Access to Interfaces of Expression
A Workshop with Women Artists in Syria
by Stefanie Wuschitz
In the last five years, Syria has experienced an increase in Western imports and considerable growth within the IT field. While Syria’s one party socialist system is adapting neoliberal economic strategies that encourage repression, young female artists use the opportunity to examine new tools of artistic expression. My research focuses on the application of new technologies by young women artists in Syria. During a field trip beginning in June 2010, I collaborated with eleven female Syrian artists in Damascus. The collaboration involved a workshop aimed at developing interactive stories, which articulate individual narrations in public space. How do women artists make use of open source technology in public space? How is it transformed and which conflicts arise in the process? The participants of the eight-day workshop came from theatre, media, and sculpture backgrounds, but also computer science and software development. My research method of a site-specific art workshop served as a vehicle to translate different forms of agency and observe nuances of self-representation, including my own. The theory of the open source movement clashed with a reality of failing Internet access in Syria, as well as censored websites and the problem of restricted downloads from US hosted websites. In this article I will describe the participant’s particular working conditions concerning their access to tools of expression outside mainstream culture.
Ever since the online platform Wikileaks gave the public access to data kept secret by the US military, the term access has become a key phrase in Western media. What will the political impact of access to information and software be? On the one hand, access can trigger unforeseen waves of productivity (Shirky 2008), productivity by thousands of users (the multitude) continuously developing free software and content. These developers do not get paid for their work, yet the multitude collaboratively creates products in the scale of the Linux operating system. Clay Shirky calculates that since 2001 it took 100 million cumulative hours of human thought to write Wikipedia’s content (Shirky 2010). On the other hand, giving access means giving up control of the product and its responsibility. The largest IT companies in the world
are now negotiating the limits of access to their devices. These debates are mainly concerned with commonly used software, such as applications created for smart phones. But the battle over the concept of access also includes commercial hardware products. It has been a battle between forces that want the exclusive statutory right to exercise control over copying and other exploitation of a technology and those who want to offer the right to distribute hardware design (i.e. schematics, bill of materials, and PCB layout data), in addition to the software that drives the hardware.
Artists living in liberal capitalist states often felt the economic need to join communities in order to afford the tools for their means of production, such as musical instruments, video cameras, or, in recent history, software for personal computers and laser cutters. They created peer-to-peer networks that provided peer-to-peer learning environments and room for work in peer production (Kleiner, D. 2010). Decentralized, free, inclusive networks served as a strategy to work autonomously from centralized enterprises and governments. The work in peer production served as a strategy to face issues of limited, restricted, or censored access. (Zer-Aviv, M. et al. 2010: 88)
Liza Bear is a New York-based writer, filmmaker, and activist, who has adapted these strategies since the very early stages of her career. The collaborative work she has created since the mid 1970s deals with the use of commercial media and the way it disempowers the public in communication policy. In comparison, she documented the role of alternative media and how it challenges the way means of production (technologies) are tied to reasons for production, such as capitalist advantage or national ideology (http://www.vdb.org/). She was co-founder and editor of the magazine Avalanche, which built a platform for critical conversations on conceptual art. This way the networks she built allowed her to create the work she intended on content she chose.
There, of course, were always privileged individuals who used the opportunity to work for powerful agents, such as aristocrats, international corporations, or religious leaders. These authorities granted access to tools and networks only to selected artists. An example of one of these influential facilitators was the IT company Bell Laboratories (today AT&T), which supported a group of artists in realizing their artwork from the 1960s on. The artists were encouraged to enter Bell Laboratory’s premises to experiment with cutting edge technology. Women artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Betty Beaumont, and Lillian Schwartz, who later became pioneers in interactive art, were initially using Bell Lab’s facilities. One of the results of opening the premises to artists was Carolee Schneemann’s project, Snow. This interactive anti-war performance could only be realized with Bell Laboratories’ technology to speed up and slow down the projected film according to the way the audience was moving in their seats. In an interview she said:
“I worked with a technician from the telephone labs, Bill Klüver, so I was able to design an SCR switching system [...] I wanted the audience to influence – to some extent – the media without their knowing it. And because the imagery was volatile and suppressed, it was imagery that I felt the crowd needed to see, but would not welcome [...] And as you know, there is explicit censorship, and then there is invisible censorship, which meant that I wouldn’t have a gallery represent me, I wouldn’t have articles reviewing the work, I wouldn’t have support from the museums.”
