedures – in this case, the ineffectiveness of about 30 teaching evaluations – made me realize that if I want to change something in the faculty, not complaint, but »slow activism«, as Ahmed puts it, is often my tool of choice.

Last summer, together with three current and former students of my program, I formed an initiative that wants to connect students with alumni of our program in order to foster knowledge transfer on contemporary and relevant topics. Since we cannot influence the agenda setting on the academic side, we encourage dialogue and discussion on important topics in a semi-institutional context. For example, we plan to invite students who are activists on diversity topics here in Weimar and give them a stage linked to our study program by doing so. As just explained, we experienced that a complaint about the official institution and its practices didn’t work, so we rather started activist work ourselves and developed paths partly linked to the institution by founding the initiative than continuing the complaint process.

Feeling inspired by Sara Ahmed’s »Complaint!«

Reading »Complaint!« by Sara Ahmed has inspired me to reflect on my complaint practice in several different ways, and I’m very glad I did. While reading the book, I recognized links to different areas of my life, like systemic tools and constructs I am working with, as well as personal topics that I elaborated on in my blog entries. For me, three implications have emerged from this process that shape my ways of thinking and acting with regards to complaints.

First, I experienced that using the »feminist ear«, as Sara Ahmed does in »Complaint!«, is a powerful tool. It creates a feeling of unity in shared experiences of complaints, even if they were stopped within institutions, and it is an option to express the complaint and get it out of your personal system. Moreover, by expressing the complaint, it can inspire others to take this as a starting point and proceed. As Ahmed explains this function of complaint: “How to help each other to get it out. What you put down, […], others can pick up” (Ahmed 2021: 298). This inspires me to talk about experiences of complaint more often and create a shared thinking space by doing so. 

Further, I have found for myself at various points in my reading that I want to cultivate a critical eye on my own privileges. On the one hand, to ensure that my actions do not reproduce institutional and systemic mechanisms of oppression and discrimination as best I can, and on the other hand, to find points of contact where I can support others in their complaint processes, building a kind of a complaint collective. 

Finally, I can say that reading »Complaint!« sharpened my perspective on complaint practices and their importance. During the reading process I realized that I was more conscious of complaints – my own as well as others.  I want to maintain this perspective and not simply have my complaints stopped in the future by institutional mechanisms or warnings expressed to me. 


Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.

chapter complaints thoughts

Complaints and collegiality: The human door

In chapter 5, Sarah Ahmed explains how collegiality can stop complaints. According to her, colleagues are defended by superiors against complaints due to various private reasons – for example, they studied together, are friends or even a couple. Based on this, an invisible power structure can emerge that reinforces itself (cf. Ahmed 2021: 186-202). 

These points made in »Complaint!« are reflected in a tool, used in the context of systemic coaching whenever clients feel like organizational structures prevent changes on a personal and a team level. Using the tool, the client is asked to create a subjective organization chart, by sketching the perceived relationship of the team members to each other. At this point, it is important to note that not the actual formal hierarchy, but the perceived and yet invisible power structures, as explained by Ahmed, are mapped (cf. BusCo Institut 2022) (Ill. 1). 

Illustration 1: Invisible power structures (Based on BusCo Institut 2022)

After the client explains to the players on the map as well as their relations, the person is asked to mark alliances and coalitions. Alliances (Ill. 1) are strong bonds between two team members on the same level – for example, two students that are close friends – whereas coalitions  (Ill. 1)  are bonds between people on different formal hierarchical levels – for example, a relationship between a young academic and the head of a department. When dealing with alliances and coalitions as an affected person, there is one key point to be aware of: alliances can be softened by establishing a closer relationship with the people involved, but coalitions can generally not be softened or even entered (cf. BusCo Institut 2022).

It becomes obvious that in situations of harassment performed by superiors, alliances but especially coalitions are the reason why “their backs become doors; their hands become locks” (Ahmed 2021: 202), as Sara Ahmed writes. Unfortunately, since informal bonds are so strong that it is almost impossible “to tell them apart or to take them apart” (ibid.). Therefore, those whose complaint is stopped by the “human door” often have no choice but to leave the team or the organization.  


Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.

