Dr Anthony Downey presented a talk at Edinburgh College of Art yesterday, entitled “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion”. Dr Downey is the Programme Director, for the MA in Contemporary Art programme at Sotheby’s. He has a particular interest in contemporary art’s potential to engage with and expand upon social and political issues. He is the author of Art and Politics Now (2014), and later this year he will publish Archival Dissonance: Contemporary Art and Contested Narratives in the Middle East. The Centre for Cultural Relations was proud to welcome Dr Downey to present his talk the day before he was due to talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival http://tinyurl.com/p4of2jo
The representation of conflict and its effect on cultural production is a global concern. The increasingly digitised substance of such images, in terms of both dissemination and reception, has also given rise to a series of interpretive dilemmas: what are we looking at in these images and how do we archive them?
These concerns have come to define, albeit to varying degrees, significant elements in the work of artists in the Middle East such as Rabih Mroué (see illustration). These artists produce work that specifically engages with regionally-defined, historically localised conflicts and how they are produced as archival forms of knowledge, be they photographic, art historical, cultural, sociological, anthropological, textual, institutional, oral, or digital.
Dr Downey suggested that these modes of cultural engagement not only utilise and disrupt the function of the digital archive in relation to the representation of conflict but, in doing do, they simultaneously highlight a systemic and perhaps irrevocable crisis in institutional and state-ordained archiving across the region.
CCDR research has also questioned the relationship between social media and political empowerment. Our research, which will be published later this year, suggests that we do indeed need to be critical in our readings of the role of social media: we cannot assume that the use of social media will bring about change (as suggested by its advocates and cheerleaders), social media exist in specific contexts (a point made very sharply by Dr Downey), and we need to recognise when states and others are using social media to manipulate opinion.