Final Exam: Networking Art, Politics and History
“In the last two weeks Mazen Kerbaj’s drawings have been one of the strongest most vivid expressions of the whole mess that is unfolding in lebanon that i came across”, wrote Amsterdam based blogger Paul Keller on his blog referring to Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj’s artwork that he posted to his blog since the beginning of the Israeli attack on Lebanon. While Kerbaj’s drawings are very striking and evocative, what Keller did with these drawings is even more interesting as he printed them out and posted them in the streets of Amsterdam (Cities Unbuilt, p. 95). Although, this example doesn’t fit exactly fit into the idea of a networked city, Keller himself feels that translating a blog, which is a technology contained within the internet, into the fabric of the city, he is able to make a connection between digitally generated and distributed images and physical landscape. He, therefore, creates a feedback loop between the city of Lebanon, it’s people, the situation of war and destruction, the chaos and emotions expressed in Kerbaj’s images posted to his blog, and the streets of a completely different city, that is, Amsterdam.
The way in which the inhabitants of a city interact with the urban environment around them is important in understanding the complexity of the city. As Kevin Lynch points out, “we must consider not just the city as a thing in itself, but the city being perceived by its inhabitants” (SYSTEMS/LAYERS, p. 18). Keller’s A4 sized printed posters are able to add another layer of meaning to the built landscape by bringing the issue of war and violence to a completely different context. However, there is one drawback in his feedback loop: it’s not exactly a loop that allows us to to perceive the reaction and thoughts of the people in Amsterdam who view these images.
Keller’s project may not be an example of digital networked landscape where objects speak to you and connect with you, like in the case of Quividi billboards with facial recognition technology or the American Eagle spectaculars at Times Square that display your own image while advertising to you. Nevertheless, it is part of a network of infrastructure (of course with the digital element of Kerbaj and Kellers’s individual blogs as well) and performs the very important function of using art, memory and conflict to temporarily modify the façade of the city by asking people to think about a situation that they are very removed from.
Recently, I came across an Israeli non-governmental organization called Zochrot that aims to bring the Palestinian Nakba into the Israeli-Jewish public imagination by posting signs and images commemorating destroyed Palestinian villages and sites. This activism project is part of a design solution missing from reconstruction of Palestinian villages that Malkit Shoshan points out in the article “Lifta after Zionist planning” in Cities Unbuilt (p. 142). Shoshan explains how Lifta, a Palestinian village that retained much of its original architecture, is being reconstructed into a exclusive real estate while using it’s historical aspect as a “Palestinian ruin” to increase the value of the space. The article concludes by saying that “the original Palestinian inhabitants of Lifta are nowhere to be found in the plans. Those who created and cultivated this space, their memories of the village, their exile and longing to return are not mentioned at all” (Cities Unbuilt, p. 143).
Zochrot addresses Shoshan’s criticism by generation networks of knowledge, creating a space for discussion and linking historical, cultural and political memory and context to the people and the environment. The NGO’s website curates maps, images, testimonials, videos, articles, books that tell the story of the Nakba in an attempt to create historical and collective memory of the land and the people. This retelling of the story and bringing the Nakba into the language, landscape, environment and memory of the Israeli-Jewish people is Zochrot’s attempt to start a much needed process of reconciliation between the Jewish and the Arab people of the region.
Thus, by creating an online community as well as generating discussions in different Palestinian sites within Israel, Zochrot is truly able to create the feedback loop that Keller attempted. However, both projects are able to generate networks that infuse the fabric of the city with historical and symbolic contexts. Finally, while technologies such as facial recognition for advertisement billboards or interactive QR codes on gigantic digital screens have very specific functions in terms of their general commercial use, I believe that creating digital and infrastructural networks that address political, economic, social and cultural issues are far more important in impacting urban life.
Greenfield, Adam. SYSTEMS/LAYERS: URBAN EXPERIENCE IN THE NETWORK AGE. 2011
Rem Koolhaas etl. al. eds. Volume 11: Cities Unbuilt. New York: Columbia University Archis. 2007