Media-Making Madness: #Arab Revolutions from the Perspective of Egyptian-American VJ Um Amel (Part One)

Like many of the rest of you, I’ve followed with intense interest the developments over the past few weeks in North Africa and the Arab world, grabbing at anything which might help me better understand the perspectives of those involved in the various revolutions, protests, and uprisings, and in particular, to make sense of the back and forth debates about the role which new media may have played in what has been occurring. Talking to friends who know the region well, it is clear that more turmoil and transformation is on the horizon, and we will be sorting out what happened and why for many years to come.

In this process, I’ve reconnected with Laila Shereen Sakr, akn as VJ Um Amel, an Egyptian-American artist, activist, and critic, currently a graduate student in the iMAP program at University of Southern California, and a student in my Medium Specificity class last term. Sakr has long been interested in developing tools which would allow her to better map the use of social media in the Arab world and has remained very interested in debates about the role of Twitter in social change movements impacting her region. Over the past few weeks, she’s been working hard trying to map what’s happening in Cairo and trying to share what she’s learned through her video productions.

Late last week, I asked if she would write up a report on this work to share with the readers of this blog, and she turned this around in record time. I hope you will find the work she is doing as interesting as I do.

At her request, I am running both part one and part two of this post today given the timely nature of the content. You can either read them together or bookmark part two and return later. I will accordingly not be running a post mid-week but will be back with a new post come Friday.

Media-Making Madness: #Arab Revolutions from the Perspective of Egyptian-American VJ Um Amel

by Laila Shereen Sakr

I have not yet been able to digest the magnitude of what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and is happening now Iran, Syria, Yemen, and other Arab countries. As an Egyptian-American VJ and media artist whose work concerns the Arab world, the revolutions of 2011 have deeply impacted me professionally, artistically, and personally. There is something extremely poignant for Egyptians living outside of Egypt at this exact moment in history. Most of us who emigrated from Egypt often did so for the same reasons that incited millions to rise and cause revolutions. Perhaps there is lingering guilt that stays with the emigrant for not having stuck it out–on top of repercussions of Diaspora accumulated over decades. Still, there is no doubt that all Arabs living in and outside of the region have been extremely inspired and mobilized by the collective power of the people in the region. I keep hearing, repeatedly: the time is now.

The last couple weeks indeed have been a whirlwind. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 happened in 18 days, while the world participated in this epic media making madness.

Since January 2011, I have entered into communication with tens of thousands of people through a weird concoction of videos online, Twitter, Facebook, satellite TV, online journals, and data visualizations. I think it is significant to consider the relations among media, and I am in agreement with you, Professor Jenkins: The reality is that we have truly passed beyond the point of media convergence. Contemporary cultures–influenced by global trends and transnationalism–have become a fully designed and mediated phenomenon. From the built spaces we inhabit, to the paths of circulation we travel through–a set of expressive practices, professional skills, and making protocols–plays a critical role in the production of global culture. During the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, I believe that all media makers became like co-designers of the transformative, speedy, historic event(s) in the region–from the 800,000 posts on #Jan25 in Twitter, to the role of Facebook, YouTube, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, to White House and Egyptian State Television broadcasting. Just as large numbers of Egyptian were flooding the streets of Egyptian cities throughout the country, pedabytes of data were mediated through various networks.

And so when it all began in last month, my first reaction was to start to archive and aggregate this exponentially growing corpus of data into our prototype. I started by adding #Tunisia then #Jan25 to the existing R-Shief’s Twitter Analytics. Despite what some scholars and journalists might have said before, Twitter (and other social networking sites) had undoubtedly been causal in recent events in the Middle East. Since August 2010, R-Shief has been data mining (pulling from Twitter and storing onto our own server every 15 minutes) tweets by selected hashtags. (A hashtag is Twitter nomenclature for ‘subject heading’). After storing the tweets by hashtag, we chose to use language field by which to sort the data because language is able to offer culturally specific indicators of the Middle East beyond its current geopolitical place in the world.

Effectively, R-Shief continues to make accessible all tweets following hashtags: #Wikileaks, #Tunisia, #Jan25, #KhaledSaid, #Abdulemam, #Gaza, and #Flotilla going as far back as September 2010. This simple, craigslist-like interface is meant to encourage users to filter searches through these hashtags by language and/or range of dates–while providing interesting word clouds and parsing out top contributors and hyperlinks within tweets.

