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Race in Space
Camille Turner

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 years.

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 identity.

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 diversity.

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 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" <> 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 net access.

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 Toronto.

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