The Production of Presence

In the bio I send out these days, I identify my interests as being located in the intersections of – and interactions between – the body, technology, and space. I’m interested in what makes human a hierarchical concept, determined by environments, social order, Nature/nature, science, technologies, and… I come to this through my lived experiences as a Black, Arab woman, my East and West geographies, and my academic studies and professional work in science, journalism, the arts, and urban planning.

My current work, founded in the context of my doctoral studies, investigates the relationships between online and offline lives and spaces, rejecting the idea that online and offline are independent, separate worlds. In 2009, social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson wrote that “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other”; my research reveals the ways in which this is true for women of colour (for more, I’ve written about curation as radical action here, and new vulnerabilities for women of colour in online spaces here).

I’m working on exploring what I call “the production of presence,” which I define as “the creation, management, and distribution of content and stories that center the marginalised individual and reflect the being-in-the-world of marginalised groups in deliberately authentic and representative ways; these produced narratives then counter dominant hegemonic discourses of everyday life by providing alternate retellings and imaginings of everyday lived experiences.” As part of my doctoral project, I am in various stages of writing, editing, and revising three papers that present different aspects of my findings.

I wanted to speak to women whose social justice work made them visible and present in both virtual and physical spaces. Toronto has a particular brand of social justice activism – this is a city that is still forming and re-forming, with an active citizenry, and a vocalised commitment to diversity and inclusion. I could see around me how women of colour were taking up space, speaking loudly, and being listened to, changing this city in tangible ways that affected everyday life. I knew of women who worked actively and publicly in Toronto on various issues affecting the city, including racial profiling, gender-based violence, policing, mental health, immigration and settlement, the arts. Women who ran for political office, women who wrote plays, who made films, who sat on municipal committees, women who researched, advocated, and stanned hard for the communities they belonged to. I identified ten women, and interviewed them in depth about their social justice work, their online lives, and how they navigated both.

I wanted to go beyond visibility politics and look at how spaces were actually changed. With research participants’ permission, I went through thousands and thousands of pages of their public online archives and gathered media coverage of their events and campaigns. There’s something alchemical about the way women of colour work – these women transmuted their online activities into tangible physical change.

The first paper, “The Production of Presence” defines what I mean by the production of presence, describes the ways in which these women of colour produce their presence, and how they can, through their online activities, change space through accessing their right to the city.

The second paper, “Audience/Community/Public,” looks at always-in-flux belongings to each of those groups and how audiences, communities, and publics constitute themselves. The significance of the production of presence for and by women of colour is that there needs to be a group of people who actively engage with any content presented. Here, I present a rough theory of ephemeral belongings, and how these memberships and connections are crucial to understanding the implications of produced presence.

My third paper, “The Planner and the Online Archive,” explores the possibilities presented by first-person narratives of city-life archived online. Using the content produced and posted online, I posit that the wealth of information available online allows for different – and more complex – understandings of place in Toronto that are deeply-nuanced. I believe that these online archives should be studied and data extrapolated from them; however, I caution against acts of surveillance and outline ethical implications for this kind of research.

As I complete my writing, I move beyond this research to its applications. I’ve presented on how the production of presence can be used in the delivery of equitable and inclusive healthcare for traditionally-marginalised communities, and I’m preparing a related piece for publication.

I’m working on other things too, such as how technologies of reproduction create new kinds of state citizenship. And again, I’m finding myself drawn back to the practice and study of journalism, and I find my approach reformed by my research into the production of presence. What role does the journalist have – beyond curator, editor, or verifier? – if information and narratives about events and experiences exist. I believe that the production of presence can be engaged in multilayering understandings of space, and can serve in the enrichment and understanding of the stories we live and tell.

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Thoughts, feedback, or any kind of engagement welcome.

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