Keith Obadike performing "Pushing White Walls/360: Resistance Study." Courtesy of the artist.
Blackness for Sale

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by A•da Mashaka Croal
"Artist and composer Keith Townsend Obadike is auctioning his blackness online at eBay.com," a press release announced, setting the event from August 8 to 18. "This heirloom has been in the possession of the seller for twenty-eight years. Mr. Obadike's Blackness has been used primarily in the United States and its functionality outside of the US cannot be guaranteed. Buyer will receive a certificate of authenticity."

From here, the announcement launches into a hilariously astute slew of benefits and warnings: "This Blackness may be used for creating black art...making jokes about black people and/or laughing at black humor comfortably...accessing some affirmative action benefits (limited time offer)...dating a black person without fear of public scrutiny ...securing the right to use the terms 'sista,' 'brotha,' or 'nigga,' in reference to black people...to augment the blackness of those already black, especially for purposes of playing 'blacker than thou.'"

Obadike's warnings, framed as a series of recommendations, counsel potential buyers not to use his Blackness while, among other things, "seeking employment, making or selling 'serious' art, shopping or writing a personal check, making intellectual claims or while voting in the United States or Florida."

A Tennessee-born artist of Nigerian parentage, Obadike began his career as a producer with the Nashville and New York-based Modern Hip-Hop Quartet (MCA records). An interest in electronic music soon led Obadike into digital realms and he later studied with painter and digital artist Acha Debela and sculptor Rosie Thompson at North Carolina Central University. A sonic architect and concept artist, Obadike's award-winning projects have explored issues of race, sexuality and community online. His net memorial for Amadou Diallo, "My Hands/Wishful Thinking," a collaboration with his wife, Mendi Obadike, is particularly riveting.

Recently admitted to Yale's MFA program in Sound Design, Obadike is now in the process of moving from North Carolina to New Haven, Connecticut: packing boxes, shipping items and "selling a lot of stuff." The eBay project was partly born of this chaos.

"I really wanted to do something about commerce on the net," he says plainly. "I've been thinking about this stuff for a long time—about these places like eBay and Explorer—about how we're supposed to just swallow them without thinking. Where are black people in all of this? [The auction block] just seemed logical to me. I wanted to highlight eBay's position and my position. I just wanted to play with it."

Much ado has been made about the power of the World Wide Web. Since its flamboyant rise in the 1990s, all manner of pundits and cultural critics have weighed in to alternately lionize or demonize the virtual medium. But no matter the commentator's orientation—from rabid enthusiast to the anti-tech paranoiac—most agreed that the Web contains a boundless potential to transform human life. In cyberspace, where space is infinite, we were looking at manifest destiny for all.

Of course, that was before the dot-com crash—before we learned that the Internet, by and large, was nothing more than a glorified shopping mall. In this virtual marketplace, consumers sought convenience, efficiency and relative anonymity. You want a used computer, a book long out of print, a rare coin? Head for eBay or Amazon.com. You want to know how to cook paella, build a bomb, or vomit without harming your teeth? The information is but several clicks away. If you want porn without the hassle of trench coats and dark glasses there is no better shopping than in cyberspace, where nothing sells as quickly or as continuously as sex. Above all, if you are seeking a community of like-minded individuals, no matter who you are or what your bag of tricks, there is a site out there tailor-made for you. And Obadike's action quickly attracted those Web crawlers interested in thinking about race.

To play out his theory, Obadike turned to the net's most popular auction block: eBay. From there, the 28-year-old artist would traffic in the most historically controversial of auction block commodities—his very own Blackness.

The moment Obadike's auction went live the artist began receiving a slew of email responses. "What happens once you give away your blackness? Is blackness a self-generating product? Or once you give it, you don't have it anymore?" asks one participant. "Is this blackness gender-specific?" asks another. "I would like to use it to enable me to do that swiveling head-thing that black women do when they get mad, especially in combination with the finger-swaying signifying gesture, as I have long admired its power to inspire fear and/or respect in the party to whom it's directed; however, I have never seen this done by a black man. Will your blackness work for this purpose?

