(A)WAKE: Creating sense of belonging through digital culture

The driving force behind Rotterdam’s indispensable venue MONO takes the next step in becoming a cultural institute. You might know (A)WAKE from their cultural and political context programming or from one of their many pre-COVID-19 club nights. The upcoming  organisation has been creating spaces for critical makers and thinkers in digital culture for quite some time. During their first-ever four-day festival in February 2020 (New Radicalism), we were introduced to their new direction celebrating the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region and its diaspora through digital arts in all its forms.

Founder Shirin and her companion program maker and researcher Narges took the time to give some insights on their choice to establish themselves as a cultural institute, what it means to create these in-between spaces and how essential they are in the current artistic landscape of The Netherlands.

 

For the people who are new to the field, how would you describe digital culture and why the focus?

Shirin: Digital culture is interesting because it exists in parallel realities. This notion offers many next-gen the opportunity to shape their own reality. At the core is all this contradiction. On one hand, we need to feel grounded in our roots but on the other we long for the freedom to remain fluid. On one hand, we protect our individuality, on the other we yearn for a sense of community. I think this is where our strength lies, in moving in-between on a crossroad where countercultures, digital cultures and socio-political realities meet.

The festival and the multi-year plan focus on new voices from the Middle East & North Africa and its diasporas. What is the link between digital culture, counterculture and the MENA region?

Narges: The digital has an incredibly emancipatory character. It can literally empower through communication and connection. It’s a take on digital culture that – in my opinion – cannot be emphasized enough especially in the context of The Netherlands and Europe. It also raises a lot of questions. Who’s digital culture is it in the first place? How do young makers with Middle Eastern and North African roots relate to the field of digital culture, a field that seems to have better access to resources in the West?

Shirin: There’s also a lot of privilege involved if you have the means to endlessly research something. It creates this specific type of art that is made from a kind of comfortable setting that allows you to specialize in a technical niche. The digital art we’ve encountered thus far in the MENA region is far more political and poetic. It shows how the position from which something is created matters.

Narges: Besides, a lot of the current events or established institutions working with topics regarding the MENA focus heavily on the past. This nostalgic and oftentimes orientalist view somehow keeps the region in a narrative of the past. Digital culture, on the other hand, is often visually presented in blue and white screens, black cables, and in relation to hard- and software. Visually it can be quite cold. We wanted to see how we could equivalently unite these two worlds. How can we create space for upcoming makers who are not necessarily at home in the hard and cold worlds of digital culture but at the same time might feel distanced from their cultural roots? In short: We want to depart from the now and imagine a future for digital culture – one that embraces the warmth and hospitality of our Middle-Eastern and North African roots.

You could’ve just chosen to join an institute and create programming from a comfortably made bed using all the available facilities. Why this difficult road?

Narges: It originates from an urgency to create an open platform without hierarchies in a manner that does not make the other feel like an invitee. Now, we see too often that people are invited to fit within a narrative that supports this idea of ‘the other’. To research this, we held video Q&A’s with young makers with MENA roots on the notion of representation and visibility. Even though it was expected in one way or another, what stuck with me the most from these conversations was that none of the 11 creatives we spoke with felt represented or at home in the Dutch cultural sector. Constantly having to explain where you’re coming from or how that influences your (artistic) choices is exhausting. Besides, no one wants to speak on behalf of an entire community or even a whole country each time they are invited to a program. Departing from a position of in-betweenness ourselves – we hope to flip this coin of having to justify one’s existence in a country of residence. Working from a similar cultural position allows for more equal collaborations.

Narges: We also understand from our close MENA community that there’s a strong desire to professionalize but there are few places where this is structurally possible. By becoming a cultural institute we can mediate and facilitate in networking, knowledge-sharing and strengthening the position of those that feel in-between. Eventually, it’s the network, knowledge and experiences that are our biggest cultural capital. Especially in these times of huge financial precarity. So we ask ourselves: How do we use this capital to the best of our ability and make sure that it reaches the people it should be meant for?

Who’s digital culture is it in the first place? How do young makers with Middle Eastern and North African roots relate to the field of digital culture, a field that seems to have better access to resources in the West?

In-betweenness is one of the keywords in your practices. When navigating all these identities, what is the common denominator? And what is your approach to working with them?

Shirin: The common denominator is definitely the society-critical view. It’s in acknowledging the fluidity and nuance in the complexity of the now. The danger lies in living in all these individual social bubbles that are created. This is why it is so important for (A)WAKE to have access to a physical space where people meet and these bubbles can burst. As the homebase of (A)WAKE, MONO has always been a place that facilitated different communities in their programming without playing a directive role. The beauty of this space  is that everyone can make it theirs. Sometimes quite literally by moving around the furniture and making it your living room.

You mentioned MONO as an important player in this creation process. What does a venue like that mean for the success of the institute that you are becoming?

Shirin: To have a physical place where you can enjoy a sense of collectivity and feel the freedom to grow in your individual and professional process is extremely valuable. Like Narges said, to not constantly have to explain where you are from because there’s a common understanding. We don’t have to look for the conversation, the conversation happens organically when you hang around in the evening and someone comes to you for a chat on one of the club nights. It also allows us to receive continuous and instant feedback. MONO is the physical embodiment of that organised chaos, of that in-betweenness. It allows us to establish a framework within which we can offer customized support and people can experiment freely.

Narges: We are very deliberate in our approach, which is definitely bottom-up. We think about the profile of the maker and see how we can facilitate their ambitions. A great example is one of (A)WAKE’s newest long term projects Heritage Studios. Together with the maker, we looked for ways to make the project happen. We noticed that when you put different people with similar ideals and different professional backgrounds in the same space, there’s an implicit growing consciousness.

It originates from an urgency to create an open platform without hierarchies in a manner that does not make the other feel like an invitee. Now, we see too often that people are invited to fit within a narrative that supports this idea of ‘the other’.

Who are some of the main forces that are indispensable for the existence and growth of (A)WAKE?

Shirin: It’s very important to us that it’s clear that (A)WAKE is much more than just me and Narges. It’s a whole network of like-minded people. We hope to keep growing and we definitely notice that when you create a space genuine in its intentions in supporting  professionalisation of upcoming practices, it creates a snowball effect. Loads of people are interested in sharing collaborative opportunities together.

Could we say that a sense of belonging is at the core?

Shirin: Finding a sense of belonging together is at the very heart of (A)WAKE. I think there are many third and fourth generations that feel bicultural in the sense that, for example, they might not speak their parental language completely fluently. When you are ashamed of these things it can be very reassuring to go to a place where in-betweenness is not condemned but celebrated. Where you can feel safe to ask whatever you wish to know.

What does the future of (A)WAKE look like for you?

Narges: I hope that in the future we’ll be able to answer even more to the desire for understanding. Within our focus groups, we noticed the weight that falls off people’s shoulders when you show understanding for things that are sometimes difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced anything similar. Departing from a similar cultural background, and/or from a position of almost literally in-between cultures creates a sense of communality. You don’t have to justify anything, you can let things go and move forward with the actual creative process.

That being said, our ambition is to build our institute departing from New Radicalism towards a structural multi-year program. This includes a variety of exhibition programs, extensive talks, residency programs, talent development trajectories, archives of cultural heritage and an audio-visual studio. As a cultural institute that represents the upcoming voices of the MENA diaspora and being based in Rotterdam, we hope to fuse local impact with our global ambition.

Written by Manal Aziz