Alena Strohmaier and Angela Krewani (eds.), Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa. Producing Space (Amsterdam University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Alena Strohmaier and Angela Krewani (AS & AK): The Green Movement of 2009 in Iran and the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen (2011 to 2013) unleashed a deluge of international research into the backgrounds, effects, and meanings of popular uprisings and subsequent developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In this complex and disparate research discourse, there was a gradually emerging epistemological shift in thinking across disciplines studying the region.
Embedded in the global framework of a transnational movement and as a result of the structural crisis of global capitalism, the popular uprisings in the MENA region were ascribed a new collective self-confidence through the intensive use of novel social media platforms. A few months into the popular uprisings in 2009 and 2010, the promises of these social media platforms, including their ability to influence a participatory governance model, grassroots civic engagement, new social dynamics, inclusive societies, and new opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs, became more evident than ever. Simultaneously, digital cartography received new considerable interest as it merged with social media platforms.
We felt the need to rearticulate the relationship between media and mapping practices to go against the more naïve claims of participatory culture. Our intention was to focus not so much on the role of new technologies and social networks as on how media and mapping practices expand the very notion of cultural engagement, political activism, popular protest, and social participation. Across the MENA region today, these varied, empirical, theoretical, and interdisciplinary contributions show there is not only a development of a critical field of digital media, but also a proposition of alternative platforms for social and political engagement.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AS & AK: The starting point for our examination of media as a factor of spatial production, which is based on social conditions and practices in the broadest sense, includes the conditions of media and their transmission between academia and the public, between centers and peripheries. Our main argument is that media do not provide simple technological tools or equipment, but rather mobile media spaces that work over time and beyond different world regions, including diaspora formations. Mobile media spaces undermine, defy, and blur state-centered notions of territory as well as notions of nation and political communities based on territorially fixed states. Accordingly, images become nodal points for a multitude of different discourses.
Taking for granted that geographical and national spaces are always mediatized spaces, the turn towards social media has nevertheless changed the understanding of space, which has become fragmented and individualized. This is reflected in the manifold approaches in this book towards space as a media product, which encloses a variety of practices such as digital cartography, gamification, video activism, cinema, parkour, data mining, oral transmission, and audiovisual representations. The contributions are informed by the idea that the fragmentation of spaces brings about new forms of media and mapping practices and is, at the same time, a product of these practices. Therefore, the book features multiple voices that share collective and individual stories within larger contexts of political and social challenges, enabling a plurality of interdisciplinary perspectives. This displaces binaries such as the division between the public and private sphere or the nation and the citizen in a collage structure that embraces disjuncture, heterogeneity, plurality, and dialogue. The contributions in this book provide compelling perspectives that privilege context over text. They engage different levels of creative abilities, participation, and viewpoints in dynamic iterative relationships. They circulate and reorganize scattered media remnants across different platforms and within different communities. In so doing, they create a more nuanced and shared construct to reimagine how we might understand space as a media product in the MENA region today.
The book mirrors three different aspects of media-generated spaces. The first part, labelled “Cartographies,” relates to historic and contemporary practices; the second part, “Movements,” addresses the media and spatial activities of cinema, migration, and parkour; and the third part, “Agencies,” discusses the viable interest of global and local groups in specific areas.
How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AS: The book came into being in the context of the research network “Re-Configurations: History, Remembrance and Transformation Processes in the Middle East and North Africa” at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. The network brought together academics of different disciplines, institutes, and research centers connecting MENA regional studies with systematic disciplines. The so-called Arab Spring served as the starting point for the network, which aimed at overcoming too narrow focuses on political elites and institutions, or ahistorical and essentialist examinations of religious and cultural factors. Its goal was rather to apply more actor-centered perspectives, to address the historicity of current processes. In this same line of thought, Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa assembles interdisciplinary approaches and a wide range of methodological and theoretical stances. The outcome of the research networks efforts is an open access edited volume I co-edited with Prof. Dr. Rachid Ouaissa and Prof. Dr. Friederike Pannewick: “Re-Configurations. Contextualising Transformation Processes and Lasting Crises in the Middle East and North Africa” (Springer VS, 2021).
Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa also connects to my own PhD research conducted in the framework of the research network, which focused on films of the Iranian diaspora. I illustrated two transformations, of diaspora into post-diaspora, and diaspora film into post-diaspora film. This re-configuration manifested itself spatially on three levels: the real space of the diaspora, which is subject to socio-political changes; the internal-diegetic spaces in the films themselves, which constantly bring new themes to the fore; and film as a space-creating instance in itself. This spatial approach to media and its practices inspired the edited volume and took it one step further. My PhD has been published as an open access monograph in German: “Medienraum Diaspora. Verortungen zeitgenössischer iranischer Diasporafilme” (Springer VS, 2019).
