Steven Kurtz on Sat, 1 Nov 1997 18:50:13 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Interview

Interview with Maria Fernandez

Critical Art Ensemble

Maria Fernandez has taken an active role in the formation of colonial
studies in art history, applying postcolonial theory and cultural
history to art history and historiography.  She is also active in
postcolonial and multicultural critiques of electronic media art. Recent
projects include a critical analysis of spatial representation in 3D
graphics and immersive art, and a critique of colonial paradigms in art
history. She has presented this work at diverse conferences on Latin
American history, art history, art criticism, architecture, and
electronic media art. She has taught at Columbia University, the
University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University
of Connecticut at Storrs. 


CAE: A postcolonial perspective seems to be absent from the major
discourses in media theory in North America and Europe (in spite of the
fact that postcolonial theory is well developed and even
institutionalized in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK). At best, it
seems to be a marginalized undercurrent. Why do you think these two
knowledge pools have very little overlap?

MF: The interests of the two fields have been quite different.
Postcolonial studies  have been concerned with issues of identity, 
representation, agency, gender, migration, and with identifying and
analyzing strategies of imperial domination and/or resistance in various
areas of theory and practice. This includes fields that people do not
traditionally associate with imperialism: biology, history, literature,
psychology, anthropology, popular culture, and most recently, art
history and philosophy.      
        Particularly in the eighties and  early nineties, much of
electronic media theory (the little that existed) was concerned with
establishing the electronic as a valid and even dominant field of
practice. In fact, many theorists were knowingly or unknowingly doing
the public relations work for the corporations. This often involved the
representation of electronic technologies--particularly the computer--as
either value-free or as inherently liberatory.  The exponents of such
rhetoric could not afford to acknowledge the existence of theories
concerned with the analysis of imperialist strategies, at least not
until they felt sure  that their goals were reasonably well
accomplished. And for this, even 1991-1992 seems to have been too early!
I discovered that during the heated debate about commemorating the
Quincentenary [of Columbus~ ~discovery~ of the New World] when these
issues were highlighted in many disciplines, the critique of electronic
media from a  colonial/postcolonial perspective was alien to electronic
media thinkers. 

CAE: In the US, the utopian rhetoric of "Wired" culture has been harshly
criticized by different leftist factions as a blind apology for
predatory capitalism and enslavement to its work machine. While the
extreme ethnocentrism involved in the "California" position has been
named, there is only a modest amount of work on the way in which
imperialist ideology is replicated in this discourse. Do you have any
insights into this matter?
MF: I attribute this lack to the separation of the two fields. As you
have said, the two fields have developed parallel to one another, but 
have very few points of intersection. I also think that,  at least in
U.S. academic circles, that there is still some hesitation about
referring to the U.S. as an imperialist power (gasp!). The replication
of imperialist ideology in utopian positions  of the _Wired_ magazine
variety is really not hard to recognize. Have not virtually all
imperialist projects adopted utopian and humanitarian rhetorics?  Was it
not humanitarian ideals that supported  the "civilizing mission" of the
French, British and other colonial powers?
        The belief dear to "California" ideologues--that pancapitalism 
is a "natural" result of "evolution";  the defense of free enterprise
against government intervention; the supposition that unregulated
commerce will bring about individual freedom, democracy, and even the
elimination of human suffering--all these were all prefigured in the
nineteenth century. Does any one remember Herbert Spencer?

CAE: In Western and Central Europe (the UK notwithstanding),
postcolonial theory has not done any better. At the major media
festivals, there is little if any effort to integrate this line of
thought into the discussion. Such matters are left to the more
politicized conferences such as The Next Five Minutes or Metaforum. What
obstacles do you think stand in the way of the development of a
mainstream platform for postcolonial thinking? Can this situation be
linked to the current government/EU support for media festivals and new
spaces such as ZKM?

MF: Some Europeans view postcolonial theory as an example of political
correctness (which they perceive as the dominant ideology in the U.S.)
and not as a field of inquiry with any relevance to them. I have asked
the same question to artists and intellectuals in Germany, France, and
Scandinavia that you are asking me; the response I have invariably
received is that Europe is not experiencing the same immigration
pressures as the United States and  since the population of the country
in question is to a large extent "homogeneous," postcoloniality is not
an issue.  Even people from large, multicultural, cities including
Berlin and Paris, have given me the same response. This attitude ignores
 even the histories of colonization within Europe itself!
        The perception of European countries as "homogeneous" could be a
very good reason why the discussion of colonialism/postcolonialism is
not mainstream. I think that in the case of government and EU sponsored 
media festivals and institutions, the situation is more complex.
Traditionally, culture supported by states or government entities is
culture that can be used to support official positions of what culture
should be, not to mention  to uphold official representations of
national or ethnic identities.  Culture  produced with the help of
technology is no exception.  In fact, technology has always been at the
heart of such representations. One only has to notice the privileged
place accorded to technology in accounts of  both colonial conquest and
nationalism. As in the past, if technology is being used to support
official constructs of identity, even at the  broad level of the EU,
this could be a very good reason to exclude theories that focus on the
marginal and the hybrid. 
        The situation may be starting to change.  I understand that
there were  attempts to engage issues of migration and postcoloniality
at Documenta. At Ars Electronica, Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto
Sifuentes were invited to participate in the symposium "Flesh Factor." 

