|These presentations were originally given as the New Media Caucus (NMC) Diversity Panel at the 2019 NMC Symposium BORDER CONTROL at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design. The NMC Diversity Panel was sponsored by the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative, and co-sponsored by the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).|
WOKE New Media – Borders and Bodies
Today, we are facing micro and macro aggressions of threats of “The Wall” at global and local scales, affecting all human bodies. We drown in the media war on Trump’s victory wall between the Mexican and US border; the post-internet wireless world turns out to be less than borderless as exemplified with China’s Great Firewall as an erected government surveillance; cold war tensions continue regardless of the collapse of the Berlin Wall; and nobody really cares about North Korea as long as the DMZ reinforces the splitting world power-relations. Moreover, Brexit is about leaving the European Union to deface the monetary burden of the Syrian refugee crisis, while more border-patrolled walls keep millions of Middle Eastern and African refugees from entering Europe. Every nation-state borderline contours a separation to prop up naturalized citizens, whereas undocumented bodies are systematically left in the gutter. Walls and borders displace bodies, and every neighborhood, block, or fence strategically borders off the “others.” The New Media Caucus (NMC) Diversity Panel, comprised of artists who use new media in their work, demonstrate artistic responses for countering scattered hegemonies, walls, borders in our world of increasing cultural, ideological, political, economic divisions. This is what diversity looks like in WOKE New Media.
The panel was reviewed in VOA NEWS Voice of America Korean, by Reporter Yanghee Jang: https://www.voakorea.com/korea/korea-social-issues/5120212
Preface – Paul Catanese
Delivered across two concurrent conference sessions and comprised of seven artist presentations, the New Media Caucus (NMC) Diversity Panel: Woke New Media – Borders and Bodies, organized by Mina Cheon, was a crucial contribution to the 2019 Border Control Symposium. By directly engaging the central premise of the symposium as a forum for examining how “borders and boundaries are navigated in our current moment” viewed in connection to the expanded mission statement of the NMC to “extend and sustain the diversity of our community”, this panel functioned as the centerpiece of the conference. This panel was unflinching in its premise and approach, with the heart of the issue most clearly stated in Cheon’s introduction: “there is a lack of proper representation of diversity in the field of new media.” She went on to explain that this panel was formulated specifically in response to this ongoing deficiency in which the NMC has an important role to play. We owe great thanks for her perseverance and care in bringing about this panel and championing support for the presenting artists as one step towards addressing this urgency – and we owe it to each other to ask what steps we will each individually and collectively take next in continuing this critical work. This panel was a call to awareness, and a call to action, eloquently addressed by Cheon in her opening remarks that remind us of the power that new media artists have includes being cultural agents of change.
Writing these remarks in the summer of 2020 about a panel bearing the collective weight of addressing diversity in new media art practice held in the fall of 2019, I find myself reflecting on some of the narratives of new media art, particularly the narratives the field is comfortable telling to itself, and how these are worth examining and re-examining if there is ever to be real change. The narrative that comes to my mind is about the founding of the NMC, which was formed to serve as an incubator for emerging artists and scholars working with new media art building careers in higher education. It is a community brought together by intersecting interests, the bedrock of which is a site of mentorship and mutual support. To be clear, this professional organization was formed in 2003 to support faculty new to the tenure track, or teaching in contingent positions while seeking a place on the tenure track who find themselves isolated from peers and mentors. One version of this narrative about isolation emerged from the not uncommon situation where an individual might be the only faculty member in a department or division engaging time and media based tools and ideas in a visual arts context without many local sources of guidance, support, interconnection, camaraderie, or constructive critical feedback.
Projected alongside this narrative, it was hard not to notice that several of the artists on the NMC Diversity Panel are themselves not tenured, nor on the tenure track, and to be disappointed by that inadequacy. We know the myths of our discipline, and of higher education in general – related to hard work, determination, and luck. It is bracing to look at the economic landscape of higher education at this moment, and ask what can an individual do to make a difference. It is all the more important to ask ourselves: how can I leverage my seat at the table into more room at the table? Perhaps “table” isn’t the correct metaphor to plumb – though I think that it is, because it reminds us that what is at stake is food, shelter, safety; a place to practice, thrive, and soar. The well-being and growth of artists and scholars; the nurturing of our leaders and future leaders; and the long-term vitality of this discipline and the wider field depends on nourishing environments that respond when it is time to evolve. To provide just such an environment is the purpose of the NMC. This is the shared foundation upon which all of the activities of the NMC are based. This is why I applaud the NMC board in updating the mission statement to acknowledge that there is a need to address diversity in our community; I applaud the organizers of the symposium in recognizing that “borders can be mental, physical, geographical, political, social, ethical, legal, economic, environmental, digital, real, imagined, visceral, and emotional”; and I applaud Mina Cheon for organizing this panel with a direct and impassioned approach – because the borders we are discussing are most certainly real. This work is nascent, and more must be done to nourish a robust platform for supporting diversity in the practice of new media art.
Introduction & “Dreaming Unifications, Eating Choco-Pies, Walk for Peace and Information Media Presentation into North Korea” – Mina Cheon
Introduction by Mina Cheon
I’m Mina Cheon, from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and the chair and moderator of this panel. I am honored to be here after having served on the board of the NMC for the previous six years while also working as an Associate Editor for the caucus’ journal Media-N. The NMC is a professional society where one can grow and showcase. I’ve had other great opportunities to chair NMC panels at the CAA such as Asia Effects in New Media (2005 in Boston) and Magic and Media (2013 in LA). I’ve heard of many colleagues and those who I mentor taking advantage of the caucus to bridge connections, find jobs, and be a part of this unique community of new media people. So, thank you for being an awesome home-base for so many of us.
As for the introduction of this panel, I would like to begin by acknowledging and thanking Guna Nadarajan for making today possible; not just with the entire Symposium and Exhibition, but for supporting the panel in particular through the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design’s “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative.” None of this would have been possible without the support of a leader like him who is and sees diversity and knows how to support it, so thank you again Guna and the University of Michigan! Also, a thank you to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for co-sponsoring, and the assistance and support from the New Media Caucus by embracing this panel as the diversity panel for the symposium and providing us with an extended session.
The idea of a diversity panel is by Vagner Mendonça-Whitehead, a President Emeritus of NMC, who is a panelist here today and the person who will be concluding it. He said to me that a diversity panel is needed in our caucus and that we should do one, so we did. Vagner was obviously looking at the lack of proper representation of diversity in the field of new media, and thanks to him and our panelists, Christopher Kojzar, Victor Torres, Allana Clarke, Antonio McAfee, Kei Ito, and Andrew Keiper, we are able come together as artists of woke new media, new media artists who are (who stay) woke. Vagner and I are especially thrilled that we are joined here by this group of artists, who are the future new media artists, and that this stage is truly for them.
Woke is a vernacular term that became popular with the protest culture of Black Lives Matter. It means being awakened to social injustice and racism. It is a way of being, or being “with it” and a way of “seeing,” and of no return – since when one succumbs to social awareness, one becomes conscious to the world around them, and there is no turning back. I echo Richard Ross and the way he describes his medium of art. He dedicates his photographs and new media to give voice to those in the juvenile justice system who otherwise would not have a voice. By sharing their words, voices, and photographs of them, he says, “my medium is my conscience.” This kind of cultural soft power, and the new in new media as the artist’s conscience, shows a change that can bridge art and life – it can create a path to greater social projects that take on issues, and to be awoken by them, in relation to power, race, gender, identity, politics, economics, and the environment. It is no wonder that Richard Ross, and artists like him, do their artist talk-ing to policy makers rather than museum-goers.
NMC Diversity Panel: Woke New Media – Borders and Bodies
An artist working with the social medium has to deal with the temporality of existence, conflict, and awareness. The work is a response to the environment and the time we live in, materials to work with are that of people-life-culture-power. And, creating art for the sake of art has no business here. Those hard edges of the physical art object that exists aloof from society, sacred in its own right, bearing tradition and the aura, may belong to another time period, and can remain in the art worlds of the untitled, but it certainly has no place here, at least not today.
Just as the philosophical and psychological construct of the self has changed, the concept of borders in relation to the body must change. We used to think that a border, or wall, was a protective layer for security and safety within society. A fence around a house or a park was a useful demarcation line, sometimes making clear the boundaries between public and private spaces, other times functioning as markers of beginning and ending points of the built environment. And while we live in an age where identity is flexible, bodies are celebrated as adaptable, permeable — transmitted, digitized, shared, expressed – that body is privileged and we question whether or not that body still exists in its own protected fortress. The metaphors of boundless body and hyper-digital-extensions “by choice” remain for those who can choose, whereas those on the other side, or from the lines drawn apart have no access to security and safety. Who is not allowed the freedom of exit and entry (of digital or physical spaces) differs from those who are confined in camps and poverty lines. With the expanding global footprint, maps are drawn for surveillance of our existence and exacting our location, and by that, tracking our “being(s) and bodies,” but those who are protected are considered “human beings” and those who are not as “bodies.”
The myths and stereotypes that create the “the bodily other” (the racial other, minority, foreigner, or the queer body against the protected citizen body) exist in social structures and fabrics of power and hierarchy that stratify, separate, and keep those in power intact, and the lesser-so from basic human rights. So, new media artists with soft power, being woke to the urgencies of our time, are cultural agents (of change), and can use culture as a weapon to share a different kind of response when it comes to rethinking about borders and bodies, and “where our protest lies.”