However, artists who wanted to use Bell Lab’s facilities for critical work or articulate dissent were discouraged by the corporation. Today companies are cautious about whom they grant access to their products, facilities, and know-how. User generated iPhone applications, e.g. need to go through a strict selection process before they are published and available for other users.
Syria looks back at a history with close political ties to the former Soviet Union. While positive features like the tuition-free university system still stem from this era, even today filmmakers, writers, and intellectuals are kept from distributing their work or presenting it to an international audience. The extreme growth of Internet usage in Syria (from 0.2% of the population in the year 2000 to 17.7% in the year 2010) has brought about changes. This caused the Syrian government to maintain even more rigid control, specifically over the entire flow of information sent over the Internet. Internet censorship of political websites is pervasive and includes popular websites such as blogging engines, Facebook, and YouTube (Humanrightswatch, 2011). Human Rights Watch claimed that “Authorities continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel bans. Emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remains in effect, and Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants, holding them incommunicado for lengthy periods.” (Source: Humanrightswatch, 2011, country summary Syria). Syria’s president Bashir al-Assad took over power from his father Hafiz al-Assad in 2007 and has gradually opened the Syrian market to Western goods. At the same time, Syrian law assists Syrian security services with extensive immunity for acts of torture. The markets are more liberal, but the regime is as rigid as it was before Bashir al-Assad came into power. This is why self-organization is a very common tactic in Syria to sustain social and economic structures that would otherwise break down.
The symbol of counter-movement and subculture in the West is the stereotype of the hacker. This male agent supposedly moves between nation states and digital empires without leaving a trace. Hackers seemingly access and change data they desire, orient themselves within information society, and actively participate in international hacker networks. The meaning of the word hacker can be interpreted as criminal, terrorist, or thief. It is a myth (Pfaller 2002) generated by mainstream media, yet hacker culture forms a productive and well organized subculture. Hacker spaces are representations of hacker culture in physical space. These public workspaces provide a solution to the isolation so many computer experts face. In most urban areas on this planet, hacker spaces can be found, created by a critical mass of individuals who share knowledge, skills, equipment, tools, and the costs for the space. The space is dedicated to tech related, collaborative practices located at the intersection of the real and digital world. Some members are only in their teens. They learn how to program from older members of the hacker space and are socialized in this form of community.
The peculiar thing about a hacker space is its white male dominance that becomes obvious the moment one enters. Hacker culture is a culture informed by a code of behaviour, a style, and a habitus that implies maleness. The nerd, a person whose life is absorbed by technophile practices, is respected and a valued exception within the already male dominated IT field. Roland Barthes describes the monk in the 4th century as an individual in a state of exception, who is economically unproductive, but leads an intellectually rich life that serves the rest of society. The monk, even in a community of monks, is marginalized, but is a symbolic necessity for the public. It is comparable to the role of the Shaman (Barthes 2007: 156). Most members of hacker spaces are white middle class males. Only 8% of all members in Vienna’s hacker space Metalab1 are female. Although facilities and WI-FI are open to non-members, and although it claims to be inclusive, the community evolving around hacker spaces practices invisible censorship. Although informal, accessible, and open, it is a highly self-selected community. A very specific kind of individual spends time in these places. Some who have learned to master one or several programming languages do not hesitate to try their skills on high-level engineering tasks and do not shy away from spending a night playing computer games. Mostly individuals in hacker spaces hang out – a contemporary form of “otium” (Arendt 1967: 24, 25). As it is described in Hanna Arendt’s Vita Activa, “playing” becomes mixed with the concept of gaming and working. (Arendt 1967: 138, 144,182,). The unique situatedness of the hacker space as a workspace without any need to be economically effective, opens an atmosphere ideal for artistic, ludic, intellectual, and scientific endeavours: Exploring and playing with IT structures, software, hardware, rules and networks, interfaces, and new forms of communication empowers its members to make technology of their own.
