Cologne-based media artist and student of Wim Wenders', Johanna Reich, talks to DW about the influence of the digital world on our values, highlighting opportunities for pluralism to unfold online.
DW: Many artists work on projects that are closely related to issues and reflect conflicts we face as as journalists as well, such as increasing hostility. How do you think we can best go about protecting freedom of expression?
Defining exactly what role art should play in society, and vilifying or censoring art that "deviates" from this prescribed role is a hallmark mark of totalitarian states. Of course, we are familiar with this kind of persecution of artists from German history.
As an artist, positioning your work in relation to current issues can result in hostility, criticism, or fascination. If you take human rights abuses or environmental disasters as an example, it depends on whose sensibilities you "offend," and as how effective your work is perceived in the public eye. Depending on this, you can indeed find yourself highly at risk.
The Internet and digital media help us to defend freedom of art and free speech, and to protect those who are committed to such values through the media and the pluralistic characteristic of the net. This is why projects that happen in both worlds – analogue and digital – are often so effective.
This public nature of the internet can also protect individual artists and journalists. Here I support the basic ideas of the founder of the web, Timothy John Berners-Lee.
You put fundamental rights at the center of your artistic work, and you work at the interface between the analogue and digital worlds. What does that mean exactly?
I use artistic forms of expression from both analogue and digital worlds in order to address our freedom in the digital space. Of course, I also bring into the picture the threat to human rights in the digital space, such as the potential for surveillance. But I also focus on where the net offers opportunities for our fundamental rights - opportunities that didn’t exist in the analogue world and that need to be used.
In my art, I also refer to things that can move us, shake us up and, in these cases, make us more aware of our rights.
To what extent can the internet promote liberal societies and equality?
The internet offers us huge opportunities, especially in a pluralistic sense. As an example: One of my works – titled "Resurface II" – is about historiography. The history of art during the purely analogue period was mainly written by white men. The fact that many excellent female artists were never mentioned in it reflected the social code of past times, so to speak. The women slipped through the cracks of art history.
With my project, I allow them to become part of art history. I would say that correcting history is the keyword here. At the same time, I show that the world of the internet is set up in such a way that one-sidedness cannot go unchallenged in any context - provided that we all know and use our rights.
The digital world challenges us to become more involved, whether it is with pictures, a Wikipedia entry or an online petition. On the Web, we have to get loud.
Populists use the net for hate, agitation and to manipulate discourse, using such means as bot armies. What remains today of this ideal of freedom of expression on the internet?
True, the net is flooded with propaganda, social bots and fake news. We know that elections have already been manipulated in this way, but we also know that there have always been populists throughout history, and they have usually found ways to manipulate art and media in order to shape the development of values in societies. Today, they use digital media.
Then as now, education helps to counter this. There should be a louder call for better media education, in my view - so that it would drown out complaints about these populists' bot armies. What's more, quality media need to be firmly rooted in our consciousness beyond the coronavirus period. Art can enrich the public discourse around this subject, but art cannot replace media education.
Media artist Johanna Reich, born in 1977, lives and works in Cologne, Germany. She studied at the Academies of Fine Arts in Münster and Hamburg, where she was a student of German film director Wim Wenders. She holds various awards, scholarships and residencies, and is member of several artist groups. At present, she holds an academic tenure at the Academy in Munich (AdBK). Her works have been exhibited in Hong Kong, New York, Moscow, Dubai, Santiago de Chile and in most European countries.
This interview was conducted by Martina Bertram.