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 ...

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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... 

 

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