ESRC Digital Good Network


Digital Identities Residency Q&A with Mac Andre Arboleda

We caught up with artist-in-residence Mac Andre Arboleda to find out a bit more about his work as part of this residency and his interest in digital identities.

Hi Mac, can you tell us about why you were drawn to the theme of this residency?

I’m what they call a digital native—I was raised in the Philippines and the World Wide Web, presenting as many digital identities on Neopets and Friendster, Tumblr and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. My practice is a genealogy of these bodies of work: the forms and images I’ve produced and presented, the attention and affection I’ve labored…which is to say, it’s an existential question. And when you have governments, including the one in the Philippines pushing “digital transformation” campaigns that are tied to counterinsurgency operations, increased surveillance, and the stifling of dissent, it’s also a political question where any digital identity actually becomes a risk and anxiety.

How do you interpret the phrase “digital identity” and why do you think it’s important for us to think about?

Nowadays, I think of “digital identity” as in integral to the formation of the human. A human is subjected to technologies of theft, security, and racialization: think of images, borders, government documents. Living with these technologies is what I like to describe as digital life. Part of this digital life is having information laundered for the sustenance of exploitative profit-making platforms where the biggest beneficiaries are corporations and nation states. In the question of what it means to be human, I think about the capacities that are redefined when we’re forced to submit to digital identities that these beneficiaries organize: freedom of mobility, access to services, criminal liability. All of which help us determine what kind of life we’re able to live and what we want to do with it.

Tells us about your residency work. What do you hope people take from it?

The time I spent in the residency was basically writing a script for a performance made for the platform given to us, which was Gather, out of the current ideas I had on what I called the “divine image.” Gather is a platform with specific qualities and features, and I ended up creating this hypertext installation, 2-minute video, and interactive performance inspired by Jonathan Beller’s book “World Computer: Derivative Conditions of Racial Capitalism” and a jacked-up version of Mariah Carey’s wonderful song “Fantasy.” It’s an expression of my sickness with images, this world media system, and a kind of writing—hence, the title “Prayers (Writing Exercises)—for a digital world order otherwise. My favorite part about it is me asking people to stand up and away from their screens during an “online performance”; it’s where I hope people take from it the most.

Can you explain the concept of a ‘divine image’ and how this relates to notions of digital identities?

Sure, this project on composing the idea of a “divine image” is actually my master’s thesis project which I’m finishing as a student of the Media Arts Cultures program under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship. It’s a continuation of a thing I conceptualized called “ABOLISH THE SCREEN!”—the “screen” as a literal thing but also as a placeholder for, quoting Beller, the broader “colonization of our time, space, mind, discourse, and imagination.” I also take ideas from the image of Passiontide where they cover images and statues in purple veil, which led me to the traditions of apophatic or negative theology: God as unknowable.

Essentially, the “divine image” is what I hope to be the answer for a kind of imaging and imagination that frees itself from the algorithmic logics of the digital image, and this is where digital identity-making become sites for extraction and financial speculation. It’s a work-in-progress, but it is precisely about renewing faith—or in tech terms, maybe trust—in technologies and the world more broadly. In my manuscript I’m writing about three things that conjure this divine image and one of them is quite literal, which is about Marian apparitions documented in the Philippines.

You are a co-founder and project lead of the ‘Artists for Digital Rights Network’ as well as founding president of the ‘UP Internet Freedom Network’, can you tell us a bit more about how these initiatives influence your work and thinking?

These digital rights formations that I helped establish during the years 2020-2021 were borne out of the struggle during the height of a militarized lockdown in the Philippines and the railroading of the Anti-Terrorism Act, an intensifying counterinsurgency campaign that more clearly manifested in our online spaces. These initiatives became spaces for thinking and action, and we learned deeply about issues by responding to them, from cybersecurity and lack of internet access during a pandemic to state-backed red-tagging, disinformation, censorship, among others. Being part of groups like this gives me purpose. There’s a lot of joy in coming together, and continuing the work of those that came before. One important thing to come out of it was the realization that my work and thinking has to go beyond the constraints of “digital rights” or human rights, which is how I end up now talking about issues more subjectively, or even linking it to matters of the divine.

Is there an artist – dead or alive – that you wish more people knew about?

Fine arts graduate Ana Patricia Non, initiator of the community pantry in the Philippines!

What books have influenced your life or art practice?

“Life-Times of Becoming Human” by Neferti X.M. Tadiar, “El Bimbo Variations” by Adam David” and “Pista” by Magpies Press.

What role do you think art has in exploring our connection with emerging technologies?

When I think about the internet we know today, it is continually navigated and shaped by its creative workers. There’s a brilliant essay by Meredith Whittaker entitled “The steep cost of capture” that speaks about the entanglement of knowledge production and the advancement of big tech agenda. I am wary about the role that art could play in a similar vein, where artists become ambassadors of emerging technologies and are rewarded with grants, awards, and paid positions. There’s a lot of risks and harms that are obfuscated when you’re pushing narratives of “innovation” for which artists can also be culpable.

What did you enjoy the most about this residency?

I absolute loved working with Dr. Dan Richards and Dr. Kim Snooks, and engaging with the larger Digital Good Network. It’s such a nice community, and it’s really a pleasure to be alongside Anshul Roy and Jeanne Jo; Anshul I met personally in London for a coffee while doing this residency!

Digital identities over time plus image of clock.

Learn more about the Digital Identities Over Time online residency which Mac took part in here.