Artist Profile: Mendi + Keith Obadike

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Mendi + Keith Obadike are 2011 Rhizome Commissions winners for their proposal, African Metropole: Sonic City Lagos.

 

Many of your pieces are concerned with race and identity and confront those issues through technology. In your 2001 piece "Blackness for Sale" you were asked to remove the auction from eBay because of its inappropriateness. Thinking about growth of identity and social networks on the internet over the last decade, do you feel that it is important for artists to continue to make political work that engages the internet and other new media?

While our early sound art works like Sexmachines, Automatic, or the Uli Suite were not about race/identity, certainly many of the early Internet works were. We would say that race itself is a technology, and so making work that looks at how issues of race or identity play out online is a way to highlight this fact. The Internet is by nature a contested space, so any work that engages with this terrain is of course political. Many of the questions we started asking in the late 90s around narrative structures, technology, and identity seem to remain relevant today, although the ways in which we engage with the networks seem significantly different. When we made “Blackness for Sale” and other "net.art" over a decade ago, many people saw the web as a place to try on masks and to play with other identities. Today, through social networking sites, people are flooding the web with personal info and living with what might be best described as a bloated databody. So we do find that social interactions on the web create a territory for which commentary is as necessary and as fruitful today as it has ever been. 

Your collaborative projects frequently mine narratives and characters from history and transform them using sound, performance, and new technologies. In your recent piece "Four Electric Ghosts: an pera-masquerade" you even blend a 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola with Pac Man. What do you find inspiring about mixing what might seem like disparate pieces of culture and history together? And do you feel that engaging history with new technology through your art helps the public gain a new understanding of their own position in culture?

Our work is not so much about new technologies as it is about finding personal ways to examine persistent questions in our culture, and then making that process accessible. We do strive to make work that invites audiences to reconsider their / our positions in culture. Many of our projects combine elements from two "root texts" and we've sometimes referred to the idea of mixing with two turntables when working with the two sources. When we engage the video game as an element in our work, it is because narratives in that medium resonate with us, not just the technology. For example, when we started workshopping Four Electric Ghosts, our second opera-masquerade, we were moving away from the online work. We wanted to reimagine "downtown New York opera" and to create a piece that responded to intersections in some old texts that we found particularly compelling. As we were looking for a place to develop these ideas, our friend, composer and, computer music pioneer Paul Lansky introduced us to Toni Morrison, and we were thrilled when she invited us to come work on our project there in her Atelier program at Princeton. 

While basing this project in pop songs and prose, we wanted to look at the video game as a kind of folklore and the novel as a game system. During our research phase we interviewed a number of interesting thinkers, including Laurie Anderson and Cornel West, about hauntings and invited students to think with us about the narratives in video games and what it would mean to flip to perspective of both the Amos Tutuola narrative and the video game from the people to the ghosts. After that workshop we ended up writing a completely new story and working with a great group of artists including dancers (from Angela's Pulse & Urban Bushwomen), musicians, and designers in realizing a production at The Kitchen. (The project is now touring and the book, DVD, and album will be out this fall). The notion that both old media and new inform our sense of storytelling was there at the beginning, but the audience for the stage performance (or the album or the book) doesn’t have to use new media or necessarily care about media theory. 

You've experimented with a wide variety of mediums over the past 13 years. Have you developed a preference for any specific medium or mode of presenting work? In your process of ideation, does the content dictate the medium or do the the form and idea inspire each other?