Today, we are facing micro and macro aggressions of threats of “The Wall” at global and local scales, affecting all human bodies. We drown in the media war on Trump’s victory wall between the Mexican and US border; the post-internet wireless world turns out to be less than borderless as exemplified with China’s Great Firewall as an erected government surveillance; cold war tensions continue regardless of the collapse of the Berlin Wall; and nobody really cares about North Korea as long as the DMZ reinforces the splitting world power-relations. Moreover, Brexit is about leaving the European Union to defuse the monetary burden of the Syrian refugee crisis, while more border-patrolled walls keep millions of Middle Eastern and African refugees from entering Europe. Every nation-state borderline contours a separation to prop up naturalized citizens, whereas undocumented bodies are systematically left in the gutter. Walls and borders displace bodies, and every neighborhood, block, or fence strategically borders off the “others.”
The New Media Caucus (NMC) Diversity Panel, comprised of artists who use new media, their conscience, and soft power in their work, demonstrate artistic responses for countering scattered hegemonies, walls, borders in our world of increasing cultural, ideological, political, economic divisions. And, this is what diversity looks like in WOKE New Media.
In Part One of our panel we have Christopher Kojzar, Victor Torres, Allana Clarke presenting after my introduction.
Christopher Kojzar openly engages in artistic practices such as drawing or recording with wearable technology. In his presentation, “Counter-surveillance tactics: Staying Woke in Public Space,” Kojzar identifies how the “see something, say something” campaign heightens the stakes of drawing in public space. He points to an era of escalating surveillance and mistrust by signaling how facial recognition may start to infringe on pedestrian freedom. Kojzar holds an MFA from University of Maryland, Baltimore County and recently finished Santa Fe Art Institute’s Truth & Reconciliation Fellowship. Next month he will be at Vermont Studio Center as the Civil Society Fellow.
Victor Torres’ sculptural work snapshots the relationship between information retention, capacitive touch and bronze age aesthetics, thinning the threshold between primitivism and futurism. His presentation, “The Language of the Immigrant,” brings together personal experiences with broader anthropological concerns on transnationalism today. He is an intermedia artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Torres holds an M.F.A in Intermedia and Digital Arts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) as well as a B.A. in Socio-Cultural Anthropology, from the same university. He is an Adjunct Faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.
Interdisciplinary visual artist Allana Clarke’s work fluidly moves through video, text, photography, and performance searching not for answers but to feed her obsession with the idea of being unbound from the signification of the body. Her lecture, A Will to Be, considers what is inherited; the cultural distilled and held within the individual laying bare histories that are at once about her existence and those that endured before her. Clarke’s work has been exhibited/performed at Gibney Dance, Invisible Export, New School Glassbox Studio, FRAC (Nantes), SAVVY Contemporary (Berlin) and she is currently a visiting professor at Williams College.
In Part Two of our panel we have Antonio McAfee, Kei Ito & Andrew Keiper, and Vagner Mendonça- Whitehead who will both conclude and open up the discussion section and Q+A.
Antonio McAfee will be giving a talk titled and addresses the complexity of representation by appropriating and manipulating historic, photographic portraits of the 19th century. The artist will discuss the construction of identities through portraiture, and photograph’s proliferation through economic classes and 19th century sciences, using examples from his own practice as well as photographs through history of the medium. The Exhibition of American Negroes” “The Social Science of Portraiture: Reworking W.E.B. Du Bois’ McAfee is based in Baltimore, MD. McAfee is currently a fellow at Hamiltonian Gallery and an instructor at American University and George Washington University.
In their work together, conceptual photographer Kei Ito and sound artist Andrew Paul Keiper address personal and collective trauma through the perspective of their shared heritage: Ito’s grandfather witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and Keiper’s grandfather helped to create the bomb. In their presentation, “Archives Aflame,” Ito and Keiper insist on the ongoing relevance of our past to our present crises, and on using immersive installation to dissent, to protest and to foreground the experiences of those subject to violence and power. Ito is an artist in residence at the Creative Alliance and Keiper is faculty at MICA in Baltimore.
Vagner Mendonça-Whitehead’s practice encompasses traditional and newer media art-making, curatorial projects and creative writings on visual culture. Recent art projects have dealt with metaphorical representations and interpretations of fear and violence, as well as aging and technological obsolescence. In his presentation “Body Controlled,” Mendonça-Whitehead will cover works that refer to the monitored migrant body, the prevailing body of authority in big media, and the continued erasure or disqualification of personal narratives. As a conclusion to the panel, Mendonça- Whitehead will raise questions of exclusion of other bodies within the new media art and academic fields. Mendonça-Whitehead is the Chair of Visual Arts at Texas Woman’s University.
In my own presentation (which starts now), called “ Dreaming Unifications, Eating Choco-Pies, Walk for Peace and Information Media Presentation into North Korea” I take a specific look at the DMZ border that physically separates the North and South Koreas and the people, and share with you how my global activism art projects infiltrate the Korean psyche by calling on peace streaming for unification.
While the latest headlines related to North Korea is the buzz of Yo-Yo Ma performing at the heavily fortified DMZ on September 9, “calling for peace and the building of bridges across cultures” (Elizabeth Shim, UPI.com), the short-term effects of music, entertainment, or athletic competition to bridge peace on war fares is unsatisfactory to the history and conflict of a divided nation. Somehow the image of music soothing the traumatic past, relies on “catharsis,” and cannot compensate 70 years of separation between Korean families, all the while, the moment can be a harsher reminder of the separation for some.
But, I’ve also become a fan of “peace” and decided that we must protest for peace, by walking, dreaming, eating, and sharing. I’ve started to dream unification, where my North Korean art persona “Kim Il Soon” is now venturing into graffiti and stencil work in her dreams of Korea’s third flag, the unification flag. I walk for peace in global peace shoes and so do my friends around the world, since one foot cannot move forward without the other.
We eat Choco-Pie together, the food for art and healing, the South Korean manufactured chocolate marshmallow cookie-cake that is worth three bowls of rice in North Korea, and remains a strong currency in the black market and a favored smuggled good there. The Choco-Pie has become the inter- Korean symbol of love and exchanges between the two countries. I dedicate 100,000 Choco-Pies to the North Korean defectors and they were consumed by art lovers and global peace lovers alike at the 2018 Busan Biennale.
Lastly, as a way to call on peace streaming for unification, from dream worlds to the underground world, I am the artist who is sending contemporary video art history lessons into North Korea through USB drives and SD cards for the last several years with the help of North Korean refugee activists in South Korea. I do this with love and with a message to ordinary North Koreans that I love you and the world loves you.
Alongside the content of showcasing over forty modern and contemporary global artists and their works, the real message is saying to the North Koreans that you have the human rights to know and learn, to be educated about art outside North Korea like the rest of us. That, they are not alone, from the other histories of secluded countries, hermit kingdoms, totalitarian societies that too have opened up, and that since the Arab Spring to the foreseeable Pyongyang Spring it is possible to rise up, with media in one hand and freedom in the other.
All this peace streaming work towards unification is a direct response to that demilitarized zone (DMZ) that a South Korean journalist and DMZ chronicler Hahm, Kwang Bok in the book The Living History of the DMZ (2004) describes it best as:
… a long band that starts from the Imjin River and ends on the coast of the East Sea. It is four kilometers wide and 240 kilometers long and looks like a giant snake (43) … … with many lines in it. There are more than six lines parallel in the DMZ such as the south limit line, the South Korea defense line, and the military demarcation line on the South Korean side, and the first and second defense lines, and the northern limit line on the North side. The demilitarized zone is the area between South Korea’s defense line and North Korea’s first defense line. The range of the distance between the two lines varies from several hundred meters to two to three kilometers. (49-50) The phrase “Demilitarized Zone” is always confusing. It means an area from which military forces, operations, and installations are prohibited. Nothing violent should exist in the zone. However, violent words such as “provocation,” brutality,” and “armed spies” are produced in that zone… (49)
Obsessed with the inherent trauma of our country’s split, most likely in my cultural DNA ancestral trait, reminded daily by the DMZ glorification filled with landmines and the wild nature, my dreaming of unification today works to protest it, and look back in time to the moment I got to ride on bus right through it from the South to North Korea in 2004 as I was visiting the glorious mountains and waterfalls of Keumkangsan area. Back then, I could have never imagined the future when Trump gets to jump over to the other side like jump roping or hop scotching, nor did I foresee a future where a North Korean solider who ran across the DMZ for his life and was shot, woken up from the surgeries in South Korea asking for a Choco-Pie.
Instead, I spend my summer time today in South Korea, farming during the weekends and secretly building an army of future feminist Korean contemporary artists by teaching at Ewha Womans University, and also squeeze in time to help send rice, money, and information into North Korea with the support of North Korean defectors in South Korea. While I was helping to liberate South Koreans girls from patriarchy, my wishes for peace extended to the North Koreans, hoping for their own kind of liberation from the regime.
Similar to how information and media such as K-pop and drama, Korean Wave Cinema, and world news have been disseminated into North Korea, along with the global activism effort known as media and information penetration, my video art works have been going into North Korea by ways of helium balloons over the DMZ, the way in which was the most provocative and effective method, Choco-Pies, flyers, and media being exploded down by a timer or parachuted directly to the sites where North Koreans reside, and by water, a way that is now being granted (to limited degrees) so that North Korean refugees in the South can believe they have come to a better place (of democracy and empathy), where they are supported to share and communicate with their loved ones in North Korea.
In the series of video art history lessons, all ten lessons each at 10 minutes length focuses on a topical theme that is valued in contemporary art such as: Art and Life; Art and Food; Art, Money, Power; Abstract Art and Dreams; Feminism, Are We Equal? ; Art, Lives Matter, and Social Justice; Remix and Appropriation Art ; Art and Technology; Art and Silence; Art and the Environment. They were produced like children TV shows to make art history and contemporary art more relatable to North Koreans and everyone else in the world.
