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Race in Space
I came to Canada when I was nine years old, greeted by
teachers who wanted to prepare me for the inevitable teasing of my classmates
in this all-white school, by teaching me the mantra, "Sticks and stones
will break my bones, but names will never hurt me." But is it true that
words will never hurt me? I collect words. I have acquired a huge number of
them. What does one do with a lifetime of words, some spoken by well meaning
people who had no idea about the impact of their pronouncements?
Many years later, the day came when I was invited to use
some of these words for a DVD installation entitled Suit of Armour. This was made in collaboration with another
Toronto-based media artist Nancy Paterson. This work was an exploration of the
sex, beauty and racial myths which are encountered by a young black Canadian
woman and the various conflicting messages which attempt to define who she is
and where she belongs. I pulled out my words and dusted them off. Some I had to
discard because they were too grotesques to be believed; others suddenly seemed
silly now, impotent, not at all like the ugly monsters I had stored away for
Someone once saw the description of Suit of Armour on the net and wondered what racial myths I was
referring to. Where do I start? How can I explain the words which have defined
my life? Suit of Armour is
inspired by my experience of living in a racialized body in a society that
references identity by race yet denies that race is a determining factor of
Constant reminders of my status of "other" abound
in subtle ways like "flesh toned" band-aids and "nude
pantyhose" and not so subtle ways, like the assumptions made before I open
my mouth about where I am from, my educational level and social status. My
sister told me about an event she went to where her client, a white woman from
an underpriviledged background won an award. Accompanying her client to the
award ceremony, the wealthy white women making the presentation assumed that my
sister was the client.
Here are some of the myths as I see them:
Myth #1: The concept of race includes everyone equally.
According to Coco Fusco, professor at Tyler School of Art of
Temple University, "race is a code word for people of colour" Race
only exists in relation to "otherness". In order for there to be
otherness, there must be an expected norm, a default. Case in point: a book I
flipped through about the history of "the body in photography"
contained photographs of white bodies which had titles like, "Nude woman on
bed". Black bodies, on the other hand had titles like, "Black woman
on bed". When referencing the white body race was not a component of its
identity – here was no attempt to categorize it in terms of colour or
race. The black woman however, was labeled by her colour. Her body was marked
as "other", a racialized body.
Myth #2: Canadian "multiculturalism" celebrates
The recognition of "multiculturalism" is the
official stance of the Canadian government but the default of whiteness is very
much a part of its history and present day reality. If Canadian identity was
truly a celebration of diversity, it would include whiteness, not as a
reference point, but as a component of identity.
Myth #3: The Internet has created a global village where
race is irrelevant.
I am based in Toronto, which according to the United
Nations, is the most multicultural city in the world. I have been involved in
new media and net.art for a number of years but the scene here has not
attracted the rich diversity of the social context within which the city
operates. In the digital realm, whiteness is an assumption and reference to
race is deemed irrelevant, tired or confrontational. It was not until I made a
trip to MIT in Boston to attend a conference called "Race in Digital Space"
<http://cms.mit.edu/race> that for the first time in my life, I found
myself amongst people who looked like me who were at the forefront of
technology and digital culture.
My engagement with technology based art started in 1993,
when in my graduating year at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), I met
my partner, whose background included electrical engineering prior to coming to
OCAD to study new media.
I quickly became fascinated with digital culture's rapid
pace, its cryptic seductive code and its intelligent and playful minds. I
watched with excitement as remote collaborations occurred in which artists
performed together in real time interactive environments and experiments
unfolded in robotics and telekinetics.
In this world, whiteness and maleness are the unspoken but
glaringly obvious norms. The emperor has no clothes but perhaps it isn't polite
to point this out.
Women began inhabiting the space, staking their territory,
and bringing gender issues to the forefront, but it was hard to believe that in
Toronto, this "multi culti" mecca, the colour of digispace was not
questioned, not even mentioned.
At a Canadian conference that brings together artists and
scientists, I heard a white, male speaker state that technology was developed
by a privileged few. He noted that there were no people of colour in the room
and that those of us who were lucky enough to be there were the ones defining
digital culture. I felt speechless, silenced. The default of whiteness was
simply assumed. Not only was I and the other people of colour attending the
conference invisible to the speaker, but he could not conceive that anyone who
did not look like him could have a leadership role in shaping technology.
Despite his good intention to question and critique the status quo, he came
across as being presumptuous.