"What is the value of 'blackness?'" asks yet another. "I imagine that your price will never be met because the value is too great (I imagine this is part of your message, please confirm or deny)." Another participant wonders, "What if sexuality is tossed in too? Are prices slashed? Perhaps you should add a gender clause to your disclaimer list." Many congratulated Obadike on the boldness of his auction. But eBay wasn't amused.

"The World's Online Marketplace," which itself has come under fire in recent years for letting people bid on pornography and firearms as well as Nazi, Klan and blackface memorabilia, shut Obadike's auction down after four days, deeming it "inappropriate." Though Obadike's auction, one out of literally millions, does not violate eBay's hate and violence policy, it was still singled out for scrutiny and ultimately yanked.

"They barely monitor their auctions," Obadike contends. "So how did mine get onto their radar? And what is 'inappropriate' about it?"

To date, no one at eBay has answered Obadike's written inquiries nor attempted to further clarify their action. For the artist, however, the project's goal was to get people talking and thinking critically about the assumptions they live under. But the fact that Obadike's small auction drew such a wide response—enough to threaten his online host—is proof positive that his mission was accomplished.

First published: August 21, 2001
About the Author

A•da Mashaka Croal is a staff writer for Africana.com.
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ARTTHROB MONTHLY ISSUE NO. 48 AUGUST 2001

African-American artist auctions his blackness online

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In a trenchant and witty conceptual work commenting on race in the US (and further afield), African-American artist Keith Townsend Obadike auctioned his blackness on ebay.com last week. Scheduled to run from August 8-18, the auction was closed by eBay after four days due to the "inappropriateness" of the item. In this time Obadike's blackness received 12 bids, peaking at $152.50. Obadike, a 28-year-old artist, composer and MFA student in sound design at the Yale School of Drama, explores issues of race, sexuality and community online through his "Black.net.art" actions. Obadike listed his blackness for sale on eBay (the internet's most successful marketplace) under Collectibles/Culture/Black Americana - where it appeared alongside old Amos 'n Andy records, slave tags, "lucky black voodoo dolls" and other items that speak volumes about the construction of black identity. Obadike offered the buyer a certificate of authenticity, while warning that "Mr Obadike's Blackness has been used primarily in the United States and its functionality outside of the US cannot be guaranteed". Obadike drives his point home with the lightest of touches in his description of this "heirloom", listing a series of benefits and warnings. On the plus side, "This Blackness may be used for creating black art", "gaining access to exclusive, 'high risk' neighbourhoods " and "accessing some affirmative action benefits" (the latter with the qualifier, "Limited time offer. May already be prohibited in some areas"). Under warnings, Obadike writes: "1. The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used during legal proceedings of any sort. 2. The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while seeking employment. 3. The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used in the process of making or selling 'serious' art. 4. The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while shopping or writing a personal check", and so on. The fact that Obadike's blackness sold for a proverbial song, and that the work was prematurely closed by eBay, is of course entirely - if unintentionally - appropriate. The intervention continues to make its impact felt after the drop of the hammer and can be viewed online at http://Obadike.tripod.com/ebay.html.

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For exhibitions, lectures, conferences, readings and performance please contact Mendi + Keith through office@blacknetart.com
Information on Mendi + Keith's books, CDs, DVDs and prints can be obtained through Hellomachine.com

 

 

 

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MÁS ALLÁ DE LA IDENTIDAD

KKEITH &MENDY OBADIKE
Los artistas afroamericanos Keith & Mendi Obadike amplían el discurso de la identidad a la raza y de ésta a la denuncia de la discriminación en Black Net.Art, la página que recoge su producción para Internet. Forma parte de ésta The Interaction of Coloreds, un proyecto producido por el Artport del Whitney Museum de Nueva York. El proyecto, una irónica y descarnada crítica de las discriminaciones contemporáneas y de las turbias relaciones entre raza, dinero y poder, promociona el IOC Color Check System®, un sistema capaz de discriminar los accesos a un determinado sitio sometiendo los visitantes a un test de relevación del color de la piel. Bajo el lema “Protege tu portal, protege tu comunidad on line de visitantes no deseados”, la web de los Obadike invita los propietarios de sitios Internet a adherir a este sistema para evitar “el exponencial aumento de problemas que comporta la entrada de gente de color en el mundo del comercio electrónico”. The Interaction of Coloreds se enmarca en una tendencia que utiliza la sátira y el surrealismo on line para difuminar los límites entre realidad y ficción en proyectos que apuntan a problemas políticos, sociales o económicos concretos.