My MICA Colleague Ryan Hoover so incisively wrote about my work recently, he says:
The work is not simply about the North-South relationship but is a gesture within this relationship… … This is an element of North-South relations rarely shown in the US. From the American perspective, the people of North Korea are simply pawns on this stage of international struggle, which is defined and fueled by the cult of personality, now of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, a patterned established through multiple generations of Cold War propaganda on both sides… …In contrast to the paternalistic figureheads that continually reconstruct a nationalist political narrative, Umma (Professor Kim in the videos, an extended version of my alter ego) is a more shamanistic figure that fosters a sense of care between individuals across political
Thinking about Borders and Bodies, I would like to show you a clip of the video that has been going into North Korea by USB drives and SD cards since 2017 in Video Art History Lesson 6: Art, Lives Also, want to holler a thank you to Andrew Keiper, who is also a panelist today, who assisted me in this project and for his amazing sound engineering and all-rounded media talented help on it.
“Counter-Surveillance Tactics: Staying Woke in Public Space” – Christopher Kojzar
I want to cue readers in on my visual responses and research on a nineteenth-century French ideal called flâneurism and its connections in today’s society. Look up the flâneur and you will be presented with images of this man, along with a simplified definition which states that he is an idler and a lounger. I was drawn to this archetype because I create art in response to interactions I have with other people when I draw. I employ the habits of the flâneur such as strolling, people watching, and collecting and recording urban images.
It wasn’t until I had several interactions and built a catalog of drawings that colleagues brought to my attention this ideal. “Check it out,” they said. “Maybe even wear a beret!” Even though I rolled my eyes at the fashion advice, I immersed myself in the archetype’s habits, relying more on a structured code of conduct, one that resonated with my art practice. The flâneur’s actions are revealed in his idleness.
He squints, spontaneously takes notes, and adjusts his attention to the social disruption and entertainment of his surroundings. Although the flâneur of lore was usually a single, if not a lone, and presumably white male bachelor of a very specific upper-class echelon in Paris, I realized that I was performing the same routines as a contemporary artist here in the States.
The cousin of the flâneur is the monocle-wearing dandy, who has satirically appeared on The New Yorker Magazine cover for over eighty years as an upper-class cultural onlooker. Toulouse Lautrec’s “à la Moulin Rouge” is perhaps the most reminiscent painting of this dandy lifestyle. And there have been underpinnings of Black dandies as well, going back to the zoot-suit era of Cab Calloway or into Haitian Creole as a reference to gigolos in sex tourism and trafficking.
During the 2018 Taipei Biennale, a robot named “Flâneur Hanji” even made an appearance. The Taiwanese organization ET@T equipped the robot with a 360 degree camera, whose observations were livestreamed. It could even receive and respond to questions about the Biennale from online or on-site audiences.
This continual reinvention of the flâneur contextualized 21st dandyism for me, while Shantrelle Lewis’s photographic exhibition and subsequent book “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity” reaffirmed my insistence to consciously redefine flânerie for myself, a man of color. For Lewis, dandyism is read as “a sartorial maneuver used by Black men to confront criminalizing stereotypes, widen conceptions about masculinity, and create a new self-identity for the 21st century.” And so I blended my performance, my drawing, and my critique by intersecting flâneurism, dandyism, performance, and race.
In my interpretation of flânerie, and I do consider dress, though with a more unassuming approach, I consider how the act of drawing and idleness in open spaces can be read as a method of subversion. My conceived role as the flâneur is fairly well-defined, but still falls short for resolving how the act of drawing is either accepted or deemed suspicious.
I discovered the most opportune answer by drawing and being approached by curious onlookers in the original setting of the flâneur. I can tell you that with incredible certainty, drawing will activate the space around you, and is a telling sign for our need to be closer to one another, in some way, shape or form. Principally, it is romanticized, and for some, inviting, eliciting varying degrees of inquisitive behavior. In Paris, it became obvious that people wanted to participate in some capacity. They wanted to draw with me or have me draw them.
Because I speak French, the conversations varied from amicable to aggressive, some spanning 15 minutes while others were just brief notifiers to call awareness to the fact that we were, indeed, complete strangers. It summons engagement, between people of different ethnicities, language, age, and gender. One man, who participated in my public drawing workshop didn’t speak but two words of French, but was asked by at least three strangers to engage in conversation as to what he was doing or what he may have found beautiful.
My experience as a black man won’t be the same as say someone with a different form of body language or of another generation or gender. One of my workshop participants was border-line harassed and assumed to be smoking hashish when she interacted with two men over the course of thirty minutes. The ‘Agency for Artists in Exile‘ sponsored the workshop and we used our experience to show how drawing in public might make an artist feel more confident in a foreign setting. All the participants came to Paris to rebuild their lives after leaving war-torn countries
But let me bring you back to what I am when I go out in public —
a man writing something into a book, who every so often looks up.
My exchange with the U.S. Capitol Police in this photo was one of the first instances where I was able to get documentation of interaction with authority. Even when I sit down and draw, even when I hold myself at a distance, more often than not, my sketchbook and my “look” (either my gaze or my physical presence) prompt interactions with security personnel, police officers, TSA agents, and pedestrians.
All of these interactions lead me to believe that the right to observe freely is mired in what cultural theorist, Nicholas Mirzoeff, calls “a policing of visuality,” and that the gaze is systematically obfuscated in this era of escalating surveillance and mistrust. The photo with Officer Weatherbee on Capitol Hill suggests that especially in today’s environment, there are characteristics of being an observer of the streets that stir an authoritative response. I had been sketching a man lounging on a bench before the officer came to my side.
I don’t know why Officer Weatherbee approached me, but I am inclined to say that he felt the need to assert a power dynamic over my blackness. I was an easier target than the white male colleague of mine who snapped this photo and had been drawing at equidistance. Our motive was to see when and if anyone would interrupt one of us.
Officer Weatherbee approached me in less than a minute after we started drawing. No officer ever approached my colleague to question him. I asked the guard, “Do I look like a threat?” He shook his head and stated that he just wanted to see what I was drawing. But as a black male, I consider, daily, how extensively all people’s implicit racial biases affect their/our behaviors, so I didn’t find the question to be presumptuous.
I went to the Capitol Building because of its representation of impartiality, where the freedoms and rights of an individual are presumably considered equal, regardless of social qualifiers like race, class, age, gender, or sexuality. Yet, on a subjective level, I know that others will react to my body differently than if I were a white male. What’s more perplexing to me than the social qualifiers just listed, however, is the issue of idleness within the context of the flâneur and its being a possible reason for why this Officer came to my side. Race, for instance, may have been a factor, but within idleness, is there a strong possibility of astute observation that is powerful enough to arouse concern at the level of police interaction?
In the winter of 2018, I went to the Oculus Hub in New York City to once again test my methods. I didn’t even have time to turn on my camera before law enforcement approached me.
Most of the interactions were with black security guards, but the power dynamics still validated how misguided our trust is in each other. Even when it’s between black men, those in authority seek to suppress my observational gaze.
In the span of fifteen minutes, five guards and an unknown pedestrian interrupted my attempt to idly stand and draw.
“Sorry brother, you can’t do that here,” one guard said.
“Excuse me sir, can you tell me what are your activities at the moment?” another questioned only minutes later.
“I’m drawing and recording myself draw, ” I replied
The security guard parroted my response over a walkie-talkie to others who watched me from afar. SWAT, New York Port Authority Police, Army personnel, and mall security patrol the Oculus Hub. A stanchion, a small spherical camera, like Flâneur Hanji’s, and my sketchbook were the three objects that provoked interactions. Some officers thought that the stanchion was an easel that I brought myself. In fact, it was the property of New York’s Port Authority and had been bolted to the ground; they removed it that day.
The performance was a statement about how my experience of seeing stands as an example of “sousveillance.” Sociologist Simone Browne describes sousveillance, a term originally coined by artist-scientist Steve Mann, as “a way of naming an active inversion of the power relations that surveillance entails.” For Mann, the phenomenon involves acts of “observation or recording by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject of the veillance.” And “veillance,” as Browne points out, is “often done through the use of handheld or wearable cameras.” It was my intention to observe their actions and I was ready for them to approach me
The photographs I shot with my Bodycam at the Oculus Hub are not just documentations of my role as a flâneur (and sousveilleur, to some degree), but also a lens into the extremely sensitive idea of what acts of observation and recording activate in the rest of us. I also want to stress that it is not about technology, for if I had not been wearing the camera, the police would have still stopped me, because I was drawing atop the property of the Port Authority of New York, the stanchion. And if the stanchion had not existed, I would’ve still wondered if my sketchbook could’ve activated — as it did with Officer Weatherbee — a reason to interact.
By making marks into a book, I was causing trouble — righteously making the pen mightier than the sword, if you will. I feel vindicated by my performances, even though they are in direct opposition of the “see something, say something” campaign rhetoric.
Specific outlines on the Department of Homeland Security’s website insists that when someone sketches floor plans, observes, or pays “unusual attention to facilities or buildings beyond a casual or professional interest,” then it should be reported. This need to investigate sketching interferes with what I consider drawing. Still, a larger theme looms over who gets to control the surveillance and what actions should be questioned as unusual, unprofessional, or incendiary.
The idea that art can be considered a counter-surveillance tool or even as a disguise for nefarious activity has its merit. In the mid 1950’s Emil Gold-fuss AKA Rudolf Abel covertly operated as an artist painting and sketching in Brooklyn before he was apprehended by the FBI for operating as a KGB Russian spy. The Department of Homeland Security stated before on its website – though it’s no longer on there now – that they’ve made a decision to include sketching in public as a suspicious activity based on their own gathered data and research.
Now I want to go to a photograph of me in a casino and address a couple of issues. My friends tell me, “You look weird” or “You look like a lurker?” “Of course people and police are going to come up to you, they’re doing their job” “Stop being righteous” And on some level I need to agree with them. If I go to the Freedom Tower, the airport, a bus station, or even a place of business like Starbucks and sit down, appearing to be ‘idle’ and draw, I am doing just that. I am not purchasing a flight ticket or even a cup of coffee and I expect and even sometimes solicit interaction. And really most police couldn’t care less that I draw. I once asked an officer in Penn Station if it’d be okay to sketch and the exchange was almost comical.
