Congo Kodaks: A Consideration of Two New Media Art Projects and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Prize Budget for Boys
Citation: Hennessy, Neil. “Congo Kodaks: A Consideration of Two New Media Art Projects and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 7, 2010. doi:10.20415/hyp/007.e02
Abstract: This piece is an attempt to situate new media art within the context of the global politics of mineral extraction that supports the technological consumerism that makes new media art possible. We proceed by considering two new media art projects addressing the effect of resource wars on the most vulnerable populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Make injustice visible. — Mohandas Gandhi
"Don't let them see us. Don't tell them what we are doing — " Are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth? — William S. Burroughs
In the call for papers for the present issue, one phrase stood out: "new models of liberty are tied to new technologies and new economic practices", because new technologies also renew and perpetuate old models of slavery. The devices that make and view new media are themselves created using extractive resources under deplorable labor conditions that cause the untold suffering of millions. The politics of the industrial manufacture of new media technology has been a largely ignored obstacle to subversion in the age of new media. The present essay considers two new media art projects addressing the effect of resource wars on the most vulnerable populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Years ago I read a speech by U.S. Green Party presidential candidate and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney about coltan, a mineral refined into metals for use in capacitors that go into laptop computers, cellular phones, digital cameras, video game consoles, and other compact digital technologies. She outlined how coltan mining was one of the main causes of the ongoing war in the DRC, where 80% of the world's supply exists . McKinney introduced legislation in the house in 2001 to ban the importation of coltan from the Congo, only to have it languish in committee until the session expired We don't hear much about the Congo in North American media, even though more than 5 times as many people have died there than in Darfur, because in the Congo people who have been friendly to American corporate interests have always won, so the resources have always been available for exploitation — business as usual. In Sudan, a force decidedly unfriendly to American business interests is involved and winning, so there is an international outcry.
I was shocked to find out just how many people have died as a result of the war in the Congo over the past 10 years, basically a fifth of the population of Canada (where I was born), or over half the population of New York City (where I currently reside). In addition to coltan, there are numerous coveted resources in the Congo, including oil, diamonds, gold, tin and other minerals. Canadian and American companies are implicated in the commerce that fuels the war, including Barrick Gold, a Toronto-based company whose board has included former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former US President George H.W. Bush as members.
Despite any anti-capitalist, anti-imperial, anti-war aims of much new media art, there is an unacknowledged complicity with the capitalist model of colonial oppression when the inhumanity involved in producing the artist's tools is ignored in the artist's art. Any techno-utopianism in new media is inextricably linked to damaging technological consumerism by its material history. The difference between political new media art and Wal-Mart is less than we'd like to believe.
At an art opening at new media gallery Location One for a show devoted to US presidential politics , everything was anti-McCain and pro-Obama. I wrote on a physical paper pad "blog" where they invited people to contribute: "McCain and Obama are both corporate stooges. Cynthia McKinney is the only choice who will reduce violence and poverty. VOTE MCKINNEY!!!!!" It got me thinking about McKinney, and that's when it occurred to me how I could illustrate new media art's reliance on the suffering of unnamed millions: use images from the Congo conflict to put cell phone and desktop wallpapers on devices containing coltan possibly/probably obtained from the Congo . Make the blood in my laptop visible.
The magazine Wallpaper*, as the Bible of Western yuppie design with a healthy gadget obsession, provides the vehicle for the satire. The number and type of wallpaper images come from perverting their tagline:
"Wallpaper - Design Interiors Fashion Art Lifestyle"
"Congo Wallpaper - Death Refugees Famine War Rape".
The phrases and language in the text that accompanies the wallpapers, as well as the visual layout and design of the page, are stolen directly from technology product reviews found on the Wallpaper website . I am personally implicated in the critique, since the cell phone and laptop in the photos are mine.
While all the forms of violence illustrated in the Congo Wallpapers (homelessness, hunger, rape) are also routinely practiced in the "northern" wealthier nations, the current escalated levels of violence in the Congo are perpetrated by proxy armies working for the economic interests of corporations from those wealthy nations, perpetuating an on-going atrocity that continues through neo-liberal economics what started in colonial conquest, as related by historian Jacques Depelchin:
The mindset which has trampled humanity under different names — slavery, colonisation, holocaust, apartheid — has not retreated; it has grown like a cancer, destroying the living principle [...] The chain toward self-destruction has no end: to rape, to enslave, to colonise, to seek the final solution, to bantustanise, to ethnically cleanse a country. Humanity has yet to see the end of its genocidal tendencies and sequences. Under the previous submission processes, the responsibility could be traced back to some sort of state authority, but with submission to the market's rules, responsibility and authority seems to be nowhere and everywhere .
