September 27, 2013
In this article I will address concepts of identity politics and representation, the social construction of categories such as ethnicity, nationality and how these are mediated by digital technologies. I will look at the contemporary construction of Diaspora identity in the ‘globalized’ era, where all subjects are increasingly embedded in global ‘mediascapes’ (Appadurai, 1996), with the formation of ‘transnational’ subjectivities. I will look at how the means and content of Diaspora identity construction may be changing with digital network cultures, where the online realm has been conceptualised as a site of potentially different forms of community construction. I will look at the visual representations that are circulated and inform collective narratives in Diaspora identity construction, from individual self-expression situating oneself within a community via social media networks from Facebook to YouTube, to images of conflict in the ‘homeland’ in both official and Citizen Journalist news media, and how these compound or compete with one another. I narrow down to look specifically at Middle Eastern Diaspora(s) in the West, to draw from biographical experience as third-generation Lebanese living in the UK to question the supposed ‘privileged knowledge’ and ‘inherent’ connection to the ‘homeland’ associated with Diaspora identity, and how such assumptions become naturalized and internalized. This article is in part an attempt to find a position at the intersection of multiple narratives and discourses, and to attempt to negotiate and reconcile with subjects that often have emotive, ambivalent and loaded associations. I look at Diaspora as a constructed group and imagined community (Anderson, 1983), how certain narratives can enable or oppress individual and community identity construction, and the possibilities of choice and self-determination, as well as dis-identification forming a counter-identity based on different values – both in the social realm, and in and through art. I refer to artworks that attempt to express Diaspora experience as well as looking at how the Middle East is represented in the West by art professionals, and how these representations contribute to knowledge production about the region.
CONCEPTS OF DIASPORA AND TRANSNATIONALISM
Transnationalism is a broad term describing a wide range of interconnected phenomena, from a ‘mode of cultural reproduction, as an avenue of capital, as a site of political engagement, and as a reconstruction of ‘place’ or locality’ (after Vertovec, 1999). The term encompasses the multiple ties and flows across national borders, including flows of capital, inter-governmental organisations, migratory flows and social networks, though I will look specifically at it’s impact on identity and individual and collective cultures, where Diasporas have been described by (Tololyan, 1991) as ‘the exemplary communities of the transnational moment’ (1991: 5). The existence of Diaspora communities is both empirical and experiential, where theorists conceive of it as a ‘condition’ and a ‘consciousness…marked by dual or multiple identifications’ (Vertovec, 1999). Diaspora continues to be a problematic term using ideas of a ‘people’ as a fixed stable community defined and delimited by some kind of link to an essentialized ‘homeland’. It could be debated whether a collective consciousness delimited by social groups can exist at all given that we are highly positioned, situated subjects, who may interpret common experiences and symbols radically differently (after Hall , 1991). Ideas of de-centredness, in-betweenness and simultaneity are said to be held by the Diasporic subject. The Diaspora is often used as a metaphor for the transitory, nomadic (Kaplan, 1996) or ‘transgressive’ with its cross-border movements and ongoing (re)constructions and (re)categorizations of it’s position in the host country, despite often being very different from the lived material reality of migration. This somehow confers onto Diaspora populations a greater ability for self-reflexivity and self-awareness, where the hybridization of cultures is posited as a radical and conscious choice seemingly celebrated by theorists, rather than everyday and banal as it may appear to the individual experiencing it. In opposition to the above theorists’ conceptualization of Diaspora as being inherently a transgressive and destabilising presence in identity construction, many Diaspora narratives employ a ‘restorative’ nostalgia (as opposed to ‘critical’ nostalgia) (Boym, 2001) to preserve, replace or re-build a connection that has perceivably been ‘lost’ in their displacement. From informal family archives to official institutional archives, they rely on certain imagery to ‘embody’ and ‘transmit’ memories inter-generationally (Hirsch, 2012). Rather than a liberating Transnationalism ‘from below’ (Smith and Guarnizo, 1998) through individual movements and informal processes, it is often transnationalism ‘from above’ through Transnational Corporations and international political institutions that dictate transnational movements, where capital is the ‘the primary agent’ behind rapid rates of globalization (Westaway, 2012). Cultural theorists often overlook the material realities of the majority of people involved in transnational networks, from corporate exploitation and human rights violations, to their entanglement with illegal and violent networks of people, organ and drug trafficking and organized crime (Castells, 2000).
