Women in culture and tech: Nora Al-Badri, media artist and activist
Today we hear from renowned media artist Nora Al-Badri on the emancipatory powers of technology. Further, she discusses the importance of intersectional feminism and the challenges of producing art in a global society that values culture - but where this doesn't necessarily translate financially to the artists (especially women).
What are you working on right now?
Very different things! Right now, I am in the early research phase for a new project which I will do at a technical research institution in Switzerland. It will apply machine intelligence in the context of heritage and memory for the people in Iraq. A country which is more than a 'death-world' and where hope and love are fragile plants that need to be groomed and protected.
I am a media artist but believe it or not in the past two years I have never taken the time to build a portfolio website, which I have finally completed. Through this process, I learned that being bad at self-marketing is a trait many other women tend to have, while almost all men I knew have super shiny websites and are constantly filling their feeds with their successes. So now I also have my website, but I gotta say that to me, it is not a given to always or in any channel do that kind of noisy neoliberal self-promotion just because that is what one needs to do these days. I think our society can learn from women here: modesty and being strong and self-confident do get along very well and are just another way - a more sincere one, I believe.
How did you get into your field?
That’s a long story, but to make it shorter, I am an autodidact in the field of media art. I studied political sciences because to study art seemed out of reach to someone who has to earn a living. Yet I sometimes meet other artists who are autodidacts and some of them are among the greatest we can see today. As for tech - I was lucky that my parents gave me access to computers early on and that I never felt that this was something odd to do for girls. Even today, I am fascinated by the means of technology and its emancipatory and decolonial potential, but I am completely aware that most technologies are inherently biased in man ways (forwards example, towards gender or race). This is what actively needs to be challenged and resisted.
What are the challenges for women in the workforce today? What can be done to improve matters?
One challenge is the question of motherhood, parenting and care work in general which is not yet solved sufficiently on a policy level.
Adding to the gender layer in the arts, there is a huge class divide.
There is a higher proportion of privileged women who enter the field and study art (to become artists) or art history (to become curators) than in other fields. So these women can also afford to have kids while working in underpaid jobs... But that’s not what we should aim for and that’s why I totally sympathise with the concept of a basic income (Grundeinkommen) to end that precarity. There was a study last year by the Professional Association of Visual Artists Berlin (bbk berlin) on visual artists in Berlin and the results were shocking for an outsider - neither not to me nor to my colleagues. There was a gender pay gap of 28%! And an average income per year of 11.600 EUR for men and 8.300 EUR for women. I don’t think that is acceptable if we live in a society which genuinely values art and culture (link to an article and the full study).
Do you feel that women are sufficiently empowered and present in leadership positions?
Not at all. In the media arts, just like in the whole tech sector, there are so many more men in leadership/decision-maker positions and that sucks and won’t change without an effort. But I know some amazing female tech leaders like Paula Peters from change.org or Laura Sophie Dornheim from eyeo who actively advocate for more women in the broader tech field or in the media arts strong female curators like Kathy Rae Huffman.
What message would you share with women in the sector today?
Find other women who are on the same path, share experiences and be strong and loud together!
What digital communities or networks do you find rewarding?
There are quite a few online networks only for women in tech and art (so very specific). All of them will check who the person is who wants to join the community, so it is a safe space and very rewarding. Sometimes we also meet offline and hang out at openings or festivals. I think my favourite one is the faces mailing list.
Who (or what) inspires you at the moment?
Everyone who is politically engaged these days. People who do things and are actively trying to contribute positive impulses to our society and pursue our capacity of truth-making. For example, people I met from Sea-Watch who are rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea and are promoting #safepassage. Or researchers and activists in the cultural field from the Global North and South who join forces and are fighting for justice in the field of restitution and who are speaking out against institutional racism in museums. Or artists and activists who are dealing with neo-Nazi movements such as the theatrical NSU monologues or the collective from Goldsmith College 'Forensic Architecture'. I could go on and on here…
But maybe one other remark at the end: I was lucky to be part in the early days of forming a new German party 'Demokratie in Bewegung' for the last elections and we made it to the lists. Now, this party is running for the European elections together with DiEM25 and Yannis Varoufakis, which is a blast! So yes, I think no matter what we do in tech and culture, there are many things to be done in the bigger (European) picture and women are already taking over.
Want more? For more from Nora, follow her on facebook or twitter @noraalbadri or visit her website. Visit our exhibition Pioneers which highlights the lives and achievements of historical European women. Visit the full list of profiles for the Women in Culture and Technology series - we publish three profiles per week throughout March.