Online Digital Media Arts Exhibition
Curator’s Essay by Dale Hudson and Sharon Lin Tay
An online digital media arts exhibition in an environmental film festival asks several questions. An ethics of sustainability is pivotal when discussing the environment in its broadest sense. It is important to also understand the ways different environments relate to one another. When formerly progressive examples of sexual, racial, or class differences are turned into profit-making commodities, it is often challenging to find strategies to sustain a diverse media ecology in a hyper-capitalist environment. In contrast, ubuntu.kuqala explores works that highlight what the philosopher Rosi Braidotti calls qualitative multiplicity, as opposed to quantitative pluralism, which she explains operates within the spectral economy of global transmission to support the global market of sameness.
The term ubuntu, connoting a definition of African humanism, may describe the way in which diversity in the media ecology is sustained. It also implies the idea of sustaining our environments through collective action. As Braidotti observes in her book Transpositions, ubuntu denotes a political culture of resistance: “Supported by a dialogic system and informed by the notion of care as a collective responsibility for one’s community, Afrocentric humanism is a resource for all that want to resist the attrition and devastation of technological abuse.”
Adopting –ubuntu as its name and inspiration, this online digital media arts exhibition showcases digital art as instances of resistance and dialogue. It is oriented towards the sustenance of a diverse media ecology predicated on the interface of art and technology in a nonprofit and independent media environment.
The curators’ decision to include the Hub, a human rights activist site, in this year’s selection serves as a reminder of the more political and activist uses of online interactive media towards social and political change. It also suggests a wider understanding of the Internet beyond its banal use in the forms of advertising, online shopping, and social networking sites. The Witness organization’s Hub aims, therefore, to achieve its motto—See it. Film it. Change it.—via Internet upload to the virtual community. At the same time, the use of the Internet for political and activist purposes needs to be carefully qualified. Sam Gregory of Witness makes clear that there are times when activist videos, shot on mobile phones and streamed on the Internet, can be co-opted by repressive institutions. The videos of the protests staged by Buddhist monks in Burma in September 2007, for example, inadvertently facilitated the police’s arrest of demonstrators.
An interest in exploring our relationship with media technology also features in several of the works selected. Ramie Blatt’s Laws of Attraction and Geoffrey Pugen’s Return to Animalia are concerned with the notion of life in virtuality, whether in the form of avatars or at the prospect of human-machine interaction. While Fabián Giles’s No Television despairs of television consumption, Robert Spahr’s Crufts alongside Anders Weberg and Robert Willim’s Being There meditate on the different experiences of looking. Surveillance masquerades as tourist attraction in Spahr’s Distress Crufts and as the tourists’ interactions with their many new environments in Weberg and Willim’s Being There. Kenneth White’s Pine Point examines notions of surveillance and nature in relation to complicity.
Working towards the goal of environmental sustainability, it is necessary to consider the multiplicity of environments that we all inhabit, and their effects on each other. Sylvia Grace Borda’s Eknewtown is an artist’s documentation of the relationship between the natural and built environments. It also questions political will and egalitarianism in housing issues. Mapping material and historical territories in the virtual environment, Ismail Farouk and Babak Fakhamzadeh’s Soweto Uprising commemorates a significant moment in South African history in a nonlinear and interactive format. This design ensures that, at least in this project, history is written collaboratively.
Survival and food also figure in digital visions of sustainability. Bryan Konefsky’s Chicken Delight and Artur Augustynowicz’s two remixed films, Meat Cutter and Cheese Burger, bring our attention to the unsustainable and unappetizing methods of modern food production. While often tongue-in-cheek, these works are reminders of the multiple ways in which we either sustain or contaminate the environment.
Drawing inspiration from the Bantu-language African philosophies that foreground interconnectedness and interdependence, ubuntu.kuqala applies this somewhat different conception of intersubjectivity to explore understandings of sustainability as a collective pursuit. It also suggests that online arts media can affect awareness and positive change. We are encouraged by the Internet’s capacity to facilitate collaborative works in the spirit of ubuntu, as is demonstrated in some of the work selected for this exhibition. At the same time, we recognize that the global digital divide remains the greatest obstacle to facilitating connections between the global North and the global South. The digital divide also interferes with our mutual interdependence, particularly about urgent issues that affect us all.
Recognizing that only 12 percent of the world is wired and that only 16 percent of the world is serviced with telephone lines, the United Nations inaugurated its Digital Solidarity Fund in March 2005 to underwrite initiatives that address “the uneven distribution and use of new information and communication technologies” and to “enable excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the information society.” Closing the digital divide, of course, extends beyond mere access to computers or the Internet. Its significance reaches into the very core of sustainability, including solutions that will improve health care services and the availability of clean drinking water.
We hope that ubuntu.kuqala becomes a space for making new connections between digital media arts and sustainability across the digital divide. We hope that you enjoy making all sorts of disparate connections in the works that we’ve selected. We hope your interactions with this work will bring you to a working theory and practice of ubuntu.
Borrowing the hacker term for useless and badly designed computer programming, Robert Spahr’s (USA) Crufts deploys the software suite ImageMagick and algorithmic scripts written in the computer language of Perl to manipulate images by following automated instructions. Crufts harvests images from the Internet to form composite images, generated 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Distress Cruft, for example, examines the practice of camouflaging security practices as a tourist-friendly service at the Empire State Building where visitors are offered the opportunity to purchase their security photograph as a souvenir. Such images are composited with the image of a U.S. flag displayed to symbolize distress. Babylon Cruft harvests images from the U.S. Air Force websites and images from Internet porn sites. Each Cruft contains an archive.
