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Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies
Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, 12 October - 4 December, 1998

[as of December 1st 1998 the forum has been prolonged - ... open-ended]

Subject:Hopes and Impediments 1
Date:Thu, 22 Oct 1998 20:16
Author:Olu Oguibe  []

i began my last posting to this forum by pointing out that i would deal with asides first. the chore question raised, albeit inadvertently, by pat binder's reference to the johannesburg biennale, however, is why the internet site for that event has disappeared from cyberspace.

all those who have tried would notice that in fact, the biennale site still exists. pages of information on the 1995 biennale remain on the site []. what has disappeared --perhaps has been expunged from cyberspace-- is all information on, and reference to the 2nd biennale. i do know that a lot of time and money was spent to set up pages on the 2nd biennale. i do recall that while this was going on, quite a few of us on this forum made efforts to provide temporary sites or information on the biennale. i also recall that in the pages on the first biennale, there were links and references to the second. all those, along with the several pages that were eventually set up on the 2nd biennale, have disappeared from the internet. there is a reason, and that reason may not be very innocent. it is a reason that may return us to one of the questions set for this forum: whether cyberspace is able to alter or affect attitudes and practices in real life, whether individual or institutional.

i have no official information on why all reference to the 2nd johannesburg biennale has been removed from the biennale's web site, after so much effort was put into designing and posting several pages on it. but having been witness to the cynicism, even occasionally severe hostility, with which it was met by certain sections of the south african art community, i have reason enough to be suspicious. very.

my suspicions bring to mind one of the fundamental shortcomings of exchange through cyberspace which i have pointed out in the past, namely the vulnerability of digital information. while many have applauded the power of the internet to take information out of the hands of traditional structures of control, often we have ignored the fact that the opposite is also very true; that the very nature of server-based information places it at the mercy of those who control real locations, and the individual who controls the server. because of our increasing confidence in the marvels of the internet, we have come to rely so much on its availability that we take it for granted that we can always return to a site and find the information it once contained. but time and again this proves not to be the case. while it is an onerous task to recall print-based information from circulation [imagine recalling the whole print-run of a daily, or a book or pamphlet], it is however rather very easy to instantly wipe out server-based information if it does not serve the purposes of the site owner.

in other words, real life political calculations, inclinations, and prejudices can affect or determine the nature and availability of internet information. and while, as i pointed out in 'forsaken geographies' [], any effort to muzzle traditional sources of information in the past could be traced and challenged, with digital information it is easier to erase without trace. book burning and memo-based censure could be challenged because they were obvious acts. when the republicans pulled the microphone on democrats in the united states house of representatives, there was instant reaction because the act was obvious and detectable. but often when web-based information disappears from the server, we can only speculate on reasons. and often, we are distraught to find that we have no records left of such information.

because of its past, south africa is a difficult subject for anyone --especially an outsider-- to speculate on. but because of its past, also, south africa will for a while remain an arena to watch closely because, as i have pointed out elsewhere, it is hard --and dangerous-- to forget that the new environment of democracy and freedom in that country has been around for only four years, and must not be taken for granted, therefore. in the years and decades leading up to 1994, institutional control of information became an integral part of the culture of repression that obtained in that country. given that no technical or financial reasons may soundly or validly justify it, might the disappearance of information on the 2nd johannesburg biennale indicate a surviving and thriving culture of institutional control of information in the new south africa?

the internet is at best a most fragile and unreliable reliquary for information, whether on cultures or events, and therefore deserves to be treated with even more savvy than traditional sources. for this reason, we must continue to provide fall-backs and alternatives for important bodies of information: through mirror-site proliferation, site downloads, monitoring, print back-ups, alternatives to official sites, even inquiries to institutions when sites and pages that we consider important are withdrawn from the public. otherwise cultural exchange through the internet will remain, to a large degree, a mere privilege at the mercy of institutional server-control.

olu oguibe
tampa, florida

[Olu Oguibe presents on his website the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale Conference]

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Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, on the use of Internet in the cultural exchange with and between Africa, Asia/Pacific and Latin America. 12 October - 4 December, 1998

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