There is No Utopia in Cyberspace

An interview with i-D magazine

This new zealand digital art collective wants you to accept there is no utopia in cyberspace. Lokal Stories are trying to make sense of mythical “safe spaces” online, and asking how can we really make the internet better.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about “safe spaces” online. They exist like a digital Shangri-La, alive in theory but never so simply realised. For those of us who came of age in the internet era — with all the likes, double taps and full-on anonymous abuse that involved — it makes sense that we’d be drawn to a pocket of the digital world that promises shelter. But while parts of Tumblr and private Facebook groups have attempted to create discrimination-free zones, one can’t help but wonder if the cyber utopia we first imagined might belong with all humankind’s other mythical, unobserved destinations.

But if making the internet truly safe is an impossible task, then how do we begin to cope with online hostility Wellington based artists Hana Pera Aoake and Jordana Bragg are trying to figure that out. The duo are currently in digital residency with online art gallery Lokal Stories (run by fellow artist Sophie Giblin). In their work for the gallery, they’ve asked community groups how to run safe spaces, written about self care and made podcasts about what trauma from colonialism feels like now. We spoke to Hana, Jordana and Sophie about living your best life online and when to log off.

In the 90s, people had romanticised views that the internet was a place to be truly free, but the reality isn’t quite like that.
Hana: Yeah, in William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, cyberspace is a utopia. People like Donna Haraway talked about cyberspace being a place where people, especially women, were free from their bodies. The Hackers Manifesto from 1996 talked about race and all these dichotomies not existing online.

Jordana: But that idea’s only escapism. The internet exists within capitalism, patriarchy and western privilege. It’s a bad structure within a bad structure. Online only mimics that structure. We should write a new cyber-feminist manifesto.

Given the vastness of the internet, is it possible for a safe space to exist there?
Hana: I personally don’t think that it’s possible to have a space that is 100 percent safe, anywhere. Other than at home, in your own bed.

Jordana: I think it’s more realistic to think of making a safer space.

Sophie: I feel like self-care is really important to safe spaces. The internet is about finding people out there who are likeminded, but it can become so disillusioning to go online. You can read a nasty comment and it sounds like your own voice in your head. Have a self-care mantra to read when things are too much.

Can you tell us about your self-care mantra?
Hana: We collaborated on one, it reads, “Self care is warfare. Have you drunk water today? Have you eaten enough today? Have you gone outside today? Never devote too much mental capital to anyone.”

In your own lives, are there any places online where you feel somewhat safe?
Hana: I’m in a Facebook support group that’s for people suffering from eating disorders. It’s very small, only about three people. It’s great, super supportive, great advice and convos. But I’ve been in heaps of other online groups, for example for people of colour, that sometimes result in this weird hierarchy of who gets to speak and who doesn’t.

It feels like you can really only ensure safety in super small groups. Moderating large online spaces is so complex, especially when a lot of the hurtful things said are unintentional.
Hana: We’ve all had problematic views before that need to be unlearned. It requires a lot of emotional labour to pull someone up in a way that doesn’t make them feel alienated. People online often go straight onto the attack. There needs to be more supportive groups with people and moderators willing to do that kind of emotional labour.

Yeah, it’s important to recognise that just because you’re engaged with this stuff, you’re not immune to making these mistakes. Hana and Jordana, can we talk a bit about Lokal Stories’ ongoing conversation about the lingering imprint of colonisation in New Zealand? Alongside the aforementioned stuff, that’s a big topic for you.
Hana: Jordana and I come from similar class backgrounds and are both light skinned but grew up Māori. I grew up between Australia and New Zealand, and there’s always this weird hierarchy in Australia where it was okay for me to be Maori because I wasn’t Aboriginal.

Jordana: But in New Zealand, you feel like you’re not Māori enough to be Māori, not white enough to be white. You get disenfranchised from all spaces. It’s a geographic necessity that I talk about colonisation and decolonisation.

Hana: It’s hard not to think about colonisation when walking through Wellington. There’s constant rhetoric in New Zealand that everything’s fine because we have a treaty [with indigenous Māori people] but no, it’s not. There are all these social inequalities that come directly from colonization that have never ended — look at the Māori incarceration rate, the massive housing crisis. You see it happen to your family members, so you’re constantly aware of class and race from a young age.

You both talk about decolonising yourself and your spaces. What does that look like in your day-to-day life?
Hana: I think about it constantly. You start to realise the ways in which you pander to the white gaze and how not to do that. I’m trying to privilege the Māori knowledge over the white worldview. So I’m trying to learn a new word of Te Reo Māori every day. My grandparents could speak Te Reo, my dad could for a while, but I can’t speak it. Most people in my dad’s generation were discouraged to speak it.

These are big conversations and thoughts to grapple with – how do you distil that into your art? And within that platform, do you feel you have a responsibility to talk about race?
Jordana: I have this conversation with myself all the time: is it enough just to exist as a Māori woman in a place that doesn’t want me to exist? Or do I have to explicitly state my Māori-ness and make work about it to be taken seriously?

I put my body, my voice, my words, my whakapapa in the work. The sentiments about decolonization often come through writing in the exhibition text, or Twitter. For me, my artwork doesn’t explicitly state: colonisation is evil, everything is wrong – although that would be true.”

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