This fall, three talented creatives are selected to partake in (A)WAKE’s very first artist residency. The residency programme focuses on researching the emancipatory potentials of digital culture, how it relates to counter-narratives and rebuilding socio-political relations. From Fall 2021 until Spring 2022, each artist will have six weeks to explore these themes and prepare their work which you can see during New Radicalism’s second edition in 2022.
I got to sit around the virtual table and chat with the three selected artists; Leyla-Nour Benouniche, Betina Abi Habib and Isshaq Albarbary about what digital culture means for those that live in between and what they expect from their time in the residency.
Informed by his life and traumas growing up in a refugee camp in Palestine, Isshaq Albarbary experiments with collective thinking and focuses on the interactions between refugees and their living spaces. He explores the epistemologies and the knowledges that are accumulated and transmitted from living in the camp—the myriad histories of doing, building, resisting and negotiating power and authority that produce community, space and temporality. His work is situated between art, politics, and education. He employs performance, collaboration, spatial intervention, and writing to historicize the lived experiences of extraterritoriality and to centre issues of anonymity, identity, displacement and fugitivity. During his residency at (A)WAKE, Albarbary aims to scrutinize stateless subjects’ identification cards and tombstones to examine the language of statecraft.
Even struggles that do not directly deal with settler-colonial contexts but somehow fall under that same system of oppression. So how can one make use of the opportunity of being here in the Netherlands and this residency to connect and relate?
Coming from all kinds of different fields, which role do digital arts and digital culture play in your current practice?
Isshaq: In my practice, much revolves around collective learning (a complex concept that refers to the dynamic process leading to the production of collective knowledge). So for me, human physical presence is always crucial and continues to be so. However, recent personal events in the Netherlands made me aware of the importance of somehow relating to digital culture.
Personally, as a stateless person and a refugee living here in the Netherlands, I think we live in a time of images – considering how the state refers to us using specific codes or digital language. I’m now looking at bringing that into my collective learning and vice versa. With the living spaces I currently engage in, I question how to unfold reality. How can we create more ways of relating, of making connections? That said, you could say I’m focussing my practice on tanaaqush (storytelling) using digital culture as a platform.
Leyla: Actually, I was in a course called Interactive Media Design which is 80% digital technology and culture and 20% arts. This course forced me to fit my work around heritage into this framework, which was challenging as the school itself was predominantly white. However, in doing so, I realised that digital arts and heritage collide pretty naturally.
The exciting thing about, for example, New Radicalism was that there were all these people from very different places. Still, there was a sense of familiarity because we knew each other from online platforms like Instagram. You figure out that the connections that we build online are actually so strong. The phenomenon of building online relationships is something that I usually try to integrate into my work.
Betina: In my case, I refer to digital culture in my work by responding to content I find online or essential to show here, although it is coming from there. In that sense, it’s the space where I can find there (the homeland) and bring it here (in West European context), connect to what’s there or even do something there while being here.
I also feel like seeing others’ practices and how others are engaging with the digital space is relevant to explore and discuss collectively as we all have different perspectives and approaches. I also think that it means something specific for all of us. There is so much to figure out there, like imagining tools that you can create together.
Leyla-Nour Benouniche is a Franco-Algerian researcher, facilitator and audio-visual artist who grew up between Maryland suburbia and Paris. They have been developing their queer anti-colonial mediation through modular sets and digital tools based off of North African conversational safe spaces, such as; hammams, qa’adas, and terrasses. Their work uses memory and remix as methodologies to reorganise and accessibly translate their discoveries. During their residency at (A)WAKE, Benouniche aims to experiment in video form overlapping stories of mental distress resulting from being uprooted several times over. Through the use of science fiction narrative tools, they seek to intersect class, racial, gender and sexual identities, especially when these do not match popular depictions.
I get a different kind of nourishment from an in-person presence. But since we’re all in ‘in-betweens’, the digital space allows for a certain continuity between those little moments you get in reality.
This notion of here and there is very prominent in the philosophy of (A)WAKE. Being here in The Netherlands and still trying to connect, stay informed or contribute to whatever is happening there, what do you think is the importance of this digital space?
Leyla: I get a different kind of nourishment from an in-person presence. But since we’re all in ‘in-betweens’, the digital space allows for a certain continuity between those little moments you get in reality. That’s what I find most interesting, that it might sustain certain things that otherwise might not be sustainable if they existed only in the physical world.