At "Race in Digital Space", Henry Jenkins,
Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT and one of the organizers
and host of the event, stated that "cyberspace has been represented as a
race-blind environment, yet we don't shed our racial identities or escape
racism just because we go on line." There were presentations by a roster
of multi-ethnic academics, artists, activists and writers exploring issues such
as, how does technology affect how we think about and understand race? how does
technology frame race? A whole new world that included and validated my
personal experience began to open up.
Nolan Bowie, lecturer in public policy at Harvard
University, was the first speaker who spoke about the Digital Divide. He
pointed out that the international and democratic nature of the web was a
fallacy. Although there are over 5,000 languages internationally, eighty
percent of the net is in English and 36% of netizens are American. Less than
10% of the world's population is on-line. And even more sobering, more than
half the world's population has never made a telephone call.
Bowie sited statistics from a 1998 study called "Falling through the Net II: New Data on the
Digital Divide" which concluded that while about a third of the U.S.
population uses the Internet at home, this only includes 16.1% of Hispanic and
18.9% of Black households. In October 2000, a follow-up study Falling
Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion,
showed a widening of the digital divide with access to the net within the White
population at 46.1% and Asian American & Pacific Islander households at
56.8%. Only 23.5% of the Black population and 23.6% of Hispanic households have
The inequity is not simply a matter of access. Differences
in income and education do not fully account for the divide. Even if Black and
Hispanic households had incomes and education levels as high as the U.S.
national average, these factors would account only for about one-half of the
difference. One possible explanation is that African Americans and Hispanics do
not see themselves reflected on the "world white web".
Lisa Nakamura, Assistant Professor of English, Sonoma State
University used the following line from a television commercial to point out
that high tech companies prey upon our hopes of global unity through technology
using the mythology of the net as a vehicle for the transcendence of racial
boundaries to sell their wares.
"There is no race. There is
no gender. There is no age.
There are no infirmities. There are only minds.
Utopia? No. Internet."
MCI television commercial, “Anthem”
Nakamura spoke about the commodification of otherness. Her
thesis is about "identity tourism", a term she coined to describe
the phenomena of users adopting racialized stereotypes as avatars in on-line
chats and equating this to a real embodied experience. She noted that
cybertheorists have established the connection between on-line and off-line
behaviours, but so far have focused mainly on gender issues. Lisa is one of the
editors of the book, Race in Cyberspace,
one of the first anthologies to focus on racial issues in disembodied spaces.
At the opening I met a man who introduced himself as John
Thompson or JT. I looked at his badge and noticed that it said
"Lingoworks". John Thompson it turns out is the inventor of Lingo,
the programming language of director, shockwave and flash, industry standard
tools for the multimedia and web development industries.
At the conference I was drawn to artists who use technology
in tangible ways that affect social change. At the top of my list was Mongrel,
a UK based collective whose activities include bringing technology to the
streets to work with and empower people all over the world who have been locked
out of the mainstream. This group programs and builds their own software and
create "socially engaged culture" that grapples with questions of
power and representation. They started out as part of a social program in which
long term unemployed participants were being trained for a "digital
future". Teachers and students interested in creating social experiments
and artistic projects joined together to form the core group of Mongrel. One of
their first projects was "Natural Selection", conceived initially as
a hack into a well-known search engine, rerouting people searching on for Nazi
and hate sites to a series of sites made by Mongrel.
Another group, Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) which
includes performance artist, Ricardo Dominguez and programmer, Carmin Karasic
epitomized the social aspects of technology. EDT acts as an Internet
performance art activist collective which developed software used to stage
virtual sit-ins. Ricardo describes their work as enabling "symbolic mass
presence" on behalf of and in solidarity with groups like the Zapatistas.
The software is widely distributed to thousands of on-line participants whose
collective actions flood and block network connections with millions of hits.
Ricardo describes their performance as "disturbing the movement of virtual
power." This technology has since been employed in a number of political
actions, including demonstrating with other Netstrikkers such as RTMark and
Federation of Random Action against the World Economic Forum.
The "Race in Digital Space" conference echoed my
experience as a black woman involved in technoculture. I returned to Toronto
determined to create a curatorial practice that widens the mainstream to make
it more inclusive, opening up a space to embrace the diversity of voices around
me. I want to present work from a broad frame of reference that puts forward
engaging questions challenging the assumptions of race and identity. I want to
promote an open ended dialogue with fresh new perspectives that speak to the
experience of being human in a technological world.
Camille Turner is a new media artist and curator based in
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