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.


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.


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.

Cultural Futures recap

Cultural Futures: Place ground and practice in Asia-Pacific New Media Arts. Hoani Waititi, Auckland, December 1-5 2005.

This piece (1000-word limit, so a little sketchy) appears in Visit magazine, published by the Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, NZ. For more information on Cultural futures, visit the symposium website.

“Sarai” in a number of Indian languages means “a place for travellers to rest”, or “meeting place”. It was fitting that The Sarai New Media Lab in Delhi and the co-initiators, Raqs Media Collective, were the first artists approached to participate in Cultural Futures, a marae-based event designed to foster international dialogue on the role of place and location in the new media arts environment. The Sarai Lab is also one of the few places I’ve been where the spirit of inquiry is underpinned both philosophically and practically by a spirit of manaakitanga or hospitality I have experienced here. Recognising this would have been impossible without the opportunities for connection and collaboration that new media provides. Even though technology is often associated with globalisation and homogeneity – this encounter seemed to only show more clearly how unusual our various homes were, even when we collaborated in “neutral” spaces like art galleries and the Internet. A simple way to test whether this recognition meant anything would be to bring Sarai to the marae.

The critical literature of postmodernity has emphasised the importance of context over the autonomy of singular works or authors/artists: the way material is presented to us, the environment we are in and the cultural norms at work makes a significant difference to both our experience and behaviour. But this knowledge hasn’t always allowed us to renovate the way we organise our day-to-day work in the cultural sector: our meetings, presentations, and conferences are in marked contrast to the affective richness of the material we’re organising. Too often, the physical environment and formats for interaction are defaults – we sit in lecture theatres and meeting rooms because that’s the way we’ve always done it, the way everyone does it.

In contrast to these “default zones” the marae – accompanied by the relevant tikanga – is a sophisticated physical, intellectual, and spiritual infrastructure for conversation. This holistic environment that self-consciously supports large group interaction in ways that professional facilitators like myself could only dream of creating in another context. Conversations are more intimate and less defensive when you’ve just spent the night sleeping in the same room; when you’ve been formally introduced; when you are in the embrace of an ancestor; when you know who is responsible for maintaining the environment you’re in.

An informal series of talks by Charles Koroneho, Albert Refiti and Kiritapu Allan on the first night of Cultural Futures highlighted the importance of the wharenui as a structure that integrates cosmological, sociological, economic, and technological narratives of its particular location. The wharenui is a house of knowledge: an information environment. After the lights were dimmed in the evening, about a dozen faces remained visible in the luminous glow from their laptops. The wireless signals transferring data from Hoani Waititi across the world became part of the informational breath of the house: in, out. People emailing photos home to the Philippines or Australia, to more mundane informational tasks like moderating email discussions in Delhi or sending a budget back to California. A traceroute on the packets of information as they flowed in and out would be a whakapapa of the manuhiri, grounding the connections between the visitors and their homelands. Far from being placeless, the conscious experience of being in a specific environment becomes a part of the experience of communications technologies – as it always has for diaspora who send resources and experiences back to distant homelands.

The presentations and discussions of the artists at Cultural Futures showed that they are, like all of us in the Asia Pacific, negotiating the complex flows of culture in the wake of colonisation and migration. In New Zealand we’ve become used to thinking about cultural politics in the national discourses of biculturalism or multiculturalism – but through international conversation and artistic practices we find out that being a “New Zealander” an “Australian” or an “Indian” matters little, except for where our passports can take us. Instead, in Aotearoa we can trace the routes of a Pacific culture that allows the Philippines to seem closer than Australia. Or triangulating experiences in Canada and India makes clear that the British Empire has left us all a shared experience of colonisation that cannot be lost or compartmentalised into our national identity.

No connection is one way street – the post-symposium workshops began planning a number of residencies and activities to foster further regional cooperation. New Zealand, with its diverse collection of Pacific, Asian and European cultures, is a good place to think about Asia Pacific networks. Sometimes, it felt that it was the foreign visitors who recognised this most clearly- as indicated by the high proportion of overseas visitors among the participants. To take advantage of our location requires a shift in our imagination from the more well-worn (and well-funded) Europe-U.S. relations. We can be a small, inconveniently-located settler society from an Empire in decline, fearful for the future, echoing Don Brash in a wish for the OECD-leading economic dominance of the 1950s. Or we can see ourselves as both central to a developing international interest in indigenous and postcolonial issues, and proximate to Asian economies that are exponentially increasing in power. It is a choice between who we have been and who we can become, or as Teresia Teaiwa frames it – between a static “Pacific identity” and a transformative “Pacific identification”. The global movement of people and cultural practices can never result in homogeneity: we can meet and learn from each other best when we know where we’re from but are unafraid to become something else. Looking around the whare after finishing her presentation, Lisa Reihana quipped that “the cultural future is good looking people from overseas” – a nice reminder of the romance that has always been present in the cross-cultural encounter.