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The role of Humanities and Digital Art in the Syrian Crisis

Scene from BBC2's Exodus: Our Journey to Europe filmed by migrants

On 11 July 2016, the BBC’s three-part documentary Exodus broke new ground. Using phone footage from fleeing citizens of Syria, the everyday man transitioned himself into an impecunious migrant, as BBC2 captured the real life flight of migrants to Europe. Shockingly sprawled onto our screens were images of children and parents crossing seas from Turkey to Greece on water-impaired dinghies, while others smuggled themselves in vans as snipers fired into the air.

These heinous humanist plights are not rare in our globe’s history. In the tapestry of our world’s past, lie countless narratives of war and violence – from the Crusades, to the World Wars, and to our own doorstep with Ireland’s Troubles in the North.

So why is Exodus a pivotal point in our migrant’s history? It is the digital component. For the first time internal digital coverage and digital devices are helping direct the flight of the refugee. We are the age of the digital migrants and warfare. GPS systems are navigating Syrian refugees along safer routes, Twitter feeds from Gaza are spread with real-time tweets from Israeli soldiers, and social media and video coverage are operating as panoptical cyber-tools of oppression on our globalised screens. Exodus is significant because it reveals, very profoundly, that we are in a time of transition.

Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (Adorno, 1983, 34). In a period of extreme existential humanist uncertainty, the dialectics between aesthetics and ethics, the signified and signifier, are in contentious flux. As Adorno questions, how can the artistic production culturally produced by man, exist, and supersede, a culture where such violence is present? Such periods of discord bring the role of the humanities into question. What is the role of the humanities? And can such aesthetic materialism contribute to our understanding of the politic and ontological discourses of today?

The role of the digital migrant and the material art of Syrian refugees deserve attention as they mark a pivotal point in migrancy studies. With the onset of cyberspace and digital artistic museums, the locution and the location of enunciated narratives of resistance are not only altering the dialectics between state and surveillance, but are boundless in the digital-spatiality of cyber-space (Bhabha, 1994).

In this moment of hiatus, to echo Edward Said, we must precisely turn to humanities and observe how the Syrian migrant “excavate[s] the silences” (Said, 2004, 81). It is our responsibility as theorists of the humanities to ask the question – how are the displaced migrants of Syria, Palestine, or Cairo, appropriating space? How are the aesthetical arts mediating a counter-narrative against the bloodied-sprawl of urban colonialism? Given the rise of graffiti art in West bank, Tahrir Square and refugee camps, it is important for us to examine how urbanised art is being used as guerrilla warfare against the institutional power of state and occupation.

Since its inception in the 1970s, street art has served as local sites of protests that visually signify the citizen’s discontent over hegemonic systems. It follows a custom, as Michel de Certeau talks about in The Practice of Everyday Life, of tactical appropriation (de Certeau, 1984). Embedded in the visual grid of the city, the graffiti becomes a subversive act of enunciation.  The ordinary citizen reterritorises his position to his urban space by an insurgent writing back: a re-modification of the prescribed uses of urban environment and received culture.

Yet, as is often the case in moments of high transition, the operatus morandi of traditional protest art seems almost reductively problematic. Despite being powerful conceptualisations of dissidence, the layers of graffiti that were originally inscribed upon the Berlin Wall, by artists such as Bodo Sperling or Greul Aschanta, or in the North of Ireland between Unionist and Nationalists, are spatially-localised acts, and merely serve to maintain the dialectical succession of interdependence and ‘Othering’.

Graffiti in the West Bank

It is the contested plight of the West Bank, where the apartheid wall of Palestinian-Israel separation, that a contrapuntal point in the narrative of the artistic migrant is emerging. Similar to the Berlin Wall, Graffiti in the West Bank remains a ubiquitous expression of cultural resistance. The aesthetical act is, as one Palestinian observed, “a reading of the street” – a de Certeauean social performativity of rewriting of the imagined community of power (Peteet, 1996, 139). While the ordinary citizen is still subjecting the localised walls to the semiotics of street art, the insurgency of the migrant artist is amplified and altered by the growth of digital media and cyberspace. Both the rise in digital documentation and digital museums, such as Virtual Migrants and Ayyam Gallery, have offered an interglobal connectivity of ideas and resistance, and has created a space where protest art can be shared and distributed across various online platforms instantaneously.

With this separation of performativity and physicality, digital art has de-synchronised the spatial and temporal materiality of contested sites of artistic resistance.  There is no longer a need for a local site of enunciation for protest. It has become global. The Syrian artist and migrant, Tamman Azzam, is symptomatic of the new wave of digital migrancy. Fleeing his art studio in Damascus with the rise of the Syrian crisis, Azzam has used the digital to find alternative modes of writing back the counter- narrative of resistance. In 2013, as part of his “Syrian Museum” project, Azzam superimposed Gustav Klimt’s Western art deco painting The Kiss – a symbol of universal love and brotherhood - onto a photograph of a bullet-ridden Damascus building. This digital transposition, entitled Freedom Graffiti, went viral and became prominent in news syndicates as a signifier of tactical resistance of the marginalised citizen. The conflation of the Western/Eastern images offered a phenomenological intervention into the locality of space typically dominated by the State power. The global migrant is no longer limited to the heuristic performance of onsite graffiti, but can enunciate his dissidence through an intersubjective and boundary-less global citizenship.

In another of his works, Azzam has modified Franciso Goya’s The Third of May 1808, a painting depicting Napoleon’s army executing the Spanish resistance fighters in the Peninsula War. Again, acting in resistance to the Syrian regime and their derision of this type of “Gulf –sponsored art”, this piece has globally become a bottom-up exposure of the urban and colonial power structures of the Syrian crisis. As Azzam asserted, this work is about illustrating that “Syria is living the Third of May every day and no one stops it”.

The growth of digital media and new modes of digital technology have altered the situationist and material typography for which street art can be manifested. The inter-global world is discovering new forms of cultural productions against colonial powers. This conflation of digital and graffiti art has heralded a new age. The digital migrant is no longer limited by temporal-spatiality to express a counter-narrative. Rather, he/she is re-negotiating the parameters and generating a dialogical and metachronous narrative of artistic dissidence.

With the rise of social media Twitter feeds and the interconnected intrusiveness of our Smartphone updates, we are fast becoming ‘real-time’ participants in the realpolitik of our global city.

In fact, we are all potential practitioners in the performance of digital warfare.



Adorno, Theodor W. (1983) “Cultural Criticism and Society” in Prisms, 17-34. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge. 

De Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peteet, Julia (1996) “The Writing on the Walls” in Cultural Anthology 11

Said, Edward (2004) Humanism and Democratic System. New York: Palgrave

Image by German artists Oguz Sen and Justus Becker in Frankfurt, of Aylan Kurdi, the four year old refugee who died crossing the Aegean Sea

Published: 04 Oct 2016  Categories: Digital Humanities, Visual and Material Culture, Critical Theory

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Marie Coffey is currently working at the University of Oxford. Prior to this she was a publishing editor of humanities journals at Routledge where she managed titles such as Third Text and Performance Research. Her research interests lie in Urban studies, Migration and Transnationalism and she has published articles on migration studies in Postcolonial Studies Association periodical.