Greens’ Art: The Green Movement’s Digital Hertiage

As most of my regular readers know, I monitor closely developments in participatory culture, learning, and politics around the globe, and as a consequence, I regularly receive letters from readers asking for advice or sharing projects they are working on in this space. I try to showcase international projects which I think have real merit or substance, whenever the opportunity arises. Not long ago, I heard from Amin Ansari, currently doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, about an archive he is developing around protest art that emerged around the Green Revolution in Iran, and I instantly knew I wanted to share some of this material through this blog. So, you will get a taste of this remarkable set of resources over the next two posts. For those who are interested in what I had to say about these political developments, closer to the time, check out this material posted on the Spreadable Media website.

 

Greens’ Art: The Green Movement’s Digital Heritage

Amin Ansari

The Greens’ Art archive and online exhibition was established to provide an online representation of the protest artworks produced during the crisis after the controversial 2009 Presidential election of Iran. The collected works include both born-digital works and works that were created in non-digital formats but subsequently documented and digitally distributed. The Greens’ Art project drew upon some already extant collections (on YouTube, or personal weblogs for instance) and their associated documentation. The act of collection for this project decontextualized works from their place on the web and then re-contextualized them on the website.

On 12 June 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran held its 10th presidential election in which four candidates competed for the position. Announcing Mahmood Ahmadinejad as the winner of the election confirmed him for another four years and provoked the dissatisfied voters who initiated protests across the country. Both popular and critical opinion held that the election was a fraud and the regime hijacked it. Out of these protests, the Green Movement of Iran was born. The post-election conflict brought considerable turmoil, militarized reactions of the government to protests along with the death and imprisonment of a large number of citizens. This movement, however, was not formed only by the voters who supported the reformist candidates at this specific election. A range of existing social and political movements (e.g. the Student Movement of Iran, Women’s Movement) came together with individuals who sought a fundamental change in the structure of the ruling class in Iran.

The Green Movement of Iran is a prominent example of New Social Movements (NSM). The communication scholar, Leah Lievrouw, suggests the following characteristics that make NSMs different from their predecessors: The participants of NSMs consist of “knowledge/information workers, professionals, well-educated [and] creative workers”. They build a collective identity by keeping their independence from “institutional structures” and focusing on constructing and sharing of common subjectivity”. They are constantly engaged with “construction and control of information, symbolic resources, representations of group interests, expertise norms [and] values” – “meaning and symbolic production”. Regarding the action, NSMs work as “anti-hierarchical social networks of interpersonal relations; [featuring] micromobilization…[and a] decentralized, autonomous organizational form.” Actions in NSMs are integrated with the everyday lives of participants. ICTs and media are used in a sophisticated way in these type of movements. For instance, we see “unconventional action repertoires” in these movements and their actions extend over time and space; they continuously realign and reorganize throughout the time (Lievrouw, 2011). While one finds all of these characteristics in the Green Movement, two of them are particularly relevant to this project: first, the fact that the Green activists, as professional, well-educated and creative workers, were extremely engaged with ICTs and digital technologies; and second, they were constantly producing meaning and symbolic products which constructed the Green Movement’s cultural heritage.

The Green Movement’s heritage consists of ephemeral works. By definition ‘ephemera’ is a material “created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use” (SAA, n.d.). Common examples of such materials are tickets, brochures and receipts. In the Green Movement’s case some examples of ephemeral materials are posters, graffiti (Fig.1) or video (Clip.1) clips which were created to deliver an invitation for a specific event or demonstration or to express their creators’ feeling and thoughts about the goings-on.

Clip.1. “Bella ciao, Iran”, an old Italian antifascist song mixed with images of the Green Movement of Iran.

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Fig.1. On the left: the poster, “The Freedom’s Dawn”, an invitation for the demonstration of the Student Day. On the right: a picture of the graffiti, “hope”.

These works were created in the moment in concert with the happenings; most of them were not meant to last. There are also other types of works such as performances (Clip.2) — which are ephemeral in their transience — and paintings or sculptures (Fig.3) that were produced in non-digital formats. Although such works have the capacity to last in the non-digital world, when “digitality is an integral feature of modern society” (UNESCO, 2012) their absence in the digital world makes them ephemeral for netizens in practical terms.

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Fig.3. On the left: the sculpture, “Neda, Freedom’s Angel,” by Paula B. Slater — created in memory of Neda Agha-Soltan the most well-known martyr of the Green Movement. On the right: the painting, “Neda Was Killed on Tehran’s street,” by an unknown artist.

Clip.2. An installation and performance in New York in support of the Green Movement.

