by Chad Rossouw
I often find much net art to be more about the technology used and the excitement of discovery rather than the exploration of any issues. Content often seems to be decidedly lacking, and this shortens one's attention span: you'll play the game for a bit, but not return, let alone contribute.
Ismail Farouk and Babak Fakhamzadeh's project Soweto Uprisings (www.sowetouprisings.com) moves away from this trend, in a website in which the technology becomes invisible, and the content primary. The project has been online for some time, and has received a bit of attention, including winning a Highway Africa award in September 2007, and I believe it well deserves it. Commissioned by The Hector Pieterson Research Project, it is an online memorial to and exploration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. It uses an inventive combination of Google Maps and Flickr images to present an interactive history mixed with a contemporary view of the marches. Essentially, the various routes of the marchers and the police are marked down on a Google satellite map of Soweto. The map can be zoomed in and out to provide context and orientation. Areas of interest along the way are marked and can be examined.
This seamless technological approach takes a back-seat though, to the well researched content. Farouk, who was the chief researcher, explored the routes with guides who told him the stories. Points of interest were photographed. On the map these photos and stories can be accessed by clicking on the spots. The contemporary photos provide an entry point both to the past events as well as urban history since. The result is an in-depth look at a significant historical moment, but which is easily understood and reached.
Like all good new media projects, audience participation is vital. A section of the site shows visitors how they can participate by adding comments and their own images to the site, or by emailing the artists with alternative stories and points of interest. Of course, typical of new media projects, this option is seriously under-utilised. Which is a pity, as audience participation would make this social history that much richer, and makes sense conceptually as opposed to being a function of new media. This lack makes me worry that the information superhighway resembles the N2 near Cape Town International airport, rather than the great egalitarian stream its users claim it to be. This is however only a small criticism of one of the most engaging websites I have come across.