BusCo Institut: Resource area, 2022.
Retrieved from:

complaints thoughts

Nodding: A (children’s) story about a bubblehead

Happy Oh Yeah GIF by Storymaker - Find & Share on GIPHY

Carlotta was a seven-year-old girl, living in a small town in Germany with her parents and her little brother Caspar. She was a girl with a blooming imagination who loved to wander the streets and observe. Sometimes, her dad even called her “my little daydreamer”, when she seemed to be caught in thoughts that made her forget the reality around her again.

Even on her way back from school, Carlotta always followed the same creative routines. First, she jumped out of the school door to not touch the big door threshold. She herself didn’t exactly know why – it just gave her a rewarding feeling. Just around the corner, she petted the coachman’s black stallion, when they weren’t on a tour showing tourists around the city center. Sometimes, she even fed him some of her leftover vegetables – he really loved yellow carrots. The last stop on her way home was the house of an old man called Oskar who often looked mad even though he had never been not nice to her. In his kitchen window, he had a green bubblehead that would bob its head up and down if Carlotta jumped up and down in front of it just hard enough. So that was what she did every day.She jumped as hard as she could to make the green sausage dog bob and then started laughing and dancing crazily in front of it before she finally went home for lunch.

One sunny Wednesday in March, she had just arrived at the green bubblehead and was about to start jumping when a loud drum startled her and made the sausage dog’s head nod. She felt a mixture of insecurity and anger as she turned around and saw a group of people holding signs and making noise with drums and whistles. She didn’t understand what they were doing, but she felt sad and angry, because they had ruined her play. With these feelings in her belly, she went home, threw her satchel into a corner, and sat down at the kitchen table with folded arms.

“What’s the matter my darling?”, her mum asked her.
“THEY RUINED MY PLAY”, Carlotta shouted back at her.
“Who are they?”, her mum asked while stroking her back and Carlotta started to explain what had just happened.

By the time Carlotta had told her story, her mum explained: “The people you saw are a group of activists, who demonstrate to make our city a nicer place for everybody. For example, if you want to take an official corona self-test, as we always do before visiting granny, you need to have a European passport. They are convinced that this is not fair, that it is discriminating, and they want to change it. They talked to the mayor and he always nodded and said “yes, I understand what you mean, we are going to investigate this further and come back to you” – but nothing happened afterward. They have already officially complained to the city council, but nothing changed and now they want to raise more attention by demonstrating. What I wanted to explain to you was: They didn’t want to disturb your game or even bully you.”

“Thanks for explaining this to me mummy”, Carlotta replied. As she understood that the people were demonstrating to draw attention to a topic and not just to be loud and mean, she felt a little bit guilty and made the decision to see if they would be there again on Wednesday the next week, to observe them again.

The next Wednesday, Carlotta basically ran to Oskar’s house after school and it was probably the first time she was happy that the coachman and his stallion were on a tour. When she arrived in front of Oskar’s kitchen window, she already heard the activists in the distance. As they came closer, she could see their faces. They didn’t look mean or angry at all this time, some of them she even recognized from her neighborhood. And she could really relate to what they were saying on their signs. For example, she read “No human is illegal” and although she didn’t know exactly what illegal was, she understood that it was something bad and she agreed that humans are not bad.

Turning her head a little, she realized that the green bubblehead was bobbing his head again due to the vibration of the activists’ drums. But this time, the bobbing didn’t make her feel like dancing. It even seemed like the sausage dog wasn’t really bobbing this time, but nodding at the protestants. “Just as the mayor reacted, from what mummy told me”, Carlotta said to herself, “He was nodding, but nothing changed.”

From thatday on, Carlotta’s view on the bubblehead had changed. She still took the same way home from school and sometimes she even had a little chat with Oskar when he was in the garden, but she didn’t jump in front of the bubblehead anymore. Carlotta even asked her mom if they could join the demonstration once in a while.

chapter complaints ideas thoughts

Warnings: Do not express your boundaries

Just after I read chapter 2 of »Complaint« I went to the FLINTA*- Kampftag rally at the Theaterplatz where a young woman was courageously giving a speech on how she often does not respect her boundaries in order to please others. She even said something like: “It took me so many years of therapy to realize that I even have such a thing as boundaries.” I could relate to that. And to my mind, not expressing and advocating for your boundaries is directly related to what Sara Ahmed explains as “warnings [that are] an instruction about what you need to do in order to avoid a damaging situation” (Ahmed 2021: 70).

