GDE740: Week 11 – Reflection and Recursion

Last week, I had a very insightful tutorial with Ben that has really made me rethink parts of my project. Before that tutorial, I had come across a video about Rememberance and Forgetting in the context of archival. A speaker in the video, Aleida Assman, stated that cultural memories are dependant on external triggers. What is stored in museums must be triggered time and time again, otherwise the objects that are stored within it turn into monuments of forgetting. (Akademie der Künste, 2021) This really resonated with me in terms of the research I’ve done so far for this project. The amulets are somewhat of an unknown relic of Palestinian culture, and the answer to why that was is quite simple.

Acquired by Dr. Tawfiq Canaan in the 1930s, a part of the collection was sold to Henry Wellcome and then stored indefinitely in the Wellcome Collection’s archives. The remainder of the amulets were not seen in public until the 1990s when Canaan’s family donated them to Birzeit University Museum in Palestine. Currently, Birzeit hosts a permanent exhibition for the amulets in their museum, but has this been enough to reawaken the amulets in the collective memory?

Burhan Karkutli – Victory, 1975

Another important note is that since the 1940s, the Palestinian people suffered mass displacement. Many of their homes and belongings had been left behind. They became refugees in a number of neighboring countries, with only each other’s verbal tales to continue the legacy of their culture. Amulets today are probably considered to be a superstition because of the adoption of modern medicine as well as religion. The amulets as a talisman that aids in warding off the evil eye is now a forgotten relic. But there is no doubt that we still carry this sentiment on our tongues. The word “Mashallah” being the most popular word used to also ward off the evil eye.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXl_IUcv3iM

This word literally means “God has willed it”, and is usually used to show appreciation, thankfulness and serve as a reminder of Allah’s will in all good news, however, this phrase is more of a protection against jealousy, envy, and ill intentions or, more specifically, the “evil eye”. (al Subaihi, 2013) However, its usage spans across religions and generations and has become a daily colloquial staple, with the intention to keep our families, loved ones, and ourselves safe from harm’s way.

My project, the Palestinian Protective Amulets Archive is an amalgamation of Canaan’s amulet collection, reunited in one virtual space. Its interface invites interactions in the name of triggering a collective memory of these amulets. It invites users to bless the amulets, as one would bless a newborn baby, a loved one fallen ill, or even a new house or a car. Its purpose is to immortalize the message through a speculative use of an already existing technology, blockchain. It’s the symbolic reclamation of the amulets as a recording of Palestinian history with a contemporary usage that can be passed on for generations to come.

Screen capture of an individual amulet blessing page

So back to the tutorial, the first point of criticism was the use of blockchain technology to immortalize a message. Ben mentioned that it was a Western tool of colonialism and perhaps an unethical technology to use. I understand that overall, the current usage of the blockchain, namely Bitcoin, is often described as a libertarian dream and has dire consequences on both our society and climate, but what I would have liked to better express is that the technology underpinning the blockchain has properties that make it ideally suited to Socialist paradigms. (Huckle and White, 2016) It’s the reason why I’m so inclined to include this technology as a solution to the archive, to advocate for community ownership of the amulets and the blessings that would be potentially stored within them. Another important thing to note is the safety and validity of the blessings, with blockchain ensuring that they can never be altered or deleted. The third and final point would be that with this system of validation across networks, there will be no single point of failure, also ensuring the longevity of the blessings in the virtual realm. It is the qualities of good governance; transparency and auditability, which are inherent in public blockchain technology that make it an ideal tool for Anarchism or Utopian Socialism, because it enables: “a universal, permanent, continuous, consensus-driven, publicly auditable, redundant, record-keeping repository.” (Huckle and White, 2016)

Visualization of a blockchain transaction to immortalize a blessing to an amulet

“The ownership economy doesn’t always mean a literal distribution of tokens, stock options, or equity. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that an application or service is entirely built on a blockchain. Rather, it means that ownership — which may manifest in the form of novel economic rewards, platform governance, or new forms of social capital — can be a new keystone of user experiences, with plenty of design space to explore.”

(Walden, 2020)

The second point of Ben’s feedback was the form of delivery. How can this archive be packaged and delivered to its relevant audience? And what would that look like? Without delivering an idea as cliche as an exhibition at a museum for example because this archive is quite personal in nature. It ties back to the idea of subverting the traditional forms of archival, in that the ownership is not central, but rather distributed amongst all those who claim a stake in it, whose voices also matter for the survival of the memory of these objects.

I imagine this in two settings:

(1) For the future – the alphanumerical code which is the imprint of the message on the blockchain is passed down in a family by generation. The alphanumerical code can be etched into an object or stored in some national database of citizens.

(2) In the present day – this can be in the form of storytelling sessions, similar to the Mirna Bamieh’s preservation of Palestinian foods through dining/cooking performances, or Afikra’s cultural storytelling platform.

https://www.afikra.com/

The third point of feedback, or rather a jumping off point for further investigation, is how can this archive be observed to extract data, and what does the data tell us? At first glance, and in the utilitarian fashion this archive was designed in, the data is very visibly and bluntly observable. There is a counter for the number of virtual blessings stored in each amulet. There is a list of the blessings, easily convertible from hexadecimal codes into their original language. The location and usage of each amulet is shown, and can even be retroactively changed if the transfer of ownership of the physical item is made. But what else can it show in terms of data?

Blessing counter

In an ideal world, the mechanism for entering blessings will always be used appropriately. In reality, this might not be the case, and what this may potentially tell us is the sentiment towards the archive and the amulets, whether its been understood by audiences, and whether or not it has been received by the appropriate audience.

I tried to think of what kind of messages would be left on the blockchain through this archive:

  • Blessings
  • Innapropriate entries
  • Political statements
  • Historical references
  • Cryptic messages to others

Again, although in an ideal world, the amulets would only be blessed and thus regaining their magic, it is far more interesting to observe the genuine sentiment towards the amulets as forgotten relics of Palestinian culture.

Reference list

Akademie der Künste (2021). Images of Remembering and Forgetting | Aleida Assmann, Cristina Baldacci, Sharon Macdonald. [online] http://www.youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvreQGehm6Y [Accessed 5 Dec. 2021].

al Subaihi, T. (2013). Mashallah: what it means, when to say it and why you should. [online] The National. Available at: https://www.thenationalnews.com/lifestyle/mashallah-what-it-means-when-to-say-it-and-why-you-should-1.264001 [Accessed 5 Dec. 2021].

al-Ju’beh, B. (2005). Magic and Talismans The Tawfiq Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets. [online] Available at: https://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/jq-articles/22_23_magic_1_0.pdf.

Huckle, S. and White, M. (2016). Socialism and the Blockchain. Future Internet, 8(4), p.49.

Walden, J. (2020). The Ownership Economy: Crypto & The Next Frontier of Consumer Software – Variant. [online] variant.fund. Available at: https://variant.fund/writing/the-ownership-economy-crypto-and-consumer-software.

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