A Global Crescendo
The most admirable and effective subversive art broadcasts the voices of the silenced . In her work with the International Rescue Committee, Ann Jones travels to war zones with digital cameras to help women: "The project — dubbed A Global Crescendo: Women's Voices from Conflict Zones — is meant to give women a chance to document their daily lives, their problems, their consolations and joys. It's meant to give them time and space" .
At the culmination of 6 weeks, a photography exhibit is held with the entire community, which always germinates the seeds of change. The visible political and social effects of their work may be immediate and drastic, or gradual and incremental, but the result is always a force for liberation. Jones takes the cameras with her when she leaves, since there is no local infrastructure to maintain the cameras or process photos: "The camera is a device to encourage new ways of looking. The discussions the women organize around the photographs stimulate new methods of analysis and advocacy." As one Liberian woman who participated in the project said: "Some people use cameras. Some people are cameras. Me, I'm a camera" .
A Global Crescendo first came to my attention in the spring of 2008 when Jones was working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Considering the role of coltan in the region's conflict, in this instance the subversive new media art was produced by people who suffered for the production of the very same new media technology. Later in the summer, due to a lack of security from increased conflict in the ongoing resource wars, Jones left the Congo.
In 1948 the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose articles include the right to food, housing, medical care, and freedom from torture, degrading treatment, and slavery . Those rights are nowhere to be found in the resource rich areas of the Congo, where the present violence is largely unchanged from the legacy inflicted by predatory 19th century European colonizers, where 120 years ago Joseph Conrad confronted "the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration" .
New media art is almost entirely created, propagated, and consumed by privileged people with material wealth whose fundamental human rights are secure. Learning the material history of the prosthetics used to create new media reveals that how we became posthuman relies on how they became subhuman.
In order to foster and support consumption of commodities, the society of the spectacle suppresses any images and stories of suffering caused by sanctioned methods of production. Whether it be the deaths and displacement of indigenous people sacrificed for resource extraction, or the alienating drudgery of an 80 hour week of repetitive work, the spectacle renders injustice invisible by erasing the violent material history of commodities.
In a world saturated with mass media spectacles of injustice, reality has not disappeared, and neither has our capacity for empathy and outrage: "To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in a rich part of the world, where news is converted into entertainment" . We are not mere observers of a spectacle, every encounter brings forth an ethical imperative: "Responsibility is coextensive with our sensibility; in our sensibility we are exposed to the outside, to the world's being, in such a way that we are bound to answer for it" .
Any political program that aims for justice must first show the images and tell the stories of suffering. In the Congo, Jones helped women produce and share new media with their community, and the women subsequently develop their own agenda for change in the absence of that media. For people with access to the infosphere, using new media to document and circulate these stories exposes new people to the invisible history of those uncounted millions. Whether the online encounter fosters activism to help improve the lives of people offline becomes a matter of conscience: "For it is in depriving oneself to answer to others for the hunger of those who have no claim on one but their hunger, and in sacrificing oneself to answer for what one did not do, that responsibility is serious" .
What a person does to answer that serious responsibility must be carefully considered. While Ann Jones' laudatory consciousness raising efforts are celebrated in this essay, the International Rescue Committee's history and motives tie it inextricably to American imperialism. Numerous current and former members of the board of directors have mining interests in Africa, and have been involved in nefarious American foreign policy, like William Casey and Henry Kissinger . Many charitable NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) work to put a benevolent face on the imperium:
While their ideological programs are advanced through the mass media, organizations-e.g. the International Crises Group, Center for American Progress, International Rescue Committee, ENOUGH!-work to manufacture consent and channel popular consciousness through jingoistic sloganeering and humanistic language that offers "news" consumers exactly what they want to hear: peacekeeping, human rights, democracy, sustainable development, participatory mapping, Africa for the African people, and "never again" interventions against genocide. Such propaganda campaigns proscribe ideas and possibilities, and they subvert popular movements. In the end, the true grass roots initiatives for social justice and legitimate peace have been expropriated or channeled into serving narrow prerogatives of power. And the voices of the voiceless are crushed, along with their bodies .
To continue Depelchin's metaphor, to only support NGOs working in the Congo would be to put a band-aid on cancer, it provides some relief of the symptoms, but does not address the cause .
Raising awareness about the violence in the Congo through new media is not enough to ensure that the voices of the voiceless do not fall on deaf ears. People of privilege from rich nations who are interested in subverting the powers that perpetrate the violence must also marshal their resources to raise awareness about and fight against the global economic source of the conflict: mining and technology companies as well as the wealthy governments international organizations who support them.
