Caught in a Cyber Blaze
A nation in the era of digital activism
Post-election NYC was turbulent and tense; a city swept in a whirlwind of fear and anger, with pockets of air filled with hope. New Yorkers, however, were not alone in this sense, with many blue-state urbanites sharing a collective sentiment of despair. People across the US flooded the streets (and airports!), clamouring for justice; marching in defiance against bigotry, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. As expected, the hysteria and depression settled in a New York minute. Approximately six weeks following the inauguration, New Yorkers proceeded to occupy their cubicles, day drink with occasional of politics, and spend their nights in search of an activity mostly unrelated to public protest.
Yes, awareness of the nation’s plight under the Trump administration remains intact amongst many New Yorkers, but general organisation, participation, and action, in many cases, has taken shape in the digital sphere, i.e. binge reading iNews headlines with their morning coffee, sharing Leftist political memes on alt-Right Facebook pages, and searching for the most trend worthy net-based actions of resistance, etc. This form of digital activism, aka slacktivism, has its benefits, but has been widely criticised for its ineffectiveness; for numbing individuals by giving them the illusion that their posts or retweets bear any impact on reality.
In light of Screen Shots’ seasonal theme – Protest – Screen Shot US decided to place the spotlight on Digital Protest, delving into the intersection between activism and resistance online. We’ve spoken and collaborated with several cultural producers promoting activism within US and net-based contexts.
Q & A with OOMK
With Francesca Altamura
From April 6 - 17, 2017 OOMK went from Brexit in the United Kingdom to Trumpland in America. Courtesy of the University of Chicago, they embarked on an Arts and Social Practice Fellowship to answer the question: How can self-publishing be used as a tool to address, challenge and fight against social injustice? Supported by the British Council, Sofia Niazi, Rose Nordin, and Heiba Lamara traveled to Chicago, to examine activism and protest within a new, yet strangely familiar, context. There they teamed up with Chicago-based Palestinian artist and author Leila Abdelrazaq, to present a series of events in response to their fellowship, specifically about the role of publishing in the age of digital activism.
1. What, if any, are the similarities or differences between the US and UK contexts in terms of activist spirit?
We only visited New York and Chicago, but it felt like there was a lot of collaboration and discussion between different activist groups. We attended a Black Lives Matter event and there were lots of people and different groups organising for the May 1st march; it seemed like people were really trying to listen to each other and learn about how structural injustices overlap and affect everyone. From what we experienced, it felt like there was a greater sense of urgency in the activist communities we came across, and a lot of knowledge sharing. In Chicago we learned about Palestinian grassroots activism, local political corruption, police brutality, and food injustice just as a consequence of hanging out with different people and moving around in the city. The notion of being in a police and surveillance state felt more stark in the US than in the UK, just from the amount of cops on the road and the stories we heard about surveillance in Muslim and activist communities.
2. What role does self-publishing play in acting in the fight against social injustice, and acting as a catalyst and tool for social change?
We think self-publishing is a way of speaking your mind and your truth in the face of injustice. It encourages other people to do the same and opens the door to discussion and organising. Making books and zines and physical objects for people to gather around, as well as disseminating information, can allow for community organising and for new connections and collaborations to emerge which can lead to social change. At the same time I also think if you’re a member of a persecuted or discriminated against community- engaging in meaningful and joyful practices like making art and publishing work, regardless of the content, can be an act of defiance and resistance.
3. How do you envisage the future of online protest and digital resistance, especially within the lens of self-publishing?
It’s so hard to tell, things change so rapidly online. In terms of organising, with the increasing surveillance and the risk it poses to privacy and safety, I think a lot of it will move offline or activists will become better at navigating online spaces. Online protest is undeniably powerful; the ability for a cause to gather momentum and attract worldwide attention and lead to actual change (whether good or bad) is self-evident.
Self-publishing, whether online or offline, allows individuals and groups to articulate and communicate their beliefs, demands, and ideas. It enables them to create a community and a base of common knowledge away from mainstream media. I think that’s something which is very important to resistance movements and will continue to be so. I picked up a copy of Resist when we were in Chicago, a collection of beautifully illustrated comics from all over America which had been made in response to Donald Trump being elected, and exploring what it meant for women in particular. I remember seeing it in pictures on twitter during the Women’s March, but actually reading it was a window into what different Americans were thinking and feeling, which would have been hard for me to discover otherwise. In self-publishing it’s not just the loudest or most popular voices that get heard, there’s room for quieter voices to occupy space too.
OOMK Social Media
Swipe Right To Unite
by Yair Oded
The American Stand is a new NYC-based organisation that fuses digital and real life activism in a witty, engaging way. I sat down with its founder, Andrew Nosrati (a product engineer living in NY), and got a glimpse into the organisation’s work and the ideas behind its establishment.