VIDEO URL

Over the following days, I crafted a VJ remix in support of my fellow Egyptians, “#Jan25, Oum Kalthoum, Sadat, Latuff, #Video Remix,” which I published on both Vimeo and YouTube on Monday, Jan 31, 2011, one week into the protest in Egypt. The entire country of Egypt was taken offline, which had repercussions beyond Twitter–ATM’s were down, banks were closed; the Egyptian economy came to a “sudden stop.” And so along with that there came a sudden urgency to spread the word. Secondly, I wanted to illustrate the irony of the recursive nature of history itself, incredible in the face of human integrity. It was ironic to me that the very same army which was responsible for the coup d’etat of 1952 that led to the expulsion of King Farouk was now being usurped by the people in the name of peace, solidarity, and unity. Whereas the previous generation was led by individual icons like Gamal Abdel Nassar, Anwar Sadat, Oum Kalthoum, images used to represent today’s iconic power reflected the scale of the protests, the eagle multiplied into a flock of birds, The images that took the breath of the world revealed numbers and numbers of people–the beauty was in its plurality and diversity. Published only a week into the revolution for the Egyptian people, this video remixed significant milestones of that week with historical references, YouTube videos that rocked the world, a visualization of live Twitter posts of #Jan25, original music, and illustrations by revolutionary cartoonist, Carlos Latuff. The animations I made in After Effects and the recording of the Twitter visualization built in Quartz composer were added into Final Cut Pro for final editing. If I had enough time, I would have added translated too.

VIDEO URL

Using spatially designed information visualizations along with other representations, these remixes by VJ Um Amel demonstrate live media mixing as a research methodology whereby one can capture temporally specific conjunctures such that others can witness them.

This next remix was a total inspiration–immersed in all the media coming from Tahrir square I began noticing patterns emerging. One thing that struck me was how instrumental were the Arab women and youth in this movement. Even though all generations, professions, classes, faiths came out to protest in unity, there were several key voices that swept through social media, new media, and even satellite media like hot fire–and they were that of women, young women. There were several photo albums specifically of Egyptian women protesting that got reposted around social media sites. And when I saw the video of the young girl leading the chants and waving the Egyptian flag, I realized I had to do another remix that captured the contributions women and youth were making to the revolution. The final motivation to do this piece came when DJ Lucxke pinged me on Facebook with a link to the dubstep and bass song he had just composed. Using this style of music allowed me to bring out the techno-feminist cyborg in VJ Um Amel.

“Women & Youth of the Arab Revolutions (Suheir Hammad, Carlos Latuff, Dubstep Remix)” is done entirely differently than the previous one (published on YouTube on Feb 8, 2011). This video is a recording of a live VJ session where I edited the clips in real time–the cube effects, the rotoscoping, the layers and transitions, were all performed using real-time video processing software, VDMX and patches. This is a very different process than post-production editing in Final Cut Pro. Though the video is raw, I find that there is a certain poetics that real-time mixing was able to bring out.

VIDEO URL

Through my research developing R-Shief Twitter Analytics, I have accumulated over 800,000 tweets on the hashtag #Jan25 alone since Jan 25, 2011. And that includes the several days at the height of the conflict in Egypt, when 85 million inhabitants in Egypt were cut from the Internet–still the world tweeted. How did that happen? How were millions of tweets generated over protests in Egypt while the entire nation was offline? I wrote about my experience managing this Twitter aggregation in a recently published article in critical code journal, ThoughtMesh: “social media operates based on principles of uncertainty, where there are no groups, only formations of groups, and where non-linear time and space still create narratives and meaning vis-à-vis the database, and where objects (such as Twitter) have agency in a social network.” (ThoughtMesh.net, Feb 5, 2011).

This info vid below is a good example of what how computers can run semantic analytics on a set of strings (words), an interactive experience that demonstrates how a database narrative might express meaning through recombinant and indexical instantiations.

VIDEO URL

The purpose of these data visualizations is to capture that special something that makes Twitter (and other social media sites) so feared that a government would shut down the Internet to an entire nation during civil uprising and protest. This next information visualization below, also published Feb 12, 2011, was designed to have a more poetic (and less narrative) meaning to express. This is a running hashtag of all the tweets on #Egypt that were posted to Twitter the day Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt. Whereas the previous semantic content info vid is more like content analysis or data visualization, the hashmap presented here offers a sentiment analysis and is intended to be evocative.

