Local Knowledge: Place and New Media Practice

I grew up selling Local Knowledge, though I didn’t think much about it at the time. Local Knowledge was the brand name for the surfboards made by my stepfather’s surf shop on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Surfers – compared to most other white settlers who aren’t farmers – have detailed relationships with physical places and locations. “Local knowledge” refers to the insider information that surfers use to know under what conditions a particular surf break might be good, or how to surf a particular wave most effectively. While some local knowledge can be shared, a certain amount is tacit, experiential, and cannot be codified – remaining obstinately located around a particular environment and the people in it. Local Knowledge is reified in the doctrine of ‘localism’, that suggests special rights to the best waves for those who surf particular breaks regularly.

There is a class dimension at work in surfing’s localism: cosmopolitans who travel regularly see localism as small minded and against the spirit of surfing; while those who grow up around the best breaks (which tend not to be in major cities) rail against magazines, surf reports and webcams that increasingly provide information about particular surf locations, making them destinations for the “blow-ins” from somewhere else. It is true that even among the surfing community’s “locals” there are occasional, romantic nods to the “connection with the land” that Aboriginal peoples have. But in non-urban areas, settler culture commonly views indigenous culture as something existing in the past, that has “been lost”. To recognise indigenous culture as being contemporary and viable would call one’s own localness into question. So ironically, it is the urban cosmopolitans – unencumbered by non-negotiable attachments to a place – who are more open to the reality of ongoing indigenous relationships to and guardianship of land.

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Abie and Wok Wright were born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, which is my home town. They also promote Local Knowledge – it’s the name of the hip-hop group they formed with Joel Wenitong in 2002. However, the “localness” of their knowledge is somewhat different. “Newcastle” was named after the English coal town by a British lieutenant who discovered coal while searching for escaped convicts in the early 19th Century. The Wright brothers, however, describe themselves in interviews as being from Awabakal country, a broader group of nations/peoples centred for thousands of years around Awaba, a lake also known as Lake Macquarie. While the rise of hip-hop is often characterised as a function of U.S. consumerism and inauthenticity, for Local Knowledge hip hop values articulate their anti-colonial cultural politics: keeping it real, name-checking your roots, and representing for your community all come naturally in both hip-hop and indigenous struggles for self-determination.

My experience of these competing versions of Local Knowledge leads me to reflect on the incommensurability of indigenous and settler versions of knowledge of the land, and how these echo in the activities of indigenous new media practitioners. There are at least three axes where this incommensurability is visible. These axes may also be described as “aporia” in the deconstructive sense – they are contradictory impulses that are not necessarily resolvable because they are constituted by the disjuncture between colonial and colonised cultures[i].

The first is the role of cartography and the map: the turning of land into data through surveying, mapping and renaming is the most basic function of the colonial process. In many colonial projects, the surveyor was hated and feared more than the soldier. The removal of surveying pegs, the refusal to be mapped is an important thread of anti-colonial activity from Ireland to New Zealand. This places the role of new media and its data-centricity in question. As Solomon Benjamin’s fascinating studies of land tenure in Bangalore have shown[ii], the systematisation of land information routinely results in a centralisation of control and a loss of local self-determination. Land becomes appropriable at a distance. A common theme among settler encounters with indigenous culture is to discover that the land is more full of story than we knew. The formation of objective, storyless data via, for example, GPS – even for the purposes of developing narrative media practices through ‘locative’ works – is difficult to reconcile with the non-transferable yet profoundly social relationship with land that is characteristic of indigenous epistemology.

The second is that of time. To claim affiliation to a space of land via a property right, or to activate the concept of sovereignty itself is an act of history-making. But as David Ellerman notes, this historical dimension is usually suppressed in Western economic and political theory:

Economics has focused on the transfers in the market and almost completely neglected the question of the initiation and termination of property in normal production and consumption.[iii]

Part of the silence around the initiation of property is that the actual, often grisly stories of property initiation raise questions about the legitimacy of that property. The reality of indigenous relationships to land, if connected to the history of property in specific locations, always raises an uncomfortable anteriority for a culture that views property as transferable, as James Clifford notes:

