About R-Shief

R-Shief Keyboard

To amass an archive is a leap of faith, not in the function of preserving data, but in the belief that there will be someone to use it, that the accumulation of these histories will continue to live, that they will have listeners. Perhaps that is why, in the contemporary art world, as art historian and critical theorist Hal Foster describes, there is an “archival impulse at work” among contemporary artists who share a notion of artistic practice as an idiosyncratic probing into particular texts, objects, and events in the field of knowledge production. In “The Archival Impulse,” Foster lists a series of art practitioners whose work, he argues, is archival in nature. He writes, “Archives…are material, fragmentary rather than substitutable, and as such they call out for human interpretation, not mechanical reprocessing.” The archive represents something even more palpable for the artist—an opportunity to provide a counter-collection, standing against the monumental history of the state. As Foster articulates: “created as much by state organizations and institutions as by individuals and groups, the archive, as distinct from a library or collection, constitutes a repository or ordered system of documents and records, both verbal and visual, that is the foundation from which history is written.”

R-Shief joins a history of archival art works that urgently seek to critique historical information on the contemporary Middle East—information currently under siege, in real time and place, as cultures are destroyed or lost in conflict. For example, Walid Ra’ad’s The Atlas Group is an intervention in the archive, where documenting and archiving processes dominate the screen and the archived data is fictitious. Akram Zaatari’s Arab Image Foundation project, also situated in the Middle East, archives twentieth century photographs and portraits of everyday Arab families. Indeed, the R-Shief Initiative is inspired by a number of high quality, cultural, artistic, and intellectual endeavors including Bidoun, a print magazine “on art and culture is conceptualized for a transnational audience at home in Cairo or New York, London or Beirut.” Bidoun magazine reaches English-speaking audiences on issues related to the Middle East, and showcases cultural production from the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and at times South Asia. However similar, R-Shief is a website that is concerned with archiving and indexing, rather than showcasing, on issues including but not limited to art and culture. Whereas Bidoun is a print-magazine that covers material on the Arab world and Iran (similar, though linguistically different cultures), R-Shief organizes its information based on language—in the prototype, for example, it is English and Arabic. Arab Society & Media is another example of an online academic journal that is a primary resource for information about the role of media in shaping Arab society. Arab Society & Media is an English-only site of predominantly text-based features. R-Shief curates a platform that brings all these alternative publications together in one landscape.

Integrating digital arts into the field of Middle East studies would allow both interdisciplinary fields to enrich their terrain of knowledge production. Implicit in the conceptual design of R-Shief is the premise that the medium itself becomes inseparable from the object—hence the digital form contributes to the manifestation of meaning in a significantly transformative manner. Since the otherness of the Arabic script and language has traditionally rendered its content (scholarship, popular culture, etc) inaccessible, it has remained outside the interaction of discrete bits of information that form knowledge production. The conceptual design of R-Shief, through its digital composition—its unique form—allows the integration of this body of output into conversation through which the various discrete parts enter into the universalized discourse.

Unfortunately, however, the digital art world is often kept out of most of exchanges of Middle East Studies scholarship and is left for a smaller subset of art historians to discuss. For example, while Walid Raad’s conceptual art piece, The Atlas Group, a fictitious online archive, is quoted several times in art journals, it remains only recognized within the boundaries of contemporary art discipline and the methodologies of art practices. Positioning research on media as reporting vehicles (rather than a combination of art, media, and technology as agents of knowledge/meaning) has focused the investigations on truth-seeking missions—assuming there is a truth out there to be mediated and broadcasted.

The interdisciplinary roots of digital arts and new media require critics to consider the role of art practice as well as technology, in addition to the matter being represented in these media. As it is deployed in our contemporary context, digital knowledge production can be transformative, and not only a vehicle. In this investigation, I will demonstrate the theoretical construction of this digital art practice by mapping out the conception and development of R-Shief—a web-based intervention in producing knowledge on the Middle East and its Diaspora. And I will do so by explaining the practice and methodology behind the development of the R-Shief Initiative. With an articulated art practice and technologies, R-Shief hopes to provide missing links in this post-national global order of shifting powers of domination.