Digital media arts as terrain for inter-cultural political activism

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The increasing use of social media in politics is creating new opportunities for greater public engagement in participatory political activism, raising important questions about the most effective ways for activists and independent artists to use social media. This creative doctorate explores the role that social media can have in shaping Australia’s multicultural policies by engaging a wider section of the community in a cultural conversation. The creative component, Talking Cultures, is a campaign-based multimedia project that experimentally applies a hybrid model of online and offline campaigns, utilising social media and street art to elicit civic engagement. The major creative outcome of these campaigns is an interactive documentary that connects the street videos with social media exploring the creation of a ‘contact zone’ of engagement. From a theoretical perspective the research explores the implications of applying the contact theory of social studies to social media campaigns as a way to establish contact and create online political participatory actions within the frame of a ‘contact zone’. The research approach looks at participatory activism in the context of the communicative ecology of multicultural Australia as debated in the mainstream media, on social media and on the street. Using auto-ethnographic action research methods I examine the creative process of implementing Talking Cultures, through the artist’s iterative attempts at engagement. The research concludes with two key findings. The first is that beneficial to the success of any social media campaign is a hybrid model of engagement that operates on social media and also offline. The second is that in order for a ‘contact zone’ to be established there is a need for an authority that is not easily attainable solely through social media. This authority can be established by engaging an online personality, enlisting an existing established social media community, or by conducting part of the campaign offline. The Talking Cultures campaigns’ results conclude that it is possible to engage the public in participatory political activism using social media but that for this engagement to be strong enough to spill over to the offline sphere, all pillars of the contact theory must be met, especially the need for an authority that can add value to the message. Furthermore it is suggested that social media campaigns should frame their message in a way that would encourage participant to perform offline actions outside the social media platforms into a wider communicative ecology.
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