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Laila Shereen Sakr, digitally known as VJ Um Amel, speaks fondly about the real-time mixing between theory and practice. Her project, R-Shief, launched in early June, illustrates this new methodological approach to questioning and learning.
R-Shief, which is the Arabic word for archive, is a digital lab based in Los Angeles that produces real-time analysis of online social media content in the Arab world, most notably on the revolutions. It aggregates the web, Facebook, Twitter and blogs into a database archive, then provides different statistical analyses of all the data, posts with the most visits, etc. It also has been data mining Twitter by hashtag every two minutes since August 2010. R-Shief’s Twittermine tool allows users to access the data through multiple search criteria.
“For the first time, media in Egypt and other Arab countries became actively dependent on the social fabric of those countries, rather than being used exclusively as institutional sources of new media. This is worth thoughtful, critical investigation and study,” wrote VJ Um Amel in the statement announcing the launch of R-Shief on 10 June this year.
With conceptual curiosity acting as a point of departure, VJ Um Amel is developing a multidisciplinary practice using innovative research methodologies. A media artist, critic and PhD scholar in media arts and practice at the University of Southern California, she is interested in the “thinking shift” that lies at the heart of social and political change in the Arab world. For her, this shift can be understood “through a network of conceptual frameworks, such as critical code, feminist theories of embodiment and an arts research practice,” she says. In practice, she brings about this investigative process through wide avenues that bring critical research and artistic practice together.
Through R-Shief, VJ Um Amel promotes procedural literacy, the process where a layer of human analysis is introduced to a set of digital analytics in order to configure the host of online data flooding the internet every second. For example, her Twitterminer tool maps the Libyan revolution content and is represented in a graph that compares the number of tweets in Arabic, English and other languages. These analytics show the prevalence of English language tweets around the Libyan revolution and then undergo a layer of human analysis: that the revolution was largely supported and promoted by a group of Libyan activists living in exile.
Language lies at the heart of this configuration process. “Language is very significant in cultural discourse. Language can offer a new way to look at culture beyond its geo-location,” VJ Um Amel tells Al-Masry Al-Youm. She creates dictionaries to analyze the arsenal of online data she has against certain questions. Her limitation becomes the wealth of impressions and humor embedded in colloquial language, in abundance in social media. Her goal becomes to embody this language in her future research tools, methods and dictionaries.
Her practice illustrates how critical code is a conceptual drive for R-Shief, what VJ Um Amel calls “an approach that applies the theory and practice of interpretation to computer code, program architecture and documentation within a socio-historic context.” This interpretation, for critical code expert Mark Marino, is necessary for the production of meaning. We go back to Twitterminer and find an archive of the millions of tweets that went out as the Egyptian revolution was erupting, under the 25Jan hashtag. VJ Um Amel sees this as a code. “Part of the code used to tell people to go on the street was 25Jan, not just Egypt. It became the code of the revolution.”
VJ Um Amel archives the internet insistently and incessantly, because she sees it as an urgent task. “Synchronicity matters,” she says. Her practice elicits the famous 10 Theses on the Archive, written and preached by Pad.ma, an online archive of densely text-annotated video material: We don’t have to wait for the archive, our imagination for an archive should be enacted and should prevail. VJ Um Amel hence doesn’t wait for an optimal condition. “I use the software that will get me there the fastest,” she says.
R-Shief is an outward looking archive that eyes the creation of communities that use its tools to further collect, classify and analyze. It’s developed using vBulletin, an open source forum software that allows communities to unfold and interact, the way social media sites do. In presenting her internet archiving through data visuals, VJ Um Amel proposes the “community author” idea. “I see my online visualizations as a form of extending single subjectivities - whether expert, popular, or imaginative - and activating new virtual worlds,” she told Youmna Chlala of Art Territories.
VJ Um Amel’s work thus acts as an active site of production of meaning, particularly relevant to the process of theorizing the history of what has happened. Her work also takes the conversation about new media away from the anxieties of celebrating its tools, which has become almost an aesthetic process of understanding this novel world. VJ Um Amel hits “the social” in media, travels through the mass of content and produces possible configurations through it. This is the focus of her practice.