It’s pretty organic. We usually begin each work with some sense of the needed tools for the work, but as the idea unfolds, the approach will often shift, and over the years patterns emerge. We come from making music and poetry and later came to study and make art. Right now our work is divided into three overlapping categories: media-specific works, intermedia suites, & opera-masquerades. The media-specific works might appear as an isolated series of media art works, poems, or songs. Our Black.Net.Art actions is one example. This includes Blackness for Sale (2001), The Interaction of Coloreds (2002) and The Pink of Stealth (2003). Another example is African Metropole / Sonic City -- a series of sound art works based on multiple sites on the continent.  Our intermedia suites are meditative, non-narrative projects made up of multiple intersecting modules -- usually poems, music, a sound installation, and video works centered on one theme. Examples of this kind of work are Big House / Disclosure (2007) and a new work American Cypher, which is being commissioned by The Samek Gallery and the Griot Institute at Bucknell University. The last category are our "opera-masquerades". These projects are narrative & song-based works which have at the core a new music theater performance, but include related gallery and book modules. Four Electric Ghosts and The Sour Thunder are examples of this kind of work. Because we have these different ways we produce work, we of course consider our ways of inviting an audience to engage whenever we embark on a new project, but the form for each project ultimately depends on what that project demands.

"Big House / Disclosure" takes an interesting approach at uncovering the ties that link contemporary culture to important moments in history. Reflecting on the "big house/disclosure" project, do you feel that engaging a project in the dynamics of social space changes your original ideas about the content of the project?

Big House / Disclosure is the kind of project that we hope will provide some surprises by design. It may help to describe the project. The piece included performance scores, graphics scores for musicians, and poems. But the largest part of that work was a 200 hour public sound installation, the sound for which depended on the words of the unpredictable public. While the work is broadly about the architecture of slavery, at the center of the work was a 2002 Chicago city ordinance - the Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance. This ordinance states that any company (banks, agricultural companies, textile manufacturers, etc) wishing to do business with the city must disclose any historic ties to the slave trade. And while the law requires compliance, there is no penalty for any company admitting to ties to the slave trade. So the audio for the house song was made up of original house music (software synths and drum machines) and oral interviews with Chicago area residents, who answered questions about the recent ordinance, images associated with slavery, and house music. The sound installation played for eight days in the halls of Northwestern Art History building (and streamed online); it was programmed so that elements of the music changed in response to the rise and fall of the stock prices of companies involved in this disclosure. It was certainly surprising to hear how few people knew about the ordinance. We were fascinated by the range of responses from local citizens, specifically in regards to questions about  who holds responsibility for the legacy of slavery. We were also shocked to hear many of the Northwestern students defend the rights of corporations. But the point of asking questions is to hear the answers. So while we wouldn’t say that our original ideas about the content of the project necessarily change when our projects are interactive in this way, we have found that artworks that invite an engagement with the public necessarily broaden our sense of that public. We are, in fact, reaching for that kind of experience.

Some of your new projects take place in theaters or larger spaces. Given your interest in multi-character narratives and skill in generating your own sounds and scores do you see yourself performing in even larger spaces? What would be your ideal performance space?

We plan to continue to continue developing our opera-masquerades. The size of the venue must directly relate to the piece and the scale of each work will vary, but to answer your question: the ideal performance space -- large or small -- is one in which we have an opportunity to create a sense of communion with the audience while expanding all of our horizons. We've spent the last year writing and workshopping a new work as resident artists at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and we hope to show that piece in New York sometime next year. 

 


Age?

M: 37
K: 38

Location?

Harlem, NYC

How long have you been working creatively with technology?  How did you start?

We both began programming BASIC on TRS 80 computers in middle school and we later took a computer class together in 7th grade. Keith later got into synth programming and worked as a hip-hop / R&B producer. His interest in electronic music led him to study the work of Olly Wilson (hear his piece Sometimes from 1976) and Paul Lansky, and later Nam June Paik, and he began to make sound art. Mendi, meanwhile, wrote songs with Keith and poems on her own. Later teaching herself html provided her with a way to experiment with poetry. Our first collaborative self consciously “new media” work may have come 1996 when we composed our first “telnet action” -- a conceptual piece asking for participants to send us their favorite everyday sounds. The process expanded from there.

Describe your experience with the tools you use.  How did you start using them?

We explore the concepts that interest us with whatever tools we have. 

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

Mendi received a BA in English at Spelman College and a Ph.D. in Literature at Duke University. Keith received a BA in Visual Art at North Carolina Central University and an MFA in Sound Design at Yale University. We should note that we were each greatly influenced by and have benefited from being witnesses to each other’s education over the years.

