[-empyre-] Against documentation, for the Essay

Richard Wright futurenatural at blueyonder.co.uk
Fri Nov 8 00:30:55 EST 2013

Hi there,

great posts on a very demanding and complex issue in arts practice.

I want to offer an example of a way that we went about trying to extend the domain of an arts project (which I think of as a bit different to an artwork) when I used to work as part of the Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji artists collective until 2009. This is, I think, an argument against documentation and for the wider poeticising of an arts project using artistic use of media systems, and through that reaching a wider audience.

We had done a project called "Telephone Trottoire" a few years previously with a Congolese radio program called Nostalgie Ya Mboka. This was, very briefly, to invent a telephone network for the Congolese community in the UK to pass around messages and share opinions on topical subjects, often to do with their experiences as asylum seekers and refugees in Europe. It was very popular and we got arts funding to do a larger scale version in 2008. But the network was all in the Congolese language of Lingala and participated in by growing the social networks in Congolese communities so it was difficult for anyone else to appreciate what was going on.

So our solution was to connect it to a gallery based artwork called "Tantalum Memorial", a memorial made for the 4 million Congolese who have died as result of the Coltan wars, built out of racks of mechanical telephony switches. Tantalum is the metal derived from coltan mining in the Congo. The traffic in this valuable metal is now used in mobile phones and many other media devices and this trade is siphoned off by militia to finance fighting in the Eastern Congo, exacerbating political conditions that have caused many Congolese to leave for Europe (and the Congolese love using their mobile phones, so you see the contradictions already). "Tantalum Memorial" is built from old Strowger switches, the first automated telephone system invented in 1891 by an American undertaker Almon Strowger, at a time when the Congo was being enslaved by Europeans such as  Belgium, for industrial materials including rubber used to insulate the new telephone cables.

This is how it works. When a Congolese person makes a call through the "Telephone Trottoire" network it triggers the rack of strowger switches in the gallery. So people can physically see the calls happening and get a sense of a historical perspective on how the development of telecommunications technology over 100 years has had such raft of social and political ramifications. There are also call pattern displays on a monitor and an audio playback of the Trottoire topics (which are all in Lingala so not many people will understand directly but that's okay in this context). Linking these two media projects brought together issues of globalisation, immigration and the history of telecommunications in a more poetic context that allowed the references to keep circulating in a way that did not try to resolve these very complex issues like a conventional documentary would tend to. So we felt that an artwork was a good way to allow an audience to explore the many sides of such a very intricate and involved subject.

I also think of the project's form in terms of the difference between a documentary and an essay film (which is more my core practice) - in my opinion an essay being a better approach to articulating difficult, contradictory, multi-layered subjects.

Artivism for Activism. Artworks for Artivism.

There's a full description here on an old web site: http://mediashed.org/TantalumMemorial
and video documentation (can't entirely get away from it!) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LlN20Aj--0

Richard Wright

> Message: 2
> Date: Tue, 5 Nov 2013 20:39:57 -0500
> From: rbuiani <rbuiani at gmail.com>
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] welcome and initial ruminations
> Message-ID: <167E96FA-17B7-4E7E-A2B8-EB06D883A2A7 at gmail.com>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset=iso-8859-1
> hi all from the crack-smoking-mayor city,
> I couldn't help responding to this thread. I was attracted by the topic of documenting activism in the age of networks and by the fact that this post comes quite explicitly from toronto but  doesn't mention, nor it indicates the interest for any local practice in Toronto involved in dealing with this very issue. This combination got me a bit puzzled and at the same time intrigued. I have these two preliminary questions: Does the global nature of networks prevent us from addressing (digitally) events and movements happening literally across the street in our cities? does the explosive noise of famous (Ai Weiwei), well-organized and already well-documented events make them more worth of attention than other minor, messier, less organized and poorly documented local and grassroots movements? 


> intriguing topic, indeed
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> PhD in communication and culture, 
> Department of Communication Studies, York University
> programmer ArtSci Salon http://artscisalon.wordpress.com/
> program advisor Subtle Technologies Festival http://subtletechnologies.com
> http://atomarborea.net
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 
> On Nov 5, 2013, at 11:04 AM, Selmin Kara wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Hello everyone from Toronto,
>> "Documenting digital artivism" is perhaps a loaded topic, as it points to an intersection among four different areas of research and practice: documentary practices and documentation, digital practices and new media, art, and activism. In my own experience, discussing these four things under the same framework poses a challenge as people often ask for clarification especially in relation to what artivism implies or how it can be distinguished from other modes of activism that entail documentation and mediation (which are themselves perceived as artistic activities). 
>> The resistance comes from 3 main objections.
>> How to approach documentation, art, and activism in the age of networks, then? Instead of responding to that question with a clear definition, I suggest opening it up to discussion here. Hopefully, our responses (criticisms and resistances) will be diverse.
>> Sincerely,
>> Selmin 
>> Selmin Kara
>> Assistant Professor of Documentary and New Media
>> OCAD University
>> _______________________________________________
>> empyre forum
>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
>> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
> ------------------------------
> Message: 3
> Date: Tue, 5 Nov 2013 21:09:48 -0500
> From: micha c?rdenas <mmcarden at usc.edu>
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Subject: [-empyre-] Against Documentary,	Artivism vs. Social Practice
> 	and Autonets
> Message-ID:
> 	<CAJR8yGNbehw1maWc=r9z+kJhKncYEUaeNY=FtL0h6w1fpoKbTg at mail.gmail.com>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="windows-1252"
> Hello all,
> Thank you so much Patrick, Selmin and Camilla for organizing this wonderful
> and provocative month on empyre! Also, I?m happy to say that nowadays I?m
> based between the US and Canada, as a visiting researcher at University of
> Toronto working with Patrick. Forgive my excessive first post, I was in
> airports and planes all day.

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