Representin': Digital Artists Confront Race

If October's Race in Digital Space 2.0 conference (RDS2.0) tried to accomplish one thing, it was to demonstrate that cyberspace may not be as white, as American or as patriarchal as most people think it is. The conference discussions could never ultimately settle how much cyberspace is still in need of greater diversity versus how much an already diverse cyberspace simply needs better PR. Most likely, it needs both, but it is clear that the problems of race stand at a pivotal juncture in relation to digital space: on the one hand it stands to replicate the history of television-corporate and narrow-on the other, digital space may prove to be something more liberating, more expansive.

Held in media-saturated Los Angeles, the conference brought together a couple hundred artists, activists, academics and others with a stake in how cyberspace is used. As an attempt at a theoretical foundation, Jerry Kang, UCLA professor of law, proposed four possible strategies for dealing with race in the brave new world of media convergence, roughly:
1. abolition (ignoring race, a cyberpolicy of "don't ask, don't tell.")
2. integration (the one-big-happy-family model, think multi-racial wine discussion newsgroups)
3. transmutation (passing, or: if I claim to be a North African Bedouin, who are you to say I'm not?)
4. zoning (mixing and matching different strategies in different places)
The rest of the conference was of course an exercise in demonstrating that option 4 is already happening.

Erik Loyer's online, episodic, interactive narrative "Chroma" (kind of like a wordy, philosophical video game) plays out the complexities of race in a digital world as characters wrestle with the problems of incarnating themselves as digital avatars in a variety of races. How much of race is essence? How much is a secondary byproduct of our physical bodies?

At the other end of the spectrum, "Tropical America" starts with a solid grounding in race and history-in this case those of Latin America-and explores the use of gaming as a strategy for telling "alternative" cultural histories.  "Tropical America" was conceived and designed by a handful of East LA high school students under the guidance of Onramp Arts and is an object lesson in using comparatively low-tech, even nostalgic technologies as an oppositional strategy of creating content-rich, contextualized narratives.

But if the future holds the potential of ever-increasing fluidity and access across race, gender and class boundaries, it also holds the threatening potential for increased repression and violence. In the wake of terrorism in the very seats of global power, the new face of technology is our own: on surveillance videos, in retinal scans, in police super-databases.

If this is technological "progress," how does the artist react to this? How does the artist make of digital art, in the words of Ithaca College professor Patty Zimmerman, "a prosthetic of hope and a shockwave for peace?" Is such a thing possible?

The digital artist stands in a predicament: how to be conscious of race, nation and history in a medium that so easily slips between the cracks of all three? Artists at the conference's Digital Salons presented a number of possible responses: Pamela Z's haunting soundscapes look at Japanese culture as seen from the outside by a black, American woman. Miranda Zuniga's Vagamundo recasts the beat-'em-up video game genre as exercise in cultural empathy. DJ Spooky's irresistible, beat-laden turntablism complements a philosophy of historical encounters and self-definition as always a performance of the "remix," that is to say, pieces of ourselves can be fluidly reinterpreted, recycled and recontextualized as needed.

RDS 2.0 consciously rejected the question of the "digital divide" as too simple a conundrum, too unsophisticated an analysis. Instead, it asks this question to digital artists of conscience: once we get access to technology, how do we use it? Whom do we serve?

--Cinque Hicks