The (Networked) Image in Conflict: Digital Archives, Cultural Activism, and the Dilemma of Evidence
Anthony Downey (Professor of Visual Culture in the Middle East and North Africa, Birmingham City University)
Have artists and cultural institutions realigned how we look at and engage with political activism, historical events, and revolutionary conflict? The extent to which the visual arts reflected upon and promoted social and political change during and after the Arab Spring gives rise to this and other questions about digital archives, cultural activism, and the dilemma of evidence in an age of networked communication systems. Throughout this time, digital archives — produced through video- and film-making, performances, and numerous media platforms — and their evidentiary contexts became closely associated with activist practices, leading to a number of prevailing assumptions about both cultural production in the region and the effectiveness of digital and social media as tools for enabling political transformation. In light of these conjectures, and revelations concerning the on-going role of social media in surveillance and the proliferation of disinformation, this keynote will propose a critical framework for artists, cultural institutions, and policy-makers alike to engage with both the potential and, crucially, the shortcomings of cultural activism during this period.
The 2018 International Conference of Photography and Theory (ICPT 2018) interweaves the ideas of the conflictual and the archival in relation to the photographic image.
Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (2017) edited by Anthony Downey
Rawan Sharaf Khatib
This volume is an extensive anthology that investigates the history and current politics of cultural institutions and production in the Middle East. It is the latest addition to the series ‘Visual Culture in the Middle East’ published by Ibraaz, and was preceded by Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East (2014) and Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (2015). The series, which is based on questions raised in Ibraaz’s ‘Platforms for discussion’, attempts to interpret and comprehend how the accelerated regional upheaval, with the social and economic breakdown caused by revolutions, counter-revolutions and civil wars, has echoed in visual and cultural practices in terms of responses to the specific antagonisms, and the developing of alternative structures and models of production while operating in precarious political conditions. And how, simultaneously, cultural production in the region is influenced by the global cultural economy, and perhaps even co-opted, or at least driven by, the politics and parameters of a globalised art market.
For the full review see Third Text online review here.
On the occasion of their show “Unconformities” at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige will be in conversation with Anthony Downey to discuss the work relevance to Athens, Beirut and Paris, and their broader practice as researchers and film-makers. The event is an Onassis Culture international co-production as part of the Onassis Fast Forward Festival 5.
The following edited transcript of a conversation between John Akomfrah and Anthony Downey took place at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery on 12 October 2017. The event coincided with Akomfrah’s installation of his six-channel film Purple in the gallery (6 October 2017 – 7 January 2018) and begins with a discussion of the film’s main ideas and how the artist’s interest in ‘clearing the stage’ enabled him to invite new elements into both the film and into his working practice. Although Purple has a starting point in aspects of Akomfrah’s biography, its subject matter is much broader and far-reaching taking in, as it does, the so-called Anthropocene epoch. The latter term is being widely used to designate a period in which human activity has shifted from being a ‘biological agent’ ‒ impacting on a specific and largely localised environment ‒ to becoming a ‘geological agent’; capable, that is, of radically altering the world’s relatively stable climate patterns.
If the disavowal or absence of legal and political representation before the law is a feature of being a refugee in an era of political exceptionalism, then what happens when artistic representation is inserted into this already compromised regime of visibility? In an all too amenable substitution that can often reconfirm the apparent absence of legal accountability, this lecture will suggest that cultural forms of representation are increasingly compensating for — if not replacing — the very systems and procedures of political and legal responsibility that are being denied refugees in the first place? This culturalisation of political debate has, in turn, effected one of the key aims of neoliberalism: the de facto co-option of culture so that it ultimately answers to and performs, rather than opposes, political debate.
Who Benefits from the Work of Art: Political Exceptionalism and the Refugee Condition
A lecture by Anthony Downey
If the disavowal or absence of legal and political representation is a feature of being a refugee in an era of political exceptionalism, then what happens when artistic representation is inserted into this already compromised regime of visibility? In an all too amenable substitution that can often reconfirm the apparent absence of legal accountability, this lecture will suggest that cultural forms of representation are increasingly compensating for — if not replacing — the very systems and procedures of political and legal responsibility that are being denied refugees in the first place? This culturalisation of political debate has, in turn, effected two of the key aims of neoliberalism: the depoliticisation of debate and the de facto co-option of culture so that it ultimately answers to, rather than opposes, political debate.
