Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, April 19, 2010
Ayisha said to tell the driver that Jaaga was across from the hockey stadium.
We snaked through the dense, unending, hive-like traffic of Bangalore. Car horns beep constantly, a persistent avant garde percussive opera of noise and rhythm. I was worried whether Vreni, our driver, would find Jaaga, and if we would get there on time for me to set up my powerpoint on a computer.
I had rolled up a black dress and a purple and pink striped silk scarf in my blue and yellow checkered Envirosax bag so I could switch out of my loose fitting, crumbled, sweaty and dusty pink linen capri pants and baggy top once we arrived. With traffic as dense as bricks, it was impossible to return to The Green Path, our eco-activist hotel, to freshen up and change into a more formal lecture outfit.
An experimental filmmaker, writer, archivist, arts activist, Ayisha Abraham is an old friend who lives in Bangalore. She had invited me to give a talk at Jaaga.
After reading about this arts, technology and social change workspace, with Ayisha’s guidance, I decided to do “The Open Space Project: Towards a Theory of Open Space Documentary “ a research, writing, multimedia and public speaking/activist project I’ve been working on with American filmmaker and arts activist Helen de Michiel for the last year. It’s also the theme of FLEFF 2010. Ayisha and I met at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar about 16 years ago and immediately bonded over our passion for preserving amateur film. She’s helped to connect FLEFF to activist documentary and experimental film in India.
In Bangalore, she and her husband, Jittu, a molecular biologist, invited my family (Stewart, my partner, and Sean, our 16 year old son) over for a dinner of home-made chapattis, chicken curry and mango chutney the night before. I had gotten a bit sick from the pollution and some food I had consumed earlier, and could not eat. They knew the remedy: ayurvedic medicine—isabgol powder in water and organic mint pills. The combination was miraculous: it worked immediately. I could speak the next night.
Founded by technologist Freeman Murray and visual artist Archana Prasad, Jaaga is an “urban community arts technology experiment,” according to their website. It contains a workspace, a café, and modular, adaptable public space. Built on land donated by Bangalore-based architect Naresh Narasimhan, Jaaga mobilizes open design, collaboration, modular, low cost building materials, and social entrepreneurs to build sustainable, eco-friendly, high density buildings. Built from pallet racks, plywood and metal, Jaaga looks like some morph between a movie set, a jungle jim, and a high tech tree house. Translated from Kannada, the language in Karnataka, Jaaga means space.
But these mission statements only tell half of the Jaaga story.
When we arrived, we were not sure where to go. The main floor was gravel. Women in saris, women in jeans, men in workboots, guys in dress shirts, and backpackers from Europe and the US in baggy cotton clothes to beat the heat milled around on virtually every floor, talking and working.
We climbed to the second floor. People were moving pallets and pipes. My son Sean was immediately drafted to help move a bunch of 50 foot long pipes with a crew. Stewart found a spot on the second floor pallet to dump our backpacks.
We explored the structure. I think Sean was initially somewhat resigned to hearing another talk in Bangalore. But once he started climbing around the mobile structure, exploring from floor to floor between work tools, sleeping bags, laptop computers, and tents, he casually mentioned to me that he could have a great time at Jaaga with his Ithaca friends, hanging out and building structures.
A New Way to Do Media, Arts, Activism
I realized that changing into my black dress was…uh…unnecessary. Jaaga felt like a construction site, but it also felt like an edgy new media think tank. A long black tank dress and heels was about the worst outfit imaginable for this space, which pulsed with people, computers, tools, conversation and construction.
The exhilarating range of activities at Jaaga map how much international public media and activism has changed in the last five years: a Facebook developers group, a photo exhibition, a brinjal (eggplant) four way cooking contest, an experimental film festival, a dance event, an entertainment industry meet up, activist circle sessions on Indian microfinance.
A new category of public media practitioner has emerged: technologist, a person who helps people and organizations mobilize digital media for blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and online advocacy. Separations between technologies, art forms, politics, experimental work and industry, new and old media, are remnants of an older, more staid, disintegrating media landscape.
Stewart pointed out that this place epitomized open space and was probably the best venue imaginable for my talk. But I started to worry that I was at the wrong place, because I could not figure out where the lecture would be, and if there was a screen, a projector and a computer. All I could see was gravel floors, stacks of plastic chairs, and tarps hanging from the pipes to fashion make-shift, movable walls. The sound of cars horns blaring from the busy street overwhelmed everything.
Suddenly, the entire space changed.