REPRESENTATION AND DIASPORA IDENTITY POLITICS
Diaspora communities form a minority group in their ‘host’ society, which are often excluded and under-represented, so alternative representations are formed to counter dominant historical narratives. The politics of representation is both cultural and material, where a disproportionate number of Diasporan ethnic minorities in London for example live in poorer areas with higher unemployment and poorer education (N.Buck et al, 2002). Deconstruction of categories of identity as an emancipatory act may be at odds with being presented as a collectivity in order to gain real material needs, such as the population threshold and perceived demand for a Mosque to be built in a local London borough, or safety in face of violent Islamophobic organisations such as the English Defence League. Yet the Diaspora community may become represented on behalf of a few given spokespeople, producing a ‘‘plural monoculturalism’ with power in the hands of self-identified community leaders’ (Kunzru, 2006). Is there the possibility for the individual to re- or dis-identify from these categories? ‘New ethnicities’ (Hall, 1991, Back, 1996) was a term produced to reflect a different kind of identity formation, predominantly in youth with transnational connections who understood identity to be flexible and relative: ‘self- consciously selected, syncretized and elaborated from more than one heritage’ (Hall 1991); here identity was considered hybrid, contingent and constantly in-process. Yet self-identification is more difficult in practice, where individual choice is relative and limited to the power dynamics in the social situation they are embedded in. Whilst potentially emancipatory these newer terms can in turn be equally oppressive and divisive but just use different signifiers, where instead of racial essentialism we now have cultural essentialism (Kunzru, 2006).
DIGITAL MEDIATION IN TRANSNATIONAL AND DIASPORA COMMUNICATION AND SELF-EXPRESSION
I am interested in how digital cultural networks affect this sense of individual group and identity, a consciousness of transnational or Diaspora ‘connectivity’, and it’s translation into material culture. The ongoing processes of construction of the self is apparently changing with online digital media, with greater availability of material for imagining ‘possible lives’ and ‘imagined selves’ (Appadurai, 2003); this can be exemplified by the more active ‘pro-sumer’ of social media networks, and the changing nature of news media with the rise of unofficial Citizen Journalism. The relations of moving-image production and distribution is changing, with increased means for the consumer to make and distribute their own films, with sites such as Youtube and Vimeo increasing viewer ‘participation’ and apparent redistribution of authorial control. Yet how active or passive is this consumption? Is transnational consumption really indicative of a meaningful transnational connection or consciousness? There is potential for political organization, as exemplified by the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011, and post-uprising political support and ‘new sense of belonging’ from youth in Arab Diaspora communities (Premazzi et al, 2013:71), both facilitated by digital communication. Digital networks can potentially re-form social relations, but they also compound existing ones (fig.1), and can be fleeting and superficial in their nature.
Figure 1. Screenshots of Youtube video comments section, demonstrating ideas of cultural exclusivity and authenticity. Accessed online 20.02.2013
Laura U. Marks (2002) contends that digitization is ‘far from an agent of dematerialization’ and that Web 2.0 ‘far from being virtual, indexes several levels of material, interconnected life’ (2002). They are not de-materialized, but re-orientated towards a new kind of materiality. Transnationalism is not just a ‘set of abstracted…cultural flows’ (Mitchell 1997), but has a grounded reality, with expression in material culture in the local-to-local links or ‘translocalities’ (Appadurai 1996), as visibly manifested in domestic Satellite dishes and internet cafes in the Turkish Diaspora community living in Hackney, London for example. Digital networks do not transcend the physical and can also be cut off, as seen in the Syrian government shut down of nationwide internet access amid recent conflict (Chulov, 2012). The efficacy of communication technology depends on the infrastructures available, where my Skype calls to Beirut or Dubai experience constant glitches. There still exist multiple cultural and physical boundaries in the supposedly metaterritorial realm of cyberspace, as seen in Taryn Simon’s and Aaron Swartz’s ‘Image Atlas’ (2012) (fig.2) which indexes the most popular image results per search term via local search engines. The project visualizes the differences and similarities of results by country, as well as displaying (mis)translations and interpretations of the search term by each search engine. It displays the most popular and well-distributed images, which Simon (2012) contends are those that enter the public consciousness and contribute to ‘mass taste’, and displays how these differ geographically. The Internet is often looked at with ‘hyperbole’ and as ‘somehow bringing light to the world’ (Graham, 2010:283) where the idea of the digital commons as a space for free production and circulation is a simplistic concept, where any common resource is not democratically and equally available and in itself embodies a number of inequalities (Steyerl, 2009).
Figure 2. Image Atlas (2012) Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz.
