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
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
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
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?