Es el caso también de Metapet, un sofisticado juego on line creado por Natalie Bookchin y Jin Lee, en el cual se mezclan genética, biotecnología, técnicas de marketing y cultura empresarial, aderezados por una buena dosis de ironía. Metapet es un juego de estrategia ambientado en una empresa de biotecnología en el año 2006, protagonizado por los meta-cachorros (los metapets del título), una nueva generación de seres genéticamente modificados con el gen de la obediencia. Para ganar el jugador debe aprender a rentabilizar su criatura, manteniendo bajo control su estado de salud, su moral y su energía, dosificando reconstituyentes, estimulantes y tranquilizantes. A través de una herramienta símbolo del ocio contemporáneo como es el vídeojuego, Metapet plantea una serie de interrogantes sobre las nuevas estrategias empresariales, la cultura corporativa y el desarrollo de la biotecnología.

Raza e identidad protagonizan también Tropical América, un juego narrativo y de estrategia on line, que explora las causas y los efectos del olvido en la historia latinoamericana a través de una experiencia interactiva de la geografía política y cultural de este continente. El juego, concebido por Juan Devis y Jessica Irish, se inspira en dos hechos históricos: un mural pintado en Los Angeles por David Alfaro Siqueiros y borrado en 1932 y la historia de Rufina Amaya, la única sobreviviente de la matanza de El Mozote en El Salvador en 1981. “Usted es el único sobreviviente de una terrible masacre y debe encontrar cuatro pruebas que hagan justicia a la memoria de su pueblo” así empieza el recorrido que conduce el jugador a través de trece acontecimientos históricos que han marcado la historia de los pueblos latinos americanos y que han sido silenciados por la visión hegemónica del desarrollo histórico.
 
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Defaming Desire:
Pornography in the Virtual World

Nuit Banai

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Christopher Ho and Hilda Daniel, Corrective Porn, http://www.fictive.net/porn/corrective_porn/


The competition to capitalize on desire has never been more furious. This is the message of Fictive Net Porn, a fictional mega-site directory devoted to projects that explore the various facets of pornography on the Internet. With over 80 participating visual artists, writers, graphic designers, architects, anthropologists and programmers, Fictive Net Porn, curated by artist Paul Clay, is one of the most exhaustive critical reflections on the subject. While there is no shortage of exposed orifices arranged in titillating ensembles, titanic body parts consumed in graphic physical acrobatics, and fetishistic free-play for every persuasion, the site comes with a caveat, "Fictive net porn – it’s not porn, it’s art about porn."

However strange or unnecessary such a disclaimer may seem, it makes the purpose of the project immediately clear to both the porn-skeptical and porn-insatiable visitor. Since pornography is an industry that exploits the genuine impulses of love, desire, and eroticism and transforms them into a secondary form of representation for the benefit of the cash-nexus, it is only through representation itself that the gravity of this situation can be fathomed. While Fictive Net Porn delves into the many political, economic and cultural ramifications of pornography’s infiltration into the virtual world, the most resonant works are those that recognize that in a society already mediated by images, pornography further cheats the individual of authentic experience by mass-producing, packaging and selling desire as ready-made representation. In this way, the one pulsatile, delicious drive that should remain in the imaginary, never to be fully named but perpetually left unbound to slip through the gaps of representation, is hunted down and trapped in a cheap, industrially produced container.

As such, it is the works that do not focus directly on the physical acts peddled by the porn industry, those in which desire has been transfixed and duly evacuated, that are able to critically engage with pornography’s mechanism of libidinal impoverishment. For instance, Julie Allen’s project, Cake, is a mini photo-roman that describes the purchase and consumption of a tantalizing pastry product. The text, steeped in sensorial evocation of touch, taste, and smell, is accompanied by images, in which the cake is slowly transformed from a clearly identifiable food item, glazed with stiff frosting and smooth whipped cream and topped with ripe strawberries to a hazy part-object with indistinct contour lines in shades of white, brown and red. Allen’s piece suggests that pornography functions partly through the separation and fragmentation of the different senses. By displacing desire to sight alone, pornography negates the vital interplay of the senses and isolates the viewer from a whole range of experiences and responses that are the basis for creative and libidinal agency.