To adapt this kind of strategy to the needs of women and transgender people, a group of women and queer persons met regularly at Metalab, a hacker space in the heart of Vienna. Eight to ten participants organized workshops for each other and shared their skills. They partly tried to find new, gender sensitive terms for the electronic parts and tools, experimented with new techniques and started a network of female users. All these practices were tolerated by the people of Metalab – sometimes with an irritated look, sometimes encouraged through announcements on the public wiki. Yet each woman coming to the bi-weekly meetings felt exotic, like she was in the wrong place, did not belong. It was comparable to visiting a foreign culture. The environment, as welcoming as it was supposedly arranged, felt strange and impossible to adapt to one’s own preferences. The reason was the effective and temporary use of the space by the group. This assiduous and focused use contradicted the hacker culture’s working mode of playful and aimless presence.
The male dominated hacker culture, and the technologies it cultivates cannot be made accessible for females by merely securing physical access to the social space, just as you do not become a monk by visiting a monastery. The determining factor shaping the social space of technology is partly the timeframe and aimlessness, but most of all the male centred culture evolving around it and the practices performed within a hacker space. To be exposed to the male dominated culture of the space as a woman or transgender person diminishes the otherwise supportive conditions that a hacker space can offer. The feeling of not belonging overrules the anticipation of aimless and playful exploration. As an experiment we wanted to create a setting, which would foster women’s access to technology in a similar way as hacker spaces do, while at the same time making technology their own territory (Lazzarato 2002).
During an expanded timeframe in an aimless atmosphere in which technology was not yet interpreted by male connotations, the working space was set into a place that was not dominated by white middle class Western man. This place was an old house in the centre of Damascus, Syria. In May 2010, eleven women and transgender persons from a wide variety of backgrounds including computer science, architecture, photography, video, and graphic design came together to hack tools, think of new interfaces, and design interactive stories. Kyrah Kosina, an excellent programmer from Austria, and I introduced two tools to the group, which helped to create interactive applications. We tried to introduce the tools without gender bias (e.g. the Free Hardware Microcontroller Arduino was simply called Arduina) and assist every participant with the installation. The other tool was open source software, which helps visualize data and interface the screen with the physical world via web cam or sensors. Although the software is free, downloading it was restricted. A U.S. embargo dating back to the Reagan administration made it difficult. The sanctions include banning the sale of sophisticated technology, such as computers, aircraft, and related spare parts. The restrictions made it hard to conduct our workshop, since our access to open source software was much more limited than we had expected. (illustr.1)
From left to right: Rola Barjoud, Massa Abou Jeib, (behind her) Saba Endari, Abeer Farhoud, Nisrin Habib, Bibi Amin, Rania Mleihi, Ninar Alassar, (behind her) Woroud Ahdali, Sally Samaan, (on the floor) Stefanie Wuschitz
Photo: Karin Kosina, 2010
On the first day we were confronted with many limitations on several levels. The gallery that had offered a room to us cancelled last minute. Some women articulated that they had expected a very different kind of event. The format of a workshop was unfamiliar; it seemed awkward to some participants that we would all meet at the same time in the morning, since it was not an actual course or school. Over the next days some came at the agreed time, some three to four hours later. The next challenge was the microcontroller. Even open source hardware seems to be configured to Western standards. The microcontroller usually only needs to be plugged into a laptop via USB cable in order to be programmed via PC, but suddenly none of the microcontrollers were detected as new hardware by the computers. Each of the Syrian PCs had a different Windows operating system installed, each of them a cracked version, which was extremely unstable and slow. After hours of challenges using the restricted Internet, downloading from the restricted website, and installing the stubborn hardware on a stolen operating system, we finally had the tools we needed. We then started our collaboration.
It began with a general first round of experimenting with interfaces to computers other than a mouse or keyboard. The group developed concepts about what could be done and would be interesting for individual participants to explore.
