Speculations on Digital Art and Viral Spaces
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Blog written by Dale Hudson, co-curator with Sharon Lin Tay of “Map Open Space” exhibit at FLEFF 2010.
The forthcoming FLEFF exhibition Map Open Space asks artists, activists, and academics to consider the digital environments on networked communication in relation to radical cartography and data visualization. In short, the exhibit continues the work of the previous exhibitions that Sharon Lin Tay and I have curated for FLEFF since 2007.
Map Open Space does, however, take a more specific focus on work that engages with the unsettled and ongoing debates and conversations about anything that falls under FLEFF’s rubric for the environment — public health, war, labor rights, women’s rights, human rights — according to the technical and imaginative possibilities of web-based projects. We were less interested in work that could be streamed online, for example, than we were interested in work that could only operate, run, or happen online.
We are very fortunate to have South African urban geographer Ismail Farouk and Dutch-born Iranian programmer Babak Fakhamzadeh serve on the Map Open Space jury, along with California-based Christina McPhee. Part of our ubuntu.kuqala exhibit for FLEFF 2008, Farouk and Fakhamzadeh’s soweto uprising.com demonstrates that something as familiar as web-application mashups using GoogleMaps can be used to visualize, archive, and interact with history, becoming an exercise in radical historiography.
Most people are probably so familiar with GoogleMap mashups that they don’t even think about the types of knowledge produced by them. They are often used for entertainment, such as documenting parades for Chinese New Year and snowmen in Europe and North America after the recent blizzards caused by global warming, as well as tracking the global whereabouts of tabloid celebrities. (That’s right, you can use them to avoid being anywhere near the likes of Paris Hilton, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, and Sarah Palin!) More commonly, they appear in the results to Google Web searches, marking the locations of basic consumer services like banks, cafés, and dry cleaners, to specialized services like halal groceries and martial arts dojos.
GoogleMap mashups are ubiquitous and do everything from tracking climate change and traffic jams, visualizing uneven distributions of resources like fresh water and access to education, as well as human rights violations and advocacy campaigns, such as torture awareness campaigns, in acts of “maptivism.” There are lists of the “best” ones of sites like Mashable and even blogs dedicated to tracking them, such as Google Maps Mania
What distinguishes soweto uprising.com is that it opens up unsettled debated in history from the perspective of high-school students who took to the streets of the Johannesburg township of Soweto during the protests against the oppressive Apartheid system in South African on 16 June 1976. The project seeks to become a community-driven digital archive through which members of the “lost generation” of young South Africans who sacrificed their education to stand against Apartheid can reclaim and transmit history.
What makes the project urgently important is that this history is in the process of being memorialized by the post-Apartheid government under the African National Congress (ANC) in heritage sites for international tourism, as well as football fans flocking to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup. This official version of history diminishes or marginalizes the role of women and of organizations, such as Black Consciousness Movement and Positive Action Campaign. Soweto uprising.com, then, seeks to open a space for other threads to a moment in history that we think we understand, but we probably have lots more to learn before we even begin to understand.
The project includes routes of the participants along with custom icons that link to additional information about sites, events, and martyrs; contemporary photographs of key sites along the student routes, such as schools and police stations; user-contributed testimony or remembrance; and blog queues into Google keyword searches to track what people around the world are writing about sites in Soweto.
The project was initially conceived four years ago in conjunction with the Hector Pieterson Research Project, Soweto’s first historical museum, named after one of the first victims of police violence against the student protesters. A substantial obstacle for soweto uprising . com, of course, is the realities of the global digital divides. Many of the participants in the Soweto uprising do not have Internet access or Internet literacy, and others are understandably suspicious of documenting their histories.
We feel that soweto uprising . com is an inspiring example of the possibilities for politically engaged GoogleMap mashups that help us to visualize and archive history, as well as to open up thinking about our ongoing interactions with history. If you know of others, please share them with us.