Nosrati was among the many Americans (and Earth dwellers) discouraged by the result of the recent US elections with the deep divide and animosity it inspired throughout the country. He was an active participant in the demonstrations ensuing the election and surreal executive orders, but was dismayed by the quickness with which the fervor faded. Nosrati took matters into his own hands (on a date he tattooed on his arm as a reminder); he realised that for big change to happen, community organisation must be strong and effective, and the only action capable of its promotion, he believes, is conversation. “A collection of our conversations is all we are”, Nosrati said, and so for a community of activists to form and real change to happen “we must be able to make an effort as a country to sit down and look each other in the eye and talk”. “One conversation can’t change anything,” he added, “But a million can.”
In order to make face to face conversations happen, The American Stand are going to arrange take overs of bars and restaurants across the city, where they would simulate a speed dating scenario, “without the dating implications”. Attendants would be given a certain amount of time to converse with one another, before moving on to the next person. Conversations, Nosrati says, would not deal with politics at first, but simply encourage people to “listen to each other and realize there is a real person sitting across the table”. Nosrati believes this manner of conversation would urge individuals to abandon some of the stigmas they carry about those they perceive as Others, based on their background, opinions, ethnicity, or political affiliation, and simply relate to each other as human beings. “I can’t make a judgement about you before I sit and talk to you, and recognise you’re first a human being”, Nosrati added, “Then we can see where we disagree and discuss possible resolutions.”
Getting New Yorkers to attend a random ‘conversation’ event is virtually impossible. So, Nosrati employed perhaps the only tool capable of luring urban animals out of their dens: Tinder. “I opened a fake Tinder account and on my profile picture wrote ‘swipe right to join the revolution’. In my bio I said ‘I’m not using this app for what it’s intended- I’m trying to find people near me that believe in common values and want to fight for them’. I changed my sexual orientation to bisexual, to reach both men and women, and swiped right on every single person”. The results, Nosrati recounts, were staggering. “I got hundreds and hundreds of matches and inquiries. I got a couple hundred emails from people who expressed interest in what we’re doing”. This encouraged Nosrati to incorporate the dating app outreach method into the events themselves. “We’re going to have a photobooth where people could create fake dating profiles, and build concentrated groups of people spreading the same message. It’s gimmicky, it’s fun, and it allows us to reach people of all backgrounds and groups in the city.”
While on the surface NYC seems like a cluster of liberal Democrats who are unanimous in their opinions and values, and is therefore not a prime destination for Nosrati’s events, the reality of the metropolis is far more complex. “Even within Blue New York City,” Nosrati claims, “There are so many shades of blue. Even in New York we live by stereotypes; communities don’t connect. We fight against Islamophobia, for instance, but so many of us don’t engage with Muslims on a personal level.” Such events are therefore intended to encourage New Yorkers to converse with people they perhaps wouldn’t communicate with otherwise.
When asked about how is this effort going to, practically, translate into political or social change, Nosrati was confident that once strong communities are formed (through open and repeated conversations)- change would be possible and effective. “As a community, we could could make more specific demands from our delegates, and be an active voice in our government. If we start to see each other not as the ‘other’ but as a fellow American who wants change we could identify key issues we all care about. There are things that everyone wants to investigate and change, regardless of party affiliation; like healthcare, for example, or the environment, or monitoring the integrity of the presidency, which is an American ideal. Whatever it is that people can come to an agreement on they can, as a group, demand from their local representatives- and be clear about what it is they want exactly”. Nosrati referred to the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example, “People in 2011 didn’t act as a unified group and weren’t clear on what they actually wanted to happen and change. And the movement eventually failed.” Nosrati further added that Americans are becoming gradually more aware that their local representatives (often viewed as lofty archangels resting comfortably on shining pedestals) are in fact vulnerable to bad press and to their constituents’ wrath, as they eagerly want to get reelected.
Nosrati’s goal is to expand his outreach effort nationally, and, once a strong New York base is established, host events and form communities of committed citizens throughout the country; “I want to have millions of conversations”, he stated. Furthermore, he would like The American Stand to host fundraising events for organisations whose cause he believes in, such as UNICEF and Amnesty International.
“Swipe Right to Unite is the first of, hopefully, many campaigns we will launch as the organisation grows.” said Nosrati, “Political effort and activism would come later, down the road, when communities are formed. This is currently a social exercise.”
Nosrati and his counterparts appear to be onto something. After all, this type of community based activism worked for the conservative Tea Party in the South, which through repeated exertion of pressure over local representatives eventually managed to hinder and even tank some of President Obama’s initiatives. In the case of New York, on the other hand, the lack of communal ties and a united civil front appear to encumber activism in the City, as people gather to demonstrate and rally, but then return to being scattered strangers who are not particularly committed to follow up actions.
