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With the benefit of hindsight, what role does new media play in artistic practices, activism, and as an agent for social change in the Middle East and North Africa today?

Anne Barlow
2 November 2012

New media's role as an agent for social change in the MENA region has been somewhat sensationalised by mainstream media in referring to recent incidents of unrest as 'Facebook' or 'Twitter revolutions'. Whether used for the purpose of social exchange or as part of an artistic practice, real-time communication and the immediacy of messaging creates the potential for a 'political' space (often further developed through other kinds of sustained action) in which voices and images can be shared outside official media channels. At the same time, as media analysts have pointed out, the way in which media and information are regulated, accessed and distributed, continues to vary according to the specifics of place and context.


Art and activism itself is an often fraught topic that has received heightened attention in recent biennials, as well as in numerous exhibitions and conferences profiling a range of approaches – from direct political commentary to practices that deal with risky or unstable positions and systems of authority through tactics of ambiguity, satire, the quasi-fictional, subterfuge or infiltration. Similarly, the ways in which art, new media and activism in the MENA region intersect encompass a range of organisational and individual practices that vary in intention and scope. An extensive overview is not possible here, but organisations such as the Cairo-based Mosireen, who were, they say, 'born out of the explosion of citizen media and cultural activism' during the Egyptian revolution, see digital media as a way of empowering citizen journalism through publishing, workshops, documentation and dissemination, while organisations such as Ashkal Alwan in Beirut continue to support vital artistic, educational and media-based initiatives that are framed by an engagement with civil society.  


With the current tendency in media coverage to focus on the topic of unrest, it is important not to generalise or stereotype individual artistic practices. While a work such as Rabih Mroué's The Pixelated Revolution (2012) engages with the phenomenon of real-time coverage of the Syrian revolution, it generates critical conversations not only around the 'aesthetics' of violence but also the larger question of how we consume and process images within media culture today. For many artists in the region who are conscious of their role but do not define themselves as 'activists', the use of new media is often part of a larger set of interests such as theatre, performance, and narrative that are intrinsic to their practice and should not be overlooked.

Anne Barlow

is Director of Art in General, a New York-based non-profit that supports local and international artists primarily through the commissioning of new work. Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Barlow was formerly Curator of Education and Media Programs at the New Museum, New York, where she curated numerous exhibitions and performances, and initiated and developed the Digital Culture series and the global network programme, Museum as Hub. Barlow has published for organisations including Liverpool University Press/Tate Gallery Liverpool, the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, United Kingdom, and the New Museum, and has lectured and moderated at organisations including the Royal College of Art, London, Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, MUMOK, Vienna, and the Sharjah Art Foundation.  Barlow was Curator of the 5th Bucharest Biennale (BB5), Bucharest, Romania, May-July 2012.

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