Rendering the injustice visible remains the crucial first step. Mark Twain illustrates the effective political power of documenting and distributing the stories and images of atrocity in his satire of the first colonial ruler of the Congo, King Leopold's Soliloquy:
The kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy that has confronted us, indeed. In the early years we had no trouble in getting the press to "expose" the tales of the mutilations as slanders, lies, inventions of busy-body American missionaries and exasperated foreigners who found the "open door" of the Berlin-Congo charter closed against them when they innocently went out there to trade; and by the press's help we got the Christian nations everywhere to turn an irritated and unbelieving ear to those tales and say hard things about the tellers of them. Yes, all things went harmoniously and pleasantly in those good days, and I was looked up to as the benefactor of a down-trodden and friendless people. Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible kodak — and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe. Every Yankee missionary and every interrupted trader sent home and got one; and now — oh, well, the pictures get sneaked around everywhere, in spite of all we can do to ferret them out and suppress them. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!
- Cynthia McKinney, "Suffering and Despair: Humanitarian Crisis in the Congo", 17 May 2001, http://www.ratical.org/co-globalize/CynthiaMcKinney/news/pr010517.htm, last accessed 2 November 2008.
- Prize Budget for Boys, "Congo Wallpaper", http://pbfb.ca/congo/, last accessed 12 September 2008.
- U.S. Congress. House. "To prohibit the importation into the United States of colombo tantalite from certain countries involved in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and for other purposes". H.R. 2954. 107th Cong., 1st sess. (25 September 2001), http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c107:h.r.2954:, last accessed 2 November 2008.
At the time of writing, a similar bill has been proposed in the current session of the U.S. Senate by Senator Sam Brownback and Senator Richard Durbin: "Conflict Coltan and Cassiterite Act of 2008" (S.3058). The bill will also likely be in committee when the session expires, and hence not pass. No equivalent bill has ever been introduced in Canada.
- Hidenori Watanave, Susanne Berkenheger, and Andy Deck, "Mission Accomplished", http://www.location1.org/vrp/, last accessed 6 January 2008.
- Under current international trade conditions, it is impossible to reliably trace the origins of coltan found in consumer devices. See Stephen Leahy, "Activist's slam world's 'grotesque indifference' to DRC", online article at Pambazuka News, 17 December 2008, http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/52777, last accessed 6 January 2009.
- Walllpaper*, http://wallpaper.com/, last accessed 6 January 2009.
- Jacques Depelchin, "Hungry for a voice: The food crisis, the market, and socio-economic inequality", online article at Pambazuka News, 4 December 2008, http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/52480, last accessed 6 January 2009.
- Ann Jones, "Voices from the Field", blog of the Global Crescendo project at International Rescue Committee, last accessed 6 January 2009.
- For examples of film and video art by indigenous and marginalized people, see Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996). For examples of digital art by indigenous people, see Faye Ginsburg, "Rethinking the Digital Age", online article at Media Anthropology Network, 3 May 2007, http://www.media-anthropology.net/ginsburg_digital_age.pdf, last accessed 6 January 2009.
- Ann Jones. "Me, I'm a Camera", online article at Tom Dispatch, 13 May 2008, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174931, last accessed November 2, 2008.
- United Nations. "International Bill of Human Rights: A Universal Declaration of Human Rights". 1948, 217: 3. http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/043/88/IMG/NR004388.pdf, last accessed November 2, 2008.
- Joseph Conrad. "Geography and Some Explorers", in National Geographic, Vol. 45, No. 3 (1924), via http://encarta.msn.com/sidebar_762504123/geography_and_some_explorers.html, last accessed 2 November 2008.
- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2004) p.111.
- Alfonso Lingis, "The Sensuality and the Sensitivity" in Richard A. Cohen (ed.) Face to Face with Levinas (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986) p.226.
- ibid. p.230.
- For current ties, see Keith Harmon Snow, "Over Five Million Dead in Congo? Fifteen Hundred People Daily? ", online article at Dissident Voice, 4 February 2008, http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/over-five-million-dead-in-congo-fifteen-hundred-people-daily/, last accessed 7 January 2009. For a historical account, see Eric Thomas Chester, Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee, and , (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 1995).
- Keith Harmon Snow, "Merchants Of Death: Exposing Corporate-Financed Holocaust In Africa", online article at Black Star News, 4 December 2008, http://www.blackstarnews.com/?c=135&a=5176, last accessed 7 January 2009.
- For a general analysis of how NGOs both legitimize and deflect attention from neo-liberal economics and imperial institutions, see James Petras and Henry Veltemeyer, "NGOs in the Service of Imperialism", chapter in Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 20th Century, (Zed Books, 2001).
- Mark Twain. King Leopold's Soliloquy: A Defense of his Congo Rule, (Boston: The P.R. Warren Co., 1905., Available online at http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/i2l/kls.html, last accessed 2 November 2008.