There is generally a higher interest in studying engineering and computer science in Syria than in Austria. Not many women actually work in their profession after they get married, but the tendency has increased. Yet honour crimes and forced marriages cast a shadow on the issue of gender equality in Syria (at least 10 honour crimes were documented by Syrian women’s rights groups in 2010). The opening of Syria’s markets to Western goods has widened the gap between different income groups. Yet the prospering IT field in Syria has created many new jobs, producing for markets in the Emirates and Asia. Women who develop websites or who work in animation and graphic design will find jobs easily. The growth of the IT sector has strengthened the economy. At the same time, the rising prices on the housing market have made it necessary for women to work full time in order to afford an apartment. In many families being able to afford an apartment still counts as the ticket to marriage. Syria hosts more Iraqi refugees than any other country, with 210,000 registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Human Rights Watch 2010). This was radically changed by Iraqi refugees trying to find apartments and shelter. The economic pressure created by the housing market determines when young Syrian couples receive their family’s permission to get married and move out. This is why young women are encouraged to find work; the rent would otherwise usually be too high for the husband to pay alone. There are a growing number of people rebelling against these traditional marriage agreements. Students are sharing apartments, and there is a growing LGBT community. Still, most young Damascenes wait until their early 30s to move out of their parents’ home and get married, due to the high housing prices. In private houses or private companies there are spaces of freedom in which critical thinking and contemporary art is cultivated. Alternative lifestyles are experimented with, and even a hacker space was established. None of the above is accessible to the public or an official institution. However, there are a growing number of unofficial platforms for critical discourse.
Since copyright licenses for media do not exist in Syria, the open source movement is not very significant. Generally, every Western mainstream film or software can be bought for one dollar at the street markets. Musicians will not make money selling CDs since people are not accustomed to paying more than 70 Syrian pounds (about one US dollar) per CD, and the government allows alternative music industries that could serve as a source of income to musicians. Software and media is free, meaning that one can buy it cheap on every street corner. Yet it is not open in the sense that someone could look at, develop, and change the source code. Women graduating from the fine arts departments usually work in the enormous restoration business, since many old houses were bought and are now being renovated to become hotels and restaurants for the storm of expected tourists. Advertising was not allowed until 2005, when hundreds of billboards were suddenly built, and the markets became more and more deregulated.
Our participants had not heard of the open source tools we introduced and were surprised about our political and strong opinion about them. During the brainstorming phase we sat in a circle and tried to think of ideas worth exploring. Some ideas focused on new forms of visual, tactile, or audio interfaces the visitor could respond to; others focused on the conceptual layer – the kind of experience into which the visitors would be immersed. The artists in the group agreed that they wanted to create spatial installations that filled up an exhibition room and elicited visceral reactions from visitors. They wanted to use light, sound, touch, and video tracking in their installation and create a whole series of interactions. The ideas were merged so that the form of interaction and interface would match the concept idea. Within a short time three projects crystallized, and teams of four were built around each project. We sat together like women have been sitting together knitting or weaving for thousands of years in many cultures, except that we were soldering to LEDs, assembling wires, and weaving videotape to carpets. It was not like the sweatshops of electronic corporations in Mexico or Malaysia. We all sat on the floor, sang, chatted, smoked cigarettes, and joked. It was almost a women’s hacker space atmosphere. Bibi, an avid photographer, soldered 150 LEDs to wires in only one day, and we made a lot of progress.
Working late into the night in the cooler temperatures made the group become closer. The next day, almost all the projects were finished and functional. Ninar, a musician and singer, had organized a number of old, conductive videotapes from the Syrian TV station, where her father worked. We were able to weave three carpets out of this old videotape. Bibi, Rania, and Massa soldered long wires that hung from the ceiling and were connected to 150 tiny ping-pong balls with LEDs. Another 150 wires hung down in the same manner and height. A brown, dusty stone was attached to each one. Bibi and Ninar called the installation Please Touch. When the wires with ping-pong balls attached (which had a negative charge) touched the ones with stones attached (which had a positive charge) the electrical circuit between the two wires was completed. The electricity caused the lamps to go on for an instant. Interacting with the circuit provoked the visitor to formulate a performative gesture, which generated a feeling of emergence. Through the visitor’s playful response to the dangling wires, the artists intended to create interaction and subjectivity (Kozel 2007).
