Data Bodies and Tech Activism
with VJ Um Amel
A series of interviews of Artists and Speakers featured at the CODAME ART+TECH Festival  by Irene Malatesta
Professor Laila Shereen Sakr, also known as VJ Um Amel, is fascinated with culture. In conversation, she returns often to the subject of how ideas bubble up from the underground and coalesce, how individuals come together to create community online, and how to preserve and document that process. In her larger project, Storyboard of the Arab Resistance, she engages with these themes with a particular focus on the Arab world. Three pieces from Part I, Glitch Resistance on Metal, will be on view at the 2018 CODAME ART+TECH Festival: Data Body of a Cyborg, Cairo Graffiti, and Hashtag Activism, along with a related interactive artwork, Touch Data Body X.
Glitch Resistance on Metal is a limited edition series of six framed prints on metal, debuting at CODAME and soon to be on tour in North America. Sakr describes one piece, Data Body of a Cyborg, as “a consideration of form, content, composition, materiality, virtuality, and data.”
What is the power of a data body?
In a recent conversation, I asked Sakr what she means when she refers to “a data body.” Her answer is central to understanding not only this piece, but many facets of her work.
“One person who has influenced me big time is Ricardo Dominguez,” says Sakr, by way of introducing the concept. “Especially his work [as co-founder of] the Electronic Disturbance Theater and his early publication in Cultural Resistance Reader. In 2016 I went to a lecture of his, and he talked about a data body while describing what he calls micro gestures as interventions.”
A “micro gesture” in this context describes an action that reveals something, such as a logical or philosophical weakness, in the surrounding system, thus destabilizing it. She relates a story he told her about such an action, which formed the genesis of her later work on the subject of data bodies. The micro gesture that made such a significant impression on her was performed by a male to female transgender person who had just had top surgery.
Sakr recalls, “The local law at that time in Tallahassee, Florida was that men were allowed to be topless but women were not. Ricardo said to his friend, I have a challenge for you. You take off your top, show off your brand new breasts and drive around town. If you get pulled over by the police, let’s see if you will go to jail or not.”
They were interested not only in how much they could vex the local police department. Rather, it was an experiment to discover which held more social and institutional power at that moment: the “real” physical body, or the body of data that is attached to a person.
“What is going to win? Your data body or your real body?” Sakr asks. “The data body is your data — it’s your Social Security number. It’s your GPA from college. It’s your credit score. It’s your driver’s license record. It’s your Facebook feed now. The data body has so much clout that you can’t buy a house unless your data body is normalized within our economic system. In this circumstance, because his physical body went from male to female, the question is, how does our legal system identify the body now? On their driver’s license, it says male because on their birth certificate this person was registered male. ”
In that micro gesture experiment, the data body won, and the physical body went unpunished.
Sakr’s artwork, Data Body of a Cyborg, presents a glitched image that appears to be a self portrait. Specific markers of identity, time and place are not clear or, seemingly, relevant. This elision reveals the incongruence between the data body and the physical one.
“I’m not really into labeling people,” Sakr says. “I think we have a problem with language. It would be much healthier, in my opinion, if we are able to distinguish people the way computers do: through their actions. You don’t label some person as XYZ, as black, white. Instead, you identify them via a cloud of behaviors or functions. As they move through different circumstances, they behave differently.”
As we grow increasingly reliant on the internet to help us sort information, communicate with each other, and more, it seems inevitable that we will all come to rely on this cloud of data to understand each other in an increasingly explicit way.
Archiving the internet
In the early 2000s, Sakr was at Georgetown University working in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies as a publication and multimedia editor. During those years, she built websites for grassroots organizations as well as academic departments; in many cases, she created their first websites. At that time, she says, it dawned on her just how much digital content people were producing on the web.
“I was witnessing an explosion of new and digital media online content, and it was going unnoticed,” she says, a trace of incredulity in her voice despite the intervening years. “This was before Facebook, before Twitter. People still thought that the internet was [only about] pop culture and somehow disconnected from politics. Academics were not taking it seriously at all: if it wasn’t peer-reviewed and copyrighted, if it wasn’t printed, then it wasn’t real knowledge.”
Her skeptical university colleagues had a rude awakening coming, though it would be difficult to fault them in 2000. Wikipedia would not launch until 2001, Facebook would not begin until 2004, and Twitter would not exist until 2006.
The early 2000s are a time that many, especially political activists like Sakr, view as an especially dark one. After all, these are the years that saw the controversial election of George W. Bush, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the “war on terror” that started in Afghanistan and then extended to Iraq and beyond. Sakr views this period as a deeply formative one for her intellectual and artistic work.