Especially as a young woman, I receive so many warnings that depict me as being self-damaging when I express personal boundaries, articulate my opinion or complain about institutional or societal problems. The sketch below shows me being influenced by such warnings. I wrote down a few that were still so present to me that I could easily remember them. They are representative of so many more.

Illustration 1: Receiving warnings


In this sketch, where I receive warnings, I decided to keep the warnings in my native language because I feel they have more impact on me that way

English translation:

Fellow student: “Be careful not to complain too much or you’ll get a bad grade.” Grandma: “Don’t always complain or you’ll never find a boyfriend.”
Dad: ”Don’t engage in political activism in Weimar – it could be dangerous.”
Ex-boyfriend: “Why are you always so bitchy? It’s not that bad. I don’t like you like that.”


Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.

chapter thoughts

Following procedures: Systemic loops of complaint

In the passage “Following procedures”, Ahmed describes how complaint processes are often represented as flowcharts that show how a complaint is recorded, seriously investigated and addressed, whereas actually making a complaint feels circular, confusing and messy (cf. Ahmed 2021: 31-39). Explaining reasons that lead to being blocked, not being heard, or realizing that even the complaint process is discriminating, she illustrates how undergoing a complaint process regularly causes feelings of being filed away or functioning as a testimony and fosters the need to complain even more.

To illustrate how a supposedly linear complaint process actually turns out to be a confusing and confounding systemic cycle, I extracted the arguments made by Ahmed in the passage “Following procedures” and developed a Causal Loop Diagram based on them. Causal Loop Diagrams are a system-theoretical method that allows to capture complex systemic relationships. By connecting variables, which in this case are Ahmeds points made in “following procedures”, with each other and adding positive and negative polarities, cause and effect loops are obtained. The formed causal loops either have a balancing or reinforcing effect on the initial situation, with respect to the main variable of the system (cf. Mabin et al 2006: 37 ff). In this case, I chose the perceived need to make a complaint as the main variable (Ill. 1, blue variable).

Illustration 1: Systemic loops of complaint (Based on Ahmed 2021: 31-39)

Generally, Causal Loop Diagrams help to capture and understand complex interrelations and unveil underlying structures and motives of a system (cf. Mabin et al 2006: 37 ff). However, as shown in the illustration, the complaint process as explained by Sarah Ahmed, can not be mapped in a clear and understandable way, because it holds loops of systemic blockage, frustration and disorientation. 

As Ahmed describes it:” What leads you to make a complaint is what makes it hard to complain” (Ahmed 2021: 35). Looking at the loops mapped in the illustration, it becomes clear that this feeling – being pressured to undergo a painful complaint procedure to complain about something painful that has happened to you – constantly reinforces the perceived need to make a complaint (Ill. 1). Just one loop seems to have a balancing effect on the feeling of having to complain: It is the feeling of being heard (Ill 1, pink loop). But although this might at first make the complainant feel like the core problem that caused the complaint is being recognized and addressed, it must be noted that this feeling does not necessarily mean that the needed actions to change something are really being performed. This rather frustrating finding, expressed in the illustrated “systemic loops of complaint” underlines the following quote from Sarah Ahmed: 

“Complaints end up referring to complaints; you have to keep dealing with what is not being dealt with; yes, once you start the process, it is hard to get out”. (Ahmed 2021: 37). 

Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.

Gurule, Donna. Systems Thinking: Causal Loop Diagrams. 2018.
Retrieved from:

Lannon, Colleen. Causal Loop Construction: The basics. n.d.
Retrieved from:

Mabin, Victoria J.; Davies, John; Cox, James F. International Transactions in Operational Research. Jan2006, Vol. 13 Issue 1, p33-57.

book complaints

Hearing complaint: A practical attempt

In beginning to explore Sara Ahmed’s book, »Complaint!« I decided to take a practical attempt: I interviewed two friends about their experiences with complaints and the feelings and thoughts associated with them. Although I did not know how the conversation would turn out, as I intentionally left the questions open, I saw it as an interesting approach to use the “feminist ear” as a research method, as Ahmed did in the development process of »Complaint!« (cf. Ahmed 2021: 8). The following conversation took place in a cozy surrounding on a sunny afternoon between three friends.

