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‘Capital Glitch’: New exhibit in La Jolla to examine Capitol insurrection via ‘Arab cyborg’ perspective

"Capital Glitch: Arab Cyborg Turns to D.C." is an exhibit created from images and data collected from Parler and Twitter.
“Capital Glitch: Arab Cyborg Turns to D.C.” is a digital art exhibit created from images and data collected from Parler and Twitter.
(Courtesy of Laila Shereen Sakr)

Hoping to encourage observers to “listen to difference,” a UC Santa Barbara assistant professor has created a new digital art exhibit in La Jolla to examine recent historical events from an outside perspective: that of an Arab cyborg.

The exhibit, “Capital Glitch: Arab Cyborg Turns to D.C.,” will open at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4, at Gallery QI in Atkinson Hall at UC San Diego. The interactive three-act installation will invite participants to reflect on the events leading to and during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Laila Shereen Sakr, a digital media theorist and artist, crafted the exhibition as VJ Um Amel, the “Arab cyborg” alter ego she created to perform live visual projections, generate installations and build software.

The "Capital Glitch" exhibit will feature three interactive acts in mixed media.
(Courtesy of Laila Shereen Sakr)

“Capital Glitch” will feature a 30-foot mosaic wall controlled by visitors’ mobile phones as they choose their own Arab cyborg avatar “to look at the United States from outside of the United States,” said the Egyptian-born Shereen Sakr, 49.

The wall has a total of 12,500 images, half collected from social media site Parler and half from Twitter.

A “second act” contains three glitch metal prints created from data surrounding the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests and rebellions that took place in much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. The prints play “with materiality and virtuality,” Shereen Sakr said.

In the “third act,” people don the Microsoft HoloLens device and interact with holograms in “augmented reality” as they re-create the Jan. 6 procession from the stage where then-President Donald Trump spoke near the Washington Monument to the Capitol building, based on data Shereen Sakr culled from Parler and Twitter.

A pared-down version of the exhibit will be available online, she said.

During the exhibit’s opening event Nov. 4, which will be livestreamed, Shereen Sakr will read the conclusion from her nearly finished book manuscript, “Arab Glitch: Technoculture, Data Bodies and Archives.”

The book discusses “the emergence of what I call ‘data bodies,’ or new subjectivities that emerge from data records and can have even more severe consequences on our livelihood than our real, human bodies,” she said.

Centering the exhibition on the viewpoint of an Arab cyborg is Shereen Sakr’s way of helping viewers gain distance from the events, she said.

She began the approach of using a cyborg — VJ Um Amel means “Video Jockey Mother of Hope” in Arabic — to help her process the events of Sept. 11, 2001, from an Arab American perspective.

Laila Shereen Sakr created her performance alter ego, VJ Um Amel, as a way to help her process 9/11 and other events.
(Courtesy of Laila Shereen Sakr)

“My practice involves analyzing large quantities of multidimensional data, in particular from social media,” she said.

Shereen Sakr said “9/11 was really a pivotal moment for all Americans, especially Arab Americans. It was a particularly difficult and traumatic time. … I don’t think [people] have really addressed the trauma from that moment in history or healed it in any way, shape or form. We’re still living the repercussions.”

She said the “Arab cyborg is an identity that can shift in between structures, boundaries and geographies” to help people make sense of such events.

On Jan. 6, Shereen Sakr “was in such a shock” watching the events in Washington unfold that she canceled her classes at UCSB, she said.

The “Capital Glitch” exhibit was “inspired by discussions with my students” afterward, she said. “I’m thrilled; it’s become much better than I ever expected.”

In focusing the insurrection “from the Arab world looking toward D.C.,” Shereen Sakr said she hopes to “give people a bird’s-eye view.”

“Social media has really worked to destroy our social fabric and put us in these echo chambers,” she said. “That’s sort of the nature of the way these platforms have been built. We don’t learn what other people are thinking; we don’t hear different voices anymore. We only hear the same kind of rhetoric that we believe, so we’re rarely challenged.”

Shereen Sakr said “technology can be attractive to people from all kinds of political persuasions. And often [it] emerges in these innovative laboratory places but then gets co-opted by structures and powers to control and continue domination.”

The exhibit, she said, “is not partisan. I believe it’s very hard when you’re living a moment to have a deeper or wider understanding [of] what’s going on. … I’m hoping that people can take a moment to get out of their echo chambers.”

Shereen Sakr would like people who view the exhibit “to stop, have a reality check, breathe and maybe just listen to each other. … We don’t live in isolation. We are deeply influenced by each other and move through myriads of contexts. And it’s really overwhelming.”

She said she hopes “we can learn to listen to difference and live with difference — and still work for justice and respect and love one another.”

‘Capital Glitch: Arab Cyborg Turns to D.C.’

When: Thursday, Nov. 4, through Friday, Dec. 3; noon to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Premiere event with artist presentation and panel discussion at 5 p.m. Nov. 4.

Where: Gallery QI in Atkinson Hall, UC San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla

Cost: Free. RSVPs for opening night are requested through galleryqi@ucsd.edu.

Information: galleryqi.ucsd.edu, vj.live