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A Meditation on Digital Witnessing

Written by: Freya Berkhout

I am sitting in my flat in South East London in March of 2018, cup of tea in hand, about to Skype with artist Lynette Wallworth to discuss Digital Witnessing. Digital Witnessing is a relatively recent area of inquiry concerning our relationship with technology and what we can witness digitally through the internet, which is capable of blurring geographical, political and economic boundaries. The concept of Witnessing, however, is not a new one, it is an act that humans have engaged with as long as narratives and stories have existed. It taps into our profound desire to connect, project, emote and protect. I will argue that Digital Witnessing is appealing to us for these same reasons, as well as allowing us to explore our curiosity, seek education and educational tools and pertinently, Digital Witnessing is highly accessible through online resources. Yet, it brings with it a multitude of underlying currents and questions in a globalised, colonised, racialised, gendered, economised, politicised and unequal world. I intend to unpack these undercurrents, looking through a Feminist TechnoScience lens, about who makes the work, art, news, media we digitally witness; who consumes it; and how, if at all, it affects those that it narrates, concerns, depicts, assists, exploits. I will discuss the methods and methodology of research agency Forensic Architecture, whose work epitomises the concept of Digital Witnessing through evidence-based practice and their repurposing of surveillance techniques and technologies. I will consider the myriad ways we can Digitally Witness, with a focus on computational art duo FRAUD’s work with data and cultural identity. I will examine Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions VR as an example of Digital Witnessing that approaches its subjects, makers and audience with a respectful, multifaceted and historically-informed understanding, taking a story from remote Western Australia to the World Economic Forum and beyond.

The notion of witnessing and “the gaze” (Jean-Paul Satre, Being and Nothingness, 1943) is entangled with Freud’s realisation that “I look…I am looked at” (Freud, Instincts and Vicissitudes 1997: 92–94) — to watch is to be watched. One of the most fascinating aspects of Digital Witnessing specifically, is that the circumstances and politics of seeing have changed in a revolutionary way — through digital technologies, we could feasibly see without being seen. In the early years of the internet, this anonymity was a revelation, however, since then our online behaviour has become increasingly surveilled, which in a way, has tipped the scales back towards “to see is to be seen”, as boundless amounts of data are collected on individuals. Digital anonymity, privacy, secrecy and freedom has manifested itself as a spectrum of consequences in recent history; from encouraging tribe mentality, inciting violence or hate, from entertainment, art and information, to education, political reform and occasionally, revolution. It has thusly been a technology enmeshed with all the contradictions and tensions within humanity itself.

Through this research, I have wrestled with the politics of seeing, and what it means to witness. I seek to see, understand and analyse those who, like me, are watching — what are our reactions, experiences and responsibilities to what we watch? Is it possible to witness ethically? Precisely because of Digital Witnessing, Nishat Awan states that “we can engage with places that are both physically and culturally distant. We live in a highly interdependent world but are often not aware of the ways in which our lives are intertwined. Often the issues at stake are incredibly complex.” (Awan, 2018)

Understanding the many forces at play when we witness requires nuanced analysis, and an understanding of this interdependency in our world. This sense of the intertwined is also present in Françoise Vergès’ essay Racial Capitalocene (Vergès, 2017), through which she discusses the Western approach to much of the world as disposable — people, animals, the environment:

“What methodology is needed to write a history… that includes slavery, colonialism, imperialism and racial capitalism, from the standpoint of those who were made into “cheap” objects of commerce, their bodies as objects renewable through wars, capture, and enslavement, fabricated as disposable people, whose lives do not matter?” (Vergès, 2017)

It is this strange dichotomy that defines the crux of what makes Digital Witnessing so complex — what we are able to see is as important as what we are unable to see. Whose interests are served by certain stories becoming visible and others remaining hidden or invisible? Throughout colonial history, it is the voices, stories and culture of Indigenous peoples that have been silenced for immense power and financial gain. In Collisions VR, Lynette Wallworth explores a radical reframing of traditional colonial narratives — a clash of distant people, places, concepts, perspectives, experiences and values. Collisions is a 360º documentary through which Nyarri Nyarri Morgans of the Martu community of remote Western Australia tells his story of first contact with the Western world — a nuclear test carried out by the British on Anangu country in the 1950s. Collisions truly utilises the technology that best supports the storytelling, using VR as the vessel to guide viewers through an experience they could never have in the physical world, as visiting the Martu occurs only through invitation and involves a ceremonial welcome to country. Sharing Indigenous cultures from around the globe has, and always will be extremely complex and potentially problematic, rife with colonial and racial undercurrents, because this knowledge is often privileged, and intended to be shared only within the community. Digital witnessing throws this concept of privileged information into even more entangled realms as it is very difficult to influence or control who accesses this information once it is disseminated online. However, there is simultaneously the danger that these stories, languages, beliefs, traditions and forms of knowledge may be lost if not shared with the rest of the world, digitally. With these undercurrents in mind, Collisions is extremely unique as a case study in Digital Witnessing, because Nyarri and his community have not only been integral to the entire process, they compelled Wallworth to facilitate telling this story, which Nyarri kept private for 65 years. In discussions, Nyarri’s grandson Curtis explained to Wallworth that “Stories are like family members, sometimes you have to hold onto them until they’re ready to make their way into the world” (Wallworth, 2018), and the timing of this story has been as important as the act of releasing it into the world. Wallworth continues, saying that Nyarri had “been holding this story in my heart, but this story is not for my people… This story is a story to be shared, particularly with politicians” and Wallworth’s collaboration meant “There was an intent and expectation… That I would then set these wheels in motion. And the other thing that he didn’t know is that I had, by that stage, this very strong relationship with the World Economic Forum, actually one of the key places you can go and present work in front of a clutch of world leaders.” (Wallworth, 2018)