CAE: Postcolonial theory has not managed to insinuate itself into
academic institutions in most of Europe. Why has it been relatively
successful in the UK and North America, but nowhere else?

MF:  No one in the U.S. can  maintain that the population is
"homogeneous" (although some still argue for the values of integration).
 Non-Europeans have long been established in American urban settings and
have impacted the way many people live and think. Minority groups and
their supporters have been very vocal about including multiple cultures
in academic curricula, and since many of these cultures have colonial
histories, it has been impossible to leave out discussions of
colonialism and imperialism. This in no way implies that racism is not
thriving or that colonial/postcolonial studies are dominant. As you
know, proposals for "multiculturalism" in educational curricula  have
resulted in bitter debates about what culture  and "the American
heritage" really are. In addition to the activism of minorities, the
relative success of postcolonial theory in the U.S. is to due to the
presence in universities of academics from former European colonies. I
understand that this is still quite rare in Europe. 

CAE: We need to invert this line of questioning. Why haven't people
active in postcolonial discourse responded to new media developments
when they know they are key to the development of the postcolonial
situation? Just recently on Nettime, there was an interview with Spivak.
She all but refused to answer questions having to do with media theory,
and went on with her usual literary theory. To what extent are
postcolonial representatives refusing to engage the discourse, except
for places where it's comfortable for them, such as in film theory?

MF: Postcolonial theory has been predominantly literary. Most theorists
teach in English and  Comparative Literature departments. And despite
the current hype for interdisciplinarity, academics, at least in the
U.S., rarely venture too far from their established fields. One must
recognize that the analysis of a diverse range of texts has been
invaluable for developing postcolonial criticism, as has the analysis of
popular culture, television, film, and video. I am not sure if most
postcolonial theorists realized that new media were crucial for the
further development of imperialism (I think Said conceded as much in an
interview). I suspect that at least some of them thought that the
debates about new media were distant or even distracting from what they
perceived as more immediate problems.
        The preference of postcolonial theorists for video, film, and
the plastic arts may be dictated by the media that predominate in the
developing world. The advent of digital media  in developing countries
is very recent. In 1990-1992, for instance, it was really hard to find 
visual artists working in these media in Latin America. This situation
has changed in the last few years, but these practices are not yet as
widespread as they are in the U.S. and Europe. We must note, however,
that the advent of commercial digital networks, while they remain
invisible in much of the developing world, have had a powerful effect on
those economies.

CAE: Video is another comfort zone for postcolonial theorists and for
those artists who use it as a conceptual foundation for their work. Is
this a situation of too little, too late? Video is a dying medium. Will
the current trend of video based installations in both the US and Europe
of save it from consumption by the digital?

MF: I find it difficult to criticize artists from the developing world
who use video. In many cases, this is the  most advanced technology
they've got. As cheap as digital technology is getting  in the
overdeveloped world, it is still prohibitively expensive in many parts
of the  planet. This will undoubtedly change as prices continue to drop
and people become adept at manipulating digital media. 
        In some cases, artists deliberately choose not to work with the
latest technology or trend. This has been  an ongoing  subject of debate
in the critique of Latin American and African art of all periods.
Europeans and American critics often view the arts of these regions as
being  derivative and retardaire.  It~s only recently that they have
begun to realize that anachronistic works  can be made  intentionally. 
I do have to agree with you that the engulfment of video by digital 
media seems imminent at this point.  But it will not happen in all
places at the same time.
CAE: To end on a more concrete note: Two electronic artists recently
showcased who are interested in postcolonial topics are Guillermo
Gomez-Pena and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. What strategies or tactics in their
work do you find valuable, and what is of less value? 

MF: I find the work of both artists extremely valuable. Guillermo
Gomez-Pena and his partner Roberto Sifuentes were key in catalyzing the
current discussion of border culture and  hybridity  in artistic and
academic circles in the U.S.  Guillermo's  theoretical writings and
performances  have been effective in calling attention to the
stereotypical representation of Mexicans in U.S. popular culture. These
stereotypes are not without serious consequences. They are at the very
heart of U.S.--Mexico relations,  not to mention basic to the appalling
treatment of Mexicans and people of Mexican ancestry within the U.S.
        I think that Guillermo and Roberto's participation in electronic
media festivals is  productive, as it may open up much-needed discussion
about issues of difference, marginalization, and hybridity, as well as
provide refreshing alternatives to Euro-American visions of the future.
But because their work has not yet grown within the digital, it is
unlikely to engage the geeks and techno-utopians.       
        Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and his partner Will Bauer  produce work
that is very seductive at the technological level, in addition to being
visually and theoretically interesting.  I understand that they have
been working for about ten years just on the technological apparatus of
their pieces alone. Their interests are by no means restricted to
postcolonial issues. The piece that they presented at Ars Electronica,
"Displaced Emperors," dealt with issues of power, history,  memory,
virtuality, architecture,  presence, sensuality, desire, agency, and
colonization, within and outside the virtual. It was  an incredibly
layered and complex piece. 
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