The Download: Mendi + Keith Obadike

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This month The Download features American Cypher by Mendi + Keith Obadike.

Still from American Cypher (2012)

American Cypher is a suite of projects that respond to American stories about race and DNA. The first module of the project was a sound installation inspired by the relationship between U.S. Presedent Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave and mother to his children. The instantiation of American Cypher offered this month through The Download, takes the form of a score for performance; combining poetry and video recorded in the basement of Jefferson's plantation, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the following excerpt from an interview Rhizome contributing writer Jason Huff conducted last September, Mendi and Ketih discuss the role of race and history in their multi-disciplinary practice.

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.