J: Did you ever complain about something?
T: Yeah. In private life or to some organization or agency?

J: Everything is included in this question – whatever you complained about. What did you do? Why did you complain? And where did you complain?

T: I regularly complain about stuff that I don’t like. But before I complain, I do a long analysis in my head. Why does it bother me? Does it bother only me or bother other people as well? And then when I come to the conclusion that it’s generally not accepted – such a behavior is not accepted – I’m saying it to the person. But not directly, I start giving hints: “Maybe there, if we do this way, this way or another way…” I’m complaining not directly but indirectly.

J: In such situations, what were you complaining about, for example?

T: Recently, I’ve been complaining about, for example, where we put the shopping bags, if we do the dishes right after we cooked, or if we tidy up the bed after we wake up, or if the table is full of stuff like I complain that it’s not how it’s supposed to be. There is no structure and no organization.

J: Besides your personal life, have you ever complained to an organization?

T: Recently, I didn’t complain about an organization related topic I think – at least in the last few months.

J: Okay. And before?
T: And before….I need one minute to think about it.
J: Yes, no worries.
T: I am gonna check my emails – maybe.
J: So R, in the meantime, maybe you could tell me a little bit about your complaint history.

R: Actually, when T was giving her answers I was thinking like, I seem to complain a lot about things. But that’s because I’m really opinionated. I would say, not so much in my private life, but a few examples came to my mind. I think when I was 15, or 16, or something, I complained to a

radio station because they were always playing the song, “Can you blow my whistle, baby?”. It was the first time I understood the lyrics, and I was like: “Why do you play this all the time? Little kids are listening to this!” And now I’m like: “Yeah, but there is also sexual freedom.” Recently I complained to my employer about gendering in German. I read an article that you should do it with a star and not with a colon, because that’s easier to read for people who use text to speech programs, as it’s easier to process for such programs. So blind people can better understand gendered language, if it’s written in a certain way. And so I asked: “Where can I complain about this to our company, so we can change it in the policy of our community and outside communication?” And then, like in my private life, I like to complain as like “pretend complaining”. If I feel a certain way, it’s good to just complain about stuff a little bit. Let a little bit of grumpiness out. And just be like: “I hate that I have to go there”. Even if you like to go there – maybe you made an appointment with a friend or something – and then you’re like: “Why do I have to go? I don’t even want to go anymore.” You’ve complained and after you’ve complained you’re like: “Okay, now I can go, because now it’s fine somehow.”

J: So, to some extent complaining has the function to just get pressure out of your system in this case?

R: Yes.

J: Okay. Let’s take a step back to the case you mentioned before, the complaint about the gendering at your workplace. What was the reaction to your complaint?

R: At first it was kind of a question actually that I asked in our pride network. I got a lot of answers in the intranet that were positive and reactions like “Yeah, let’s do that, it’s good”. And I had also asked for official marketing contacts from the headquarter – so people gave me names. But after that, after I came out of that bubble of people who understood and went into the corporate organisation, the reactions were more like: “Oh, you have to talk to this person, because we’re not responsible for that”. And it was kind of like, getting pushed to the next person and to the next person, because everybody said they’re not responsible and that their department is not where the decision is made. So it hasn’t really ended anywhere. I haven’t really found the person to talk to. It seems like they try to avoid it or try to avoid make a definite decision.

J: How does this make you feel?

R: Cynical, I guess, because it’s kind of what I thought would happen, but I thought I’m just gonna do it anyway. Because? Yeah, I don’t know. I already thought it wasn’t gonna go far, but I also thought, if nobody says anything, they won’t know that people are looking out for that or that this subject is important.

J: Okay, I think I understand.
J: T, did you find something in your email account?

T: No, I didn’t find anything and I tried to remember the last year. But it seems like I didn’t complain to any organizations or something. Unfortunately – maybe.

R: I know that you did complain to an organisation. You complained to your internet provider, because it didn’t work or something? Or didn’t you?

T: Oh, yeah. Yes, it was V. The internet didn’t work and then I had to call them. I explained that we had no internet the last two weeks. Sometimes we had internet, sometimes we didn’t have internet for many hours, and it cannot work this way. And then they said: “Yes, but we cannot do anything.” And then I asked: “Okay, then can you please give me free data, like 50 gigabytes of data, so that I can work”. And then the person said: “No, I cannot do it. It’s not working this way.” And I said: “Yes, but I have a contract with you and now it’s not working. Please let me talk to your boss.” And the person said: “No, I cannot do it. I’m so sorry.” And then at some point, I got mad. And I just said: “Okay, thank you”, and then I hung up, because it didn’t lead anywhere. And I just felt mad.

