Human rights and the internet from a curatorial perspective

How can we build a visual literacy that strengthens the movement for human rights on the internet? First, understand what we are involved in when we look.

Marianna Liosi
25 April 2016


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Protest outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968. Video, YouTube, 1:54 min. The virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, and other computer-mediated subjects have increasingly become themes explored by artists and curators.

In this text I reflect on how a perspective from the arts can contribute to questions about the connection between human rights and the internet. In particular, how do human rights issues online and visions for a future internet impact on our work as artists and curators? For example: questions of privacy, activism, and surveillance, empathy with portable technological devices, and social networks’ influence on the arts.

The increasing digital dimension of social and political phenomena such as conflicts and migration and how they resonate in the global media, contribute to the sense of “being there” that is driven by social networks. These trends have implications for how citizens perceive, and artists represent political agency on and through the internet, with its layers of private social and public realms.

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Ken Lum, House of Realization, 2007. Installation with one-way mirror and text. Courtesy of M+ Museum for visual culture, Hong Kong People now can watch as much as their technological infrastructure - internet connection – or respective levels of censorship and control make possible. This access to events, through the mediation of the screen, raises several types of question for us – as viewers and citizens.

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Ken Lum, House of Realization, 2007.How do we react to images of shared realities consumed online? How can viewer-users like ourselves engage effectively with distant political events from behind the screen? Is engagement with someone else’s cause through the social mediation provided by the internet possible? Can we react to and resist violations of freedom through any online platform, which can also be subject to the same restrictions?

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Daniel Herleth, Facebook, 2011. Collage. Courtesy of the artist .These and other questions were raised during the research-based project “Regarding Spectatorship: Revolt and the Distant Observer” which culminated in a website (regardingspectatorship.net) and an exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin (2015-2016), which I curated together with Boaz Levin.

“Regarding Spectatorship” focused upon the prevalent mode of vision that defines our age, and the engagement of the distant onlooker in relation to mediated political events. It aimed to critically explore the role played by successive generations of mass — formal and informal — media on the one hand and, on the other, the role that personal, web-based technologies play in the politics of representation.

The research dimension of the project explored notions of distance in relation to direct involvement, spectatorship in relation to agency, and vision in relation to action. It brought together a wide range of contributions to questions about the ambivalent way in which artists perceive the role of internet technologies, recording devices, and contemporary social media in politics.


Peter Snowdon, “The Uprising”, 2013, 78 min, DCP, 16:9, 5.1 (still). Courtesy the artistThe “Regarding Spectatorship” exhibition grew out of our initial interest in the social protests that took place during 2011 in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. These events, commonly referred to as The Arab Spring, were ones in which “we”, privileged onlookers with internet access, were witnessing and constantly monitoring events from a western perspective and location.

The research and our curatorial approach to the exhibition stemmed from a personal introspection – thinking about our possible relationship towards these, and similar events as spectators, and so questioning our agency and interest in asking how we might be implicated within this peculiar long-distance relationship to such events. These questions led us to then consider how the internet’s technological mediation has become inherent to the contemporary political sphere. Is political spectatorship via the web intrinsically voyeuristic, or, conversely does it carry emancipatory potential? Is the act of viewing online individual and solipsistic, or does it also affect a collective sphere? If so how?

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Darius Kazemi (Tiny Subversions), Monetizing Concern, 2015. Google bot.And furthermore, how as a curator is it possible to react politically to those events, through the creation of a platform for discussion, the sharing, the exploration of these questions in the context of an art exhibition? From the point of view of this show, how can we engage in debates on the Arab uprisings today, four years later?

These questions inspired our choices. Among the artworks included in the show, some challenged the visitor to reflect on the digital in relation to online privacy, voyeurism and surveillance. See for instance, Ken Lum’s one way mirror installation, “House of Realization”, 2009, or the interaction between online activism as part of a public domain conveyed in Daniel Herleth’s poster “Facebook”, 2011.

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Falke Pisano in collaboration with Archive Books, “Here to there, there to here”, 2014, video, 19:30 min (still). Courtesy ar/ge Kunst Bolzano, Falke Pisano, Archive BooksThe Google bot by Darius Kazemi, “Monetizing Concern” (2015), unpacked how digital automatisation stretches out the limits of political agency. Falke Pisano in collaboration with Archive Books’ video “Here to there, There to here” (as part of the installation, “Constellation of One and Many”, 2014) reflects on physical proximity vs. distance between viewers’ body behind a computer screen and images of other bodies in collective gatherings. In contrast Peter Snowdon’s Pan-Arabic feature-length documentary “The Uprising” (2013) gathered together footage from vernacular YouTube videos of these upheavals in six countries of the Arab world in 2011.

Alongside these works, we assembled other sorts of visual materials to present them as cultural artifacts, an essential aspect to our curatorial vision. For instance, we provided clips of the protests that occurred during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 (when the slogan “The whole world is watching” was coined) in front of clips from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park (when this same slogan was chanted again). We also featured the YouTube video archive initiated by artist and activist David Reeb; the web series “Chopcassava” documenting the January 2012 fuel subsidy protests in Lagos, Nigeria; memes and viral jokes (e.g. the Lieutenant Pike pepper spray meme also known as “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop”) along with selected audio, magazines, posters that we were able to find mainly online.

Our aim with these materials was not only to contextualize the artworks but also to interrogate the latent power and agency that the spectator exercises online. This implies both participatory potential and the limits of the internet, a medium that facilitates the access, the creation and the wide dissemination of “counter” information as well as the sharing of it outside national boundary restrictions, but in ways that are also susceptible to, and informed by many forces of political and commercial control.


Lieutenant John Pike (also known as “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop”) pepper spraying a group of Occupy protesters at the University of California Davis in November 2011.In short, in this show we wanted to address the political and philosophical question: “What can we do?” What empathy can we convey or propel through our uses of internet technologies, and of the digital? According to Jacques Rancière, we-spectators are immersed and so act in the reality we observe. By viewing, we confirm or transform positions of domination and subjection — to put it in other words, we have the potential to contribute with our own narration. Awareness of our individual responsibility is necessary not only in self-defence, but also in the consciousness that both individual and collective engagement is needed to make a viable response to human rights violations, both in “real” life and in the digital one.

But, the form our engagement can take, how to perform our resistance, to embody this awareness — these remain open questions. In an interview on the magazine “The Fader” the poet, writer, musician, actor and activist Saul Williams in response to the questioning of #BlackLivesMatter (a chapter-based national organization working for the validity of Black life and working to (re)build the Black liberation movement) argues that we need as much a digital revolution as a direct action movement. He says: “#BlackLivesMatter are rooted in a philosophy beyond digital culture, but empowered by digital culture. Simply because of the fact that we’re able to expose, chronicle and connect on such a huge scale, certain truths become self-evident”.

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A photoshop version of Pepper Spray Cop. Lt. Pike was placed in the 1819 painting “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull. What if the act of sharing can multiply these evidences and allow us to feel and experiment the communal agency that we need in order to see our human rights respected?

The show aimed to drive the visitor to reflect on her/his own condition and also on his/her power as a viewer, and specifically on what it means to be “effective” and engaged when behind a screen. In this sense, the show resonates with the call for human rights activists and scholars to keep engaging in debates about the future of the internet, including who should govern it and who is responsible in the last instance for defending human rights online. As curators we were aiming to open up the plethora of doubts and ambivalences towards these issues. Far from finding solutions our objective was to have viewers consider — as individuals and part of a collective — the dual possibility of both the factual and subjective responses that are at stake.


A photo posted to a Tumblr blog, It Makes No Sense. Lt. Pike was placed in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884)

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