Academic journal article Criticism

Reparative Social Media: Resonance and Critical Cosmopolitanism in Digital Art

Academic journal article Criticism

Reparative Social Media: Resonance and Critical Cosmopolitanism in Digital Art

Article excerpt

A young woman wearing a hi jab while sitting on a bench in front of downtown Minneapolis glances up from her open book and turns to face the camera. Born in Somalia, sixteen-year-old Maryan Mohamed Ali arrived in the Twin Cities just rive years before the photograph was taken. Her facial expression is difficult to discern because of the small size or the image, which takes up only a fraction of the interface, but this moment of interrupted reading amidst a cluster of urban high-rise buildings conveys a sense of local belonging. The photograph appears surrounded by a web of sinuous, colorful lines on Minneapolis and St. Paul Are East African Cities,1 a 2003 experimental hypermedia project documenting the everyday lives of East African teenagers living in the Twin Cities." Minneapolis and St. Paul contains images, audio and text contributed by Maryan and eighteen other Twin Cities-based East African young adults, ages 17.21. Browsing through this digital archive, the user explores a maplike interface in order to uncover the individual and communal stories of the teenage contributors. As the user interacts with the project and discovers more about the varied habits, memories, and histories of the contributors, colorful trails tracing the user's reading path proliferate and accumulate in a dense network. These visual traces of the user's reading history add yet another layer to the rich social networks and lived histories mapped throughout the project. Through its innovative deployment of social media composition as a compilation of historical and reading networks, Minneapolis and St. Paul raises complex questions about digital literacy, urban mobility, and social belonging in the twenty-first century.

Minneapolis and St. Paul was commissioned as part of the online portion of a 2003 Walker Art Center exhibit on art in a global age. Artist-in-residence Julie Mehretu gave the teen participants cameras, audio recorders, and notebooks to chronicle their everyday lives over a two-week period, and design team Entropy8Zuper! then created Minneapolis and St. Paul by using the self-ethnographic images, audio, and text provided by the participating teenagers. As the contributors grant us fleeting glimpses into their everyday lives, from a shopping mall to ceramics class and everywhere in between, the project highlights the heterogeneity both of the Twin Cities population in general and, more specifically, of the large, diverse population of East African immigrants who reside there. Although the initial audience for this work was a relatively small, digitally aware, museumgoing public, the reception of this work by art blogs and academics informs my argument that, despite its limits, Minneapolis and St. Paul makes a key contribution to how we conceptualize digital sociality in the twenty-first century.3 The project subtly interrogates post-9/11 popular discourse on immigrant youth in the United States and offers an alternative vision of digital social networking that differs in important ways from the data-mining strategies that tend to dominate both corporations and states' digital agendas. Falling in the historical period between 9/11 and the rise of ubiquitous social media, characterized most familiarly by sites like Facebook and Twitter, Minneapolis and St. Paul provides, at this remove, a critical cosmopolitan vision of both local belonging and transnational mobility.

Minneapolis and St. Paul thus exemplifies a genre or new media art that I call reparative social media, because it uses the tools of social media in order to make a complex political intervention. 1 borrow the term reparative from Eve Kosofskv Sedgwick's work on queer reading.4 In her germinal chapter, Sedgwick argues that most politically progressive academic scholarship embraces a paranoid hermeneutic in the sense that the main aim is to expose the workings or power. While paranoid reading has been crucial in bringing injustices to light, Sedgwick points out that it has problematically become the dominant credible framework for engaging with power because any other approach "has come to seem naive, pious, or complaisant. …

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