[The] historical, tangled sense of changing places doesn’t capture the identity of ancestors with a mountain, for as long as anyone remembers and plausibly far beyond that. Old myths and genealogies change, connect, and reach out, but always in relation to this enduring spatial nexus. […] Thus indigenous identities must always transcend colonial interruptions… claiming: we were here before all that, we are still here, we will make a future here.[iv]

Homi Bhabha has discussed the colonial moment as generating a “time-lag” which destabilises the ground from which a singular history or theory of place is possible. The perspective of the colonised puts both our contemporary theorisation of property and our understanding of property in times past. As Gregor McLennan puts it, “we cannot easily ‘readily reperiodise and re-name the object of enquiry” to fit our revised inclinations in the new media environment[v]. The “new” remains unhelpfully bound to different, competing histories of the past.

The third axis relates to the concept and function of knowledge itself. Historical knowledge is constantly reinterpreted and relocated to become useful for the work of the present. In settler culture knowledge is instrumental – it is useful because it can do things, here and now. In indigenous epistemologies knowledge is commonly viewed as what Maori call a taonga tuku iho, a gift from the ancestors to the present. The ultimate social good is not the transfer of knowledge as it is under modernist theories of information diffusion, nor is the maximum extraction of capital value as under capitalism. More important is who the knowledge is transferred to and whether their use of that knowledge will help maintain the entire knowledge system.

Poet and librarian Robert Sullivan notes, when considering the digitisation of cultural material, important questions for indigenous maintainers of knowledge are:

“How do we send a message that strengthens the holistic context of each cultural item and collection? How do we ensure that both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples receive the message? How do we digitize material taking into account its metaphysical as well as its digital life?”[vi]

Bridging these three contrary impulses would require “new media” where the technologically-augmented experience of location is inseparable from a philosophy of land and belonging. These are distinctive and important questions for new media practice. I don’t seek to romanticise the distinctions between indigenous and non-indigenous approaches to land and knowledge, or to suggest that indigneous knowledge systems can or should be adopted by non-indigenous cultures. For indigenous peoples, the recovery and maintenance of their cultural systems is quite simply a lot of extra work they do as part of their survival. But it is empirically the case that the cultural meaning of place and location is more sophisticated in indigenous culture than non-indigenous culture – indigenous practitioners are far more likely to be able to deploy a range of strategies for “reading the country” that emerge from a variety of world-views; and to be able to critically reflect on the effects of these understandings[vii]. Such systems make us aware that our vision for information technologies is limited by epistemological biases that we have developed experientially within colonial capitalism.

To understand some of these limitations it is instructive to look at the way new media theory is invested in settler culture and its relationships with land. In these relationships I mean more that the homologies Virginia Eubanks identified between the “mythographies” of new media development and the frontier values of “Conquest, Flexibility, Democracy, and Individuality” in the white settlers of the Western United States, though those are important[viii]. Instead I suggest that our very ways of thinking new media are inevitably invested in colonial epistemology.

For example, Lev Manovich, in his classic book The Language of New Media, identifies four distinctive properties for digital media products:

  1. Discrete representation on different scales. Manovich imagines a fractal structure, where individual objects can be recombined at will into different contexts while retaining their individuality.
  2. Numeric representation. Media can be described formally (mathematically or numerically), and subject to algorithmic manipulations.
  3. Automation. Many media manipulations can occur automatically and human intentionality can be removed from the creative process.
  4. Variability. New media objects (such as Web sites) are not something fixed once and for all but can exist in different (potentially infinite) versions. [ix]

Of course, these properties are clearly associated with the values of European modernism, but it is also interesting to consider the first two in relation to the development of “freehold title” – where divisibility and aggregation are important components of property under the industrial system. However, these first three characteristics – valorised in Manovich’s conception – are unhelpful under value systems where no person or media object is imaginable outside of specific social relationships, as these characteristics suppress the particularity of the subjective social context that produces them. As David Turnbull puts it, in a culture that prefers the abstract over the concrete (because the abstract is without annoying limitations to circulation), knowledge has to be presented as unbiased and undistorted, “without a place or knower.”[x] In a discussion of high-energy physics, Sharon Traweek describes this as “an extreme culture of objectivity; a culture of no culture, which longs passionately for a world without loose ends, without temperament, gender, nationalism, or other sources of disorder – for a world outside human space and time.”[xi]