Whilst creators might not have intended their works to endure beyond the immediate time of the protests, it is clear that others saw value in them. Ordinary people, artists, and citizen-journalists first started collecting materials, protecting them from being lost, and also re-circulating them. Small communities and news agencies also participated in archiving and republishing the materials. It is clear that people recognized the importance of keeping the traces of the Movement, despite the risks of doing so. The Greens’ Art project builds on and amplifies the efforts of collectors and amateur archivists by organizing and integrating the available materials and information in a database, to provide a comprehensive resource about the Movement.

Greens’ Art is engaged with three main domains: preservation, archiving and exhibiting. Taking preservation as “the act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction” (SAA, n.d.), this project protects the material from a range of probable risks including data loss and the absence of legislation. As a comprehensive archive, Greens’ Art catalogues the relevant materials through a combination of “whole domain” and “collaborative” models (Kastellec, 2012). Through the first model the digital/digitized objects were identified through multiple online resources and non-automated harvestings. The digitized works are important to the Green Movement’s digital heritage because in many cases there is no access to originals. Materials have also been deposited by visitors to the project’s website. Finally, Greens’ Art is an online exhibition of the archived materials.

The materials that I gathered and the materials that were contributed by others all had to be checked for accuracy; all had to be organized. I used formal and generic categories to organize the materials. These categories are: documentary video, video clip, animation, short movie, long movie, digital painting, painting, graffiti, poster and illustration, website banner, cartoon, general drawing, lyric, poem, novel, short story, political humour, slogan, music, photo, sculpture, performing art, costumes and accessories.

In addition to genre and form, chronology is another key organizing tool applied to the collection. By creating the Green Movement’s Timeline I wanted to list and demonstrate the artworks which were related to specific dates or events. After several iterations I reached the current limited list of events. In this section of the website users can choose a date from those listed, go to the allocated page, read the description provided and browse different sorts of artworks related to the chosen event. This section offers temporal contextualisation and helps future researchers and ordinary visitors to puzzle out the background stories.

The website of the Greens’ Art project (Fig.4) has five main sections: Artworks, Calendar, Anti-Movement, Artists and Resources. All the information is available in both English and Persian. In the Artworks section visitors can browse all the materials (+3000 items) produced by pro-movement activists and artists. They also can filter the information based on different attributes such as category, artist’s name or relevant event. The Calendar, as was explained before, provides the visitors with a timeline of crucial dates of the Green Movement, and related description and works relevant to each of them. The Anti-Movement section gives the project’s visitors an opportunity to reach a better understanding of the ongoing war between the two sides of the conflict by offering a categorized list of the works (+600 items) that were produced by pro-government artists. The page, Artists, provide the visitors with a list of professional artists who supported the Green Movement with creating protest artworks. Resources, suggest a list of available literature and resources to visitors and provides a context for further investigations.

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Fig.4. The home page of the Greens’ Art website (available at: greens-art.net/?lang=en)

The Green Movement can be taken as an open public conversation. Understood in this way, the artworks on the Greens’ Art website represent a collection of user-generated content produced and distributed by protesters from different schools of thought and various social and economic classes. In an era in which “digital technology has become the primary means of knowledge creation and expression” (Webb, 2003), protecting and representing digital heritage is critically important for current and future generations. Greens’ Art, with its dual archival and exhibition aspects is doing this for the Green Movement of Iran. The collection works as a place to both keep the circulated materials safe and their associated memories alive. As Stuckey et al write, “our memories are mediated by our media, forming a dynamic relationship that forms our personal and collective identities” (Stuckey, Swalwell, Ndalianis, & De Vries, 2013). Finally, the website also aims to provide current and future researchers of art, politics and media with a contextualized multimedia resource about this significant contemporary case study.

References:

Kastellec, M. (2012). Practical Limits to the Scope of Digital Preservation. Information Technology and Libraries, 31(2), 63–71. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/lG4xm5

Lievrouw, L. (2011). Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mundy, J., & Burton, J. (2013). Online Exhibitions. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://goo.gl/RAu4DS

SAA. (n.d.). Ephemera: Definition. Retrieved July 02, 2014, from http://goo.gl/rMfVYu

Stuckey, H., Swalwell, M., Ndalianis, A., & De Vries, D. (2013). Remembrance of Games Past: The Popular Memory Archive. In Interactive Entertainment. Melbourne: Association for Computer Machinery. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/8UO64b

UNESCO. (2012). The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation. Vancouver: UNESCO. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/Events/digital_conference_concept_paper_en.pdf

Webb, C. (2003). Guidelines for the Preservation Of Digital Heritage. Retrieved July 02, 2014, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001300/130071e.pdf

Amin Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.