As a result, Nyarri retains agency, which is a key concept in creating art that can have a tangibly positive effect on the storytellers. We, as those witnessing, are only able to have this experience because the Martu have allowed us to. It is this pivotal aspect that makes for effective political art — true collaboration which inspires reflection, maybe even action, in its viewers. Bringing to mind Awan’s words, “More than ever before, we are compelled to act, to somehow feel responsible for and bear witness to what occurs at a distance from us.” (Awan, 2018)

In speaking with Lynette Wallworth, it became clear to me that she is extremely conscious about the audiences she seeks out for her work, the people who she, and the people whose stories she helps tell, believes will take the experience of witnessing to action. As Nyarri’s intention was always to share this story with political leaders, in some ways it seemed that he was waiting for the technology that would best articulate an experience that rocked many Indigenous communities all those years ago. In 2016, Collisions premiered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, witnessed by politicians and world leaders, the very people who write policy concerning nuclear power.

“Where many people complain about VR headsets as being isolating, I appreciate that for 15 minutes, that person who’s written the white paper on Indigenous consultations on mining, is in that world of the Martu, and he’s in that world on his own and his advisor can’t get to him, and he can’t see what time it is, and someone can’t pull him away to the next meeting. And if I’ve done my work as I hope to, then the story is compelling enough that he will stay and watch the whole thing through. And that’s where I think the political change emerges, and that’s been my learning curve and that’s my focus.” (Wallworth, 2018)

It is this conscious awareness about how to get her work seen by the people who can enact change that makes Wallworth not only an extremely astute artist, but importantly, an effective advocate and an amplifier of voices that should be heard, and have historically been silenced.

Amplifying voices of those who have been silenced is the driving force behind the work of Forensic Architecture, a forensic agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London. In discussing their work with a contributing filmmaker, Simone Rowat articulated that their projects “use technology that is often thought of as surveillance technology”, turning this technology on itself by redirecting it towards those that usually surveil, “in the same way of using forensics to investigate what’s usually in the domain of the state”. In their work Liquid Traces, directed by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, Forensic Architecture created a reconstruction of a refugee boat carrying 72 migrants which was left adrift for 14 days despite being on NATO’s maritime radar in 2011, the peak of the war in Libya. It is instances such as these where technology enables independent groups like Forensic Architecture to access evidence that reveals state-sanctioned actions that are in direct contravention of the human rights they espouse to protect. Simone continues, “sometimes we are in the position where we are asked to speak on behalf of someone who cannot speak” (Rowat, 2018), which echoes the sentiments that inspire so much of what we Digitally Witness: uncovering information and voicing truths through evidence gleaned via technology. “Our drive is to create political awareness around something, with the aim of changing the situation or addressing an injustice, and we work directly with the people that are affected” (Rowat, 2018). Forensic Architecture’s work epitomises the concept of Digital Witnessing, demonstrating that witnessing through technology by collecting data and photographic or video evidence, allows us to create a full and nuanced understanding of events and the often geographically and culturally disparate players involved.

This sense of examining, an attempting to understand and diminish distances is present in the work of Audrey Samson and Francisco Gallardo, also known as FRAUD, a computational art duo based in Somerset House in London. Their work explores data archiving, geopolitics and the nexus between ecology, society and technology, much of which exists in the realm of Digital Witnessing. Their installation Let Them Eat Cake! used synthetic DNA from users’ Facebook profiles and encoded this into the cake, which was then eaten in exhibition. The work offered a novel gustatory experience, and yet simultaneously forces us to reflect upon the online footprints we leave, how corporations and governments generate and collect information, intimate details, personality traits and socio-political leanings for financial gain and increasingly, political power. In eating the cake, you partake in a radical act of consuming what those witnessing you have gleaned, and in doing so, you digest, process and witness them.

Upon reflection, I am struck by Nyarri’s perspective, and the outlook of Indigenous peoples from around the globe, which centres around generations, being a custodian of the land, and passing your knowledge, respect and a sustainable, happy future on to the generations that follow. There is an understanding of the consequences of things, and as David Suzuki says, “what First Nations are trying to tell us is that… there are things more important than money” (Suzuki, 2015). This compelling idea is just one of the many perspectives that has been wiped from history through colonial violence and rule, but there is possible opportunity for change through Digital Witnessing if we choose to listen to and disseminate the stories and wisdom of First Nations people. Wallworth’s articulates this perspective, imbibed from the Martu:

“The next goal for all of us is to try and get some faint understanding of what it means to think multi-generationally, which we know is essentially what sets apart, often, Indigenous people from non-Indigenous people, to use a blunt characterisation. Because the rest of us are genetically predisposed to think there’s always going to be somewhere else to go. We come from the stock of the people who left. And in us there’s a belief that there will always be somewhere else… More food or better conditions… The only people in the world who don’t think like that — that thought does not belong in their consciousness — are Indigenous people. And we live in the country with people who have been for the longest time in that place.” (Wallworth, 2018)

Digital Witnessing almost always requires a complex mutual exchange: to watch is to be watched. And yet, as a medium to disseminate stories that have been historically hidden and silenced, technology offers a unique and powerful opportunity to change the narrative, record the histories, cultures, languages and knowledge gained over hundreds of thousands of years, and to pass this on to the generations to come.




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