By contrast, the new media artists and commentators who are producing the work I find most fascinating (such as those covered in the essays by Rachel O’Reilly and Candice Hopkins in this issue) create new media projects that are organised around experience-centred rather than system-centred claims to aesthetic value – they are not telling the story of an abstract “global” but are reflexively embedded in their own location and understanding. Works created by indigenous artists assert a different frame of reference for the role of the digital within their practice, highlighting the “alternative modernities” that have simultaneously existed outside European thinking, while forging political sensibilities in relation to colonisation and racial prejudice.

Cheryl L’Hirondelle notes that “the current lack of attention being paid by programmers to Indigenous communities around the world represents a missed opportunity, because our languages are eloquent, concept and process-based, and fully capable of describing various complicated technological dynamics.”[xii] The aim of the PRNMS Working Group on Place, Ground, and Practice is to bring these world-views – often relegated to the “cultural” as opposed to fully “contemporary” – into the mainstream of new media practice. For myself these “cultural futures”, as Eric Michaels terms themxiii, open new directions for critical practice among both indigenous and non-indigenous new media practitioners alike. These directions are not founded on the basis of shared values (though these are always being sought), but on what is different and distinctive. They are about encountering stories on our travels that emerge from and remain tied to specific locations, stories that – though they travel far and wide – have a home.

Notes

i I use the term ‘aporia’, from the Greek translatable as “impasse”, in the sense specifically associated with philosophical deconstruction, where an indeterminacy or gap is perceivable in the fault lines in a concept. For a definitive treatment of the aporetic effects of colonisation in philosophy, literature, and history see Spivak, G. C., A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

ii See S. Benjamin: “Governance, economic settings and poverty in Bangalore”, Environment and Urbanization No.12: 35-56 (2000), and especially his recent work presented at the Incommunicado conference, Amsterdam, June 2005 and Contested Commons, Trespassing Publics, Delhi, January 2005.

iii D. Ellerman, “Introduction to Property Theory”, Social Science Research Network <http://ssrn.com/abstract=548142> (2004). Accessed 20th November 2004.

iv J. Clifford, “Indigenous Articulations” The Contemporary Pacific Vol. 13, No. 2, 468-492 (2001) p.482

v G. McLennan, “Sociology, Eurocentrism and Postcolonial Theory” European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 6, No.1, (2003) 69-86 p.74.

vi R. Sullivan, “Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights – A Digital Library Context” D-Lib Magazine Vol. 8, No.5, (May 2002) <http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may02/sullivan/05sullivan.html> Accessed April 15 2005.

vii For an excellent example of this encounter between different knowledge systems, see Benterrak, K., Muecke, S. & Roe, P. 1984, Reading the Country: An Introduction to Nomadology, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, W.A.

viii V. Eubanks, ‘The Mythography of the “New” Frontier’, <http://web.mit.edu/mit/articles/index_eubanks.html> Accessed May 2, 2002.

ix L. Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambrdige, Mass., MIT Press, 2001)

x D. Turnbull, Masons, tricksters and cartographers : comparative studies in the sociology of scientific and indigenous knowledge (Harwood Academic, Australia, 2000)

xi S. Traweek, Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988) p.162

xii C, L’Hirondelle “Sub-rosa”, in Horizon Zero Issue 17 [“Tell – Aboriginal Story in Digital Media”] <http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/tell.php?is=17&file=0&tlang=0> (2004) Accessed 20th September 2005.

xiii Michaels, E. Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons, (Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press 1994).

Danny Butt is chair of the Working Group on Place, Ground, and Practice for the Pacific Rim New Media Summit, ISEA2006, and coordinator of the Cultural Futures organisational group. A version of this piece will appear in a special issue of the journal Leonardo focussed on the summit.

2 thoughts on “Local Knowledge: Place and New Media Practice”

  1. about time this issue(s) are addressed – yes it is about encountering stories on our travels drawn out of our own worlds. I really enjoy SBS’s contribution to indigenous media “Living Black”. Run by Koories and produced with Koories..

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