Arts Council England
Navigating difference: cultural diversity and audience development

Excerpted from Chapter Three: how diverse are the UK’s cultural organisations?
New media

Kodwo Eshun explores how artists are using new media to challenge ideas about race-

In a world where genetic engineering and computer technology converge, a new understanding of the human as an invisible network of complex codes is emerging. Inside and outside the laboratory, however, the racialising gaze persists. Common sense perception informs us of racial differences even when science insists on our genetic similarity. In the digital age, these visual habits of racialisation have become infinitely repeatable. Moreover, as Harwood, founder member of the British new media collective Mongrel, pointed out in his 1997 statement Ethnic Bleaching:
‘Constructions of race in the form of mental images are much more than simple indexes of biological or cultural sameness. They are the constructs of the social imagination, mapped onto geographical regions and technological sites’.
Today’s artists can choose to continue these constructs, complicate them or transform them through new forms of storytelling, aesthetic expression and relational community. New media, whether understood as the Net or as virtual reality, immersive environment or as cyberspace is usually represented as a race-blind environment. It seems self evident however that everyday encounters with race have consequences both inside and outside the computer monitor. We can see the consequences in the technoculture emerging in the mid 1990s which assumed that Afrodiasporic cultural practices existed outside of digital culture and that Black Atlantic cultural expression was the antithesis of electronic media. At the same time race was reconfigured in cyberspace as an accessory to be acquired, discarded and changed at will. A simple matter of changing your name and logging in.[1]
The emergence of Afrodiasporic new media in the last decade can be seen as part of a larger technocultural project that seeks to intervene and challenge these standard narratives. Whether these artists are British (Keith Piper, Rokeby, the Mongrel collective), German (the Cybernomads) or American (Keith and Mendi Obadike, Tana Hargest, Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky), they have highly divergent aesthetics and practices.
A decade before games like Grand Theft Auto, Keith Piper’s The Exploded City (1994) reformatted computer game aesthetics into video installations that demonstrated how ‘various aspects of Black visibility’ became ‘characterised as an almost essential cipher in the recasting of a space into a site of dangerous and transgressive activities’. Piper speculated on the ways Black visibility ‘impacted upon the universe of Cyberspace’ so that the ‘growing sense of panic around the violent content of many computer games has also begun to recast Cyberspace itself as a domain as threatening and dangerous as any urban inner space’. 
In the MEMEX project (2003), interactive artist Rokeby turned himself into a cyborg, equipped with a wearable computer, a digital camera, a portable brainwave monitor and a global positioning system tracking his precise geographical location. Starting at the Greenwich Meridian Line, Rokeby commenced a forty-day pilgrimage across London in search of traces of the spiritual in the everyday.
Mongrel’s digital installation National Heritage (1998) brought them acclaim and notoriety for its revelation of the process of racialisation. In a media-scene dominated by white Austrians, Canadians, Germans and Eastern Europeans, Mongrel’s demand to the user to  hand over control of their self-image was and remains confrontational.
The digital artist Tana Hargest parodies corporate websites. New Negrotopia (2003) was an interactive media project in the form of a virtual theme park where participants could visit historical environments like Atlantic Adventure, a 3D interactive experience of the slave ship route, the Middle Passage.
DJ Spooky works as an archaeologist of media, drawing upon the prehistory of 20th century collage for his multimedia mixes of artwork, musical compositions and most spectacularly films like Rebirth of A Nation (2004) his acclaimed remix of DW Griffith’s 1915 white supremacist epic Birth of A Nation.
What links these widely differing projects is a sceptical scrutiny of the promises of increasingly global technoculture, producing work that ranges from the humorous to the confounding. The focus is not on providing access to technologically disenfranchised societies, since this would mean accepting the paradigm of what technoculture is, but instead on experimenting with and exploring the ways in which digital technologies are reshaping Black Atlantic cultural practices and vice versa.
Analysing one of Keith Obadike’s works in detail might help to illustrate this point further. In 2001, the Yale trained conceptual artist and sound designer Keith Townsend Obadike presented Keith Obadike’s Blackness is for Sale. As the title suggests, the artist proposed to sell his Blackness on the commercial auction website eBay from 8-18 August 2001. Using the eBay site as artistic medium was unprecedented; Obadike further interrupted business as usual by not including a photograph of himself, thereby separating the deliberately vague concept of Blackness from a body. Instead, he described the idea of Blackness auctioned on the eBay site as an ‘heirloom’ that ‘has been in the possession of the seller for 28 years’. He went onto itemise 10 benefits of the heirloom such as ‘creating Black art’, ‘dating  a Black person without fear of public scrutiny’ and securing ‘the right to use the terms ‘sista’, ‘brotha’ or ‘nigga’ in relation to Black people’. He also gave 10 warnings against using the heirloom ‘during legal proceedings of any sort’, ‘while making intellectual claims’ or ‘while voting in the United States or Florida’.
In response, eBay, the World's Online Marketplace, which had previously allowed people to bid on porn, firearms and Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and Blackface memorabilia, shut down Obadike's auction after only four days, deeming it ‘inappropriate’, despite the fact that Obadike's auction did not violate eBay's hate and violence policy. Nonetheless Obadike’s intervention into the digital domain of the internet auction became the most talked about artwork on the Net, generating hundreds of email responses. A brilliant example of double consciousness in the age of normalised new media, Obadike had taken the idea of the commodity to its limits and made sardonic points about the commodification of Black identity, online trading, white notions of cool, style culture, racial tourism and cultural passing in twenty elegant sentences.

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[1] See Jorella Andrew’s article on page 106 for an overview of how British artists have embraced or subverted collective racial identifications.