All Too Real
Keith Townsend Obadike is a multimedia artist based in New Haven. Last month he attempted to sell his blackness on ebay as a net.performance. The description of what buyers would obtain in exchange for money was full of ironic but ellusive references to the history of objectifying black bodies in the slave trade and the contemporary commodifying of black culture. He received a wide range of responses from ebay visitors, black entrepreneurs, and European net.art curators. Four days after posting his "item" Keith's sale was terminated by ebay, the reason given was that it was found "inappropriate". In the following interview he assesses the reception of his net.performance and the colonialist underpinningss of the navigational vocabulary of the internet.
For a full view of Keith's work, please go to: http://Obadike.tripod.com/ebay.html
CF: There are many artists who have claimed that their selling an item on ebay is their artwork. Most of the gestures are ironic in intent. You are the only artist I know of whose sale on ebay was terminated by ebay. What do you think of your having earned that distinction?
KTO: Iím a little shocked that a company like ebay that sells ceramic coons and mammies, African exotica and Nazi paraphernalia would shy away from my project. I really donít know why they would choose to monitor my auction among the many thousands of auctions they have posted daily.
CF: What was your goal in selling your blackness on ebay? Did you get the results you expected?
KTO: I was interested in making a project that dealt with commerce online. I was also very tired of the trend of net.artists posing as corporations and not really saying much. While watching what many were doing with net.art, I didnít really see net artists dealing with this intersection of commerce and race. I really wanted to comment on this odd Euro colonialist narrative that exists on the web and black peoplesí position within that narrative. I mean, there are browsers called Explorer and Navigator that take you to explore the Amazon or trade in the ebay. Itís all just too blatant to ignore.
CF: Did you expect ebay to terminate your sale? Did they give an explanation?
KTO: No, I did not. Perhaps that was naÔve on my part. I thought they might I have some questions about my auction the day that it was posted, but I did not expect them to wait four days and then cancel my auction without any warning or real explanation. My only explanation was an automated form letter and a link to their guidelines which donít approach anything like my auction:
"eBay appreciates the fact that you chose to list your auction:1176601036 Keith Obadike's Blackness with us. However, we have determined that your item is inappropriate for listing on eBay..."
CF: Did you protest the interruption?
KTO: I did protest and I received no response from ebay. Iím still considering looking for an attorney who would like to examine this.
CF: Of the reactions you received in writing, only one was very negative. Several people wanted to know how one's gender might affect the significance of the sale. What is your response?
KTO: I think gender plays a significant part in the idea of comodified blackness. While Grace Jones is someone who has done some very interesting things with the marketing of her blackness, for example, hers is obviously not a role that a black man could take on. On the other hand, someone like Shaquille OíNeil can market his blackness in many more ways, playing into a wider variety of white fantasies. With this project I think most people read my black maleness as normative and by default ungendered just as whiteness is often read as unraced. I think black womanness is a much harder sell. Once you add the idea of sexism to this list of warnings it becomes much more complicated. I also think that many people understand blackness as something that lives in the realm of vision and because there was no photo on the auction page it gave room for some to fantasize about how they would occupy this space. I donít know how possible that would be if gender were a more pronounced element in the project.
CF: Blackplanet.com did a poll about your piece. What were the results? Why do you think they bothered to assess the reaction of other blacks to your work?
KTO: Yes Blackplanet.com did run a poll for about a week and linked to my replica of the ebay page:
I think that they were interested because they are in the business of selling blackness online. I thought it was interesting since net art is rarely absorbed into a popular web culture in that way. I believe there were about 18,000 votes in the poll. Participants were given a short description of the project and voted from three choices. The results were that 26% thought the project was brilliant, 29% found it offensive and 45% believed I had too much time on my hands. I thought that these results were really interesting especially in light of the fact that many almost all of these people followed the link and spent time at the project web site.
CF: I understand you have been surprised by the interest that this piece has generated in Europe. It seems that earlier works of yours, such as your electronic monument to Amadou Diallo:
,did not garner anywhere near as much attention. What is it about a black man auctioning his blackness on ebay as art that you think makes these Europeans so excited?
