Digital Media Arts in the Middle East: Affordances for whom, and for what?

This paper aims at complicating the notion of affordance in the realm of digital media, by focusing on the parts of the world that lie beyond the Western urban high-tech societies. James J. Gibson coins the term ‘affordance’ to propose a relational understanding of the interaction between an actor and its environment. In the realm of digital media, the term has been mostly reformulated as a reference to functional and aesthetic properties of objects and interfaces that allow particular experiences. However, this paper proposes an extended, or inverted understanding of affordance, by asking the question of affordances for whom, and for what. For this analysis, I look at media artists working on the Middle East, who challenge the uneven material infrastructure underlying, and the racist technicist logic embedded within computational technologies. These artists also remind us the colonial and neoliberal underpinnings of what are understood to be digital affordances today. Interestingly, if we return to Gibson, we can see that he opens a path for theorists and artists for identifying the contingencies of digital media. The artists could play, and they historically did, a significant role in exploring possible applications of computational media. In the context of Middle East, the impoverished conditions and political commitments reveal affordances - both limitations and potentials - of different media formats. When the functioning of digital media is disrupted, it reveals more about its underlying mechanisms, and more importantly, it proves how errors and disruptions are parts of the operations of computational media rather than being mere exceptions. Instead of essentializing any loss or win that is assumed to be arriving with the medium, the artists challenge the medium, its material infrastructure and history at the intersection of material and symbolic forces.

 

Özgün Eylül İşcen is a PhD candidate in Computational Media, Arts and Cultures at Duke University, United States. She received a BA degree in Sociology from Koç University, Turkey, and an MA degree in Interactive Arts and Technology from Simon Fraser University, Canada. Eylül’s research focuses on media arts and history in the Middle East. Her dissertation project situates digital and networked media in the Middle East in wider flows of capital, technology and culture, while offering a deeper understanding of material and ideological infrastructures that new media operate through at a global scale.