Data, Decoloniality and Digital Affordances - 26 February 2021

17 Mar 2021
17 Mar 2021

This session was timeous given the virtual space online during the Covid-19 pandemic, where most work and all meetings were taking place in the digital domain. Digital systems have offered a seemingly new means of engaging in this kind of work, principally through promoting the idea of global access to information through computer systems and the online world being equated with liberation (see scholars’ book, “Science and Digital Technology for Cultural Heritage,” 2019). But the more we grapple with how data is managed, packaged, controlled and represented, the digital world looks more and more like a virtual model of the current one. We explored intersections between knowledge production, gathering and storage in digital spaces and practises of representation and artistic engagement. We considered the liberatory potential of digital technology and data practices in and for heritage, archive and museum settings. The research paper “Decolonial AI,”  illustrates the possible linkages between these practices and artificial intelligence (Shakir Mohamed, Marie-Therese Png and William Isaac, 2020). Through Nora Al Badri’s presentation and Fabian Saptouw’s discussion that followed we thought through what decolonial artistic engagement in digital and virtual space can look like; the nature of the digital object and its assumed but also undiscovered affordances; and critical consideration of the trappings of digital arts and archival practice.

Further reading: 

Gregg, S.H. (2022). Eccentric Connections: Toward a Decolonial (Digital) Book HistoryEighteenth-Century Fiction,34(4). 471-482.

Katyal, S. (2017). TechnoheritageCalifornia Law Review105(4). 1111-1172.

Maurer, J. (2022). Decolonial Affordances of a Digital Communal Heritage PlatformESSACHESS15(1). 60-81.

Speaker Bio: Nora Al Badri is a multi-disciplinary, conceptual media artist with a German-Iraqi background, based in Berlin. Her works are research-based as well as paradisciplinary, and as much post-colonial as post-digital. She graduated in political sciences at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main and is now the director for AI+Art at the ETH AI Center in Zurich, having been the first artist-in-residence at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) and its Laboratory for Experimental Museology (eM+) in 2020. Her practice focuses on the politics and the emancipatory potential of new technologies such as machine intelligence or data sculpting, non-human agency and transcendence (see her work titled “NefertitiBot,” 2018, the chatbot installation here and her full works available here ). Nora’s artistic material is a speculative archaeology from fossils to artefacts or performative interventions in museums and other public spaces, that respond to the inherent power structures. The chatbot installation produced with Jan Nikolai Nelles uses digital technology to disrupt heritage settings in Berlin, discussed in a recent artist profile with We Make Money Not ArtThis extends her 3D print intervention video project “The Other Nefertiti,” which went viral in 2015. Her presentation for this session was titled “Babylonian Vision - the decolonial potential of data and technology”. This can be viewed in another presentation also discussing her "Neuronal Ancestral Sculptures Series" for Digikult in April 2021. 

Discussant Bio: Fabian Saptouw is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at Michaelis School of Fine Art.



by Behathi Marufu

On 26 February 2021, the third session of the CCA Spirals virtual seminar series hosted the Berlin based multi-disciplinary and conceptual media artist Nora Al-Badri. Her works are research-based as well as para disciplinary and as much post-colonial as post-digital. Al-Badri expands on speculative archaeology and decolonial as well as machine learning based museum practices by generating what she terms ‘technoheritage.

Technology and digitization in the realm of cultural heritage today has been seen by many scholars as a means not only to provide access, but an instrument for the democratization of items of material culture and to bring about solutions to social inequalities and conflict. Through digitisation, accessibility and interoperability we are enabled to share information and take responsibility for our cultural heritage. This idea and sentiment is at the foundation of the various projects that Nora Al-Badri’s shared in the session.

The presentation began with Nora showing a series of her works where she uses technology to criticise and challenge colonial power structures and representations in the museum and other public spaces. She started with what she described as one of her ‘well known’ and stunning work, in collaboration with Nikolai Nelles, known as “The Nefertiti hack” or better known as the “The other Nefertiti”. “The other Nefertiti” elsewhere is described as an ‘artistic intervention where (they) employed a number of conventional 3D model [of the original Nefertiti bust] to flesh out the detail and generate a model of sculpture that they have since made widely available online’. Al-Badri and Nelles secretly scanned the head of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum Berlin without permission of the Museum and released the datasets of the 3D data scan online. The data was downloaded thousands of times and the bust was reproduced all over the world with this information.

The artists 3D model was later returned to Cairo as part of their project, allowing them to bring it back to its rightful place as an act of restitution. Though debates and discussions over restitution and repatriation of looted colonial-era objects of heritage and material of culture from European museums back to their sites of origin have been happening for decades, some museums have shown little willingness to engage in these discussions, something Al-Badri noted was often a challenge when trying to gain access to objects and materials in museums.

Her recent project, Babylonian vison, unlike her previous projects where she generated surrogates from objects in museum, generates new objects from still images of ancient Mesopotamians artefacts in the museum, and some from online sources. Deep machine learning and data mining employed in this particular project illustrates the power of the digital and technology, and how these can be used to recreate without the actual object. However, on the same note critics could argued that this poses a challenge to maintaining the objects cultural and traditional meaning.

Concluding her presentation, Al-Badri remarked that the type of technology that she often uses for her project is still not fairly used or understood even by the colonial gatekeepers to culture and heritage resource, and that through the use of such technologies outside of that space, the museum is becoming a seed out of which new digital assets are born. “The role of machine learning in this process is that it makes patterns visible also those we didn’t know about or those not talked about” – a process she termed ‘clearing homophile’, which she borrows from an American scholar.

She also highlighted that the notion, believed by critics of digitization of culture and heritage material, that the value of the original diminishes with access to the digital is unfounded. She argues that the digital “completely opens up new ways of interacting with collections remixing or activating the object also relating to them in a more participatory distributed and collective manner, an era of technoheritage”. On a global scale, the possibilities are immense, however it is important to note - access, technical skills, facilities, and funding remain a big challenge for most of the global South and particularly Africa.

Watch the recording of the discussion between Nora, Fabian and researchers from the affiliated institutions, here.


Benathi Marufu is a Master’s student of digital curation at UCT, and a research scholar in the Archive and Public Culture Initiative.