Centre for Internet & Society

The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multi-disciplinary scholars and practitioners. The aim of the workshop is to generate a dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become visible landmarks of contemporary life, and to produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

Nishant Shah of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore began the final day of the THinkathon with his presentation “Citizen action in the time of the network: beyond spectacles of change.” Nishant begins by describing the climate of the current digital moment. We are dealing with unprecedented questions of territory. Democratic states are facing resistance with their promising notes for the future. With increasingly queer boundaries between ‘citizen’ and ‘State’ mediated by digital relations, we are looking at a radical re-imagining of the role of the State and its sovereignty.

These past few years – in the midst of the Arab Spring – we’ve heard a lot about the new era of digital activism. Shah is interested in pinpointing what is actually ‘new’ about this activism. He begins with a bold assertion: this newness is indicative of new forms of citizen action, but not necessarily new infrastructures of activism. Shah argues that what is actually ‘new’ about this activism is that these digital technologies present an imperative that (activist) events be rendered intelligible and accessible within their paradigms. These technologies presume that a legible and intelligible network exists, despite temporal and geographical differences. What becomes evident is that the system makes invisible those actions that cannot be interpreted by the system – they only recognise actions that can be accounted for by the system. The study of networks presents a problematic proposition because of its self-referential network – any phenomenon is explained only through its relationality with other phenomena. To illustrate this, Shah presents the provocative question: “If a tree falls in a lonely forest and nobody tweets about it, has it really fallen?” The very acts of witnessing have been replaced by tools of networking.

Shah roots his epistemology within a case study of the Shanzhai Spring Festival Gala in China. He shows how discourse around this event has marked it as a ‘failed’ event and representative of how there can be no citizen action within authoritarian contexts. Shah suggests that another way of looking at this event is a phenomenon which cannot be accounted for by the network – a radical critique presented by activists that cannot be rendered intelligible by the current system. This raises a larger anxiety for Shah and the participants: if events do not become accessible it always gets counted as a failure and gets lost in public memory.

Shah’s presentation raised vibrant discussion on the politics of visibility, knowing, and the avante-garde. Participants suggested that Nishant look into the work of artists and theorists like Ariella Azoulay who attempt to conceptualise actions outside of the paradigm of rights, citizenship, and propriety. What does it mean to do in action knowing that it will be shut down – a politics of despair, if you will. What also becomes apparent is the limits of revolution – there has not been a transformation of a system. Rather, the system has included more citizens into its fold. The conversation reveals that we need to find a more critical way to discuss networks – a language in which the network is not clichéd, but rather porous.

Renée Ridgway from NEWS Amsterdam follow’s Shah’s presentation with her presentation “Surrogacy: Bodies, States, Networks: Crowdfunding for funding the crowds, a new model for the distribution of wealth?” Ridgway takes a departure from other presentations by directly implicated the participants in one of her current art projects. Ridgway reviews one of her current research-art projects on documenting indigenous plants in Kochin Kerela – a location with histories of Dutch colonialism. Ridgway has visited and exhibited in Kerela in the past and is now interested in expanding on her work and developing a documentary about these issues. She asks the participants: how does she fund this project without the State?

In rooting questions of State reparation, (neo)colonialism, race, and other central political questions within a tangible project – Ridgway invites the crowd into critical discussion. Participants remain wary of the way in which technology can serve as a ‘trojan horse’ to build collaboration with communities. What becomes apparent is that Ridgway, as an artist, has become a surrogate for the State for the people she worked with on the project in India. Questions of collaboration remained central to this discussion – how do we imagine collaboration as a condition of care by the network, one that requires investment and material labour to perform a particular task. Also, questions of neoliberalism emerged. What is a collective process that relies on affective and material labour by diverse peoples becomes lost in the narrative of ‘individual’ artist.

I share participants concern that we complicate the role of an artist. What becomes apparent is that dynamics of class, race, and (neo)colonilism can manifest themselves in the technological realm. While I agree that technology can present a compelling platform to explore solidarities and collaborations across difference, it can simultaneously function as a site that reifies these oppressions.

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