But we’ve had visceral reactions with the real dilemma of being idle while permanently inhabiting a space and what’s more, people have come to assume that being black while just temporarily inhabiting a space is cause for escalated control. We’re all familiar with Starbucks closing its stores for a day to go over company policy about the right to be in its space without purchasing their product, and these two men were arrested, fingerprinted, photographed and spent time at a station for trying to meet a guy for coffee. I myself spent the better part of an hour drawing at Starbucks and even though I wasn’t asked to leave, I knew that I was navigating a very gray area of the right to be in a space vs. the suspicion that comes for feigning idleness within that space. But I’ve come to question, “Why so much manpower to surveille me? And really, what warrants surveillance for such an innocuous act of drawing idly in public?
Surveillance trends and loitering laws in New York City have had a troubled history, and one can note the infringement on pedestrian rights of blacks in urban spaces going back to at least the 18th century. In March of 1713 the Common Council of the City of New York, the pre-cursor to today’s Manhattan City Council, approved “A Law for Regulating Negro & Indian Slaves in the Night Time.” If you were a slave and out at night, you needed to carry a lantern in front of you so you could be easily identified. The lantern law was enacted following a slave rebellion the previous April.
A current-day parallel to lantern laws are the floodlights installed throughout cities as a method to circumvent crime. Today, some see the floodlights as a new form of architectural policing and are wise to recognize that they are primarily in low-income neighborhoods . Of course, nobody wants to live in the dark, and the city’s study showed that crime was reduced by the new lighting. But still, it’s a way in which the city’s low-income residents are treated differently from their better-off neighbors. Light, although seemingly benign, is a push for more overreaching surveillance in this modern era.
In light of manpower versus machine power, society has deduced that it’s in our best interest to observe the most possible and from all angles. In the coming age, the ACLU postulates that facial recognition software will be used as a powerful tool to scrutinize the entire American public, leaving us at a crossroads in the development of observation methods. A broader reveal will be how the technology can be logical, transparent, and free from unconscious and overt bias. In China, there are areas where the Muslim Weeguh population is specifically targeted by face recognition software and here in the U.S., we are beginning to use it to guard the White House gate, for election campaigns, or for self-driving cars.
We already know that AI technology is irreversibly ingrained in our daily habits, and spurs economic and societal growth. As the U.S. government adopts new systems, calls for regulation are coming from many sides like Microsoft, the ACLU, the prison system, or even the airports.
An examination by MIT and Stanford researchers also found that the error rate for light-skinned men was 0.8 percent, yet 34.7 percent for dark-skinned women when employing facial recognition software. This is why our smartphone cameras have had a tougher time noticing faces of color. Even so, distinguishing Chris Pine from Chris Evans from Chris Hemsworth from Chris Pratt is so much more easier for our technology to do than to decipher Aretha Franklin from Patti Labelle.
Although the fieldwork for improving the detection of race and gender diversity is being developed, the accountability of algorithms and implementation of face recognition software within specific industries is largely unregulated.
Because epidermal decision-making is an inherent part of face-recognition software, research shows that when facial characteristics are categorized, “it is possible that these systems can search for faces with a certain feature, if the degree of the feature quantity is designated.”
Just as there is demand for more complex neural networks in face recognition software, the argument holds that with too much regulation, the technology will be stifled.
Because of the complexities of algorithm decision-making, the argument is deeply divided over the transparency and explainability of the technology’s decision-making processes. In New and Castro’s “How Policymakers Can Foster Algorithmic Accountability” these issues are fleshed out in detail.
The ACLU says that the current test seems appropriately narrow, but that it crosses an important line by opening the door to the mass, suspicionless scrutiny of Americans on public sidewalks. “Face recognition is one of the most dangerous biometrics from a privacy standpoint because it can so easily be expanded and abused— including by being deployed on a mass scale without people’s knowledge or permission. So regardless of the countless interactions I’ve had where people feel exposed that I draw them in public or even record public spaces, a passive hypocrisy exists between all of us letting unknown actors surveille the public without our knowledge or consent.
For me, under the label of flaneurism, it’s captivating to show the concern that drawing in public elicits from authority, but there is a point where the decision to intervene might be mandatory, opaque, and unarguable. I know that all of the officers and security officials that I’ve dealt with were performing their job to the best of their abilities, it’s just that the parameters of their observation habits function in a gray area, that gray area is driven by historicity and might continue under a very biased system.
“The Language of the Immigrant: How Does the Acculturated Body Become a Culture-Maker?” – Victor FM Torres
“A Will to Be” – Allana Clarke
“The Social Science of Portraiture: Reworking W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Exhibition of American Negroes” – Antonio McAfee
“Archives Aflame” – Kei Ito & Andrew Paul Keiper
Kei Ito is a conceptual photographer, typically working in the realm of camera-less photography. Andrew Paul Keiper is mainly a sound artist, sound designer and musician, but has experience and expertise in other media including fabrication, woodworking, painting, video, photo and performance. Together we collaborate on installation-focused work.
In 2014 we matriculated at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where we were both candidates in the Photographic and Electronic Media MFA program, then under the directorship of Timothy Druckrey. We connected earlier in the summer online as we sought out prospective housemates to put together a group house. We finally met the night before MICA’s orientation at BWI airport when Andrew picked up Kei who was flying in from Japan, and with that we were jumped together into the fray of graduate school.
We were so busy that it took us a couple of weeks to finally sit down and have a conversation about who we were, where we were from, and where our families came from. As we discussed this, Kei told Andrew that his grandfather was from Hiroshima, and Andrew asked him if he was present when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb. Kei replied that he was, and Andrew took a deep breath and told Kei that his own grandfather was an engineer who helped to create the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. We had a profound, quiet moment together and vowed that we’d one day collaborate on work about this. Kei came to work on this theme sooner than Andrew, but by the end of our two years in the graduate program, we were both working on it, and were starting to collaborate together.
Infertile American Dream
In order to contextualize our work together, we wanted to tell you about an artwork that each of us has done on our own, starting with Kei.
My practice as a photographer has changed drastically since I started to make work regarding my atomic heritage. My grandfather witnessed a great tragedy that destroyed nearly everything in Hiroshima; vaporizing his sister and killing other family members with radiation poisoning. He survived the bombing, and later became a profound anti-nuclear activist, and he passed away when I was 9 years old.
He told me before he passed away, that “the day in Hiroshima was like hundreds of suns in the sky”, and this statement has been haunting me for all my life. It is this cursed and blessed statement, where I started my signature process of exposing light sensitive photographic paper directly to the sunlight to create my work.
This particular project is called Infertile American Dream which is one of my more politically driven works. I made them by exposing a chromogenic paper to sunlight, with an unassembled model of house, on the day the 45th US president was elected. As a person who uses sunlight to make artwork, the day in which I make the print can carry significance.
Not does only his anti-immigrant ideology threaten my status as a foreigner who is a resident of America, but his nuclear policy, especially regarding the nuclear tensions between the US and North Korea have been truly unbearable. It harkens back to the terror of my grandfather’s experience during the bombing of Hiroshima.
On that day, the very fabric of life that my grandfather knew, his friends, family, and even the landscapes of the city were completely demolished. Any trace of home seemed to never have existed, as if his home was never even built.
Today, the political divides have deepened, and nuclear war seems closer on the horizon than it has ever been in my lifetime. We live under the realization that home, in both a physical and a spiritual sense, can be taken away in as quickly as thirty minutes by a single missile, and the chain reaction that follows. After we reach the point of no return, the American Dream will be unsustainable – an empty and barren wasteland filled with nothing but ash left for future generations. Like the unassembled model home in Infertile American Dream, our children will not have a chance to conceive their ideal vision of hope for the future.
After creating the piece, I was approached by a NYC based art-billboard organization called 14×48 and we worked together to mount a two month long billboard exhibition. The funny part is, that the billboard was originally to be placed near Times Square, but when one of the major sponsors for the organization realized that the piece was criticizing Trump, they backed out of the project. 14×48 managed to find a different sponsor which donated a space in Brooklyn, near the Graham Avenue L Subway Station. The project was well received, but it was also a learning moment of type of obstacles I may need to overcome in the process of making public art.
Now Andrew will discuss his sound-based work, Rough Ride.
In the spring of 2015 the Baltimore Uprising erupted in response to the Baltimore Police killing Freddie Gray. Having participated protests and other actions during the Uprising, I spent that summer grappling with how to engage with this event and my experience of it in my work, and in a fashion that acknowledged my privilege and that wielded it towards a purpose.
I encountered the work and writing of Lawrence Abu Hamdan that summer, the brilliant sound artist and forensic acoustician from whom I gained the insight, obvious in retrospect, that listening is a political act. Analyzing my experience of the Uprising with this in mind and appraising the odd corridor exhibition venue in which I had been invited to mount a small solo exhibition in Fall of 2015, I created a work called Rough Ride, an 8-channel sound installation.
The work consists of recordings I made during the Uprising, recordings I pulled from social media posts and mass media broadcasts of protesters, journalists, pundits and politicians, played out on six loudspeakers arrayed on a 16 foot shelf. The listener engaging this work cannot hear everything all at once, and the sound of the loudspeakers to which they are physically closest mask the sound of more distant loudspeakers. The listener must themselves choose how they navigate the work, just as one had to choose what media one listened to or watched, or what direct experience one had during the Uprising – you couldn’t be in all places at once, nor hear all media perspectives simultaneously. The work had one additional element that played out from loudspeakers hung from the ceiling: recordings I made of the Foxtrot police helicopters, Baltimore’s most ubiquitous aural embodiment of the surveillance state. I made these recordings during protests that September outside the pre-trial hearings that preceded the ineptly prosecuted trials of the police responsible for Gray’s death.