Self-guided interface permits users to navigate an interactive archive and map of East Kilbridge, Scotland’s first “New Town” in Eknewntown Conceived after the Second World War, the concept of the New Town embraced modernist ideals to create spaces for social living and well-being, camouflaging with the environment through an emphasis on light, green space, and open air. By 2006, most New Towns were in process of being altered, demolished, or sold to developers.
Lead artist in Eknewntown, Sylvia Grace Borda (Canada) describes the project as “Eugène Atget meets Allan Sekula,” referencing a photographer whose mysterious images of modern Paris, largely devoid of humans, enchanted the surrealists and another photographer whose writing and images critique social and economic relationships of late modernism. The website includes more than 8,000 digital images of modernist structures taken by Borda, as well as the creative responses of students and teachers, with a mandate to educate and campaign residents to reconsider saving their architectural heritage. Unlike the tourist-destination cites highlighted in Being There (see below), there are no commercially available ephemera for residents of East Kilbridge.
Created by the human rights organization, Witness (USA), the Hub, is an online venue for exposure, organizing, and action around urgent human rights content from human rights organizations, grassroots activists, and citizen eyewitnesses around the world. Cameras are used to tell stories about, and document instances of, human rights abuses on the grassroots level, making them effective tools that complement the human rights works of the organization. The Hub utilizes the Internet as its distributive medium, where everyone can see, discuss, and take action against human rights issues.
Like Eknewtown (see above), Ismail Farouk (South Africa) and Babak Fakhamzadeh’s (Iran) collaborative work Soweto Uprising maps history onto place in ways that avoid the fixity of physical memorials and in situ installations by utilizing the Internet as a site for ongoing negotiations and contestations over past events. The web-application mash-up of images from Google Maps and images of key sites in the student uprisings on June 16, 1976, Soweto Uprising follows routes and related events in the African township of Soweto (“SOuth WEstern TOwnship” in Johannesburg) during a moment in South African history that would become galvanized by various political groups as a symbol of popular resistance to Apartheid. The site allows users to register and post comments, thereby opening the history of the uprisings to testimonies from participants that often contradict official versions of this history, specifically African National Congress (ANC) claims to involvements in the organization of the student uprisings.
No Television is an activist project by Fabián Giles (México) that critiques the mass media for providing its captive audiences less with information about the world than with banal fictions and distractions that manipulate thinking and action. The blog contains submissions of graphic, photo, and audiovisual work from Europe, North America, and South Asia, including video.freegar.org, which interrogates various ideas about México and Giorgio Celon’s “11-9,” which takes an MTV-style look at the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center in New York.
Outside No Television, Giles’s short video I Hate distills the simplicity of media icons and hatred with such memorable images as a bottle of Coca-Cola announcing, “I hate god” and an atomic explosion announcing, “I hate CNN.”
The interaction between the media/technology and its viewing subject has always been intriguing and subjected to endless speculation. With the interactivity provided for by digitality, it seems that technology might even respond. In Law of Attraction , Ramie Blatt (Canada) explores such an idea, speculating on how the virtual might take on a semblance of life. A nest of ant-like creatures appears on the computer screen and, seemingly sensing the movement of your mouse, follows and swarms around the cursor. Blatt’s Mirror Series No. 3: I See (the) You explores notions of self-perception, as images on the screen respond to the observer’s own response to these images. Images on the computer screen come to embody mirrored reflection of self generated by artificial intelligence.
Geoffrey Pugen’s (Canada) Return to Animalia respectfully satirizes early theories of cyberspace that heralded the Internet as a space free from the limitations of physical bodies in an era of ubiquitous avatars and visual personas. The portal introduces users to the fictional Institute of Utopics, which promises an animal-metamorphosis program that will allow people to transcend the limitations of their human body and transform into their “inner animal” in a future-based community.
Aerobia, the promotional video for Utopics’s seven-step program for super-modification of the human body, adopts the rhetorical and aesthetic devices of late-night infomercials that have altered our media environment. Virtual selves, composed in jpegs and recognized by usernames, may be viewed on a web-application mash-up that links a NASA satellite photograph of the earth with avatar biomes from Utopics.
With Pine Point , Kenneth White (USA) uses the event of a young couple’s trip to the seashore to take engagement photographs as an opportunity to explore the relationship between technology and nature, between work and leisure, between space and time. The carefully composed shots, along with the short video’s ambient soundtrack of waves breaking softly on the sands of the beach, reveal what stands to be lost with increased attention to environmentalism.
Thinking of food beyond hunger pangs, Chicken Delight by Bryan Konefsky (USA) is an Internet film about food production that results in harm instead of sustenance. Touching on issues such as irradiated chicken and cannibalistic lobsters, Chicken Delight is a darkly satirical look at manmade environmental disasters, deterioration of health, and creative growths of tumors.
By appropriating and repurposing media images and found footages of food production, advertising, and food related television programs, Artur Augustynowicz’s (Canada) Meat Cutter and Cheese Burger are meditations on the processes of food production. Much like the situationist-inspired ways in which images are pilfered and mashed up to make these films, animals are killed and ground up to take their place on every dining table.
Being There is a collection of six short films by Anders Weberg and Robert Willim (Sweden) that examine the question of what constitutes an authentic experience from the vantage point of tourists hungry for the exotic and unique. Described as “audiovisual excursions beneath the gloss of tourism rhetoric,” these videos explore spaces between pleasure and fear in the global hotspots of London, Madrid, Moscow, Mumbai, Paris, and Tokyo. Video comprises clips from tourist movies, and audio is composed from demo sounds in sample libraries so that these videos critique the staple tropes of the tourism industry. The videos may be streamed or downloaded onto computers and mobile phones.