IN THE RING: Keith Piper interviewed by James Flint (On Fortress Europe,
digital art and the CD-Rom "Caught like a Nigger in Cyberspace")
Keith Piper is a multi-media artist specialising in Computer Animation
and Interactive Multi-Media Production. He has exhibited work widely in
Europe and North America, and recently completed an artist residency in
the New Media department of Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada. He is
currently working on a computer animation for broadcast on Channel 4 and
a virtual interactive gallery project with InIVA which will be posted on
the World Wide Web. This interview was conducted in November 1995.
Mute: Your work deals with a lot of racial issues. Do you think that
"cyberspace" has been racially constructed, or do you think that at the
moment it's still very open?
Keith Piper: This is one of the things which the CD-Rom that I'm
currently working on deals with. It's provisionally entitled Caught like
a Nigger in Cyberspace, and essentially it's an attempt to further
explore what I saw as the particular ways in which black people have
been characterised in terms of the digital domain, in terms of the ways
in which our presence is often seen as transgressive, as the embodiment
of threat and disorder. It's meant to have a computer game-type feel,
even though it hasn't! There are particular restrictions which have the
effect of constructing cyberspace around racially oriented lines.
Restrictions around the expense of access. Restrictions around the use
of language, around the whole male bias within the particular use of
M: Could you give me a brief rundown on your personal history as an
KP: Personal history as an artist? I don't know if I've got one! I
basically started as a painter, mixed-media, collage-type artist,
working in conventional two dimensional ways. That's the kind of work
which I was doing at college.
M: Where were you at college?
KP: I did my degree at Nottingham, Trent polytechnic, too long ago to
mention, and then did this strange course called Environmental Media at
the Royal College of Art. It was really strange because we'd been there
for like three weeks and they closed the course down. Which was a bit of
a blow! But in retrospect that was the type of course - and it was the
only one around at the time - which would allow folks to explore the new
technologies as they emerged. That was in 1984, so there wasn't really
much around then, but it was that type of space, that type of
integrated, mixed media space, which would have been most receptive to
the use of new technologies and stuff. And they closed it down.
M: One of the earlier works that I saw that really impressed me was the
Rodney King piece. You used clips from the videotape. That wasn't
Macromedia Director, presumably. Did you do that on the amiga?
KP: That was an Amiga based project. It isn't a piece which I've used
much or shown much. In common with a lot of that stuff which I've made
that piece was particularly unresolved, but it was developed as part of
a show with a number of things in it, looking at different constructions
around black masculinity. That particular piece was an attempt to
explore issues around surveillancing and the criminalisation of the
M: What other pieces have you done which particularly look at or use
KP: There was a piece called Tagging the Other, which was an attempt to
look at the ways in which new technologies, and particularly the
technologies of surveillance, visual imaging and data accumulation were
being used within the development of what is being termed "Fortress
Europe." This refers to the debate around the movement of labour, both
around Europe, and from outside Europe in the run up to the European
Single Market. Within this, issues are raised around what constitutes
this new European citizen, or subject, and the ways in which various
black communities around Europe are being excluded from that particular
equation of this new European. The piece also dealt with the ways in
which new technologies of surveillance were being brought in and brought
to bear upon those particular excluded communities.