To counter the sensorial privation brought about pornography’s fetishization of sight, Keith Townsend Obadike suggests a return to aural desire in Sexmachines, a sound-piece that’s also an ‘aural portrait’ of Nam June Paik. Working within a self-identified lineage that originates with Paik’s 1967 Opera Sextronique, a performance/music piece with Charlotte Moorman, and continues with James Brown’s 1969-190 funk classic "Sex Machine," Obadike tries to operate productively at the intersection between pleasure, art and technology. Each of the three modules that compose the sound triptych is an abstraction of audio textures produced when a sex toy was brought into contact with a digital recording system. The result is a surge of granular subterranean sounds, with foamy crests and riptide troughs, which throb, vibrate, ooze and gush to produce 2 to 6 minute long ambient environments. Obadike’s modules perform the words of architect and sound-artist Bernhard Leitner, in whose opinion "sounds penetrate not only through the ears, but over the skin, not only into the hearing, but also into certain cavities of the body, and continue in bone courses and other channels, in order to enter the whole body acoustically." By escaping from the constrictions of both visual and linguistic representation and offering a form of aural delectation that is either before or beyond totalization, Obadike offers a preliminary solution to countering pornography’s tyranny over desire.
The pornography industry’s premeditated imprisonment of the individual within a ready-made language is the focus of Corrective Porn, a collaboration between New York-based artists Hilda Daniels and Christopher Ho. Ostensibly, their compilation of the best available rape sites provides a helpful service to the time-pressed net surfer. However, the abundance of bright, red proof-reader’s marks used to correct every grammatical and spelling error, eliminate the hyperbolic exclamation points, and transform the ALL CAP promises of diverse scenes of RAPE, introduces a disjunction between the form and content of the site. Daniels’ and Ho’s clinical response, which transforms the site’s interface into a quasi-abstract pattern, emphatically illustrates that pornography is, in fact, the abstraction of desire into a picture formed by pillaging the linguistic as much as the visual. This bind is clarified if we think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s celebrated statement on a picture "…which held us captive, and we could not get outside it for it lay in our language and the language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably." Similarly, by operating within a narrowly circumscribed linguistic
territory that masquerades as the emancipation of fantasy, pornography inhibits the possibilities of imagining desire differently while producing an almost hermetically sealed world-picture that perpetuates itself as the normative.
In a way, the virtual project of Fictive Net Porn begins with the only non-internet based work, French-born artist Sebastien Agneessens’ Where Do You Stand? a plexiglass map of the entire range of fetishes included in the web site. Pastel colored circles, ellipses and squares overlap to create a functional flow-chart that classifies the libidinal in such categories as Animals, Food, Messy, Body, S&M, Costumes and Uniforms, Body Inflation and Objects. Within each category are smaller sub-categories so that Body Inflation includes a Fat Admiration fetish, itself subdivided into Fat, Big Butt and Big Breasts. By mimicking the calculated way in which a corporation might approach the analysis and conquest of new sectors, Agneessens exposes the economic sphere’s appropriation of desire as a service based on the maximization of capital.
It is essential to understand this economic reality before engaging with Fictive Net Porn’s Internet-based projects. Diffused through a form of technology, which, at its inception, held the promise of the democratization of knowledge, today this same technology has become one of the most potent forces of a global industry intent on forming new markets, shaping new consumers, molding new desires and stealing our imaginary to feed the spectacle. o

NUIT BANAI is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in the history of art at Columbia University.

FICTIVE NET PORN http://www.fictive.net/porn
The show includes:
Meredith Allen, Elena Bajo, Laura Carton, Hilda Daniel, Andy Deck, Eduardo Difarnecio, Inka Essenhigh, Christopher Ho, Per Hüttner, Tina Laporta, Jennifer T. Ley, Omar Lopez-Chahoud, Mayumi, Jill (Cupcake) Miller, Margret Penny, Alan Sondheim, Miho Suzuki, Istvan Szilasi, Yukiko Takagi, Andrej Tisma, and Yoshie.

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