The artist book INCITE: DIGITAL ART & ACTIVISM was born out of the need to keep a tangible trace of the event dedicated to digital arts and activism at the V&A Museum of Design in Dundee that occurred on May 13, 2022, as part of the Digital Art and Activism Network coordinated by artist Joseph DeLappe (Abertay University) and curator Laura Leuzzi (Robert Gordon University). Indeed, as Nuno Sacramento, Mozambique-Portuguese curator and director of Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen, tells us, “my memory despite my best intentions, relegates the most interesting information to oblivion when it is not helped.” So, he proposed to print INCITE, an A5 book in which each of those who participated in the day and other Network members had three pages to document their experience and more generally their approach to art and activism.
INCITE thus aims to be a collaboration of activists, artists and scholars who met as part of the Digital Art and Activism Network, a network founded in 2019 with the support of the Royal Society of Edinburgh having the purpose of investigating the state of art and activism and using emerging technologies that establish collaborative international creative research links.
The project, as the book’s first pages state, is the result of a collective and diverse effort created to share the disparate but connected activism, practices and research represented by those involved in the network.
Contributions ranging from posters, pandemic/political snapshots, Xerox art, letters, visual narratives, snapshots, etc., were suggested to the project editors. One contribution takes form of a “recipe” that engages with the blockchain technology, pointing out some its peculiarities and aporia (Martin Zeilinger). The goal was to pique participants’ interest and allow them to think more broadly about what they might create.
It is fitting to dwell on the type of printing used for this project, risography, a technique involving soy-based inks and banana fiber matrices. The name comes from the Japanese word “Rice,” which means “ideal.” It is a technique that uses a printer-duplicator invented in 1986 by the RISO Kagaku Corporation, a tool that has found new life in the multi-color version, and which has revealed its experimental artistic value. Indeed, this one has particularly distinctive characteristics: it is inevitable to encounter small variations in intensity and out-of-register between colors, and one of the major advantages of the system is that it is not necessary to invest much time or resources. These “glitches” in their printing, make the result seem more artisanal.
The volume includes contributions by: B.D. Owens, Donna Holford-Lovell, Elaine Shemilt, Ellie Harrison, Emile Shemilt, Eve Mosher, Gair Dunlop, Giulia Casalini with Niya B and Va-bene Elikem Fiatsi, Hadi Mehrpouya and Duncan Nicoll, Iliyana Nedkova, John Butler, Jon Blackwood, Joseph DeLappe, Laura Leuzzi, Maja Zećo, Malath Abbas, Martin Zeilinger, Moza Almatrooshi, Niya B, Tom Demajo, Zoyander Street
In his contribution, DeLappe talks about his act of critical atonement and remembrance, through the creation of the composite inscriptions utilising the letters from the names of the victims of the 9/11 attack with the purpose of composing the names of each member of the Ahmadi family. The Ahmadi family had been exterminated in August 2011, during a drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. At the time, the U.S. government insisted that the American target was a handful of ISIS-K terrorists; in fact, a family group, including seven children, had been killed.
Family members visiting the National Memorial in New York are invited to write on the names of their loved ones, engraved on bronze railings, using the black wax crayons and paper provided. Inspired by this, once at the memorial on Sept. 17, 2021, DeLappe, made an engraving of each of the Ahmadi family member’s name, using the letters of the names inscribed on the memorial to create composite rubbings in honor of the innocent Ahmadis killed. On the same day, the Pentagon admitted the mistake of killing the family during the “attack beyond the horizon.”
DeLappe’s action links the commemoration of the 2,983 civilians named in the 9/11 memorial and the estimated 71,000 civilians who have been killed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001.
Conceptually, this project seeks to invoke reflection: Who is remembered? Who is mourned? And how, and why?
Among the contributions we also read about feminist curating, as in the case of Laura Leuzzi, an art historian and curator who focuses her research on video art, more specifically on feminist video art of the 1970s and 1980s. Within the pages of In Dialogue: for an approach to activism curating, Leuzzi recounts how she was inspired by Relating Narratives, a book by philosopher Adriana Cavarero (former professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Verona) on autonarration and relational processes. Listening is the first act of curating: keeping the artist’s voice alive is a functional approach for artworks that embrace and ground feminist perspectives, expanding the message of the work and engaging the audience on a deeper level. In fact, it is precisely feminist video art works that often rest on personal narratives, issues of identity, and individual experiences. They reflect political and civic visions, and embody struggles for human rights, many of which are still ongoing. In the pages, one can read a true curator’s statement, a promise for the purposes of art value: the message of the work can overextend itself and the audience can engage at a deeper level if the artist maintains a non-hierarchical stance, establishing a collaborative relationship between activist artists and fellow curators.A pioneer of feminist video art is Elaine Shemilt, who contributes to INCITE by illustrating Blueprint for bacterial life, a project done in collaboration with two scientists, Ian Toth and Leighton Pitchard, in which the first interbacterial plant pathogen to be sequenced was examined with the goal of improving understanding of gene acquisition in bacteria. For the exploration and development of the project, a software tool – the GenomeDiagram – was created through creative art practice. The project investigates how complex data and images through interpretation and expression in a variety of art forms can contribute to the development and evolution of the scientific tools themselves.
Shemilt developed a series of prints, featured in her chapter, from the scientific data and then animations in two and three dimensions for projection, combined with installations and sound. Artistic reinterpretation of experimental results helped identify the presence of other genes in all bacteria.
On a geopolitical front operates Maja Zećo, an interdisciplinary artist whose practice spans performance art, sound and video. Her installations are the product of a negotiation between personal, group, identity and historical narratives. Since 2015 she has been addressing her experience inherent in the UK’s political hostility to migrants. She analyzes national and political identities such as Bosnian, Yugoslav, European, British, Scottish, and many others. For INCITE, Zećo proposed a collection of three quotes regarding immigration, respectively from Boris Johnson, Zoltàn Kovàcs and Josep Borrell, put in writing on paper, as if they were political manifestos. Despite the pop-colored aesthetic married to Islamic decorative motifs the content proves jarring as xenophobic and colonialist.
Jon Blackwood, a curator and scholar of contemporary art, in Aphorisms on Art & Activism, makes a statement about the current principles of activism and the connection there may be with art. For the scholar, whether artists are a help or a hindrance in the dynamics of activism is not yet clear, so he leaves the thinking open. Blackwood wonders what art can say meaningfully to activism, who artists listen to, and what is the difference between activism and consciousness raising. For him, activism presupposes an in-depth understanding of structural and social relations, and like artistic practices, this must be uncomfortable, agile, not easy, and not placed in the spotlight of spectacle, because it would result in a commodified product with political consequences.
Laura Leuzzi and Joseph DeLappe have succeeded in concretizing the intersectional question of activism in art in this project, leaving readers to respond personally to what is the reflection left open by Jon Blackwood’s contribution. Just as art does when it initiates forms of action that go beyond artistic contemplation, giving way to a more direct and practical kind of engagement.
INCITE: DIGITAL ART & ACTIVISM, curated by Joseph DeLappe e Laura Leuzzi, Peacock & The Worm, Aberdeen, November 2023
Reproductions: Courtesy of the artists and Peacock & the Worm, Aberdeen.
images: (cover 1) Incite, cover, 2023 (2) Elaine Shemilt, «Blueprint for Bacterial Life», 2023 (3) Joseph DeLappe, «The Atone Project. Remembering the Ahmadis», 2021 (4) Maja Zeco, «European Values», 2023 (5) Martin Zeilinger, «Proof of cake», 2023