Laila Shereen Sakr is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies and Faculty Affiliate in the Feminist Studies Department at University of California, Santa Barbara. At UCSB, she has co-founded Wireframe, a new digital media studio that supports critical game design, data visualization, VR/augmented realities, digital arts and activism. She is known as the creator of the cyborg data body, VJ Um Amel, and the R-Shief software system. Her creative research uses computer analytics, visualization, and immersive worldbuilding techniques to map how participation in social media has influenced the formation of a virtual body politic. Shereen Sakr has shown in solo and group exhibitions and performances at galleries and museums including the San Francisco MoMA, National Gallery of Art in Jordan, Camera Austria, Cultura Digital in Brazil, DC Fridge Art Gallery, 100 Copies in Egypt, among other venues. Her journal articles appear in Middle East Critique, Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier, Networking Knowledge: Journal of the Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies, Parson’s Journal for Information Mapping, Thoughtmesh: Critical Code Journal, and Feminist Debates in Digital Humanities (forthcoming). Over the last two decades, she has been a leading voice in the open source movement, in particular for Arabic localization. She is Co-Editor for the open access journal: Media Theory, and also for After Video published by Open Humanities Press. In addition, she is Research Collaborator in the Global Media Technologies & Cultures Lab at MIT. Professor Shereen Sakr holds an M.F.A. in Digital Arts and New Media from University of California, Santa Cruz, an M.A. in Arab Studies from Georgetown University, and a PhD in Media Arts + Practice from the University of Southern California. Reviews of her work appear in The Wall Street Journal, Science, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fast Company, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Voice of America, The Monocle, Art Territories, Digital Media and Learning, Egypt Independent, Mada Masr, Jadaliyya, and The Creators Project.
VJ Um Amel is a name I use in a set of art practices that include ambient visual projection, installation art, interactive media design, data visualization, and innovative research. In my VJ platforms and performances, I explore the implications of placing the identity of “mother” and a techno-feminist construct of “cyborg” within local and transnational expressions of “Arab.” I think of “Arab, Cyborg, Mother” as a convergence of experiences, rather than a set of identities, because “convergence” and “experience” imply a notion of movement and phenomenology of action. I bring these words together in order to challenge us to think what does the child of a cyborg look like? If a cyborg is free from biological, technological, or physical determinism, then what does it mean a machine procreates? And when you try to ground those seemingly disparate experiences within a cultural analytics around the notion of Arab, you get this deep fragmentation and set of multiple consciousnesses as a centrifugal force. The concept Arab, or a unified sense of Arab culture, has been a point of debate since before the mid century. I believe that trends in migration and the emergence of a new Arabic speaking Diaspora over the last few decades has given rise to a reemergence of Arab as a symbol of culture. Being situated, particularly, in a post-9/11 United States, I have felt the urgency to bring up the category Arab again. This moment in history, and its after effects, will mark a critical call to action for all transnational Arab people.
Much has changed since the turn of the century, and we can see new patterns emerging. Hope has become a loaded term, recently. Just for the record, VJ Um Amel (Arabic for "Mother of Hope") came into being before Obama's hope campaign! In literature, hope dates back to the Greeks and Pandora's box. As the character Femme Bot says in Call 2 Presence, “Modern feminists have interpreted Pandora's jar, to represent the female womb. That the jar releases myriad evils upon the earth suggests the culture's unease with friendly female sexuality. Pandora's jar originally contained winged souls.” From my perspective, the recent political movements in the Middle East and North Africa have taken on a feminist twist and now hope is somehow linked back to the womb, winged souls, and the seeds of creations. I have yet to map it out, but I do see a feminist praxis at work here.
I think much of it comes down to intention and methodology. In working collectively, there can be some ambiguity between collaboration and appropriation. And sometimes appropriation is intentional and meant to be subversive. When work is remixed with the intention to be in conversation with it, it is similar to the way in which we write papers and cite other texts within them. And this may be because I think of VJing as a critical research methodology. An interdisciplinary approach that incorporates an art and design research methodology, it offers a transformative practice to understanding the nature of blogs, social networking sites, Twitter feeds, YouTube, among other forms of digital culture, and how these new media platforms engage with and affect us.
TIME// I simply do not see time as linear. In my world, it is a lot of work to force a linear narrative. In conversation, I often respond with not one, but several possible avenues of thought—divergent thinking. So simultaneity is natural for me. I sleep weird hours, if at all, and am online UTC (computer time) rather than (PST) Pacific Coast Time where I live. The man-made clock is something I resist.
SPACE// As for the role of distance in narrative making, I think of Edward Said and how the experience of the exile, emigrant, and traveler was a central theme in his work. Occupying an “in between” space, straddling two cultures rather than being grounded in one, Said learned to develop a “double-vision”—the ability to see each of his cultures both from the inside and the outside. The insider's and the outsider's are two different ways of knowing. Indeed, seeing from a distance sometimes provides a perspective you can't get from the close-up view with its subjective angle.
BODY// I use a maternal connection to reflect a larger idea of the creative act and its transformative nature—which also applies to the sequence of making one clip, video, sound byte or text begin and become another. Through a daily yoga practice, I have learned to emphasize alignment and the inner directional action and movement also known as vinyasa krama. Krama refers “to the effective sequence of actions” and vinyasa means “to place in a special way.”
At a time when "Arab" is misunderstood in many parts of the world, an emergent twenty-first century public is publishing and producing copious amounts of media on the region in digital form. I work to bypass the notion of the critic as an authority who controls narrative, and to create a new role in the transnational Arab community that resonates with web culture and to function as critic, curator, and artist all at the same time. This cyber conscious, digital art practice allows me to shift between roles in VJ Um Amel and other technoscapes occupying these subjectivities simultaneously.
My information visualizations and 3D modeling of Twitter and Internet data from 2011 Arab protests have emerged from an objective to remix discourse in order to include the input of a "community-author" rather than a single subjectivity—whether expert, popular, or imaginative. I see my visualizations as extending these subjectivities through it and activating the space. Configuring ideas and activating various landscapes—these innovations offer new ways to mobilize communities of people. It is conceptually designed as the virtual embodiment of a 21st century transnational Arab imagination. Somewhere in all of this…I believe we find VOICE. And can collectively get the impact of the voice! Hence, why I believe that a thriving arts scene indicates a healthy environment for democratic practices. This voice flows from the well of the body politic.