AK: As a media scholar I have always been interested in the cultural and practical aspects of generating spaces. I have published on the connection of space and gender and on general aspects of cartograhpy. I am very impressed by the works of Denis Cosgrove and his cultural studies approach towards cartography. And I do like genealogical questions. This books transports my general interest in spaces into the MENA region and connects it with the structuring aspects of digital media devices and audiovisual archives.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AS & AK: The book has been published open access to reach a wide audience. We hope for a diverse readership interested in a critical stance towards media and mapping practices in the MENA region. As the current world situation shows us, major reconfigurations of systems of rule and radical social and cultural change can also come about through pandemics, major disease outbreaks, and natural disasters. Thus, the history of mobile media spaces in the MENA region does not end with the singularity of a popular uprising such as the Green Movement or the Arab Spring. Our book may serve as a conceptual foil, an analytical lens, and an epistemic tool for thinking about a region as permanently subject to processes and flux.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AS: I am currently leading a research project entitled “‘But I’m not filming! I’m just doing a bit of video…’ Cinematic appropriation processes of videos from popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa since 2009,” and currently funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. It analyzes cinematic appropriation processes of videos of the popular uprisings in the MENA region between 2009 and 2011. Between 2010 and 2015, around thirty films were produced both inside and outside of the MENA region that were wholly or partially composed of videos by the Green Movement or from the so-called Arab Spring. The films rearrange the videos’ documentary footage via processes of excerpting, montage, and the addition of intertitles and/or voice-over narration. Through these cinematic appropriation processes, the videos take on a new functional context, and raise questions about the production and reception of both the original videos and the resulting films. The project seeks to build a broader understanding of moving images of the popular uprising movements in the MENA region and their appropriation for other filmic and geographical contexts. The goal is not only to probe the boundaries and intersections between “filming” and “video-making,” but also to expand upon common research practices in regard to moving images from the MENA region. It does this by taking a systematically developed approach from media and cultural studies, contributing a new understanding of moving images as substantial factors within political, social, and cultural upheaval.
AK: One of my longstanding interests is the media construction of submarine spaces as genealogical and theoretical considerations of media configurations. I have published on the sonic mediality of submarine boats, the image of Undines and underwater waifs, and on submarine spaces as utopian spaces in artistic production. I am addressing this topic from the angle of aesthetic production of submarine spaces and the audiovisual construction of submarine spaces. I am planning to extend these writings into a book.
Additionally, and more recently, I am just publishing a book on “The Virus within media discourses.” This is a project which covers various topics within the debate on the pandemic, ranging from television journalism to memes and visual constructions of viral threads. The book is going to be published with the Springer series ‘ars digitales’.
Excerpt from the book (from pp. 9-14)
Introduction: About Space as a Media Product
Alena Strohmaier and Angela Krewani
Bourj Al Shamali, South of Lebanon, red balloons in the sky. In 1948, 7000 refugees fled or were expelled from their homes in Tiberias and Safad in historic Palestine, now Israel; second- and third-generation refugees (22,000 registered) currently form the majority of the population in the camp. The ancestors of Bourj Al Shamali’s population led an agricultural existence that has now been completely lost; the camp residents have increasingly grown detached from the land. Al Houla Association, one of the local NGOs working in the camp, which also serves as the base for the local camp committee working to improve conditions in the camp, began exploring the possibility of launching an urban agriculture pilot project and creating a green space in the camp. For this initiative, a map of the camp was needed to discuss potential locations and to visualize potential water sources. However, it turned out to be difficult to find a map of Bourj Al Shamali, even though it has been in existence for over 60 years. With the complex politics of the region, the maps that do exist are withheld by international organizations that justify their discretion in the name of security and do not share them with the camp inhabitants or with the local camp committee. On internet maps, only the main street is marked, and on Google Earth, the very low-resolution images of the area obscure the space, the narrow streets, and the buildings. Therefore, in 2015, the inhabitants themselves launched an initiative in cooperation with the local camp committee to map the area.
The solution was a reusable latex/chloroprene balloon measuring at one and half metres wide, a 300-metre-long line, swivel clips for attaching the balloon and the camera, rubber bands for making a camera cradle, reusable Velcro for closing the balloon, some carabiners to attach things together, and a camera that can be set on an automated mode to take images every few seconds. Everything was tied up, the helium-filled balloon rose up in the air, and after a flight of 10–20 minutes, it could be brought down again. Technology, digital media, and activism brought this project into being. However, the balloon mapping alludes to more enduring concerns that arose from the need to capture one’s own space as a map. In its use of digital media, bottom-up cartography, and citizen science, the balloon mapping of Bourj Al Shamali offers a significant point of departure for any discussion of contemporary media and mapping practices in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Aspects of media, mapping practices, and the construction of spaces are interrelated and reflected into each other. Space is not a given, but produced in activities such as the balloon mapping of Bourj Al Shamali. Without media, the dimensions of space can hardly be experienced. Bruno Latour claimed, in reference to central perspective in painting, space could be a mobile medium in itself: ‘in linear perspective, no matter from what distance and angle an object is seen, it is always possible to transfer it and to obtain the same object at a different size as seen from another position’ (1990, p. 27). Besides this European linear perspective, diverging combinations of space and media can be considered valid, such as the song lines of the Australian Aborigines, which combine the constitution of spaces and places with their song lines – in this manner, orally constructing their cultural-geographical spaces (Winkler 1997).