Ayisha arrived. She started to move chairs into the space. Kirin D, a former builder who had worked in Texas but moved back to Bangalore who I had met at some Bangalore Film Society screenings the day before, carried in a plastic table and a projector. A group of people rearranged the red plastic chairs. The computer didn’t work. Someone went to get a PC laptop.
Another woman got a microphone and positioned it at the table with the computer so I could sit and chat easily, looking at the computer and the audience. A sound system amplified my voice to drown out the traffic noise. A young women inserted my thumb drive into the computer and there it was on the screen: my first slide, The Open Space Project. Kirin had me check that the wireless was working so I could show websites in my talk live.
The room was suddenly packed with people, spilling out of the structure on all sides. Sean and Stewart grabbed bean bags and perched themselves on the second floor, peering down. Before I could fully absorb the transformation of the pallets and pipes into a lecture space, Ayisha was introducing me and the crowd was gathered around me in this space, now transformed from a workspace into a new media meet-up.
My talk argued for a new collaborative, horizontal model of documentary that is modular and continually changing in fluid ways across multiple technologies, that rewires social media and new media to open up space rather than to push out ideas. As Helen and I like to explain, open space is where technology meets place meets people. About ten minutes in to my explanations of open space concepts, I looked out at the people assembled and had an intuition that I should speak shorter rather than longer, focusing on the “people” part of open space.
Technologists, NGOs, Arguments, and Car Horns
The dialogue that ensued post-talk featured the kind of vigorous debate that forms the core of arts, activism and civil society in Bangalore. A former producer who now works with a NGO dealing with HIV intervened that new media was perhaps out of reach and not effective in the kind of work she did, where radio was accessible and could reach rural communities. Another documentary producer shared how difficult it is to collaborate: many arguments erupt, stalling the process and often damaging the utopian goals.
A man in the back raised a point about the central issue of social media for activist purposes is the tension between curation and aggregation. A technologist in the front who works with NGOs dealing with housing and sustainability shared the challenges of moving from social media campaigns to social media spaces.
People argued with each other, debating low end technologies versus digital media, different forms of making work, different ways of thinking about embodied performance and disembodied social media, new technologies and civil society. Someone wondered if social media was simply first world privilege, where people talk to like minded people but never encounter difference. Another camp contended that social media needed to be apprehended and hacked. Everyone seemed to agree that understanding new technologies--their glories and their contradictions--was a necessity.
After the talk, the space emptied out.The blare of beeping horns crescendoed. Jaaga means space. Making space, rearranging space, building, shifting space, opening space.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Consider this image: a snazzy, gleaming, Taipei skyscraper adorned with two young hipsters with spiky hair photoshopped at the top like flags, their bodies defying gravity.
But there is more to Asian global cities than the space-age ultramodern architectural wonders and young information technology (IT) professionals whirling in a device-driven cosmopolitanism on endless overseas flights ornamented with their iPods, iPhones, Blackberrys and purple netbooks. They live both somewhere and nowhere.
The IT revolution in Asia is now over two decades old.
Researchers Dr. Alan Chong (S. Rajaratnam School of International Stgudies at Nanyang Technological University) and Dr. Faizal Yahya (South Asian Studies Program at National University of Singapore) have mounted a very large, multi-authored book project to “probe beneath the surface of the grandiose image of IT (information technology) in Asia.”
Asia’s networked formations differ from those described by theorists like Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells. Diasporic cultural networks, remittance cultures from white and blue collar expats, propagandizing globalized information cities, hacker and techno-elites form a new technology landscape that differs from what scholars based in the US and Europe have theorized and analyzed. The distinctions are significant.
Chong’s most recent book is Foreign Policy in Global Information Space: Actualizing Soft Power (Palgrave, 2008). Yahya just published Economic Cooperation between Singapore and India: An Alliance in the Making (Routledge, 2008).
I've just plopped myself into the weekly research seminar here at in the School of Commucation and Information. I note that the assembled faculty address the speakers as Alan and Faizal. Their project maps the little understood and often obscured interactive relationships between IT, politics, and society in very specific formations, such as Taipei, Bangalore, Malaysia, China. India might market itself as an ultramodern, new technology wonderland, but it still confronts severe, continuing, on the ground problems like illiteracy, poverty, and lack of clean water.
I’m sitting in the fourth floor conference room at the research seminars for the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI )organized by my new colleague Marko Skoric, an intensely engaged scholar originally from Belgrade who also studied in London and Michigan. Marko researches new media and social and political change from a social science psychology perspective.
Before the session starts and the power point gets powered up, Alan and Faizal cruise around the large oblong oval table and introduce themselves individually to the 20 or so professors and graduate students assembled. I’m struck by the collegiality and sense of comaraderie in the room, how social interaction and connection on a human level generate a shared feeling of openness and exchange.