In addition to this adversarial and diffuse presentation of media, I folded over all of it an imagining of the horrifying experience of Freddie Gray inside of the small space of the police van, a lonely acoustic world utterly unlike the sonic world of the Uprising, which was a soundscape of spectacle both on the street and via media portrayals. In order to make this recording, and to understand, even if just in a small way, what Gray experienced in that space, I asked a colleague to effectively give me a rough ride in a rented van. A rough ride is a illicit police brutality tactic used to subdue or punish an arrested person in a police van, where the driver drives the van aggressively, in order to batter the arrested person, who is typically not strapped or belted in to their seat, but is otherwise retrained and unable to protect themselves by holding their body steady. In the case of Freddie Gray, who was already injured when the police put him in the van, the rough ride would have been racially devastating.
My purpose in doing this, and portraying Freddie Gray’s experience in this way was to draw a clear connection between the aims of the protestors and what Gray went through, a connection that the media so often ignored, in favor of fear-mongering about arson and looting, and so-called riots, storylines that they could comfortably situate within the master narrative of our dominantly white supremacist culture and the authoritarian law-and-order rhetoric of our political discourse.
Making this work was key to everything I’ve done since, in how it gave me a structure for clearly portraying political themes within the form of a sound installation, in how it forces the listener to engage with the undependability of media, embodied in the visually prominent loudspeakers, and in how multichannel audio could take advantage of unusual venues for presentation. What’s more, this work gave me a chance to put documentation of the Uprising in a prominent part of MICA’s campus, where it could force engagement with the experiences of communities that the institution and its students and faculty don’t always heed. (Several of my peers literally fled the city during the Uprising, with the encouragement of representatives of the school.)
Shortly after we finished grad school in 2016, we applied for and subsequently won a Rubys Artist Project Grant, supported by the Deutsch Foundation and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. For this grant, we proposed to make an epic scale work called Afterimage Requiem.
The materials that comprise the piece are 108 photograms produced using sunlight and Kei’s body, a 4-channel audio component consisting of field recordings made in New Mexico and Chicago at atomic heritage sites, and sound design imagining the research and production of the bomb and related sounds. And also, a very, very bright Fresnel spotlight of the type used in film production.
After some difficulty in securing a suitable venue, a curator told me about the Baltimore War Memorial and we were fortunate to secure it. As a space that would be used as an emergency shelter during times of crisis, it amplified our intent that the prints be laid out in a fashion that implies the aftermath of a catastrophe, as if a the piece portrayed a makeshift morgue, triage center or hospital. Kei will now explain the process and significance of the prints.
The 108 photograms show shadow negative exposures of my body on the ground, with the viewer looking down upon them. These prints are more directly inspired by my grandfather’s description regarding “the hundreds of suns lighting up the sky,” as these prints are also made with the use of sunlight, 108 of photosensitive paper and my body.
The use of my body as sort of a camera is very important for this project. As I believe, the radiation to which my grandfather was exposed, which pierced through his skin and inscribed itself onto my grandfather’s genes, and that cursed light was passed down to me; our bodies are now being “captured” through time and history, film and DNA. The print is result of my desperate act of visualizing the inherited atomic light.
The creation of each print is somewhat ritualistic, as I created them in a completely darken room. I placed a sheet of unexposed light sensitive paper on the floor and lay myself, naked, on top of the paper. My studio assistant let the sunlight from the window into the studio, for the duration of one breath to make the exposure. The intensity of the light is completely uncontrollable for me as it depends on the time of the day, weather and cloud placement. It functions like an act of god, imposed upon helpless victims, and so it is the perfect medium for this project.
108 is a number with ritual significance in Japanese Buddhism; to mark the Japanese New Year, bells toll 108 times, ridding us of our evil passions and desires, and purifying our souls. Incorporating this number in my ritualistic image-making, each print in the installation bridges between the past and present, and hopefully a prayer for the future.
Now Andrew will speak on the sound component of Afterimage Requiem, among other things.
Sonically, the two elements of the audio (natural sounds made from field recordings and sound-designed audio of human-generated sounds, mostly portraying the creation of the bomb), play out from opposing sides of the space. The audience enters from the side in which the field recordings play out, and the human-generated sounds play out from loudspeakers on the other side of the space. This emphasized the structure of the architecture, and created a dynamic in which the audience would be encouraged to walk amidst the prints in order to better hear the details of the farther loudspeaker’s audio.
The field recordings from New Mexico include sounds like insect buzzes, bird calls, the rustling of foliage in the breeze, footsteps in gravely dirt and rain. The sound design that portrays the creation of the bomb is far more episodic, and breaks up the 32 minute duration of the audio loop into a loose arc, starting with a sequence that suggests the coming of war via morse code signals, and the sound of someone tearing up documents as secrecy becomes the newly imposed code of the formerly radically open physics community. This all gives way to a blatantly operatic pulsing drone that resembles the beating of the engines and props of massed bombers. The subsequent passages, which we’ll listen to momentarily feature excerpts from the Los Alamos Primer, a lecture newly arrived scientists heard upon the start of their work in Los Alamos in order to indoctrinate them, as it were, in the most current ideas of nuclear physics relevant to the task at hand. After we hear material from the Primer, we’ll hear the start of a section that depicts the build up of the site, and its encroachment on the New Mexico wilderness.
There are some themes from our work more broadly that I’d like to focus on, using Afterimage Requiem as an example: the piece has the logic of a fever dream, wherein elements not literally adjacent in time or space are compressed together and invested with symbolic significance. This is typical of the work that we do together and of my sound design. Not only does it convey a certain effect to the audience, but in how it collapses time it allows for the audience to encounter a breadth of sonic experience in a reasonable amount of span and it reasonably negotiates the random fashion in which the audience enters into a looped audio installation, by not needing a discrete beginning, middle and end to be legible.
I’d like to comment on our materials and processes. By using actual sunlight to make the prints and field with recordings made in situ at distant historical sites, the production and presentation of the work functions almost akin to ritual magic. This is typical of our work, and how we use the literal, the authentic, the artifact and the factual to cross-pollinate our images and speculations with something that has provenance in the events of phenomena we address. In doing so, we shine a light of transformation back onto these real things, and in doing so transform them in the minds of our audience.
The venue for this piece became almost a third collaborator, and provided a deep symbolic opportunity for us. The Memorial is a grand neoclassical hall, an architectural style tied in the United States to the legacy of white supremacy, and is so often used to legitimize and embody the crushing power of authority and government. We pointedly covered its entire floor with the symbolic portrayals of the bodies of dead Japanese people, whose victimhood the machine of military prowess treated as a means to an end, and whose suffering it sought to minimize or cover up.
Furthermore, the hall had been built as a WWI memorial originally, and there is a direct through-line to what the men whose names are on the walls experienced and the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Warfare as an industrial process, into which you feed civilian conscripts en masse, and out of which you produce piles of corpses, via machine gun, gas, incendiary and explosive shells came into its own in WWI, and in order to break its trench-bound stalemate, war planners devised strategic bombing of civilian towns and cities. In WWII, this would become the key methodology of the Western Front and was implicit in the tactics of the mass mechanized conflicts of the eastern European theater, and was central to the endgame of the Pacific Theater. Finally, it doesn’t take much imagination to replace hundreds of bombers, each with dozens of small bombs with a single bomber, bearing a single large bomb. So for me, it was haunting and profound to portray the creation of the atomic bomb and to show its victims in a space where the names of the dead of WWI bear witness.
I’d like to speak on the droning elements of the sound of Afterimage Requiem and related works and it’s connection to my practice as a musician. Drone music has long been a primary mode of my music-making, but in my work on the the theme of nuclear weaponry and the
Manhattan Project, it’s taken on a different quality. Instead of using it as a means of exploring timbre and time, and other formal qualities, I now inexorably link it to the droning of our industry and technology, of the processes that mark modernity, and in a sometimes subtle but unmistakable contrast to the soundscapes of wild places. This theme ties into how I explore intertwined and contradictory questions of what is natural in Afterimage Requiem: we used a potential that is inherent in nature to produce an utterly artificial result, and all the while hid our very artificial means in very wild spaces. The sonic elements of Afterimage Requiem bind together through a sort of sound art version of the classical rhetorical figure of antithesis.
One other aspect of our work together that’s worth commenting on is the different registers in which we each tend to work, due to who our grandfathers were and their individual relationships to us and the world. Kei knows so much about who his grandfather was, what he accomplished and had to say, whereas I don’t know even exactly what my grandfather did. Consequently, Kei’s work is often very biographical instance, and directly emotive in ways that echo the words and deeds of his grandfather. My work often flows from historical research and aims to imagine the work or perspective of folks in positions similar to that of my grandfather, but tends to remain moored to my research on the history and science of the Manhattan Project and atomic age, even when it takes a clear stance, as in the work we’ll discuss next. This difference is almost akin to Stephen Jay Gould’s formulation of magisteria, and has allowed us to create work where we complement each other to achieve a coherent end result, even while what we each bring to bear is very different in origin and perspective.
In Spring of 2019 we had the opportunity to bring our work to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and we titled the exhibition Archives Aflame. This seemed a fitting name for our work, carrying with it the implication of a crisis of culture, community and memory, and a threat to the continuity of story and spirit. On the other hand, it might be read as the archives being aflame with a potency and a life, something they carry forward to initiate a better tomorrow. This combination of darkness and hope is characteristic of our work, and of our aspirations for the impression we aim to make on our audience.
For the exhibition we showed Afterimage Requiem alongside images that documented our trip to New Mexico, another piece called Ash Lexicon Silverplate, and a new work called New Light-Narrowcast. Kei will tell you about it now.
New Light-Narrowcast is a video installation comprised of declassified nuclear test footage and audio played via a WW2 era radio. I managed to find around 50 declassified test films that were conducted by the US government during the Cold War. They were mostly conducted on US soil, including in New Mexico, Nevada and the US-occupied Pacific Ocean islands.
