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An introduction to the booming world of Latin American digital arts

Monika Bravo, detail of the installation URUMU. Photo © Juan Luque

An introduction to the booming world of Latin American digital arts

The idea of “digital arts” may not immediately call Latin America to mind. Silicon Valley maybe, Old Street roundabout maybe; probably not Buenos Aires. But this is exactly where the most recent E-Poetry Festival, “renowned biennial international artistic gathering”, took place earlier this month. I attended, and the gallery space on the opening night was positively buzzing with internet artists, digital performance artists and sound, video and code poets.

This is the first time the festival has been held in Latin America in its 14-year history – previous events have been held in the US, the UK, Spain and France. The choice to celebrate the event in the region is therefore significant. It’s indicative of a growing recognition of the important place of Latin American digital arts at international level and a nod to the longstanding Latin American representation in the festival, wherever it’s been held.

Digital arts

But first off, what are “digital arts”?

Broadly, they are any art form imaginable that can be adapted to digital formats. People are used to the fact that films are routinely made with digital technologies these days, but poetry can also be transformed with new technologies. It’s not just a case of “digitising” old poems so that they can be read online. Instead poems are being “born digital”: they can only be read via an interactive interface, clicking on links to find your way through. Some are “generative”, taking data from various sources available online and mixing it together in endless permutations.

Orquesta de Poetas performing at the E-poetry festival. Image courtesy of the Universidad Nacional Tres de Febrero

Internet art (or net art for short) and electronic literature work with a similar premise: you need to appreciate them via a computer rather than just “print them out”. Typically, contemporary digital art works display a high degree of hybridisation between art forms – poetry, visual art and performance can all be mixed in together. There’s also a tendency to play with the analogue and the digital, producing “multi-media” art installations and evolving works that move back and forth between old and new technologies at different stages in their “lives”.

Latin America might have found itself on the dark side of the “digital divide” over the past 20 years or so, but this really hasn’t impeded the development of digital arts in the region.

Latin American culture

The Latin American digital arts scene is really just the most recent manifestation of a strong avant-garde artistic and literary tradition in the region that goes back at least a century. This avant-garde movement has always been strongly international. Latin American contributions to Cubism, Surrealism and other manifestations of the European avant-garde have long been appreciated. The work of South American artists Wifredo Lam, Xul Solar or Joaquín García Torres is very much a part of it.

So it comes as no surprise to find one of the most significant contemporary Latin American digital artists, the Uruguayan Brian Mackern, reworking García Torres’s iconic inverted map of South America in his Netart Latino Database. He, like Torres before him, challenges us to turn our preconceptions of the region on their heads. This includes preconceptions which might suppose the region more suited to naive and low-tech forms of art.

Brian Mackern’s Netart Latino Database. netart.org.uy

Revolution and its dangers

Another preconception that quickly surfaces in the context of discussions of Latin American digital arts is the longstanding association of the region with all things revolutionary. Of course there is a relationship between some digital artworks produced by Latin Americans and proposals for social change, but just not in such a blanket fashion.

Latin Americans led the way in using the internet to initiate and sustain social protest: the Mexican Zapatista Uprising of 1994 was the first “revolution” to organise itself both on and offline. Given its success in “going viral”, it has been a source of inspiration for many other subsequent social movements.

Key in the online activism associated with the Zapatistas were some inspirational hactivist attacks on major institutions organised by Mexican-American artist Ricardo Domínguez and colleagues at the Electronic Disturbance Theatre. This kind of activism has also developed to become a form of art most often known as tactical media.

Electronic Disturbance Theatre’s Transborder Immigrant Tool. Stalbaum, CC BY-SA

Some tactical media artists creatively subvert common forms of media such as adverts or commercial websites. An example of this is Peruvian-American artist and filmmaker Alex Rivera’s spoof labour-outsourcing website Cybracero.com.

Alternatively, they may offer subversive applications of common technologies, such as Domínguez and colleagues’ Transborder Immigrant Tool. This is an app for mobile phones that helps indicate water sources to illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico to the US; this comes with poetry to help the traveller along their way.

Despite these examples, there’s a fuzzy logic in operation when foreign commentators attempt to “sell” the region and its digital arts by loosely linking the “revolution” in new media technologies with revolutionary political projects. The result is that the writings or art works in question are assumed to be “doubly revolutionary” regardless of their political colours, or even artistic merits.

Today’s Latin American digital arts scene embraces all sorts of different projects. Some works are intentionally highly political, others try to break new ground in terms of aesthetics or the way they use technology.

I’m not going to claim that there’s a revolution going on, but there’s definitely a sense that digital arts are booming across the whole region. And because so much of this work is available via the internet, Latin American digital arts are not so easily cast as something a bit unusual that happens “down there”, reflecting a world very different from our own. Instead, they are very much a part of the world we live in too.

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