The conversation will be in English with simultaneous translation into Russian. For further information, see here.
Join us on Wednesday 25 October for a conversation between Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and writer and academic Anthony Downey. On the occasion of Ai’s first monographic exhibition in Belgium, they will talk about pressing issues including privacy and surveillance, the global refugee crisis and the critical potential of photography in the age of social media. The exhibition at FOMU runs from 27 October 2017 until 18 February 2018.
A full transcript of the conversation will be available in February, 2018, from Third Text.
For tickets and information: https://www.facebook.com/events/120248605322937/
The workshop brings together theorists and practitioners to highlight the diversity of critical and theoretical perspectives. The workshop will focus on justice, journalism, documentary film, and art as overlapping sectors of the activist media ecology, each of which produces different kinds of public concern in regard to image activism in the Middle East.
Professor Downey will present a paper on the 8th of September in the Image Activism and Artistic Practice panel.
Prompted by factors such as globalization, digitization and mediatization, the role and impact of archives are currently undergoing decisive changes.The changing role of the archive as political technology has impacted the understanding and conduct of contemporary warfare. Whereas military and states used to control the production of information about – and thus also mainstream news’ media coverage of – warfare, different actors now leak, mass-produce, circulate, and mobilize information across various media platforms. Professor Downey will be presenting his paper “The Archive as Alibi”, an abstract of which is include below.
To learn more about the conference please click here
Conference Paper Abstract
The Archive as Alibi
The photographic archive has been increasingly represented as an example of how visual “evidence” can be deployed for political, historical, ethical and economic ends. As a result, image-based archives have become associated with interrogative, critical, and juridical gestures: they are expected to do something, even if that is largely concerned with providing, to paraphrase Harun Farocki, a form of testimony against the archival image. In turn, there has been a critical and legal investment in the idea (if not ideal) of the photographic archive as an evidentiary form of witnessing that will in time answer to, if not ameliorate, present-day injustices. This is all the more evident in the wake of an unprecedented refugee crisis — one that now far exceeds the number of displaced refugees in Europe post-1945 — and revolutions across the Middle East. Images, in these contexts, are often positioned as proof of engagement and confirmation of responsibility; their archival potential apparently representing a bulwark against future forgetfulness. However, is it possible, this paper will ask, that the ongoing production and subsequent archiving of these images — specifically those of migrants and other displaced communities — are being submitted as compensation for the political and legal representation that is both withdrawn from, and thereafter denied to, refugees in the first place? Is it conceivable that photographic archives are not only becoming complicit in neutralizing political effect, but also in co-opting the political affect surrounding the figure of the refugee and the principle of justice? As models of visual representation, finally, what historical value will contemporary images of refugees — and their status as future-oriented archives — have as a tool for retrospectively enquiring into what occurred in an era defined by short-sighted protectionism, political exceptionalism and opportunistic extremism?
Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K Edited by Anthony Downey. Contributors: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Natasha Ginwala, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Aneta Szyłak, and Bakir Ali. Publisher: Walther König Verlag. Publication Date: May 31, 2017. 244 pp. Colour illustrations.
Last time I saw my mom before my farewell, I said, “Mom, I am leaving for good. I don’t know… maybe I will not make it like the other 28 people who got shot last week” . She said “Son, if death comes, don`t panic. It is just death”.
Hiwa K, “Don’t Panic”, 2016
Covering over decade of projects, Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K provides the first comprehensive account of the artist’s practice to date. Edited by Anthony Downey, with a foreword by Heike Catherina Mertens and Krist Gruijthuijsen, the volume includes essays by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Natasha Ginwala, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Aneta Szyłak, and a conversation between the artist and Bakir Ali. A series of texts have been prepared and revised by the artist, and he has also included a collection of anecdotes that recount gossip, stories, jokes, personal insights, conundrums, and aphorisms garnered from multiple sources. These have all been translated into Kurdish for the first time. The volume is fully illustrated and will contain extended notes on the works.
To read Anthony Downey’s essay, “Unbearable States: Hiwa K and the Performance of Everyday Life”, see here