As promised, last Friday we went to De Balie, Amsterdam, to attend the Media Squares Symposium. The conference analyzed several uses of specific media that have contributed to (or are inherent to) the recent political uproar around the world. The presentations discussed tools like WikiLeaks, viral videos, citizen documentaries, activist plug-ins, and social networks from a tactical perspective, going beyond the “Twitter/Facebook Revolution” hype.
The first two presentations, which followed Erik Kluitenberg‘s introduction, focused on WikiLeaks and the post-Julian Assange era.
Metahaven‘s Daniel van der Velden, who worked with his studio on a new graphic brand identity for the initiative (“the Coca Cola of transparency”), gave an inspired talk that managed to be image-driven and yet effective in bringing up compelling issues. After introducing Metahaven’s work and the concept of Uncorporate Identity, the Dutch designer defended WikiLeaks’ key role and harshly remarked its critics (including OpenLeaks, that according to him is less transparent that Assange’s creature).
Revisiting the “Twelve Theses About WikiLeaks” he wrote with Patrice Riemens, renowned media theorist Geert Lovink pointed out the importance of its services as well, but also the need for Julian Assange to step back from the scene to stop fueling the celebrity economy that is currently overshadowing it. Listing and commenting on some of the most recent WikiLeaks-inspired projects (including HackerLeaks and certain actions by hacker group Anonymous, which caused some reactions from the audience) the Dutch scholar also showed a marked skepticism towards OpenLeaks, defining it the product of a “sleazy political agenda.” After the aforementioned analysis, Lovink highlighted the necessity of WL mirrors and called for more attention on the conditions of whistleblower Bradley Manning, who – unlike Assange – is the real Cablegate.
The third speaker, and the last before lunch break, was Danish artist Nadia Plesner. She presented her Darfurnica project (a Picasso-inspired painting about Darfur and the media, also featuring a starving child holding a Louis Vuitton bag) and gave an intense account of her past few years, marked by a vicious legal battle against the fashion giant. Plesner, who had used the controversial image (by that time gone viral) to raise awareness and support the Darfur cause, eventually sued the company back and won.
The afternoon speeches were mostly dedicated to the practical use of tactical media. The first two presentations focused on work related to the Egyptian revolution, but with very different approaches.
First, artist and activist Aalam Wassef talked about art’s power to seduce the public and spread political messages. He described several media projects, first focusing on the importance of not using a single, easily traceable identity (avatars are better, like his Ahmed Sherif and Muhammad Michael) and then on the need for a “multi-format” (rather than just multi-media) approach. He presented videos, songs, and even Google Ads as example of format-specific anti-Mubarak messages, pointing out how the government also used those media via a specific “electronic militia”.
After him, Palestinian-British filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton of Mosireen / Tahrir Cinema explained how he and other professionals created a collective film studio to train and equip people to create their own documentaries in the wake of the Egyptian protest. If Wassef was using irony to exploit the viral infrastructure of the internet, Hamilton and his associates devolve their expertise to service the Egyptian citizens in publishing their own stories.
Following the two Tahrir-themed speeches, artists Florian Conradi and Michelle Christensen presented their Stateless plug-in. Coming from design and development studies respectively, the two produced a tool to transform the surfing experience in a different narrative, where certain words (marked by a black flag icon) are transformed into links to pages dealing with the subject of citizens without nations and asylum seekers.
The last presentation brought the attention back to the square, moving from Tahrir to Puerta del Sol and the Spanish Indignados movement. Live from Barcelona via Skype, two spokespeople from X.net and Democracia Real Ya explained the importance of social media in the recent protests, focusing on their rhyzomatic nature. When somebody from the audience asked what their potential short-term achievements could be, they replied it was to get the knowledge moving.
Overall, the symposium was a compelling and timely event, pleasantly heterogeneous in both subjects and views (the audience actively discussed with the speakers after almost every presentation). At times the media-specificity of the general discourse was a bit lost and general principles of “power to the people” took over the debate, but it was only in a few occasions.
With the European protests going on and the Wall Street occupation expanding to other American cities (with heavy consequences), I’m sure more events like this will pop up as well. We’ll keep you posted!