The second project was mainly created by Rania, Kyrah, and Waroud. A web cam tracked the silhouettes of people in the room to project their video image in transformed colours. When a person was moving, a fortune cookie phrase appeared attached to the projected silhouette. Rania invented meaningful, subversive, and ironic fortune cookie phrases, so each visitor had the chance to receive an individual phrase. If someone in the room was moving faster than the silhouette, the phrase would slowly slide to the faster person. This way, people could try to catch fortune cookie phrases from others, creating small collaboration between the phrase and silhouette, mutually altered by one another (Lazaratto 2002: 15).
The third installation triggered three different videos and sounds according to the visitor’s position in the room. If a user stepped on one of the three videotape carpets, she caused a specific sound and projection on the wall representing phases of a personal crisis.
(Illustr.2) Photo: Karin Kosina, 2010
The next day everything stopped working. The group was fragmented and under stress. In this situation, on the last day, Bibi and Ninar told their boyfriends to come and help repair the projects. The young men had trouble helping, since the problems were complex and demanded specific skills like e.g. programming in Java. Bibi and Ninar were surprised they could not help. The boyfriends left again and the group joined forces to find a solution for the video carpet project. With a lot of patience, coordination, and an enormous amount of time, Kyrah managed to create a second video tracking system. When the first visitors arrived for the final presentation, all women artists had put on fashionable cocktail dresses and make up. Five different ambassadors visited the opening and dominated the space with their presence, re-establishing gender roles. The quiet workshop had become framed as a high society fine arts event. For many visitors it was the first time they were confronted with an interactive art piece. After two hours the wires were helplessly entangled and a short circuit had ended the responsive character of the light installation, but the other two installations worked. Ecstatic with success, Abeer started to envision gigantic kinetic sculptures of screens and motors. Nisrin described how, in the future, videos on a video blog could help fight honour crimes in Syria. Rania planed interactive installations for her dance company’s next choreography. Massa and Nisrin gave several interviews to explain what they had created.
In their book Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri describe how the process of collaboration generates singularities. They quote the story of orchid and wasp in Deleuze and Guattaris’, A Thousand Plateaus, to illustrate how the meeting of singularities leads to a new continuously changing common character. From my perspective, the experience of the workshop, the collaboration, was a constant metamorphosis and continuous creation of new singularities. The concepts and projects themselves mirrored this experience.
In a workshop I held in New York City in September 2010, the well-established media artists participating in this women-only event, had similar conversations to the young media artists in Damascus. For both groups, the impression of working in collaboration like this was profound and therefore most influential to project ideas.
What we had hoped to accumulate in knowledge with this experiment was how strategies of access can be adapted and changed by agents in a site-specific manner. The question we could not answer was, whether, through performative practice, it was possible to intervene in existing and established sets of meaning as a women-only workshop in Syria, trying to influence how events and tools are signified for members of the group. However, the way male connotated objects were re-named and re-read opened new frameworks for collaborative networks. These networks could become important pre-conditions to future productions. The space the group occupied, shared, and re-shaped with their interactive spatial installations created the foundation to adopt new practices. The dominant codes of technology could, to a certain extent, be infiltrated by performative rules, which the group generated within this space. This was done not only through the use of technology, but also through its placement within female connotated semantic domains and the skills the artists had acquired during the communicative process of this collaboration.
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Stefanie Wuschitz is a visual artist, lecturer and researcher working on her doctorate at the Visual Cultures Unit of Vienna’s Technical University. She studied Media Arts (2006) and took her masters in NYU’s ITP Program at TISCH School of the Arts (2008). In 2009 she was Digital Art Fellow at Umeå University (Sweden) were she started the women artists collective Mz Baltazar’s Laboratory (http://mzbaltazarslaboratory.org/). Wuschitz teaches at the University of Applied Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In the last years she has presented her work in Berlin, London, Budapest, Damascus, Helsinki, Linz, New York, Brussels, Prague, Rotterdam and elsewhere (www.grenzartikel.com).
I l l u s t r a t i o n s :
Caption: From left to right: Rola Barjoud, Massa Abou Jeib, (behind her) Saba Endari, Abeer Farhoud, Nisrin Habib, Bibi Amin, Rania Mleihi, Ninar Alassar, (behind her) Woroud Ahdali, Sally Samaan, (on the floor) Stefanie Wuschitz
Photo: Karin Kosina, 2010
Photo: Karin Kosina, 2010
Photo: Karin Kosina, 2010
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