“That’s when my work around politics and knowledge formation and art, all began to come together,” she explains. “I realized that, [looking at] the people who were making decisions, [attending] all the talks that were going on, all the lectures about the Middle East and the so-called peace process — in all of this, very few were listening to the blogs that I was reading in Arabic and English.”
While the academic climate around her buzzed with interest in the Arab world, her research methodology of theory and art practice was unorthodox. She became a pioneer in the academic world for making use of primary sources in Arabic via the internet.
In many cases, it wasn’t because scholars didn’t care about primary sources. From her vantage point as an experienced early web developer, Sakr saw that technical limitations played a large role. For one thing, at the turn of the century, simply getting the Arabic language fonts to display correctly on the web was difficult. For another, bandwidth was a huge issue, and engaging with content from Arab countries meant dealing with a wide variety of bandwidths in those countries.
“One of the reasons why the people who were studying the Middle East were not necessarily reading these [primary sources] was the fact that Arabic language content was hard to navigate online, due to digital infrastructure difficulties,” she explains. “All of these technical things that were such a challenge ten years ago, that we haven’t had issues with since.”
These early explorations led her to what would become first her MFA project, then a PhD project, and her first brush with online fame. She created R-Shief, a media system for cataloging and analyzing content from social networking sites, particularly Twitter.
To create R-Shief, she began saving tweets in 2010, paying special attention to keywords like “Egypt,” “Syria” and other Middle Eastern countries and phrases. Her initial goal was ambitious: to archive the internet in Arabic. In 2010, she says, “Twitter was not keeping data more than seven days,” and what she felt were incredible, important interactions and stories were being lost.
In reaction, “I went on this huge rampage to figure out how can we store or archive because I was distraught that they got rid of it…and I built a system to track Twitter by hashtag in 2010 before I started my PhD program. I started pulling stuff on #Gaza. When I started pulling in that data as the hashtag and being able to visualize that in one page, it was just phenomenal to me. The insights that I gained at the time were really huge, powerful, empowering.”
That feeling of empowerment was short-lived, however, when her project began to gain media attention. Contrary to what she had hoped — that her collection would help academics and individuals understand networks of solidarity — “the people who became most interested in it were governments, and the activists had no interest in this anymore. The people who were interested wanted to track this information for many reasons other than civic engagement, such as understanding consumer behavior to make money, or tracking political dissent to control it.”
Sakr, while proud of her early achievement, found the evolution of social media analytics ironically antithetical. Right now, R-Shief is offline, while she considers new approaches to data visualization as an aesthetic tool, as well as a form that could help individuals become more conscious of the invisible systems that operate around us all the time. Somehow, she hopes she can use the project to “creatively and critically broaden public awareness about the digital systems in which our social, economic, and political lives are increasingly inextricably embedded.”
Regardless of what she calls the “injustices” within the current capitalist system, Sakr remains optimistic about the capability of activists and artists to destabilize it.
“I believe that with enough creativity you can use any thing or material,” she says, “to express with intention. …Context and audiences will constantly change, but I think that if you keep your eye on it, you can always make your point.”
With her artworks, Cairo Graffiti and Hashtag Activism, both on view at the upcoming CODAME ART + TECH Festival, she uses glitched aesthetic forms to draw attention to the speed of social and political movements, as well as the ephemerality of individual political actions. Cairo Graffiti features manipulated photographs of murals from Mohamed Mahmoud Street by the American University of the Cairo Tahrir campus, representing the avant-garde graffiti from the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
In 2017, Egyptian officials removed the murals, but the images, recorded digitally and replicated endlessly on social media, remain.
You can find Glitch Resistance and the interactive work, Touch Data Body X at CODAME ART+TECH Festival, codenamed #ARTOBOTS, a four-day conference with workshops, talks and nightlife events, June 4–7 @ The Midway, San Francisco.
The CODAME runs not for profit events as members of Intersection for the Arts a 501(c)(3) and all proceeds will be split with the participating artists. Thank you for your support for ART ♥️ TECH !!!
About VJ Um Amel: Laila Shereen Sakr is Assistant Professor of Media Theory & Practice at University of California, Santa Barbara. Also known by her video jockey moniker, VJ Um Amel (Arabic for “mother of hope”), she has used computer analytics, data visualization, and immersive worldbuilding techniques to explore how individual participation in social media has influenced the formation of a virtual body politic. Over the last two decades, she has been a leading voice in the open source movement, in particular for Arabic localization. The work she will show at CODAME ART+TECH Festival is a part of her multi-modular project, the culmination of two years of work on Glitch Resistance.