J: In the end, you didn’t have a solution for your problem?
T: Yeah, I didn’t have a solution. But luckily, it just worked the next day – somehow. J: In general, what does complaining mean to you?

T: Lately it is like, to take out your uncomfortable feeling from the inside out, and then just let the spirit feel free. Yes. And also sometimes, complaining doesn’t have any meaning to me, if after I let it out, I don’t feel better. I know I will feel better, if there will be people who listen to me and then develop a solution, or help me to find a solution by myself. Then, it’s a useful complaint. Yes – there are two types of complaint: Useful complaint and useless complaint. Useless complaining is just letting your complaint out loud and you just bother the people in front of you. You are not helping them and you’re not helping yourself as well.

J: And what about you, R?

R: I think it also depends on the type of complaint I’m doing. If I’m doing it playfully, or like to let off steam, it can sometimes mean kind of a connection. I have a work best friend and we like to complain about work. We send memes back and forth like “Work sucks” and “I’m so tired”. And like, you know, the Friday memes and the Monday memes and the Wednesday memes. So complaining can also be like a friendship activity, I guess. If a group of people complain about the same things, it’s also kind of unifying sometimes. That can be in a fun way unifying or also in a serious way unifying. Because activism is kind of complaining about something, but with more people and like a demonstration is also complaining, I guess. For me that means community sometimes, but it also means vulnerability. Because if you complain about something that is important to you, and you complain about it, then you’re giving away something of yourself, and you kind of give it to other people, you’re being vulnerable. And then there’s always the risk that by complaining, you kind of make it worse for yourself or that they know that that’s a sore point for you and you kind of have to trust someone to be good with that, to treat it well, and to not use it for something.

J: As a last question: How does talking about complaints make you feel? How is it to talk about your history of complaints and about complaining in general?

R: I feel good about it. But if I think about activism, right now, for me, it’s exhausting to complain, sometimes. Because it’s always like a fight. You have to put some resources into it to have a stance on something and then defend that. If you complain, then you have to sit behind the complaint and defend it against other arguments, for example. Although, talking about what I’ve done in the past, I feel good, because I feel like it’s always kind of an expression of your

boundaries, and it feels good to set them. Even if they are not always respected, at least you did something for yourself. So that’s good.

T: I personally don’t like the feeling of complaining: I mean, when I complain, I don’t like how I feel. But then I feel good when I talk about the times when I was complaining, because obviously it brought me some improvements and results. So talking about the times when I complained is good, but I don’t like the process of complaining itself. I try not to do it so much. But I also realized that sometimes it helps. So I’m just having my inner fights all the time, but it’s fine. That’s me.

J: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and stories with me.

Reflecting on my friends’ thoughts, I realized that complaining as a practice is intuitively not always related to problems and discrimination within organizations or structures of power. As R explained, complaining as a communication tool can be playful and helps to investigate personal boundaries and let off steam.

The picture of letting off steam reminds me of Ahmeds’ illustration of the “liquid that spills out from a container” (Ahmed 2021: 18), which is a much more intense and painful description. For me this shows how making a complaint that is personally important to the complainant is connected to vulnerability and making something extremely personal visible in an unprotected space.

I was saddened when T and R explained that before they filed a complaint with an institution and thus left the protected space, they already assumed that their complaint would not lead anywhere or bring systemic change. Both have experienced not being heard or even being put off and sent from one person to another.

As Ahmed states “hearing complaints can also be how you learn how complaints are not heard” (Ahmed 2021: 6). That was perhaps the most present thought in my mind, after the conversation. Using a “feminist ear” made me realize how people in my nearest surrounding are being put off and not heard when complaining about personally important problems and discrimination.

Questions that stick in my head are: What are people’s motives for ignoring complainants’ voices? And how are those related to or built upon institutional mechanisms? Was, for example, T turned down for policy reasons by her internet provider? And why did nobody from the corporate team help R with her attempt to advocate for greater accessibility?

Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.