Speculations on Digital Art and Viral Spaces
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Blog written by Dale Hudson, co-curator with Sharon Lin Tay of “Map Open Space” exhibit at FLEFF 2010.
Winner of the Jury Prize in the Map Open Space exhibition at FLEFF 2010, La Buena Vida/The Good Life is a video project comprised by more than 400 interviews with pedestrians in the streets of twelve Latin American cities conducted between 2005 and 2008.
Along with several commissioned texts that respond to the question ‘What is democracy to you?’ from different social and theoretical perspectives, the video interviews can be accessed through an online archive.
The project is also a multi-channel video installation that premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 2008 and has been also exhibited in Aarhus, Berlin, Bogotá, Buffalo, Buenos Aires, Castelló, Florence, Gijón, Lyon, New York City, and San Francisco.
Sharon and I have received lots of requests for additional information on the project, so we asked Carlos Motta whether we could interview him for the Digital Spaces blog. He agreed, so the text for the interview, which took place on May 6th, 2010, appears in two posts. This one focuses on the reception of The Good Life and Motta’s other related projects; the previous post focuses on the conception and realization of The Good Life.
Dale Hudson: What have been the various responses to the project? I see that the website allows for users to upload their own responses and comments. Do these responses differ from other critical responses?
Carlos Motta: That’s an interesting point. In thinking about a project like The Good Life, of course, the idea of having an online forum for people to be able to upload their thoughts or questions—became very important. However, I was always a bit skeptical because of my experience in dealing with projects like this. In conversation with the curator at Art in General and the designers and the programmers, we decided to include this section, but it’s a section that I think has failed.
For some reason, I think that the rigor that I managed to achieve through the interviewing, the editing, the categorizing, etc. is completely outside of my control in that [online] forum. I don’t mean that I should always be in control. The important point here is that my mediation, in that sense, is what has made the project have a very specific point of view and a perspective, whereas I think that those spaces [online forums] often become spaces for ranting and expressing anything without considering the framework and the type of response that you are giving. It is in fact a democratic forum, but it’s a very unfocused one—and in the context of the project, it is the section that works the least. It is the one that produces a type of knowledge that is completely biased, which is a little bit of a contradiction when you think of online participation as allegedly democratic. Perhaps I am to blame in that sense because I haven’t figured out how to work with that space to make it be productive as opposed to negative.
But, the response to the website has been really overwhelming, I think, in a very positive way—and in a negative way as well, of course. To speak of the positive, the video archive part of the project is a document that exists between disciplines. It works with elements of sociological studies, and it uses resources of anthropology, but it is also an art project. It exists in this hybrid space. It has been used by very diverse and different academic communities, which is something that I found really gratifying. For example, I know that it has been studied and used by sociology students at NYU and other universities. In that sense, it is a project that has had a really wide and ample life.
Within the art community, the conversation is different. It is one of method and application, so it’s a project that has had a wide range of responses. The installation, of course, is different, because you have to think of it in terms of the institution and the place where it is exhibited. I needed to consider the aesthetic devices and solutions to present the work, so that the project wouldn’t just be a whole bunch of videos on screens or monitors. There are elements of architecture that reference the Athenian agora, where democracy was conceived. There are other aesthetic elements that come into play, so the conversation in that context is a little different from the online archive. In general, there has been wide support for the project, but of course there has also been a lot of criticism from different perspectives, both from the political perspective but also from the artistic perspective.
DH: What have been the main critiques, both politically and artistically?
CM: One of the main criticisms has been the fact that I relied too heavily on the idea of U.S. intervention. That speaking of democracy through that lens can be counterproductive because it might overlook local processes that are unrelated to U.S involvement. My response is that my intention was to speak of the idea of democratization as it was ‘spread’ by U.S. policy. It is not necessarily a project that wants to speak of democracy in general, but it wants to speak about that specific process, the idea of importing a democracy—and democracy as a broader concept that it is tied to economic, political and social issues.
Critics seem to think that the project may reinforce an idea of the Empire. At the same time, if you go through the material, I think that you realize that there is much more of this local conversation taking place in the video interviews because the idea of democracy is lived in a very personalized and subjective way. You can only reflect that based on your immediate experience.
The criticism within the world of art is whether this is art at all, which is a bit of a conservative and orthodox criticism. It is one that is always present in comments like ‘it relies too heavily on documentary material’ or ‘the content is overriding the aesthetic’ and in question like ‘is the role of the museum to present work like this?’ and ‘what does it offer to an artistic conversation?’ and things like that.
DH: Are there any future installations of this project?
CM: Actually, the project has been on the road every since I started showing it. For example, the project is now in Berlin and San Francisco. Before that, it was in Gijón and Castelló in Spain. It’s been in Lyon and Florence. It was also in Bogotá and in Buenos Aires.
The Good Life has had a really beautiful life—it has had a good life to use the syntax [of the project’s title]—so I suspect that it will continue. Even though I am ready to let it rest for a bit. I think it’s time for me to concentrate on other works that I have been producing.
DH: What are your new projects, what are the things that are interesting you?
CM: When I began this project, The Good Life, I actually became very interested in the conversation on democracy. The Good Life became the first in a series of works that I am producing under the title of Democracy Cycle in which I approach the question of democracy from different perspectives.
I have already produced the second part of the project, The Immigrant Files: Democracy Is Not Dead; It Just Smells Funny, in which I investigate the idea of democracy in the welfare state of Sweden from the perspective of Latin American political exiles living in that country. That was a really interesting project. There is some documentation on my web site <http://www.carlosmotta.com/sweden.html>. The project confronts the Swedish model from the perspective of the margins, from the perspective of those who are not really part of that democracy even though they are part of that society.
The third part of the cycle is Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice in which I investigate democracy according to the concept of historical memory. It is a project in which I did performances on the street of Bogotá during the recent presidential elections. I had six actors read texts by presidential candidates who had been assassinated while campaigning in Colombia. It is an exercise in memory, an exercise to reflect on what the role of the political left in Colombia has been. It also reflects on what it means to limit freedom of speech and the repercussions of speaking out in a repressive political environment.
Another project that I am working on at the moment is called We Who Feel Differently, which is a similar project to The Good Life in its online form, except that it deals with issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights and politics in four different countries. I have been interviewing activists, theoreticians, professors, lawyers, and politicians in this context, trying to get different stories or to draft a history of the struggle for sexual and gender rights in four countries.
There is another one planned, which I haven’t begun, which will deal with the idea of religion and democracy.
DH: Thanks, Carlos. We look forward to learning more about the fifth part of the project, as well as getting a chance to see the other parts, which have been completed.
CM: Thank you—and thanks to the jury for the award.
This interview with Motta raises important questions about online forums and democracy. In particular, I am struck my Motta’s characterization that the forum for user-generated comments on The Good Life was democratic but unorganized.
Let us know your thoughts on such forums, especially examples that move beyond the anonymous rants that typify user comments on commercial sites such as YouTube.