October 18, 2005

Re:Activism Conference, Budapest (15/16 October)

Together with Laura Forlano (NYCWireless), Andrew Patterson (AWARE/MediaLab, UIAH) and Christian Sandvig (University of Illinois Urbana) I participated in the New Media Activism and the Urban Fabric panel at the Re:Activism conference in Budapest last week. Our panel considered some of the issues and concerns with thinking of new media and media arts practices as 'activism', as well as responding to issues raised by the papers presented as part of the panel's theme.

Differences in styles of practice and whether or not the label of activism was appropriate or even necessary was one of the key topics of discussion, as well as the roles played by artists and activists in social processes. The inherent problems we attempted to address included attempting to define 'activism', as it means different things to different people, and the more problematic questions of "for whom it is enacted?" and "by whom?". As a panel we had previously discussed a number of issues, and found common ground in agreeing that the importance of these forms of practice were not always in delivering technical infrastructures but the social structures underpinning projects. Christian initiated a wider discussion on the problems of scale – at what point is it just not enough to continue doing small scale experiments and projects? How can we begin to imagine scaling up to reach/affect much larger communities?

Towards the end of the session, Daniel Tucker from Counter Productive Industries made a significant intervention by summarising some of the key issues at stake. From my notes –
• the interpretation of the efficacies of scale
• visibility of the interventions and impacts
• numbers of people involved or affected
• the pleasure and desire of participation
• the material effect of the activism/project
• risks involved (for participants/actors/communities etc)
• role of stories and education in angaging with communities
The discussion of these then threw up a few other issues:
• internal consistency of the aims of the activism/project – problems of distraction and tangents
• equity – who has ownership and stakes in the processes and outcomes?

The conference brought together a very broad section of people from different sectors and disciplines which made for dynamic conversations and unexpected encounters. Yet I felt a twinge of tiredness in the continuing utopianism applied to new media technologies and the uncritical belief that the Western European and North American agenda for 'openness', 'free access' and 'global solutions' are suitable for everyone irrespective of their culture, beliefs or context. I feel that there are a good deal of unconscious imperialist/colonialist attitudes lurking just beneath the surface of many of these ideals, which a bit more humility and self-reflection might temper.

Posted by Giles Lane at October 18, 2005 12:34 PM