Statement Magazine 2007
Cal State Los Angeles
"We Create Because We Must"
An Interview with Mendi and Keith Obadike
by lanla gist
Mendi and Keith Obadike are mavericks extending the boundaries of artistic expression
into the digital age. The interdisciplinary artists and husband and wife creative team
have remained on the forefront since they decidedly ventured onto the Internet in
1996 as a groundbreaking medium for their art. Mendi Obadike once remarked that
“every medium has its charm.” Since then, the Obadikes’ art comes coupled with
computer monitors, keyboards, streaming video, hypertext, links, rollovers, interactivity
and other technology components. Their work involves music, poetry, sound art, live art
and Internet artworks that encompass concepts centering on race, sex, gender identity
and other critiques on culture. They garnered the greatest attention and controversy
when Keith Obadike auctioned off his “Blackness” as a performance on eBay for four
days in 2001. Mendi Obadike shares on creativity, being a part of a creative couple, and
exploring the Internet as an artistic medium:
Lanla Gist: What process do you go through as you prepare to share yourselves
artistically before a live audience?
Mendi Obadike: It is extremely different for each piece and venue. Our performances
range from theatrical performances with other performers to intimate performances
with just music and vocals. Some of the works include a series of private performances
or studies based around a theme before launching a public performance. For instance,
before we launched the online work Blackness for Sale we performed a number of
private “resistance studies” which we documented on videotape. We later decided to
exhibit one part of the study – Pushing White Walls. We worked with other performers
while developing an early version our work Four Electric Ghosts. Four Electric Ghosts
combines themes from the novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the video game
Pac Man. We developed a few private performance studies for that work in order
to develop the songs and stories. Most recently, we’ve decided that since we value
the humor in our work, we needed to practice being funny, so as an exercise we are
creating jokes related to our concerns. They may or may not make it to the projects
With your work being as diverse as it is, do you have a target-audience?
We are our own ideal audience in many ways. The works first have to be engaging
to us. We try to entertain, encourage change in, and move ourselves. We come to
being artists from first having recognized ourselves as the target audience for other
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artists’ beautiful and strange work, so we know and trust that ideal others are out
there. Still, when they identify themselves to us, the confirmation feels wonderfully
Do you create for your audience, or do you create for yourself and the sake of
art, hoping that your work might attract a following?
The writer Chinua Achebe famously said, “Art for art’s sake is just another piece of
deodorized dog shit.” But perhaps these ideas about purpose (art’s sake vs. the
community’s sake) are not mutually exclusive. Like many artists, we create because
we must. And since we must, we ultimately hope to complement the continuum. We
create for ourselves, our audience, and for art itself and by making work that we hope
is of use to our local and global community and adds to the practice of art making.
When and where do you create?
We work wherever we are. This tends to mean that we work in our home studio.
We work at a drafting table where Mendi normally writes next to a desk, a laptop,
a scanner, and cameras for visual work. Across from these workspaces we have a
recording studio, which includes a number of software synthesizers, banjos, guitars,
and recording software. Since our work requires that we talk through new (and old)
ideas constantly, we also work on planes, in trains, in diners, in bed, over email, and
out of town.
How do you collaborate on work?
There are patterns to our work and to the practices we each enjoy, but our process
varies from project to project. Sometimes one brings a fully developed idea to the
other. At other times, we talk out a work until we are ready to start building it. More
recently, we’ve been writing, drawing, and recording drafts and then going out and
workshopping the ideas with collaborators. Sometimes someone approaches us with
an opportunity that makes us look at an old idea in a new way. We’d known we wanted
to work with house music for several years, for example, but when Northwestern
University commissioned us to do a project we realized that a project about slavery’s
architecture and the way it haunts present-day Chicago would provide the perfect
opportunity to make house music.
What do you enjoy about the collaboration process? What do you find the most
We like being together and we enjoy making our conversations available to the
public, to other possible like minds, and to different minds, too. The best part of
collaborating is when the process is working so well that we don’t need to verbalize
all of the ideas. The most challenging part is knowing when to take a break. We
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work constantly and we work at home, so it is difficult to know when to turn it off.
Collaboration is also a challenge because we have different working styles. Mendi
likes to write a lot before talking about her ideas. Keith is the other way around. We
have had to adjust to what the other needs to do his or her best work in this and
other ways. Over the years, we have come to realize that there will perhaps always be
differences in our work styles and we will always have to attend to those differences
in approach. Though attending to those differences is sometimes challenging to do,
we believe that the fissures between our methods are often places where the most
magic resides in our work.
How has your work evolved as you have evolved as a couple and as individuals?
Our work changes from project to project as much as it does from year to year, so
it’s hard to tell the extent to which our works’ changes are a result of our changes
as people. Since we grew up together, sometimes it’s also hard to distinguish our
individual evolution from our group evolution. Still, there are some ideas we feel
ourselves moving through together. We are from the same generation and the same
town and we went to school together as pre-adolescents. When one of us wants to
reflect on something from our childhood in our work, the other one was there and
can often remember that time and/or identify with the way in which that desire
manifested. As we have grown to understand the relation of our life to our work, we
have tried to use our shared experiences to shape some of the formal and conceptual
elements of our projects. You can see this in the nature of the online games we
create and narrative explorations based on early video games.
What are you working on now or over the next year?
We are working on a few projects right now. Most immediately, we are producing
an album of text-sound compositions. This album includes tracks from poet Tracie
Morris, drummer Guillermo Brown, DJ Spooky, trombonist/composer George Lewis and
composer Paul Lansky. At the same time, we are creating a new work commissioned
by Northwestern University. The project is called Big House / Disclosure. This project
includes a 200-hour interactive house song, graphic and text-based performance
scores, and oral history interviews about Chicago’s Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance.
As technology is ever changing, what might the future hold for your work in this
We work across media. As much as some of the projects might have been identified
by the tools with which they were constructed, the tools do not lead the process.
The concerns remain the same. The projects in the future will most likely continue
to explore beauty, agency, invisible worlds, justice, storytelling, humor, and the
boundaries of funk.
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What are the benefits and challenges of creating work in this medium?
Working with new technologies can sometimes be exciting because of the immediacy
of the work. It can be exciting to find new ways to engage an audience. But it is
very easy for the technology to be a distraction from the substance in the work.
We’ve found it very necessary to study how other artists have negotiated these
Is there a medium for your art that you have not explored yet as artists that
you hope to?
Although we are always thinking of new elements we might like to incorporate into
our work, much of our thinking about media has to do with the challenges presented
by the nature of specific projects. Still, there are some, we’ve made a few short video
works. We will probably work on a narrative film project after the next album. Long-
range interests include architecture and product design. And of course our project
commemorating the abolition of the British slave trade naturally leads us to the new
terrain of downloadable new wave abolitionist ringtones.
By your own admission in past interviews, you have referred to yourself as a
“Cultural Critic.” Is there a particular issue happening right now that fuels you?
How might this factor into future pieces you plan to create?
It’s important to note that we don’t separate our cultural criticism from our other
culture work. Right now we’re thinking a great deal about the deaths of Sakia Gunn
and Michael Sandy and feeling the need to respond publicly. At the moment, we
are working on a song, but in the end our public response may take other forms as
For more information about Mendi and Keith Obadike, please visit their
web site at http://www.blacknetart.com/
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