Speaking Difference

Digital Natives is a public artwork sited on the electronic billboard at the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver BC. The billboard is located on Skwxwú7mesh land and in many ways embodies a fraught history between local Aboriginal populations and the City of Vancouver. The project’s name also invokes this particular moment in time where relationships to digital technology span generations: my parents have adopted to the presence and use-value of digital technologies; my friends’ children will grow up thoroughly embedded in it. In other words, we are a population of digital natives and digital immigrants.

Curators Lorna Brown and Clint Burnham invited artists and writers from across North America, including myself, to contribute messages to be broadcast over the month of April, coinciding with the 125th Anniversary of the City of Vancouver.

Digital Natives intervenes in the physical, social and historical context of the site, the billboard and the city with a series of ten second text messages interrupting the rotation of advertisements. Taking the form of Twitter messages, invited contributors respond to the site’s charged history, the ten-second format and the 140-character limit of tweets. The sign itself becomes an artistic and literary space for exchange between native and non-native communities exploring how language is used in advertising, its tactical role in colonization, and as a complex vehicle of communication.

The project went live at the beginning of April, but with fewer message than intended. This is from Lorna and Clint’s press release in response:

Public Language Trouble

Sixty messages were created for Digital Natives: three have been omitted by Astral Media Outdoor. [They are presented above], in solidarity with artist Edgar Heap of Birds and writer Larissa Lai. Other Sights for Artists’ Projects is dismayed at the exclusion of work by such respected artists.

Curators Clint Burnham and Lorna Brown state, “Our goals for the project are to use this highly visible location to present a conversation between First Nations and non-First Nations contributors and the public – happening on twitter, on our website, and on the billboard itself, as tweets from the public will be introduced in mid-April. In this anniversary year, we are drawing attention to the messages and languages we usually see in public space, and those we do not. We are disappointed that Astral has refused to broadcast artworks by such renowned artists. Their decision compromises the intent of the project and does a disservice to the artists, whose viewpoints about public space are highly valued.

“Unfortunately,” they add, “Astral’s censoring of artists and writers shows how difficult it is for Canadians to gain access to public space, and to express themselves in public space. This is an issue of censorship, of the suppression of artistic expression, clear and simple.”

As of 18 April 2011, two public responses have also been censored:

“‘Death to the Sign’ – Roberto Bolano”
“censored billboard texts to be Digital Natives t-shirts”

These last two examples evince both Astral Media’s fear of dialogue and some strange/typical posturing of ego. Beyond the highly problematic nature of censorship in general, these examples are rather hilarious instances of the company’s crisis of confidence.

The first three examples of the company’s censorship are not funny at all. I find it particularly disturbing that both tweets (and one translation) reference how the difficult history of the people of the West Coast (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike) is taken up in the present. Whitewashing history means that the lessons of it are lost. We cannot afford to be without a frank recollection of how we have come to populate the land ourselves. This type of reconciliation is only ever difficult, not impossible, and not to be avoided.

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