Making Meaning Around the World

What does a book mean in Cuba? A cell phone in Iran? What do the millions of miles of fibreoptic cable wound round the earth mean to you, to me? How are those meanings changing? How are our changing tools changing our world? Changing us?

These questions concern artists in every corner of the world, as they do activists, and – for that matter – educators, politicians, military tacticians and entrepreneurs. Yet artists  explore these meanings in ways that non-artists cannot. They seek out meanings in subtle cultural collisions, tracking them as they play out in their own imaginations, bodies and relationships. And each of these artists locates her work in her own experience and geography, each exploration remaining inevitably local, yet also inevitably – via means like this blog itself – part of a global conversation about what unites and what distinguishes us.

I recently came across two examples of artists working this fertile realm of possibility, each of whom provoked in me many questions. And if those questions generated few answers I take it not as a sign of their art’s limitations but of its power.

Detail from Magalys Reyes Peña’s ‘Tecnologías a mi alrededor’

The first was in L’Atelier de L’Ile, a small but well-established and well-used printer’s collective in the village of Val-David, Quebec (where I recently collaborated with artist Paul Ballard). In 2009/10, L’Atelier de L’ile curated an exchange between Quebecois and Cuban artists called Valises Numériques – Valijas Digitales. Each artist produced a single artwork that addressed the changing meaning of print in the 21st century. In viewing these works on display at L’Atelier de L’Ile, I could not help but recall that Cuba has the world’s highest literacy rate and yet has been economically and politically prevented from accessing 21st century communications infrastructure (i.e.

Detail from Ernesto Miguel Blanco Sanciprián’s ’01′

computers with broadband Internet access).
These factors, along with the familiar ambivalence of Castro’s regime to certain forms of artistic expression,  add a specifically Cuban context to these works, one that remixes themes and materials of global relevance.

A month or two later I wandered into Ottawa’s SAW Gallery, where I came across an exhibition of contemporary photography from Iran called Ciphers: Tension With Tradition in Contemporary Iranian Photography, curated by Andrea Fitzpatrick. The works were varied, and although many caught my attention, I was particularly struck by a set of intimate black-and-white documentary portraits of young Iranian men in an apartment, each engaged in one way or another with communications technology.  Again, although the question of how our tools are changing us is relevant around the world (like in Senegal or Tunis or Manilla, for example), the Iranian origin of these photos adds a very specific local cultural and political dimension to them.

The photos themselves – by artist Najaf Shokri – are compelling as photos, as artworks, with an inherent tension between the sprawling or hunched or sleeping backs and arms and legs of the young men and the strict – almost claustrophobic – confines of their bare apartment. And these immediate parameters of wall and bone in turn mesh ambivalently with the far wider, faster, interconnected realities activated by their tools for talking, sharing, reading, writing. And given that all of this is occurring in a country defined by theocratic militarism, by simmering social divisions, by a recent history of bloodshed in the streets, ‘what’ – I asked myself – ‘were these men doing?’ What exactly is this a portrait of? What is the meaning of these tools in this place?

The answer, provided by Najaf in an email, is less provocative than I imagined. These guys are just listening to music, sharing mp3s, watching their favourite TV shows, reading the paper. Nothing radical, nothing but living normal lives as normal young men. But the images, and even moreso the tools they capture, raise questions that ultimately no photographer – and no regime, be it democratic or theocratic – can adequately answer.

In Canada, in Cuba, in Iran, in every corner of the globe, new cultural meanings and moments are emerging, enabled by new tools for talking. And everywhere artists are asking: what are we saying to one another, and why?

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