I programmed it in Processing, which runs as a Java applet. Crunching the data was not as straightforward as you might think. I have only begun to consider the design challenges to producing data visualization. Ideally, my process is to problematize the project’s approach in order to get beyond the obvious and expected, i.e.: “Muslims” AND “Christians” combination. In future research, I will be conducting link analysis, term frequency analysis, creating a network map based on themes and links, and if possible identifying primary grouping. My aim is to make people say, “ah, that’s what’s going on with Twitter. That’s how it participated in the #ArabRevolts.”

VIDEO URL

What we need most at this point is illumination on the kinds of research questions we need to be asking plus a good perspective how others are going about content analysis. I am confident we can master the tools and generate data. I think the big challenge is designing it in a way that renders meaning. The revolution that started in Tunisia is having its Tsunami effect felt all the way over on the West coast of the United States. Next week I have been invited to attend a roundtable workshop on “Blogs & Bullets: Social Media and the Struggle for Political Change,” hosted at Stanford University with US Institute for Peace and The Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication at The George Washington University. Other participants will be from the Oxford Internet Institute and Meedan online translation along with Larry Diamond, Marc Lynch, Clay Shirky, and others. I am looking forward to this.

I see the ecology in the field of database narrative making and visualizing as rich, undiscovered territory to explore. We need to consider various methodological approaches to social media analysis for both the expert and the student. In the months to come, I plan to provide suggested approaches of social media analysis for teachers. Also, I will be documenting the techniques used in the research practice as we uncover–all of this is work in progress.

In parallel, my itch to create innovative VJ mixes continues. They are like my version of blog posts, a type of serialized commentary. Last week, I wanted to do a live remixing of tweets and people’s YouTube videos and project it into Tahrir via Al Jazeera’s bandwidth. I still want to do it, however, Tahrir no longer makes sense. So am connecting with friends and family there to find an appropriate time and place. One way this might go down is as a show comprised of performances of other Arab-American/ Egyptian-American artists like L.A.-based comedian, Ahmed Ahmed, Omar Effendum, Wesam Nassar, Rita Qatami, Leyya Tawil and others. Imagine projecting back to the people in Egypt the tweets from around the world–parsed out by language, Italian, French, Arabic, Japanese, etc…

Common among the creative fields–the arts, science, technology and design–is a commitment to the production of new knowledge based on original research. This presentation hopes to have extended notions of how innovative methods might be applied in a Media studies or Middle East studies context. Through this VJed publication, my aim has been to demonstrate the notion of design/ art practice as transformative research. Most recently in Arab countries, social media and its surprising political usages have created interplay between the application of structure and resistance that have been transformative. In conclusion, I argue that social media in the Arab world be unique–both in terms of how the society is operating, tightly woven; and in terms of media’s history in the Arab world, born in print form as an apparatus of the state since the Ottoman Empire. Where U.S. media, in principle, acts to ensure the power of the government remains under checks and balances, in the Arab world it functions quite differently. And so when, in Egypt, media became actively dependent on the social fabric, rather than institutional sources of information and analysis, that opened up an uncertain bag of worms for an entire region.

Laila Shereen Sakr (a.k.a. VJ Um Amel) is a media artist whose practices include ambient visual projection, live cinema performance, game design, database design, and innovative research. In her live VJ performances, she explores the implications of juxtaposing the identity of “mother” and a techno-feminist construct of “cyborg” within local and transnational expressions of “Arab.” Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts where she was awarded an Annenberg Fellowship.

Comments

  1. Laila: Thanks for a great discussion and your thoughtful activity! I’d like to reflect on the differences between the video you made that is a more abstract data visualization and the mix tapes of live “realist” footage. I have written about how viral YouTube videos of protest mvoe quickly because of their simplistic, iconic effect which is often easy to consume and as easy to misunderstand given that it flows without context and because of the strong associations linked to verite images. For this reason, I think your experimentation with non-verite renditions of revolution are really exciting (for communicating across difference, as well as to communicate more complex ideas then, say, “freedom,” or “courage,” or “arab” that iconic images can reduce themselves to). Great work!

  2. lackthazeed says:

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  3. Yup, funny vid indeed.

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  4. Fascinating to see the semantic wordplay in such a passion driven topic. I bet the remaining dictators in the region would love to have one of these running in real time!!!

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