KTO: I think this project was able to be fetishized in way that the Diallo memorial and other projects couldnít be. It seems to be functioning like some kind of net. art version of an African mask, uprooted from its performative context and observed by many who arenít interested in how it is supposed to resonate.
CF: I had an interesting discussion with several black artists and intellectuals about your piece. Some noted that there are contexts in the present in which it seems as if black people are back on the auction block, some of the battles over premiere basketball players being a prime example. We decided that it would have been more uncanny and eery if several black people had put their blackness up for sale at the same time, comparing and contrasting their particular attributes in order to gage each person's value in relation to the others. This, we thought, would have resembled the slave auctions of the antebellum era more accurately. What do you think?
KTO: That would be an interesting intervention. I was a little more interested in blending in with coon cookie jars and darkie posters on ebay and representing this kind of generic blackness that functions not in competition with other blackness but only as an alternative to whiteness. I worked for a while as a musician in hip-hop so with this project I was interested in marketing the kind of blackness white kids look for in hip-hop or that black folks look for in a black web portal.
CF: I risk restating the obvious by underscoring that your piece hints at links between past commodification of blacks through the slave trade and present modes of objectification of black culture and black style that offer tangible forms of "blackness" for consumption, appropriation and imitation. Are you trying to tease people into perceiving such connections? What if one were to say that the two situations are not comparable because some blacks now actually make money from the sale of black cultural artifacts?
KTO: I would argue that the situations are comparable and that a few blacks have always made money from the sale of blackness. My father is Igbo, from Nigeria and my mother is African-American so Iíve thought a great deal about how some of us got to the Americas and others did not. The reality is we sold ourselves to whites the first time so this is nothing new. However it is obviously a little more complicated in the present when we consider the amount of agency we have in the process and that this packaged blackness is being sold to black people and everyone else and consumed globally.
CF: Are their ways that the internet turns visible signs of blackness into commodities for consumption by its overwhelmingly white users?
KTO: I donít know if the net is doing anything much that is not happening in other media. It just seems to be quicker and easier. For instance, many University and entertainment websites are using stock images of black people to add color to their web sites. Iíve noticed the same photo of one black
woman with twisted locks and a French blue shirt all over the web. Iíve seen this same photo on two University web sites and several commercial web portals. There are of course the many web portals owned by major white corporations that use some kind of faux African design and market themselves as an online black community. Ironically, some of these sites have featured this project.
CF: There is a tendency among white artists who consider themselves transgressive to claim the virtual as a space in which their symbolic appropriation of non-white identity and history is an empowering rebellious even avant garde gesture. These moves become part of a repertoire of tactics that supposedly express the fluidity of identity on-line. Take, for example, RTMark's use of the trope of "passing" in their latest work or Francesca Da Rimini's rhetorical question "why can't I be a black bitch?" in "Hauntings." What is your take on such cross-racial net.performative gestures?
KTO: Yeah I think that I read some reference like that in a text on alt-x:
"this code has NO integrity i'm yr original NWA, busting yr gatedwhitecybercitadel [just cos i'm white doesn't mean i'm not black inside].In cybrospace everyone can be black where is the black bitch BTW? Lick my boots, delicious whore!"
I donít know if this is so much about the fluidity of identity online or just about how some white artists define avant garde art. Surely the net space just makes the same old burnt cork blackface routine easier. This is sort of a white performance tradition. As you may know, some of the early European dada sound poets and performers claimed that their nonsensical utterances were based on the sounds that Negroes make. So white avant garde works from the Dada performers to Picassoís paintings are rooted in this kind of appropriation. To many white artists, blackness represents some kind of borderless excess, some kind of unchecked expression. Like the commonly confused notion that with African drumming (or substitute jazz) you just play whatever you feel rather than develop structured content. I would argue that this same kind of romantic freedom is also associated with the net so that blackness and this kind of digital frontier become conflated.