Screenshot of Image Atlas demonstrating the geographical differentiation of search results by country (featuring France, Germany, India, Iran and Israel) for the search term ‘SOPA’ (Stop Online Piracy Act). Source: Imageatlas.org
CONTEMPORARY NEWS MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS OF THE MIDDLE EAST
Whilst the West and Non-West binary (as Self-Other) is in part becoming increasingly destabilized, it is also in part being reified with a resurgence of Orientalist representations in the West post- 9/11. ‘Islam’ (often reductively conflated to Arabs and/or the Middle East region, despite Islamic communities existing internationally) has become the new scapegoat for Western powers, the historically changing ‘other’ which becomes the ‘figure of identification for the object of fear’ (Rancière,1995:3) arbitrarily constructed to suit certain needs; such representations are entangled with recent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq amongst others, which it serves to justify. Instead of improving over time, there seems to be even more ‘highly exaggerated stereotyping and belligerent hostility’ towards Islam in the Western media than the First Gulf War 1990-91 (Said, 1997:xi). Yet simultaneously there has been increasing cynicism and distrust of news media by popular audiences, and also of the ‘objective’ image with an awareness of its constructed nature, where widespread availability of images via the Internet at great speed has changed audience interactions with them in a variety of ways. Ganguly (2013) claims that such hyperconnectivity has had an adverse effect on human sensibility, further contributing to the ‘image fatigue’ of certain photojournalistic imagery. The traditional intention of presenting images of conflict to provoke humanitarian sympathy may now invoke different affects, from indifference (or divorce from affect (Kraus, 2006)) to entertainment. This can be indirect, where in much official news media war is presented as a ‘TV show, reality TV, in which people fight and die, broadcast live’ (Munch, Koydl and Flottau, 2003), or direct, where videos of beheadings are uploaded alongside clips of amateur porn (Malik, 2006). Despite an increasing awareness of the constructed nature of the image certain ideas about moving image technology persist, where images of conflict in news media reports continue to be discussed in terms of ‘evidence’ and ‘bearing witness’ (Schuppli, 2013). The ‘live feed’ for example, as a relatively new form of representation is often held to be an unedited, unframed form of representation. Certain representations of reality in turn become the epitome of reality, where new signifiers of reality and authenticity become the most ‘real’ representation possible. This was specifically important to the Western media perception of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, where the Citizen Journalist footage was seen as more accurate and trustworthy in its proximity to the event and immediacy of transmission.
ARTIST REPRESENTATION OF DIASPORA EXPERIENCE: EXPERIMENTAL MOVING IMAGE
A range of artists’ experimental moving image works explore displacement and Diaspora identity politics, from Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98) to Otolith Group (2002-ongoing), with more personal introspections from Mona Hatoum’s ‘Measures of Distance’ (1988) to John Akomfrah’s ‘The Call of Mist [Redux]’ (1998 ). They often use what Laura U. Marks (2000) calls the Haptic Image, with blurred, close-up shots as ‘a close-up and tactile way of looking’ used to affectively evoke sensory experience and memory (2000:4). Marks identifies these works as being different from preceding movements of experimental cinema due to the Diaspora artists specific experiences, where she argues that the Haptic Image has become the predominant ‘emerging expression of a group of people who share the political issues of displacement and hybridity’ (2000:2), as their ‘sensoria are not completely at home in either place‘ (2000:230). She claims that the ‘physical effects of exile, immigration and displacement… cause a disjunction in notions of truth.’ (Marks, 2000:1); yet experiences of displacement, or critically questioning ‘truths’ may not be limited to Diaspora or minority communities. Marks’ attribution of the Diasporan individual having a greater capacity for sensory experience and exploration of memory over other individuals may be yet another romanticization.
Figure 3. Examples of the Haptic Image: Stills from ‘Measures of Distance’ (1988) by Mona Hatoum (video, 15 mins) and The Call of Mist (1998) by John Akomfrah (video, 11 mins).