An interesting and often overlooked fact, is that the United States and United States citizens were the first victims of nuclear weapons and its radiation. These people are called Downwinders as they were usually exposed to the radioactive material delivered by wind from nearby testing sites or uranium refinement factory. The first downwinders were exposed to fallout from the Trinity test conducted before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After finding these testing films, I broke up each video into 40 to 120 still frames from which I made a photogram using my sunlight expose method. After exposing them to a tinted sunlight (to make the prints green, so as to evoke the green-ish color of Trinitite, a form of fallout created by the Trinity Test) and processing the prints, I re-scanned each print and recombined them into a single video. I also placed objects on the prints while I was exposing them, which results in occasional interruptions of the footage. Now Andrew will discuss the sound for this piece.
The sound system for New Light-Narrowcast as presented at SECCA was a Philco brand AM tube radio from 1943, to which I transmitted the audio via AM radio signal. Here again we have the idea of using an actual thing and carrying its power into the work, and transforming it reciprocally. The audio it played out consisted of a sort of poem reflecting upon and indicting the regime of testing carried out in the American West, and taking up the cause of the Downwinders who unknowingly lived their lives under a rain of radioactive fallout. The poem swerves between addressing the experience of the Downwinders to imaging the potential victims of atomic bombs used in warfare. Another theme the poem takes up is the coevolution inherent to an arms race: innovations in bunker technology breed innovations in bombs and vice versa, in a paranoid cross-border seduction, of sorts. All of these themes and topics swirl together in full fever dream mode, harried by a recurring loud, distorted interrupting tone that seems a blight upon the transmission, and which made the radio physically shake, alarmingly. (To read the complete text of the poem, please consult the appendix at the end of this document.)
This was our first foray into filmmaking together, and we expect that it’s just the first of many more efforts to come in that direction.
We want to thank you for your time and attention and join with us in our desire that we see history not as bygone but as present and borders not as an irrefutable force and determinant of our fates, but as something to question, to scorn and from which we can achieve liberation if we should so choose.
Text of Narrowcast poem
May the light have mercy on us
May the wind have mercy on us
Protect our homes
Our ears strain to hear the bombers beating the air The intake of their jets,
The intake of our breath,
The urgency of our listening,
Your breath a blast wave across the silent morning The bright hour of death
These houses stand empty
Graves above the sand
“To give our nation perpetual victory over all its enemies” 250 decibels shear away our sins
Can you hear it ricochet off the mountains?
This music is eschatology
This music is itself an ending
Do you understand yet, or what?
Steal the life from all homes
Steal the homes from all lands
Murder the sky
Scathe the earth
Boil the waters into poison steam
A dream of dawn in hell
The obliteration of color
is the penalty of power
The dead to come
are the penalty of power
The poverty of generations
is the penalty of power
A dream of dawn in hell,
Do you understand yet, or what?
Building rubble out of homes.
Shrines to our prowess
Hear our voices in the wind
Choking in the wind
Vapor in the wind
Taken by the wind
Up in this hot wind
The view from the churning cloud of the broken town down below Taken past the threshold of annihilation,
a prompt and utter destruction
An egalitarian armageddon,
Generous in death
Do you understand yet, or what?
In the dining room,
Chewed by one hundred thousand splinters,
Drinking the electromagnetic pulse
Gamma rays laugh through our flesh
As impolite as politics
On the porch,
We watch the valley
Every tree shakes loose its life
storms of dust hide the road to the shattered school The archives aflame, all memories lost
Unwritable litanies of questions,
Unquenchable tongues not answering
Faces face down and face up both.
After 250 decibels,
and the crackle of fire
the cracking of timbers
the crackle of skin
the cracking of hope
the silence prevails.
What do you hear?
This silence is eschatology
This silence is itself an ending
Do you understand yet, or what?
Underneath the transept where the broad wings cross the fuselage the bay doors open
Above the quiet valley, where the sand sagebrush greets the morning the bay doors open
The kiss of capacitors to set it all off,
A light not meant for eyes
A sound not meant for ears
Cinders on the wind
The bay doors close.
A halo rises into the sky and leans downwind,
a profound iconoclasm,
what follows this?
Do you understand yet, or what?
On roads cut across the flat, the trucks roll in
The men have come to measure
To gently place their data in the reliquary
With wisdom they meditate upon the problems
to build a better bunker
to build a better bomb
to build a better bunker
to build a better bomb
to build a better bunker
to build a better bomb.
Or to put a bomb underground,
hollowing out the earth,
dirt erupting in vast billows
the air wracked with dirt cast from the hell of the blast below, the air wrecked with the poison of the bomb below, wreathing Nevada with its venom.
Across the valley, a tower bears its bomb,
the sparing architecture built to become vapor,
Its spindly girders a special planned obsolescence.
Such a tower stood at Trinity once
before giving way to a waste of green glass
one Monday morning.
The tower is gone
even it’s battered footings are no more,
but it looms over us all the same.
Do you understand yet, or what?
When the voice on the radio asks you if you’re ready, breathe slowly
before the city ruptures
before the house splits open
before your children shatter
before democracy caves in
before the tired mountains yawn open
before the empty graves fill with the dust of the Great Tribulation.
The laughter of rational actors
thieves of the world
singers of the bunkersong
the very regime of death
The dead to come are the penalty of their power. Do you understand?
Do you understand?
Do you understand yet or what?
“Body Controlled” & Conclusion – Vagner Mendonça-Whitehead
The panel WOKE New Media – Borders and Bodies (its original title), was organized and curated by Mina Cheon. Mina invited me to present and provide a conclusion to the panel; this essay combines elements of the original presentation, portions that were excluded from that presentation due to time constraints, and notions I brought up during the discussion time.
In my art practice, I utilize self-expression to analyze, process, and confront complex ideas that surround me; often times I work from instinct, rather than concept, and retrospectively I articulate the meaning of my work and to find a context for it. Because I often employ representations of my physical self, which falls outside whiteness, shallow interpretation and criticism often repudiate my work as “too personal” or passé. Identity work, until recently, belonged to a small subsect of art works produced in the post-modern period of the last century. While I do not have a problem with that, as the personal is political (especially the personal “other”), I do not consider my work to fall in these categories (personal and identity-based) – I am an actor who holds the mirror for the audience to look at themselves, and not look at my own reflection. What motivates my artistic production is the multitude of stimuli and circumstances I intersect, which I then visually translate through the lens of a queer brown middle-aged immigrant cis man living in the West in the 21st century.
I find this knee-jerk reaction to put my work into the limited “identity” box (gay/brown, must be struggling with his identity), signals a more pervasive problem in the Art World, which bleeds into its New Media Art subsect. Both realms reflect a broader cultural landscape and social portrayal, one that aims to continue to subjugate people who inhabit bodies and places similar to mine. With this in mind, in our current socio-political times, the conversations brought forth through the WOKE panel remain crucial. It is my hope that this essay documents this instance and engenders further dialogue.
Border as shape
I have always been fascinated by the gestural fluidity of political borders, because, in most of the world, they seem to be defined by mutable geographical features (such as rivers and mountain ranges), rather than through visible political/military/human-made force or intervention (US states, with their boxy nature, seem to be an exception). These borders, mostly invisible from the ground, affect the transit of actual bodies in actual space and time.
In terms of representation, bodies seem to be constantly defined, controlled and (re)presented by more rigid borders, as an inheritance from photography’s portrait/vertical and landscape/horizontal rectangular formats (white outlines above have been added by me). These confinements often include textual captioning to complement or inform the accompanying images, either visually or auditory. In my art practice I aim to transgress and defy these rigid borders that confine certain bodies through the use of representations of myself. I will further address photography at the end of this essay.
In the early part of my career I explored the vertical rectangle in a variety of early digital and photo-based projects, often presenting more than one inadequate descriptive system (thanks, Martha Rosler!), within the same pictorial space. I do not consider these, or any one of my works, to be self-portraits, because very little about my essence is actually revealed. But I cannot assume that I can speak for others; I hold responsibility only over my own body, and the implications that sharing it in public settings may entail. While the vast majority of my viewers (critics and supporters alike) seemed to pigeonhole my work as a process of searching for identity, or wanting to be included in a larger narrative that excludes people like me, I often find this interpretation serving only my white audience’s anxiety when visually confronted with my self/work, and works of practitioners that have been traditionally underrepresented (they do not acknowledge their discomfort or realization that I can only be understood as exotic, rather than average). My goal has always been to confront, confound, and question the spaces and traditions that try to define my work and myself. Rather than affirming any sort of monolithic framing for myself, I have always sought to present the mutability and contingency of being. This potentially paradoxical stance to some extent aims to control and affirm difference, rather than give into the mainstream stereotyping for people of color.
Letters to the Past (1994), was a one-off experimental piece I completed in college, which ended up resonating, many years later, with strategies I have applied since then. In it I digitally combined an enlarged photograph of myself undressed and bent over, in a position that did not follow the standards for the representation of the male nude body in Art and popular culture back then; this pose did not necessarily fit into pornographic conventions of the time, either. The background of this piece displayed the sequence of images or documentary context from which the larger one was extracted – all of which were juxtaposed by an original poem, written in the first person of speech, that alluded to a fantastical, dreamlike conversation with a mythical past. The work is presented unmated and unframed to show the dissolving borders of the piece and transgress the (then) traditional way to present photographic works.