What traditional media do you use, if any?  Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

We find terms like “traditional” and “new” and even “technology” quite difficult to parse when taken literally. More importantly, we don’t separate our creative practices by the technologies involved. At root, concept always matters. In that way, yes, it’s all related. 

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

Our work is intermedia work -- which is to say that music, writing, image making, community activities, and concepts are all part of whatever work we do.

What do you do for a living?  Do you think your job relates to your art practice in a significant way?

We make art. We exhibit and perform. We talk about our art at a wide range of cultural institutions. We teach. Keith is a professor of Integrated Media Arts in Department of Communication at William Paterson University. Mendi teaches on poetry across media, sound across the arts, literature, and critical theory in the department of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute. What we teach is directly related to our practices, though our students often use the lessons toward different ends.

Who are your key artistic influences?

We have a wide variety of artistic influences, but some of the key ones include Aimé  Césaire, Keith Piper, Nam June Paik, Harryette Mullen, Bill Viola, Pharoah Sanders, Adrian Piper, Pablo Neruda, Sonny Sharrock, Toni Morrison, Vernon Reid, Benjamin Patterson, Isaac Julien, Abbey Lincoln, Public Enemy, Coco Fusco, George Lewis, Laurie Anderson, Paul Lansky, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and Bill Fontana.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project?  With whom, and on what?

Over the years we’ve been fortunate enough to work with many talented folks across the arts. Keith started his career working behind the scenes doing small bits of tech work, studio sessions, or sound design work for folks coming from performance, including R&B singer D’Angelo, choreographer Bill T. Jones, NEA 4 performance artist Tim Miller, and actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Those early experiences with other peoples projects, while not proper collaborations, were extremely valuable.

We recently produced a  text-sound compilation album, Crosstalk, that included new work from a range of artists including Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd, Guillermo Brown, Peter Gordon/ Lawrence Weiner, DJ Spooky, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Tracie Morris, and Pamela Z among many others.  We are currently working with painter Iona Rozeal Brown on her piece for Performa  11 in New York. Iona is probably best known for her iconic paintings combining Japanese Edo period imagery with blackface and hip-hop elements. We also work regularly with sisters behind Angela’s Pulse,  Patricia McGregor (Associate director of Fela! on Broadway) and Paloma McGregor (Urban Bushwomen & Dance Exchange).  

Do you actively study art history?

Yes.  

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory?  If so, which authors inspire you?

We are big fans of scholars like Daphne Brooks, Alondra Nelson, Kobena Mercer, and Richard Powell.  We’re drawn to areas of study by the ideas more than by the cult of personality. That said, we have learned a great deal from artists who write art criticism, philosophy, and critical theory, such as Adrian Piper, Toni Morrison, Coco Fusco, George Lewis, Guillermo Gomez-Pena,, Richard Kostelanetz, and Dick Higgins. 

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

Every moment has its own challenges, irrespective of media. However, we do have some questions that have come up in our practice and we know that many other artists and media art organizations including Rhizome have wrestled these questions for years. 

- What is the significance of the work considered a new media work as its medium ages? 

- When can the work be best understood? 

- What role does the “aura” play in new media art? 

- Does the novelty of  what has been called new media take away from the art’s potential for visceral power?  

- Should new media art privilege technological sophistication or conceptual rigor?

- How do we access works created for outdated platforms? 

- How do we archive works in media with an unidentified a shelf life? 

We also have questions about the audiences’ relationships to intermedia works. One the one hand, the beauty of the intermedia artwork is that it can speak to many contexts. On the other hand, it often falls to the artist to teach the audience to find poetry in the gallery, for example, or to find art in the concert hall. And it is sometimes challenging for audiences familiar with the traditions of art in only one medium to read the entire work. This issue is especially weighty when we recognize that the audience necessarily includes curators, presenters, and critics, as well as other enthusiasts. Our answer has been to take the works to centers of activity for each of the practices we engage, but we ultimately hope to see audiences show more interest in the arts generally.