Nosrati’s approach is particularly interesting, though, as it utilises digital means in order to form a meaningful, long lasting human connection and establish tight urban communities that could, potentially, catalyse a more efficient form of protest. Besides, one has to admire the irony in using Tinder (the Big Mac of first dates and evil stepmother of Intimacy) as a way to promote profound human interaction and positive social change.
Initiatives like The American Stand, which employ technological means to form and mobilise communities of involved citizens, thus bridge the gap between the virtual and physical spheres of activism. They merge the best of both worlds: promoting a community based, highly effective form of protest, and efficiently utilising the method of communication most prevalent among (Westernised) human beings in our time. Is it possible, then, that they found the ultimate cure to the ills of digital activism?
Jam No Peanut
Jam No Peanut’s upcoming EP, Microphone Misdemeanor, fuses tech and rap as combative tools of resistance. For a sample, check out a "jam-packed" (pun intended) 3-song preview with voice-note commentary on the current flow of fascism, and the future of protest.
By Mark Sabb
The idea of Digital Activism is something that has been with me since I was a child, which I try to showcase in my art. I grew up around rappers, singers, and hip hop producers who were always on the cutting edge of music-tech - from MPCs, to pro-tools, Fruity Loops, eventually becoming FL Studio. My family members were early adopters of innovation. My upbringing taught me that at its best, technology could be a tool for creativity and artistry.
If we plan on evolving past definitions of high, low-brow, outsider, folk, craft, or whatever art, the digital landscape will play a crucial part.
For FELT, the idea of Digital Activism at it’s core, is about supporting a community, with the ability to connect to others, like Screen Shot. I think it’s healthy to seek those who feel your pain, those who see themselves as outcasts. The Internet has allowed me to find my "tribe" of like-minded individuals who are seeking the same sort of community without borders and preconceived notions.
As a Black American I am familiar with the idea of my mere existence being an act of resistance, and FELT's existence is the same.
We exist because we never sought approval from museums, the commercial art world, awards, accolades, or anything that makes dope art lame in the long-term. All we seek to do is create a digital landscape where free thinkers and new age beings, who see beyond the constructs in front of us, are able to come together and prosper without judgement. The idea of "Digital Activism" is never concrete because the oppressor that we are active against is constantly changing its weapons, and sometimes, weaponising our own art.
Protest in the digital era has been inconsistent, perhaps even unpredictable, in its performance, effectiveness, and shape; it’s a whirl of pros and cons; an organism still somewhat undefinable to us, that constantly changes shape.
Digital activism brings with it a slew of positive developments and opportunities for social change. The Internet and social media have facilitated the fast communication of ideas and information on an international scale, ultimately enabling the circulation of a wider range of views and opinions than ever before; details regarding political initiatives, demonstrations, petitions, and rallies become known to an ever-expanding public. Government and corporate misconduct, as well as secret agendas, have been more rapidly exposed online – people of various fields and backgrounds have joined forces in their endeavours to promote change. In fact, entire worlds have merged in the digital era to form creative and thought-provoking entities that function as agents for change, fusing publishing, music, and visual art, albeit aided by technological advancements, with activism.
Yet, the transformation in activism bears negative attributes as well. The proliferation of voices, organisations, and platforms made possible via the Internet may be perilous to the promotion of social change, as it often distracts people and makes it harder for them to focus on one goal and ensure its realisation. When one is inundated with information regarding countless socio-political initiatives (ranging from equality between the sexes to access to clean water to halting draconic executive orders), they are less likely to commit, truly commit, in a consistent and persistent way. Many incredibly important and promising campaigns fail or fall through the cracks under such circumstances, and mobilisation of people towards a common cause becomes increasingly challenging. Furthermore, many have come to question the effectiveness of activism in the digital sphere. Online forms of protest arguably delude people into thinking that voicing their opinion on the Internet or spreading information on social media constitute legitimate activism; but if one’s actions aren’t extended beyond their device, how much of a difference can they make in reality?
We cannot fight the advancement of technology, and resenting it won’t help either. It would be naïve of us to think we’re going to be less hooked to our beloved devices, or that they won't play a role in how we engage with the world around us (and thus shape our identity as activists). But we certainly can redefine what digital activism means to us, and what form it takes. Is it sharing an article on Facebook or partnering with an organisation? Using the Internet to learn about upcoming community events near me? Or all of the above?
We can also decide whether our involvement in promoting social agendas is limited to virtual activity or whether we want it to extend past our devices and mature into real world, physical action.
Thus far, activism in the digital era could be described as a big cloud of awareness and anger and shock… with palpable eagerness to mend the ills society is plagued by. But what is the significance of this cloud, really, if it is confined within the contours of a silver laptop? If it is acknowledged only as long as certain apps are open on our phones? If it is stored away at some data centre in California?
Screen Shot Captures from the US was made by:
US Editor Yair Oded & Director of Digital Initiatives Francesca Altamura