War and the WWW: Kurds in Syria and the Internet.
That’s the title of a photographic exhibit currently on display at the Cankarjev Dom Cultural and Congress Center here in Ljubljana, Slovenia, composed entirely of online representations of the war in Syria that illustrates how they’re presented in various corners of the internet.
More specifically, it focuses on Kurdish factions of the conflict by presenting posts, images, statuses and other content they create and share via official websites and similar platforms, but mostly via social networks. It’s part of a larger winter/spring Tolstoy Festival at the cultural center, incorporating the author’s literary precision and attention to detail into a deconstruction of one form of 21st century communication and documentation. As photographer and theorist Jan Babnik, one of the three curators of the exhibit notes, Tolstoy’s “realistic descriptions are often likened to frozen instances of time”. In other words, to photographs.
“Social networking websites,” Babnik says, “have radically modified the old representational paradigms. To an increasing extent, contemporary conflicts are becoming wars of representation — and unlike the former ones, these are ostensibly self-generated, initiated in a ‘grass roots’ way, by the participants themselves.”
These archives are massive and growing exponentially, spread over hundreds, if not thousands of Youtube channels and blogs, Instagram, Flickr and Pinterest image accounts, and shared via networks where they enter the collective conscience of the scrolling masses.
So long as our filters, also largely self-generated, allow. That’s what I was reminded of when seeing temporary Facebook page covers in the exhibit that celebrated 25,000, 50,000 and then 100,000 likes. All for the first time, and quite likely the last. The curators could have chosen any of the thousands of online bubbles we choose to inhabit, but keeping with the War and Peace theme –a stage production was on the festival slate– they instead limited their scope to the search terms ‘Rojava, YPG, YPJ and PYD”, acronyms for Kurdish political and military groups and geographic regions.
The shared images do document a reality, but do so carefully. Presented in such a way, on a wall instead of a scrolling browser, it’s easy to see, regardless of your politics or point of view, how self-serving these presentations and representations –and sometimes misrepresentations– are meant to be.
“More than the faithful representation and accurate depiction of reality,” Babnik says, “the visual content posted on web-based networks strives towards faithful adherence to ideological and political convictions and, ultimately, war goals. Thereby, the realism of these images is intrinsically creative — aimed at a specific community and audience.”
But they’re also insightful, showing true splices and moments of real life, ones I wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise — simply because our social webs run parallel but never seem to cross.
I’m not sure if I was part of the intended community, but I’m glad to have been part of the audience.
Eight more images below.