Betina: I feel like the way I engage with digital culture is more present on a personal level. It is impactful in the sense that it allows me to stay in touch with my home and engage with home. I can get informed or even contribute at times. So, digital culture is more like a platform for me to practice at the intensity of wanting to be there and still wanting to be here – the urge to engage mentally with there while physically being here.
Isshaq: Personally, I’m someone whose body needs to feel people and spaces. And I guess digital cultures give you some connection but not the whole experience of being around one another. As much as there are platforms for collectivising, there are also platforms for oppression. So it becomes about in what context one would place them.
So, do you feel there are limitations as well?
Isshaq: Definitely. For me, when we talk about digital, there’s always this feeling of guilt and complicity. Because we know where the materials come from to produce our technology. We know the costs of colonialism, and in a way, the colonisers force us to be complicit. So it’s precisely this ontological complexity that we use this oppressive tool to talk about decolonial practices.
Betina Abi Habib
Betina Abi Habib is a visual and performance artist born and raised in Lebanon and currently residing in the Netherlands. Her artistic practice, informed by architecture and performance, is mostly site-specific, scenographic, and script-based. The ‘sites’ which she intervenes in range from an empty theatre space, to a Google Street View, to a live stream of a political speech. Through her artistic practice, she is interested in digital culture and technologies as facilitators of antagonisms; being here and there, responding but not reaching, connecting yet staying apart. During her residency at (A)WAKE, Abi Habib aims to explore methods for co-creative adaptations of highly-used existing digital platforms, while developing collective digital performances in both Rotterdam and online.
So, digital culture is more like a platform for me to practice at the intensity of wanting to be there and still wanting to be here – the urge to engage mentally with there while physically being here.
In a way, we could say that physical spaces are hard to replace for various reasons. Related to that, what can you tell us about how you plan to spend this physical time during your residency at (A)WAKE?
Leyla: While working on my project, which revolves around exchanging soundbites from the WANA region, I was looking for a suitable platform to shift away from existing ones and take back control of this exchange. The residency at (A)WAKE is like having a physical space to use these tools and put them into practice with physical people. And even if there’s that digital continuity in-between that I mentioned before, I think there’s always that moment where you need to get together and see if it actually hits.
Betina: For me, it’s really about using digital tools and content in my performances. By that, I mean to achieve what I want to convey with my performance. An example could be a specific lecture or discourse set by a political figure that I share through digital platforms as part of my performance. So digital culture is more a tool than a theme in my practice.
Isshaq: It’s interesting to think of it as an infrastructure that brings us all closer to truly grassroots contexts. For me, it’s about having the opportunity to come together with people with whom I share the same social and political urgencies in a place like The Netherlands. So it’s an infrastructure that provides you with a temporary platform to deal with the precarity of people with temporary visas and, quite practically, offer an amount of money that can feed into production, which is how I will use it. And I also honestly love the fact that the residency is six weeks. I feel like it’s the perfect time to engage with something and produce from it.
Although digital culture is relatively new on the timeline of the human race, it is not safe from biases that come from a colonial past and present. What are your thoughts on the decolonisation of digital culture?
Isshaq: I think of digital culture as a platform that allows us to work on conditions, which allows for some form of solidarity. I would find it tragic if I only focused on my urgencies during my six weeks of the residency as if I were the centre of everything. Meaning that it would be a missed opportunity to only focus on Palestine as a singular case and not look at it in connection with other struggles: Western Sahara, Kurdistan, Colombia, you name it. Even struggles that do not directly deal with settler-colonial contexts but somehow fall under that same system of oppression. So how can one make use of the opportunity of being here in the Netherlands and this residency to connect and relate?
Betina: Similarly, it’s also about the trans-national potential of these platforms and tools. If this is a new global platform and these are new global tools, we might as well be represented. I guess the potential lies mainly in this expansion, connectedness and representation.
Isshaq: Yeah, I’ve also been thinking of digital culture as a platform of documentation. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a time where we feel helpless. That there’s not much that you can do. I think the best you can do in times like those is to document and record these moments in history. And I’m not talking about victims or the pain. On the contrary, I’m talking about moments of victory and joy; these should be historicised for us as well.
Thanks to all three of you for sharing your thoughts, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing, reading and hearing more about your works soon!
Interview by Manal Aziz
Read more about the artist residency