Twelve years later, during an artist residency at The Center for Photography at Woodstock, I produced the installation titled Persoentage (2006). The impetus for this work was a feature offered through the www.ancestry.com website, which allowed anyone to upload a photograph of themselves and receive a celebrity comparison. I came across this widget while investigating my family history, which was prompted by people’s constant pursuit of knowing what my ethnic background I fit into (“how come you do not look like your name?” is a question I still hear at least once a month). Because it seemed so ridiculous that a genealogy-themed website (pre-social media) would want to explore celebrity resemblance, I aimed to expose and test its idiosyncrasies. I uploaded 24 different images of myself, all with different hairdos and makeup, photographed in a neutral, ID-like background and collected the results. I video-taped the makeup and photo sessions (which took place in a few consecutive days), where I started with a fresh face and then slightly manipulated my appearance. Additionally, slogans from beauty products, makeup biproduct waste, Google-search portraits, and quotations alleged to resulting celeb-matches, were composited into the same pictorial space.
All but one image provided a celebrity comparison (even the initial fresh-faced one resulted in a similarity with Mark Ruffalo). The most altered image provided no comparison whatsoever (0% matches found), thus earning the subtitle of “100% Vagner.” I also screen-captured the uploading of images onto the ancestry site and presented all images and videos in the same exhibition space, as an expansion of revealing the creative manipulative process of photography, hypermedia, and cultural identity construction, as it intersected the available technologies of the time.
While the vertical rectangle alluded to a tangible form of representation (traditional print photography), in my art practice the horizontal rectangle often displays ephemeral time-based media (relating both to television, cinema, and spirituality). I am fascinated by the ubiquity of the unengaged authority of the one-way telelocutor in video broadcast. Through the medium of video I negotiate both attempts at reclaiming power and control, as well as the giving up of autonomy through objectification and dissolution.
Many of my video works completed in the past twenty years often reverses big media practice by providing a person with no voice or context, in one hand, or oversaturated textual content that provides more undigested information that leaves its viewer with work to do.
Before I began working with video in grad school, my experience in front of the camera included some acting and modeling gigs while in college. My earliest video works were shot and edited in analogue, linear fashion. Headshots was my first non-linear digital video work, where my appearance changed through simple alterations of backgrounds, in-camera effects, repetition, and time compression. Technology mirrors culture; technology is not impartial in its distortion of non-white skin.
For the original six-hour performance, I covered my studio in white materials and constructed jewelry and costume with white, silver, and transparent items. I also bleached my hair blond and painted my nails with silver polish. Viewers could enter the space through one door, a few at a time, and stand behind a white rope, away from the subject in display. On the opposite wall, a looped video projection showed a submerged body in water, in the fetal position, rolling in and out, inhaling and exhaling, suspended between birth and death. Looped 90’s techno music and 80’s Italian opera played within the space, simultaneously, through different devices. During the performance I applied silver makeup onto my face and body. While completely silent, I also interacted with the audience, by painting their finger nails (if visual clues were given as permission), or kissing their hands (leaving silver traces), while tearing off pieces of my garment and environment. Fragments of these encounters were decentralized as the performance progressed and audience members left with my gifts to them; the space was emptier at the end, and I was partially nude.
The Anthropophagic Manifesto, written in 1928, has influenced my strategies in artmaking. Often reduced to a simplistic form of cultural cannibalism, to me it delineates a complex understanding of post-colonial strategies for survival, assimilation, and protest. I align it with sampling and appropriation expressions I witnessed in my youth in popular culture, which, along with a multi-lingual and multi-cultural upbringing, have affected my creative perspective. For this piece, I merged three distinct, and distinctively contested narratives: the history of the banana trade, the rise and fall of Carmen Miranda, and my 30 years of existence in the Americas and Europe.
For Inheritance, I video-documented myself spitting into a tube, that was sent to an early for-profit DNA sequencing service funded by a well-known search engine. A few months later the results arrived via email. My DNA makeup or composition did not seem to match people’s perception of my outer appearance (96% European, 3% Asian, and 1% African). Going against everyone’s advice, in this work I fully disclosed all results (including medical data), provided to me in late 2007, through the green text scroll seen above. Along with the scrolling text, an audio narration problematizes the whole process. My goal was to destabilize a given audience’s expectations of what any of this could mean, individually and to a broader context.
As it turned out, which I predicted back then, DNA sequencing is also contingent information, and not definitive proof; my results have changed multiple times since then. By September 2020, At the time of this writing, I have “become” 87.2% European (52% Iberian, 8% Italian, 3% British, 1% Franco-Germanic, .5% Ashkenazi, and the remainder “broadly European”), 4.1% East Asian and Native American, 2.6% West Asian and North African, .5% Central and South Asian, 1% Sub-Saharan African, and 4.5% unassigned (here’s hoping it is octopus or alien DNA). After my immediate family (50% DNA shared on average), my closest genetic “relative”, an unknown 3rd cousin once removed, is a woman born in 1962 in the US (less than 2% similarity). I do not see these results as a source of celebration nor shame, as they do not adequately convey how the outer shell interfaces with the world.
After 11 years of working with mostly with layered single-channel videos, I returned to the confrontational silence that simultaneously concealed and revealed a representation of self, thus closing this era of my artistic production. I would not return to a head-and-shoulders format until 2018, when I moved into projected installation work that purposefully abstracted my body, which will appear towards the end of this essay.
In 2016 I moved to Texas, which coincided with the escalation of negative rhetoric on brown bodies in the public sphere, an increase in the visualization of violence against Black bodies, and the eventual election of the current federal administration. This seemed like the right time to include my transgressive presence in my art practice, which began with two-dimensional mixed media works on fear and violence. By 2018 emotional, psychological, and cultural distress had become manifested into my life in the form of pain, illness, and a series of hospitalizations. In Present (which can be pronounced both as verb and noun), the silent figure is merged with MRI imagery, a presidential rally, and a police shooting (seen above0, with an outlined perplexed, and mustached, figure, who eventually screams to no one, as no one listens.
Once I decided to return to the front of the camera, I also became more hopeful for the future. Growing up gay in the 70s and 80s, I never expected to survive past the age of 25. Because I had produced similarly composed videos for three decades now, I thought it would be interesting to visualize myself thirty years into the future (my nod to Max Almy’s Leaving the 20th Century). I thinned my own hair and worked with a special-effects makeup artist, who studied photographs of family members in their 60s. While surprised by the results (only 45 seconds of the original footage was usable), this work gave me permission to become the change (in our world), that I wanted to see. My current work directly reflects a specific form of visual critique, which I will address towards the conclusion of this essay.
I would be remiss to not mention that the Covid-19 pandemic has given a broader slice of the public a similar fear of an invisible killer, much like HIV and AIDS working in the gay community in the 80s (with similar inaction from the powers that be, we once again loop back again). For the first time in a decade I now consider that I might not live to old age, once again, so this work may also only exist in the imaginary, rather than a prophetic view of my future.
In retrospect, the repetitive use of the square shape reflects my tendencies for intersecting vertical and horizontal constraints. It alludes exclusion of edges while providing balance, and a safe space within. The square also perfectly accommodates a circle or loop.
One of my earliest digital works, Untitled – eye I #3 was created by combining two photographic processes separated by time and technology. I had access to a now rudimentary (but cutting edge then) film recorder that allowed me to create large format film negatives from digital composited images I created with the original version of Photoshop. I completed three pieces with this process in the last decade of the 20th century, and printed with a 19th century technique. This early piece also displayed some repeating motifs in my work, such as the use of hands and first-person narrative.
The symmetry of this square, expressed as an equilateral cube, provided nine points of entries in an encapsulating safe space. A casa e/é o corpo – The house and/is the body created boundaries on how I chose to represent my trajectory, which at the time I defined as fluid or in flux. While the exterior space featured vertical rectangles in the form of doorways, the interior area housed the horizontal rectangle of the television screen, which played 18 single-channel videos (or points of entry) on a perpetual loop, all of which were surrounded by three-dimensional representations and biproducts of my body and home. In my view, those walls I built expanded (and not constricted) what selfhood could be(come).
I created an alter ego, Dr. Weisskopft (his last name purposefully misspelled). A non-American con-artist posing as an unspecified expert of sorts, this doctor postured his authority through clothing and accented speech. Borrowing tropes from self-help books and informercials, this video-play aimed to conceptually brainwash its viewers into complete media submission, while enclosed in a chained space. The single-channel component has been exhibited on its own, but it is meant to be paired with a live performance, where my video-self commandeers my actor-self into many absurd activities, including the kissing of my own proverbial video-ass. At the end of the video segment, everything goes back to normal, with the simple sound of a hand clap, my actor-self exits the confined space and leaves the building. Members of the audience are invited to voluntarily submit themselves to hypnosis, which in this case is a form of self-erasure; few people agree to participate, even though this is a free service I provide.
Between 2009 and 2016 I created a seven video installation works under the Prefix of a color with the word “code” in their title. They represent the aforementioned gap of my acting (out) in art. The most prominent of these pieces were the “silver code” and “white code” installations that merged traditional media on paper with projected video abstractions. These works also incorporated visual representations of Morse, braille and American Sign Language. With them I aimed to collapse space and time and create contemplative experiences. The impetus for these works were to display conflating meaning and code-switching found in transcultural experiences, which became a conscious strategy I embraced after earning tenure in 2009, and followed by an artist residency in Argentina in 2010.
Silver Code: T.A.N.G.O. presents a male dancer performing accurate moves on his own. Rather than finding a partner, he is faced with his own digital duplication and multiplication, eventually tangled in a hypnotic symmetrical abstraction.
Three spaces triangulate in this work: the place of my birth, the place I reside, and my body. Three forms of representations shape this work: Google Earth simulations, webcam footage, and handmade renderings.
I was invited to participate in the first installment of D-lectricity in Detroit – the city’s version of overnight lights festival a lá Nuit Blanche. Detroit as a city provides an incredibly wonderful snapshot of American culture. Delineated by a mile system of road demarcations (the movie 8 Mile refers to the edge of the city with its mostly white suburbs), this border invisibly demarcates privilege and lack thereof. I drove from the 8-mile border all the way to the water’s edge (where once can easily see Canada in the south), and back, with a camera attached to my dashboard. I also employed satellite imagery of the site, in the middle of the art’s district, and a gazing eyeball that mirrored a billboard I had in the same location a year prior.
