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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?

Mandy Merzaban
2 November 2012

Using new media tools and technologies available today has become standard practice for a range of activities; it's become a source of educational content and entertainment, as well as a means of communicating from conflict zones or even from the comfort of our homes. New media technologies available on smart phones and computers are so readily available that bloggers, journalists, artists, authors and others able to use them to record, track and distribute personal content. Drawing on the same reservoir of openly accessible material, users often remix and share media that bear little distinction to one another. It can become difficult to decipher what distinguishes artists' limited edition video montages, for instance, from those created by an everyday user of the technology who doesn't identify her/himself as an artist.

Artists working with circulated material from the Arab uprisings thus find themselves in a quandary. With art institutions, festivals, forums and fairs taking an interest in work that embodies the so-called 'Arab Spring', how should an artist who often cites visceral visual material strike a balance between sensitivity, critical analysis and providing nuanced commentary, without over-simplifying the popular unrest taking place for the sake of fulfilling an output quota?

In the context of the Arab uprisings, there exists a plethora of visual material available from the heart of violent centres of conflict - including shaky mobile uploads, online commentaries, first-hand accounts, micro-blogging, and on-the-ground video reporting. Artists drawing on such materials from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt or Syria have to negotiate the delicate balance between reflecting on the content critically and being opportunistic.

While it provides users with overwhelming interconnectivity, the Internet can also highlight detachment from the reality on the ground. Ephemeral and disillusioning by nature, cyberspace allows the user to seamlessly shift between viewer, voyeur, producer and celebrity. Virtually anyone can become a user generating and distributing information irrespective of whether or not they have specialised skills or knowledge.

Artists responding to the uprisings, who may or may not be actively engaged in the protests, are faced with the challenge of critically reflecting on and citing events that are ongoing without seemingly exploiting the material, or worse, the people.

Artists have a pivotal role in participating in the dialogue shaping the momentous political and social changes taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. While too heavily relying on technologies to understand the realities behind the lenses can be risky for artists, social media sources also provide a unique opportunity for them to create a distinguishing body of work that critically analyses, challenges and preserves the events of the 'Arab Spring'.

Mandy Merzaban

is an interdisciplinary artist, curator and writer. She is the founding curator of the Barjeel Art Foundation established in 2010 in Sharjah, UAE. Merzaban is a graduate of the Fine Arts and Anthropology program at the University of British Columbia and received her MA in Cultural Translation at the American University of Paris. Her dissertation project, An Unknown Lover’s Discourse, is an analysis of subjectivity, love and tarab music in film adaptations of Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman.

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