Some thoughts on Spirals: Data, Decoloniality and Digital Affordances

17 Mar 2021 - 06:30

by Behathi Marufu

On 26 February 2021, the third session of the CCA Spirals virtual seminar series hosted the Berlin based multi-disciplinary and conceptual media artist Nora Al-Badri. Her works are research-based as well as para disciplinary and as much post-colonial as post-digital. Al-Badri expands on speculative archaeology and decolonial as well as machine learning based museum practices by generating what she terms ‘technoheritage.

Technology and digitization in the realm of cultural heritage today has been seen by many scholars as a means not only to provide access, but an instrument for the democratization of items of material culture and to bring about solutions to social inequalities and conflict. Through digitisation, accessibility and interoperability we are enabled to share information and take responsibility for our cultural heritage. This idea and sentiment is at the foundation of the various projects that Nora Al-Badri’s shared in the session.

The presentation began with Nora showing a series of her works where she uses technology to criticise and challenge colonial power structures and representations in the museum and other public spaces. She started with what she described as one of her ‘well known’ and stunning work, in collaboration with Nikolai Nelles, known as “The Nefertiti hack” or better known as the “The other Nefertiti”. “The other Nefertiti” elsewhere is described as an ‘artistic intervention where (they) employed a number of conventional 3D model [of the original Nefertiti bust] to flesh out the detail and generate a model of sculpture that they have since made widely available online’. Al-Badri and Nelles secretly scanned the head of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum Berlin without permission of the Museum and released the datasets of the 3D data scan online. The data was downloaded thousands of times and the bust was reproduced all over the world with this information.

The artists 3D model was later returned to Cairo as part of their project, allowing them to bring it back to its rightful place as an act of restitution. Though debates and discussions over restitution and repatriation of looted colonial-era objects of heritage and material of culture from European museums back to their sites of origin have been happening for decades, some museums have shown little willingness to engage in these discussions, something Al-Badri noted was often a challenge when trying to gain access to objects and materials in museums.

Her recent project, Babylonian vison, unlike her previous projects where she generated surrogates from objects in museum, generates new objects from still images of ancient Mesopotamians artefacts in the museum, and some from online sources. Deep machine learning and data mining employed in this particular project illustrates the power of the digital and technology, and how these can be used to recreate without the actual object. However, on the same note critics could argued that this poses a challenge to maintaining the objects cultural and traditional meaning.

Concluding her presentation, Al-Badri remarked that the type of technology that she often uses for her project is still not fairly used or understood even by the colonial gatekeepers to culture and heritage resource, and that through the use of such technologies outside of that space, the museum is becoming a seed out of which new digital assets are born. “The role of machine learning in this process is that it makes patterns visible also those we didn’t know about or those not talked about” – a process she termed ‘clearing homophile’, which she borrows from an American scholar.

She also highlighted that the notion, believed by critics of digitization of culture and heritage material, that the value of the original diminishes with access to the digital is unfounded. She argues that the digital “completely opens up new ways of interacting with collections remixing or activating the object also relating to them in a more participatory distributed and collective manner, an era of technoheritage”. On a global scale, the possibilities are immense, however it is important to note - access, technical skills, facilities, and funding remain a big challenge for most of the global South and particularly Africa.

Watch the recording of the discussion between Nora, Fabian and researchers from the affiliated institutions, here.



Benathi Marufu is a Master’s student of digital curation at UCT, and a research scholar in the Archive and Public Culture Initiative.