#860 DocLab: Critiquing Power Dynamics of Architectural Digital Recreations with Astrid Feringa

Astrid Feringa had a video essay installation at the IDFA DocLab where she was critiquing how the British Institute of Digital Archaeology was using photogrammetry to reconstruct a piece of destroyed architecture. What are the ethics around recreating destroyed pieces of cultural heritage? Who has the license or right to recreate architecture and create new narratives around it? What are the power dynamics of this process? Who benefits? Whose stories may be overwritten when this happens? This is a sample of some of the insightful and important questions that Feringa was asking in her video installation What they destroy, we will build again.

This project was catalyzed with Feringa attended a public unveiling of the Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph, which was a 2/3 scale model of the original arch that was destroyed by ISIS militants in Syria as an act of iconoclasm. The British Institute of Digital Archaeology gathered a lot of old photographs, and then created a 3D model of the arch, which was then etched into Egyptian marble. When Ferigna saw the arch paraded by Western leaders like Boris Johnson, then she started to look at the structural power dynamics at play and started to question whether the recreation itself was another destructive act of iconoclasm that was superseding the original narratives of the original arch that was destroyed. In this new age of volumetric reconstruction of architecture, then there are sorts of new ethical boundaries that need to be navigated, and Feringa is pointing out some of the potential blindspots of this type of cultural heritage when it may be just another form of cultural colonialism.

The actual video essay was split between two vertical screens, which functionally served to recreate the two columns of an arch. The soggy wet carpet and white blanket evoke the surreal nature of a public unveiling of the arch in what appear to be performative rituals of power. The immersive installation of the piece helps to amplify the weird juxtaposition of manufactured ancient architecture with soggy mass-produced industrial carpets that Feringa experienced when attending a ceremony after it had just rained.

Feringa’s background is in graphic design and design research, but she also attended a new Non-Linear Narrative program at the Royal Academy of Art at The Hague. She said that it was a program focused on developing critical theories around immersive, interactive, and
non-linear media. It’s through this program that she produced a short-film with Jean Baptiste Castel called This is Not the Amazon. This piece was shown during the Artificial Futures Symposium event at the IDFA DocLab, and it also cultivates an awareness of our relationship to the digital representations in our lives by deconstructing a virtual scene of nature.

I’m really glad that I’m starting to see critical theorists like Feringa engaging in analysis of what’s happening with interactive narratives and spatial computing. There’s still a lot of blindspots for creators as they pioneer applications and experiences that are blurring the contextual lines in ways that will continue to have all sorts of unintended consequences. I tried to map out some of these moral dilemmas at 60-minute main stage talk at AWE 2019, and then a distilled down 30-minute XR Ethics Manifesto. The issues that Feringa was bringing up in her video essay were novel issues that I hadn’t thought of before, and so there’s like many more new situations like these that need to have more interrogation as that weigh the desired intentions of preserving cultural heritage against the media spectacle and social reputational benefits and political capital that’s gained from the existing power dynamics.

I’m a strong believer in the power of dialect, and that immersive creators and immersive critiques need to work together in order to both produce better work as well as to discover the types of ethical blindspots that Ferginga is pointing out. This dynamic of the dialectic reminds of a clip of philosopher Agnes Callard that I watched before traveling to Amsterdam. Callard makes the argument in her book The Agency of Becoming that it’s impossible to both believe truths and avoid believing falsehoods because these are actually incompatiable to being done at the same time. But in order to generate knowledge, then you actually do you need to believe true things and avoid believing falsehoods.

Callard says that the genius of the Socratic method is that it allows for competing perspectives to collaborate with each other in the pursuit of the truth. Socrates realized is that you can achieve knowledge if there are two people who each take on the responsibility of one of the perspectives of arguing for the belief of truths while the other argues to avoid believing falsehoods. It’s an adversarial division of labor that needs both sides to be operating well in order to produce knowledge. It’s in that same spirit of the dialectic that we need pioneering immersive creators who are willing to to build a range of experiences, but also immersive critics like Ferginga who are deconstructing the underlying assumptions, biases, and power dynamics in order for the community of immersive creators to become more aware of these types of ethical blindspots.


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Music: Fatality