My experience in the US is that most speakers (including myself) would be obsessively checking power point slides, media clips, and notes, focused on ourselves and our arguments, inward directed. Here in Singapore, I notice that the speakers immerse themselves in the people in the room, shaking hands, chatting, extending themselves. Immediately, I feel part of the group. I ask Alan and Faizal if they would be comfortable with me blogging their session. They say okay.
“There is an image of Asia as a technofrontier,” begins Alan. “But this technofrontier contrasts with old politics and perennial problems that coexist with cutting edge communications, where technologies are embedded with society.”
Alan points out that cities like Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Bangalore, and Singapore have instituted international marketing campaigns to promote themselves as globalizing information technology cities.
The Singapore government was an early adopter: it pushed to match the leading trends of international capital and advocated computerization in the early 1980s. It is now 30 years into this initiative, a successful strategy for a small island nation with limited land mass and a small population of about 4 million people. Malaysia, under Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, instituted the multimedia supercorridor in 1996. In defiance of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Malaysia continued building.
“Did global cities in Asia develop out of IT, or these propaganda campaigns? “ queries Alan. “The development of every new technology is almost always financially supported by some wealthy interests that would in turn seek the cover of political patronage,” he continues.
Faizal and Alan deploy the term alterity to describe the strategy of privileging the hitherto marginal or subterranean aspects of the capitalist world order through a multiple dimensions approach. Their book project is divided into four sections: psychological politics and cultural ownership of technology, governmental interventions, internet communities, and virtual cultures as political subcultures.
Subcultures, contend Alan and Faizal, are extremely varied in Asia. Adapting the theories of Manual Castells, they suggest that IT subcultures in Asia might not be so straightforward, where some function as appendages of the mainstream, others as circles of political autonomy. For example, remittance cultures among expatriate workers like the Tamil speaking Indian day laborers in Singapore suggest how IT’s global flows are not all located in frictionless cybercapital.
Faizal offers another compelling example. India has branded itself with IT. Yet, in the 2004 elections in Inida, the IT ministers were booted out. These reverse global flows defy globalization as emanating from countries of the global north. The Indian diaspora is returning, but living in self-contained “gated communities” where power and water are supplied. “It is like a bubble, one of the paradoxes of India” continues Faizal.
Across Asia, the networked global economy sequesters techno-elites. Global cities in Asia fashion high-end, Disney-world like environments attractive to cosmopolitan professionals to attract human capital. Boasting expensive condos with marble floors, grocery stores with expat foods, the arts, new airports with good connections, the city itself transforms from the complex, messy layers of life located in a specific locale and interaction across difference into a magnet for transnational development.
In the very interactive, engaging post talk discussion, another new colleague, Cherian George, a well-known journalist formerly with the Straits Times as well as a scholar of internet based alternative press in Southeast Asia, joins in. Cherian wrote one of my favorite, must-read books on the region, Singapore: The Air Conditioned Nation , so I’m eager to hear what he has to say. He points out that new technologies are often ripe for insurgence and then become recolonized.
Insurgency, he pointed out, can also simply be escape. The globalizing flows of economic power and the dislocations of new media also create a situation where elites—highly educated locals as well as expatriates relocated to Asian global cities by their transnational companies—can escape social and political obligations, leaving those dependent on the local behind.
Of course, being in Asia right now, the case of the Chinese hackers who infiltrated Google is a big story in the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times) and the Straits Times, the Singapore daily newspaper. Arul Indrasen Chib, a colleague who studies information and communication technologies for development and mobile phones in relation to health care in places like China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Thailand, Singapore and the USA, offers an intriguing twist on the case: Who is hacking who? Arul inquires. Who is being insurgent? Who is dominating? The old oppositions don’t necessarily apply, he points out.
Rather than vertical oppositions heldover from old school ways of considering social and political relations, I am wondering if we need to consider layers of more fluid horizontality that endlessly interact, blend, mingle and circumvent.
I realize at Alan and Faizal's seminar how much I really don’t know about Southeast Asia. There is so much to learn beyond the hawker stalls selling roti prata and the cheap, clean taxis delivering me to an elaborate production of Puccini’s La Boheme at the extraordinary Esplanade Theater with red silk covering the walls .
I’m thinking about how much I like sitting at the oval table in open space exchange with a small group, rather than in the audience where intellectuals from the so-called “global north” perform at the podium as gladiators with large shields, hurling concepts and theories like spears.
To inoculate myself against the culture shock of reintegration into northeast US academic life in September, I think I’ll plan on sitting at that oval table every Wednesday afternoon.