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Essay: Charlotte Bank – Mapping Creative Internet Activism in the Arab World

W159_703887--Charlotte-Bank

 

Background essay with the screening program Mapping Creative Internet Activism in the Arab World

By Charlotte Bank, Independent researcher, curator and writer, based in Berlin and Damascus.

Since the beginning of the popular uprisings in the Arab world in late 2010, the Internet has seen an increasing amount of activist videos commenting on events, documenting state violence and protests, denouncing despotic regimes, calling for freedom of speech and opinion and expressing solidarity with the goals of the revolutions and sorrow for its victims.

The role of the Internet in facilitating coordination between protesters in Egypt led to the adoption of the controversial term “Facebook Revolution” by international media covering the protests. While this designation oversimplifies a very complex situation and leaves the impact of mass protests on the streets out of consideration, it nevertheless highlights the use of various Internet platforms as tools to express dissent and coordinate protest activities. In countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria with tightly controlled public spheres and an omnipresent censorship, the Internet offered young people a space to meet, voice their opinions and break free of the isolation that many felt up till then. Alongside material whose main purpose was to document state violence and thus offered a kind of alternative news channel, creative videos by amateurs and professionals alike, using artistic means to comment on unfolding events, began to appear. All this created a semi-public sphere in which the voice of the Arab youth was heard, a voice that was mostly silenced up till very recently, despite the large percentage of young people in all Arab societies.

When studying the recent surge of creative online dissent, it is important to keep in mind that the use of artistic and creative means to advocate for social and political change is not new to the Arab world. In this region where the formation of political parties and the formulation of political and social projects was either outlawed or faced with almost insurmountable obstacles, the creative and artistic realm offered a space to articulate critique and dissent. In the past, this could only be done wrapped in metaphors and symbols. Artists often ran great personal risks, as the rules defining the permissible were never open and constantly shifting. The wish to speak openly about social and political issues was of utmost important for artists, writers and other creatives of the uprisings. But often enough, this outspokenness necessitated the use of pseudonyms, especially in the case of Syria. In the words of blogger Amal Hanano (also a pseudonym): “We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity“[1].

The project, “Mapping Creative Internet Activism in the Arab World”, takes a look at selected projects and works by professional artists and citizen activists alike. It highlights collective as well as individual projects and presents a series of significant moments, of individual statements and initiatives that began to blossom soon after the beginning of the Arab revolutions. Rather than attempting to offer a complete picture of the vast amount of activist videos, images and projects found on the Internet, it offers an introduction to a world in constant movement and an invitation to continue to discover it.


[1] Amal Hanano: „The Real Me and the Hypothetical Syrian Revolution“, Jadaliyya 2012,  http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4788/the-real-me-and-the-hypothetical-syrian-revolution.