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By Every Means Necessary

Using the Web and other digital media, Mendi and Keith Obadike make 21st century art that tackles the age-old conundrums of race, gender, and personal identity.

by Kasey Wehrum | 02.27.2004 ReadMe 4.3 |

One of the initial selling points of the Internet was that, by its very nature, the online medium offered users a liberating anonymity, free from race, gender, and other aspects of embodied reality. Mendi and Keith Obadike aren’t buying it. Interdisciplinary artists who work in music, conceptual art, digital media, and the written word, they have embraced the Web as a means of celebrating and exploring their cultural identity, rather than masking it.

"When we named the site blacknetart.com," says Mendi, "it was more of a question than a manifesto." Launched in 2001, the site was inspired by "Blackness Is", an Afrocentric store, owned by her parents in the 1960’s, that sold art, fashion, and books. According to Mendi, the shop’s open-ended name claimed a space for certain ideas that were not traditionally part of the mainstream commercial culture of the day. "What was fascinating to us about this particular shop was that while you could buy goods from Africa, these goods were being sold next to items made in Harlem or Oakland," she says. Likewise, she adds, "blacknetart.com is a way of claiming space for the kinds of conversations we want to have and [asking] question[s] about what role identity will play in the new landscape that develops out of the Internet,". The site has explored everything from race and community to sexuality and personal identity.

The art world first took notice of the couple in 2001, after Keith made news when he attempted to auction off his "blackness" on eBay. The auction was both humorous and disarming: potential buyers were given a description of his blackness, as well as a list of the possible dangers and benefits that accompany it: "This Blackness may be used for gaining access to exclusive, ‘high risk’ neighborhoods…The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used during legal proceedings of any sort…The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used by whites looking for a wild weekend" By the fourth day of bidding, the auction had garnered a high bid of $152.50, at which point eBay shut it down, deeming it inappropriate.

Unlike other artists who use graphic images and themes to shock audiences, Mendi and Keith prefer to use the message behind their art to awaken audiences. "The Internet is a ripe space for anyone to make interesting art," says Mendi. "We are attracted to the Internet as a site where sound, image and text are equally important elements. The Web was also a place where we could bring all of these ideas together and distribute the work on our own,".

It’s a commonplace, in art-criticism circles, that the term "Net art" is often degraded and misused to define any artist who uses the Net to display his or her work. In a recent article written for the New York Digital Salon, an organization dedicated to the exhibition, study, and promotion of digital art of all genres, Christiane Paul, curator of new media at the Whitney Museum in New York, attempted to nail down the essential characteristics of Net art. Paul explained:

[Net art] is interactive, allowing forms of navigating, assembling, or contributing to artwork to go beyond the mental event of experiencing it. It is often dynamic, responding to a changing data flow and real-time data transmission. The art is not always collaborative in the original sense of the word, but often participatory, relying on multi-user input. Another distinguishing feature of the digital medium is that it can be customizable and adaptable to a single user’s needs or intervention.

By Paul’s definition, Mendi and Keith are Net artists in the truest sense of the term. For them, technology is not merely a gimmick to be exploited; it is a tool to be worked with. Premiering on the Web in 2002, their Internet opera, The Sour Thunder, was the first new media work commissioned by the Yale Cabaret, a New Haven theater showcasing emerging talent. According to the Obadikes’ website, The Sour Thunder "explores the role of geography in identity and the idea of language as a technology." The storyline, which is described on the site as "a double-sided story blending autobiography and speculative fiction," follows the two main characters on their separate journeys into new worlds. Archived scenes from the opera can be viewed on the website, which incorporates streaming video, an MP3 soundtrack, and hypertext eMixes from contributing artists.

Mendi’s written-word piece, Keeping Up Appearances, is a subtle examination of what is said and what is left unsaid in the interaction between two people. The work ingeniously presents the story of a young woman dealing with an unwanted sexual advance. Against a stark white background, the basic plot of the story is narrated in plain text. Only when the reader moves her cursor over hotlinked keywords do the woman’s inner thoughts and feelings, previously invisible, reveal themselves in pop-up windows. According to Mendi, "I have bombarded the viewer with disappearing hypertext as a way to work back into the smallness I might model in my day-to-day life."

The Pink of Stealth is Mendi and Keith’s latest project. Commissioned by the New York African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix, Mendi describes the piece as "a 5.1 surround-sound narrative on DVD, with an Internet component that includes hypertext variations on the narrative and a video game." The Pink of Stealth plays on the etymological history of the phrase, "the pink of health," examining the ways in which the color pink "accesses ideas around health, wealth, race, gender and sexuality." According to the site, "the phrase ‘in the pink’ comes from the English foxhunting culture of the 18th century. At that time, Thomas Pink was the favored fashion designer of the aristocracy and fashionable hunters were said to be ‘in the pink’–in other words, stylishly turned out in Thomas Pink’s red hunting jackets." The Pink of Stealth includes the online game "Foxhunt," whose graphics imitate the look of early home videogames.

Exploring race and culture in the Digital Age, Mendi and Keith Obadike strive to soften technology’s cold, scientific edge in order to create art that is alive and personal. Crossing genres as easily as they deconstruct traditional ideas about race and identity, Mendi and Keith use the Net as an interactive canvas.

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Related Links:

Mendi and Keith's homepage and companion site to blacknetart.com

Rhizome, an online platform for the global new-media art community

Black Arts Quarterly, an online magazine for Stanford University's Committee on Black Performing Arts

Artthrob, a website covering contemporary art in South Africa

Artnetweb, a network of people and projects investigating new media in the practice of art

Kasey Wehrum edits the "Net Art" section of ReadMe and is a graduate journalism student at New York University.