When viewed against this background, media could always have been conceptualized as spatial agents, since most media – traditional and analogue ones as well as new and digital ones – inscribe themselves into spaces or help to construct and communicate these spaces. The history of the letter connects to the history of post, combining media with the crossing of spaces (Siegert 1993). The Hollywood genre of the western or the road movie recounts the conquest of the vast spaces of the American West with the media of the stagecoach, Bible, and law while completely ignoring the native inhabitants of the region. Some media carry their conceptualized spaces in their name: viewing into the distant spaces – ‘tele’ ‘visioning’ – addresses television as a window opening up into distant spaces. Other media have brought about new constellations of spaces and places, particularly the digital mobilization that offers new access to the spatial dimension, since it recombines spatial and medial aspects. Locative media – smartphones, GPS devices, tablets, and others – combine local and virtual elements. Adriana de Souza e Silva conceives spaces as inherently mobile, relating to the definition of ‘augmented space’ (Manovich 2005) as a connection of virtual and material aspects, ‘mobile spaces are networked spaces defined by the use of portable interfaces as the nodes of the network’ (De Souza e Silva 2006, p. 266). The idea of networked spaces offers a theoretical framework for the ‘nomad existence and the spatio-geographic aspect’ (De Souza e Silva 2006, p. 267). Accordingly, a nomad moves within predefined spaces and routes. De Souza e Silva connects to this concept of the nomad and rekindles it in the light of mobile media:
Mobile technology users take the nomadic concept one step further, because not only their paths are mobile but also the nodes. With the fixed Internet, and fixed landlines, computers and telephones were primarily connected to places. Conversely, cell phones represent movable connection points, accompanying their users’ movement in physical spaces. (2006, p. 267)
Technologically, the application of mobile phones is supported by 3G to 5G mobile networks, which are often not operated by governments, but by commercial companies. The prevalence of mobile media demands a modified conceptualization of space. De Souza e Silva concludes: ‘I regard space as a concept produced and embedded by social practices, in which the support infrastructure is composed of a network of mobile technologies’ (2006, p. 271). Following De Souza e Silva’s references to the nomad as the new inhabitant of networked spaces, the features of these new spaces have to be reconsidered.
An additional consequence resulting from mobile media is a different aspect of media participation. The idea of participatory culture is also recasting the way in which citizens, like the inhabitants of Bourj Al Shamali, engage with their surroundings and in political life. This is especially the case with the media upheaval away from broadcast mass media towards more individualized mobile media practices. This generates a shift in the connection between political power relationships and regimes of knowledge. Thus, mobile media practices constitute reconfigured spaces that provide both knowledge about spaces as well as knowledge through spaces. Hence, this book is centrally concerned with how space is not, as Henri Lefebvre famously stated, a social but rather a media product. In the following, we shall elaborate to what extent cartographies, movements, and agencies play a decisive role in both media and mapping practices in perpetually producing and creating space in and of the MENA region.
In this context, it is important to note that as other world regions, the MENA region is not a well-defined, closed, and homogeneous area. On the contrary, it is actually a region that is subject to continuous reconfigurations and for which numerous designations exist, such as the Orient, the Levant, and the Near or Middle East. At the same time, economic, cultural, social, and political interrelations and processes of exchange unfold in very different regional contexts, which intersect with established spatial ideas. Political scientist Claudia Derichs equates such a shift to what she calls a ‘new areas studies current’ (2015, p. 33). It demarcates an open concept of the notion of ‘area’ as itself not hermetically sealed or self-contained. Her main argument is that how ‘area’ is understood, how it is defined, and what it designates is subject to historical and cultural processes. She refers in this context to Arjun Appadurai, who claimed that ‘we need to recognize that histories produce geographies and not vice versa’ (2010, p. 9). Likewise, social and regional scientists Anna-Katharina Hornidge and Katja Mielke argue that ‘area’ should not be understood as a singular or hermetic unit per se, but as a dynamic category (2015, p. 14). This development in area studies itself, and the accompanying change from an inflexible to an open understanding of ‘area’, therefore emphasizes structures that conceive of the MENA region not as a homogeneous and unified space but rather as a set of interdependent and interrelated places which are in a constant process of reconfiguration (Ouaissa, Pannewick, and Strohmaier 2021, pp. 1-21).
Following these approaches, the underlying assumption of this book is that mobility and movement increasingly challenge static political, sociocultural, ethnic, and religious boundaries. An open and flexible concept of ‘area’ is crucial for our understanding of what we would like to call mobile media spaces, which bring about varied and amorphous modes of producing space. Therefore, this book promotes a transregional perspective on the circulation of ideas, narratives, and images, without being limited to fixed metageographies. Thus, the second argument is that media do not provide simple technological tools or equipment, but mobile media spaces which work over time and beyond different world regions, including diaspora formations (Strohmaier 2019). Mobile media spaces undermine, defy, and blur state-centred notions of territory as well as notions of nation and political communities based on territorially fixed states. Therefore, the starting point for an examination of media as a factor of spatial production, which is based on social conditions and practices in the broadest sense, needs to include precisely the conditions of media and their transmission between academia and the public, between centres and peripheries.