Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Art & Context Interview with Mendi + Keith Obadike

In addition to being friends Mendi + Keith Obadike are among my favorite contemporary artists. At one of their online sites, BlackArtNet, has been part of my blogroll for a decade now, and I have had the pleasure of writing about them critically in a paper set to appear later this spring. Collaborators and partners in life and art, and true multidisciplinary visionaries, Mendi+Keith have created a series of iconic artworks and performances across a range of platforms for over a decade and a half.

Recently, at Art & Context, Erin Sickler interviewed them about their work and lives, and the interview is full of insights on their practice, their aesthetics, and their goals.

Here are some quotes:
We moved through many zones to arrive at this sound centered practice that we have today. When we began we wanted to find our own way for music, language, and media to work together. We thought we might make a new kind of opera. We started talking about this around 1993, but we were already heavily involved in separate practices. Informed by a lot of experimental music and video work from the 60s & 70s and our experience with computers, we started seriously working online in the mid 90s. Working online was a simple way for us to combine our work in music, art and literature in one accessible frame. We were not living in New York at the time, so it was also a way for us present our projects to a large audience little or no institutional support. As we learned the language and nuances of the early world wide web, we began to explore all of the ways one might perform in this new space. We did live streams, animated gifs, text-based email projects, and sound pieces. All of those lessons (about communicating scale, giving a sense of register/tone, and projecting your energy in media) informed and enabled the work we would later do in brick and mortar spaces.
In the 1990s we began calling the technologies of race (among other things) “social filters,” to think through the ways that technological and social dynamics on Internet and in digital culture were grounded in older cultural patterns. While racial discourse is of course implicated in our projects about social filters, we have always been interested to think about who gets to belong and who does not and what the barriers are to belonging. Race is one of the many technologies that delimit this belonging, but because our work is sometimes allegorical, there are also other issues explored in the work. That said, we’re often using the resources offered by African diasporic thinkers -- Igbo, African-American and other African writers.
And finally:
We think in times like these it becomes even more important to choose your media and limit your intake carefully. The flow of bad news can be overwhelming if you forget to step out of the stream. We stay focused because we know we are here to do this work. We know what art can do, and we are empowered by the lasting energy of the folks who came before us.
Do read the entire interview too, and don't miss them if they are speaking, performing or part of an exhibition near you.

Here are three videos featuring their work, including 2015's "Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]," at the New School for Social Research.

Mendi + Keith Obadike's "4 Electric Ghosts" (2009)

Mendi + Keith Obadike's "The Earth (for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs)," Obadike Studio (Side A: "If the Heavens Don't Hear (A Roller Skating Jam for Marian Anderson)" + remix by Gordon Voidwell, and Side B: "The Earth Will Hear (for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs)"

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