During the Miami Art Basel week, I premiered a two-channel synchronized projection piece that round up the “white code” series. The road, my hands, animated digital drawings, and an outdated dictionary were projected onto the paper renderings that incorporated hand-written transcriptions of the same book (the C letter, on the top left, included all C-words in the tome). Where the two projections met, the spine of the book aimed to align itself.
The last installment of the “code” installations, Flight/Risk, took place in 2016. Unfortunately, this work – two 9’x 18’ drawings with three channels of projection – did not survive their deinstallation.
Square as Intersectional Space
Once the edges of intersecting triangles are removed, squares may serve as intersectional markers. Here I (re)define intersectional as when a location – its histories and occupants – shifts their experiences, conventions, and interpretations through juxtaposition, difference, and proximity. They are not quite monolithic, but their contingency is more contained, much like a snapshot may be only proof of a space/time light capture, but not proof of truth or defined meaning.
These square images serve both as memories and locator of places.
Pixels, text, and icons removed from, and referring to computational space.
Selfies, the distorted descendent of the artistic self-portrait, are celebrated, scrutinized, and often demonized. For Selfie Blankets I culled my most “liked” selfies from my personal Instagram account, and printed these selections into woven pieces (such as “selfies in bathrooms” or “selfies with cat”), through a big box retail online store service. The ephemerality and portability of the mobile/smart phone viewing greatly contrasts with the bright, unmanageably soft, and large scale in this presentation. Rather than consider selfies as a psychological flaw or display of incompletion, I argue that these images are markers. They serve as witnesses of someone’s presence in space and time (the “I was there” or eventually the “he’s dead and he’s going to die” that Barthes mentioned as a significant component of the photographic phenomenon). I also see these blankets as potentially protective covers, or a different way to mark existence within one’s own safety boundaries.
In 2019 I performed Fame/Fate at Penland School of Crafts. On a beach volleyball court, I wrote two columns of text: fame (and five alliterations) on one side, and fate (and five alliterations) on another, with a large wooden branch I found in my morning walk. This stick was both a nod to video/performance artist Joan Jonas, and Padre José de Anchieta, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who “helped” settle one of the first colonial sites in the Americas in the early 1500s, or present-day city of São Paulo (my hometown). Anchieta was known for writing ephemeral poetry in the sand of the beaches of southern Brazil. Once my lists were completed, I used the stick to draw a very large circle around myself, spinning nonstop until I collapsed from exhaustion onto the sand. I then rearranged my body to resemble Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The photographic documentation of the performance is the base for a series of 12 large scale paintings I hope to complete by 2021. All these references allude to inclusion and exclusion from larger canonical (and problematically manipulated) narratives.
After the Pulse Nightclub shooting took place in 2016, when I learned more details about its victims, the first thought that crossed my mind was “it could have been me”. This has been a recurring theme in my social anxiety towards random violence. I often assume that every mass shooting in America takes place in an educational setting, because so many of them happen in schools, and I work in such an environment. As many have described with more eloquence, most people of color live under constant transcultural PTSD.
When the prominence of narratives arose in mass media about the detaining camps on the southern borders of the US, the same “it could have been me” thought returned to my consciousness. After three years of living in Texas, it was very clear to me that, despite having arrived in this country flying business class, my status was constantly questioned – and the assumption that I crossed the border on foot to steal someone’s job was directly expressed to me multiple times. In 2019, as a means to create an empathic space within my art practice, and utilize whatever privilege I may have, I began the photo-based series Children_in_Cages, viewable in an eponymous Instagram account. The eventual goal for this series is to recreate one of the cages in real space, attach my images onto its exterior, and program/promote activities in its interior space to engender more first-person visual narratives on bodies of color traversing transnational borders and spaces. The eventual goal would be to replace my work with the works produced by other people, or whatever others affected by our predatory immigration practices decide to be the best way to create a record of our times.
Instead of using images of the actual children incarcerated, which has been suggested to me on more than one occasion (but I believe it to be unethical), I am repurposing photographs of myself (between zero and 18 years of age), from my personal archives, and juxtaposing them with a series of texts and unique surface manipulation. Each image is treated uniquely and reflects my state of mind and current events (often reliving or recollecting past experiences of migration); most recent additions refer to our global pandemic, although the entire project has come to a halt due to my lack of access to materials and equipment. I am not sure if this project will ever see the light of the day, as it seems to veer so far from contemporary photographic practices, or if it will be allowed to be displayed in public (as I can see how it could trigger negative responses). This story is still in progress, this square has not been completely closed yet. But they do mark a new beginning in my art practice.
Post-Script: On Photography and photography
At the end of my presentation, which was supposed to serve as the conclusion of the panel, a point I raised with the group turned out to be more controversial than I intended or anticipated. I asked a broad question to the participants regarding why they thought that, in a panel about WOKE New Media Art, most of the work presented was anything but new media (art), and more specifically photography. The unintended result was the perception that I was a) criticizing/devaluing their work, or b) that I have a beef with Photography. This could not be further from the truth, as Mina and I, from our earliest conversations, aimed to use this opportunity to promote a new generation of artists. I hope that, by the time my essay is read, you will have already examined the incredibly important works by Christopher Kojzar, Victor Torres, Allana Clarke, Antonio McAfee, Kei Ito, and Andrew Keiper.
While I will acknowledge that I have had a checkered past with the Photography community, as my work has quite often been placed in a “not really photography” box, and my views on diversity, inclusion and advocacy – for the need of both new technologies and LGBTQ+ representation in the so-called “Photo World” – have alienated me from that community, I actually love the medium of photography itself, because of what I perceive to be its malleability, ubiquity, and persistence.
Having said that, photography is indeed a historically problematic medium, one steeped in oppressive colonial practices (see phrenology, physiognomy, surveillance, and colorism for starters), and, at the end of the day, it is not a new medium. Maybe I was too literal? In retrospect I could have made the same argument with performance art or video art (two other prominent modes of expression in the panel, not new by any means, but not as pervasive as photography in terms of what the artists produced).
Between the time of the presentation and the dinner that followed, most feathers were unruffled. But since the many months from our event I have pondered into the question of why these artists of color, myself included, are using traditional media (at best under the auspice of media arts) as the main visible thrust of their work, as opposed to the cutting-edge new technologies that so many (white, often cis male) artists/ presenters/ practitioners seemed to embrace in New Media Art events. I addressed a similar concern on a previous essay on Queering New Media Art. There and then I posited that the new/modernistic aspect of the genre excluded practices that were intermedia/ intersectional by nature, and that this inter-disposition aligned itself very well with the decentering of the artist or self, and community survivalist values. Could it be that the “new” aspect of New Media Art also reinforces white supremacy? Or that any practice that has the canon as destination will automatically embrace the privileged and exclude the subjugated? I will not attempt to answer these questions in this space. I will, however, provide an alternative response or clarification for my concern, that aligns with my own art practice and disposition.
I will pose that the anti- and post-colonial practice of anthropophagism, of absorbing, swallowing, chewing, and spitting out the “old” in order to reinvent a “new,” or at least a “now,” is more sympathetic to the plight and perspective of intersectional artists, who often have to constantly renegotiate multiple environments and stimuli in order to find footing in a world that aims to exclude us. This strategy finds many points of entry, a commonality with the mainstream, while allowing for unique adaptations, critique, transgression, protest, and staking claim. If you examine the art production of my fellow panelists you will note that, while at times employing conventional materials, their works are anything but traditional.
Post Post-Script: On exclusion
While the vast amount of my art works included in this essay represent but a small portion of my artistic production in the past three decades (where I have produced more than 35 single-channel videos and dozens video installations, in addition to many two-dimensional and three-dimensional bodies of works), my inclusion of so many works in this essay, which relate to the delineated reframing as borders and bodies to varied extents, aims to overwhelm and pinpoint my absence in a broader New Media Art historical context. Like many underrepresented intersectional artists, our trajectories risk disappearing from broader narratives if our pervasive exclusion continues. The usual argument of the significance or validity of one’s practice, as in not good enough (or the fact that said practice does not exist or is worth noting), often comes up as the justification for this exclusion or erasure, as opposed to considering that one’s work might be too brown, or too gay, too isolated or Midwestern (in my case), to be valid or visible. But, of course, this is how privilege (or lack thereof), plays out, even/especially in the Fine Arts.
New Media Art will not become “woke” by simply including a few token “woke” practitioners (toke?) every once in a while. Equity must follow inclusion, along with access and sustainability. Someone else, besides us, needs to do the heavy lifting.
Until the most powerful institutions – the ones that have the ability/funds to include/collect/study the artistic practices of traditionally underrepresented/intersectional/artist on the fringes – wake up, dismantle their inherent white supremacist structures, put into practice anti-racism approaches to their organization and curation, are held accountable for their past, and foster the many difficult conversations they have helped to conceal, this situation is likely to be perpetuated for quite some time, and continue to exclude and erase artists like myself. You’d better wake up!
Post Post-Post-Script: Black Lives Matter
This incredible artwork was installed in downtown Detroit, MI, as part of the exhibition Manifest Destiny curated by Ingrid LaFleur, at the same time as the NMC Symposium BORDER CONTROL took place at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. LaFleur also participated on the panel Digital Detroit: On Borders & Activism at the BORDER CONTROL symposium. My goal was to end my presentation and invite people to attend LaFleur’s panel, and pilgrimage to Detroit for the exhibition on the following day. But unfortunately, I had to cut it from the presentation to stay within the time frame (another border constraint?) we were given.
While I have limited leverage in the Art World, it is my mission to cede the little level of privilege I may have to make/foster inclusive spaces, whenever possible. As such, it makes me happy to end this essay with this powerful piece, and rectify my omission at the symposium.