Representin': Digital Artists Confront Race

If October's Race in Digital Space 2.0 conference (RDS2.0) tried to

accomplish one thing, it was to demonstrate that cyberspace may not be

as white, as American or as patriarchal as most people think it is. The

conference discussions could never ultimately settle how much cyberspace

is still in need of greater diversity versus how much an already diverse

cyberspace simply needs better PR. Most likely, it needs both, but it is

clear that the problems of race stand at a pivotal juncture in relation

to digital space: on the one hand it stands to replicate the history of

television-corporate and narrow-on the other, digital space may prove to

be something more liberating, more expansive.

Held in media-saturated Los Angeles, the conference brought together a

couple hundred artists, activists, academics and others with a stake in

how cyberspace is used. As an attempt at a theoretical foundation, Jerry

Kang, UCLA professor of law, proposed four possible strategies for

dealing with race in the brave new world of media convergence, roughly:

1. abolition (ignoring race, a cyberpolicy of "don't ask, don't tell.")

2. integration (the one-big-happy-family model, think multi-racial wine

discussion newsgroups)

3. transmutation (passing, or: if I claim to be a North African Bedouin,

who are you to say I'm not?)

4. zoning (mixing and matching different strategies in different places)

The rest of the conference was of course an exercise in demonstrating

that option 4 is already happening.

Erik Loyer's online, episodic, interactive narrative "Chroma" (kind of

like a wordy, philosophical video game) plays out the complexities of

race in a digital world as characters wrestle with the problems of

incarnating themselves as digital avatars in a variety of races. How

much of race is essence? How much is a secondary byproduct of our

physical bodies?

At the other end of the spectrum, "Tropical America" starts with a solid

grounding in race and history-in this case those of Latin America-and

explores the use of gaming as a strategy for telling "alternative"

cultural histories.  "Tropical America" was conceived and designed by a

handful of East LA high school students under the guidance of Onramp

Arts and is an object lesson in using comparatively low-tech, even

nostalgic technologies as an oppositional strategy of creating

content-rich, contextualized narratives.

But if the future holds the potential of ever-increasing fluidity and

access across race, gender and class boundaries, it also holds the

threatening potential for increased repression and violence. In the wake

of terrorism in the very seats of global power, the new face of

technology is our own: on surveillance videos, in retinal scans, in

police super-databases.

If this is technological "progress," how does the artist react to this?

How does the artist make of digital art, in the words of Ithaca College

professor Patty Zimmerman, "a prosthetic of hope and a shockwave for

peace?" Is such a thing possible?

The digital artist stands in a predicament: how to be conscious of race,

nation and history in a medium that so easily slips between the cracks

of all three? Artists at the conference's Digital Salons presented a

number of possible responses: Pamela Z's haunting soundscapes look at

Japanese culture as seen from the outside by a black, American woman.

Miranda Zuniga's Vagamundo recasts the beat-'em-up video game genre as

exercise in cultural empathy. DJ Spooky's irresistible, beat-laden

turntablism complements a philosophy of historical encounters and

self-definition as always a performance of the "remix," that is to say,

pieces of ourselves can be fluidly reinterpreted, recycled and

recontextualized as needed.

RDS 2.0 consciously rejected the question of the "digital divide" as too

simple a conundrum, too unsophisticated an analysis. Instead, it asks

this question to digital artists of conscience: once we get access to

technology, how do we use it? Whom do we serve?

--Cinque Hicks