Referring to Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the publicist and activist Maria Ressa described the Philippines as a Petri dish for a number of phenomena that Western democracies – with some delay – saw themselves forced to reckon with more recently. An immense portion of the population of Ressa’s homeland use Facebook, providing an appealing environment for the employment of mis- and disinformation tactics by state and non-state actors. The Philippines faced the violent and disturbing consequences of these tactics long before the U.S. Capitol was stormed and Europe witnessed mass protests by so-called Corona skeptics. Questions about the nature of the public sphere – how it is created, what constitutes it, what information circulates within it, and why certain things “go viral” – can no longer be done away with evasive answers in the vein of, “We’re a platform, not a publisher,” as Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg put it.
Ressa’s Petri dish image was on our minds while we were preparing for the launch of V/A – Various Artists. This new online magazine – based on an initiative of its publisher Pro Helvetia and our editorial vision – is meant to investigate forms, practices, and ideas that speak about our present in collaboration with what we consider a global scene of cultural practitioners. During the past months in which these forms, practices, and ideas appeared to have been forced into standstill and only viruses and information circulated seemingly without censure, we were particularly interested in initiatives and actors that emerged under these circumstances. To us, the metaphor of the Petri dish encompasses those emerging forms, highlights their at times experimental character, and refers to the logic and experience of the viral that dominated not only discourses on public health but also those on politics and technology.
For this reason, the Petri dish serves as our first thematic focal point. V/A will continue to publish its content with reference to such themes that we think might provide an interesting starting point to delve deeper into a given topic, inviting selected writers and practitioners to do so. These thematic units will be introduced by “Editors’ Notes” such as this one, which will also be sent out as a newsletter. The content produced by our collaborators will then also be published in an adapted and/or translated form in the publications or on the sites and platforms of a growing network of international publishing partners.
For the launch of V/A, we have made the first three contributions available on the site. The choice of Annette Hug’s article about the platform “Mapping Philippine Material Culture” and its initiators is no coincidence. It provides an example of a complex and multi-faceted project that managed to forge new connections over the last months. Our publishing partner for this text is the Swiss newspaper la couleur des jours, in whose fall issue the text will be published in French translation. Biz Sherbert’s essay about the new icons of online culture and Jana Al Obeidyine and Ibrahim Nehmes’s report about the unflagging resilience of the scene of magazine creators in Beirut round out the first block of articles. The latter will be published in Arabic by Raseef22 at the same time as it appears here. We hope that those three initial articles will provide a first glimpse in to how broad we conceive of the focus and interest of V/A.
We are excited about the launch of this new platform and look forward to the unexpected insights and encounters it hopefully will foster.