REPRESENTATION WITHIN AND THROUGH CONTEMPORARY INTERNATIONAL ART NETWORKS
Various ‘artworld(s)’ or international networks of artist professionals also contribute to the knowledge production of the Middle East and its Diaspora, authoring and curating certain representations. Important questions of representation remain in terms of what is represented, by whom, and for what purpose. Yet these are often reduced to unhelpfully simplistic distinctions of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ knowledges, and the supposed ‘privileged knowledge’ of certain people by virtue of their nationality or ethnic lineage. Many artists and curators self-reflexively acknowledge their positionality, and that whilst national and regional contexts may inform the works they do not determine them; they continue to use such categories but strategically and as a practical means for organization and distribution of the work. Yet certain forms of art production and distribution utilise a certain interpretation of ‘cross-cultural’ dialogue as if culture were a relatively fixed entity that can be explained and ‘translated’ by selected representatives on either ‘side’, where the artwork is often framed as a cultural product for ‘export’. ‘Culture’ does not remain in tact, and the interpretation of cultural products will be contingent on context and may be infinitely re-contextualised. Broadly speaking, in the last 20 years that has been a simultaneous integration of wider geographical regions into certain art scenes, but also a continuation of national and regional differentiation. The Biennale is an example of a format that perpetuates such geographical differentiation, being a platform for international artists and curators to come together albeit one that originated from the competitive nationalist ‘World Fair’ format. Despite its history, geographical determinism and questionable political dynamics, there are events that take place within it that re-invent the form of the Biennale itself, including different spatial scales of pavilion in the 2013 Venice Biennale in the ‘Peckham Pavilion’ based on a functioning artistic community in London rather than seemingly arbitrary official national borders. Outside the traditional Biennale there are web-based Biennales such as ‘Biennale Online’ and ‘Web Biennale’, though these still originated from physically grounded institutions (Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum) and still tend to define artists and curators by geographical origin. Such international structures, albeit flawed, can be an appropriate platform to speak critically about international issues to an international audience (or at least an international audience of mainly collectors, curators and artists), as did the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 2012 in its discussion of global ‘crisis’ and global resistance (Hogan, 2012), as well as the ‘Collapse and Recovery’ theme of Documenta 13 (2012). It is both through and in reference to nationally-based structures of organisation and distribution that artists can question ideas of the nation-state to an international audience, as seen in Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson’s installation Il Tuo Paese Non Esiste (Your Country Doesn´t Exist, 2011) for the 54th Venice Biennale, as noted by Kathleen Macqueen (2013). Despite much use of the ‘globalization’ rhetoric as a marketing tool, there is also much critical artwork exploring these processes, as Demos (2009) has explored in looking at moving image works that acknowledge the ‘ambivalent reality’ of globalised migratory movements, and its interlinkages with conflict, poverty, and ecology.
The curating of exhibitions related to the ‘Middle East’ in the West has had a resurgence in recent years, where it can be seen as topical both in its persistent media coverage in the West, as well as its perceived opening up as a ‘market’ for the international art scene. In London, UK alone there were a number of major exhibitions in 2013, from ‘Light in the Middle East’ at the V&A Museum to Saloon Raouda Choucair’s solo show at the Tate Modern amongst others, as well as associated exhibitions and events as part of the Shubbak ‘festival of Arab culture’. Much of it claimed to give the region greater visibility, even though it may be a selective form of visibility for a specific audience. This process of authorship, as well as expansion of Western commercial arts organizations into the Middle East, is reflexively explored in Walid Ra’ad’s Scratching on Things I Could Disavow; which included a performance giving a pseudo-fictional account of ‘Arab art history’ at Documenta 13, demonstrating the perpetual (re)writing of (art)history(-ies).
This article has looked at a selection of the broad range of factors that contribute to constructing Diaspora identity politics on different scales (individual to nation), via different means (direct experience, social media, news media) and how these operate in the contemporary transnational era. In contrast to utopian ideas of transnationalism as a ‘freeflow’ of information, people and goods across borders, definite empirical realities still exist. There is an on-going social construction of spatial boundaries, but also their physical manifestation, through internet regulation, border control and transport channels, which in turn inform and re-form the social sphere. Digital networks, whilst having the potential to re-form social structures, also in part confirm previously established social groups along lines of nation or ethnicity. Online social connections occur through the consumption and production of visual media, where the nature of visual media and our relationship to it is changing. I have looked briefly at artistic representations of Diaspora experience through experimental moving image artworks, the renewed interest in the Middle East in the Western art world, and the problems and politics of (mis)representation when using older geographic categories of nation or region in curating and distributing art works. Whilst exploring the problems that arise in attempting to represent Diaspora experience, a few questions remain: given the inability of the image to represent certain experiences, from individual memory to the realities of conflict, how does one represent that which can’t be represented; is self-reflexivity enough to counter-balance the burden(s) of representation, or can alternative constructive action be taken? In a discussion on ‘the trouble with image politics’ between Iain Boal, Dr. Juliet Steyn and Astra Taylor (2012), it was suggested that a possible solution is stopping the production of new images altogether. Whereas Kember and Zylinksa (2012) assert that it is the attitude or consciousness towards the image and new media that needs to be addressed; this can be negotiated through a different kind of engagement and performativity, to begin to reconfigure current technology-knowledge-power relations in image production (2012).
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Sophie Hoyle (b.1986) is an artist and writer that lives and works in London. She is currently undertaking an MFA at Goldsmiths University, London.
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