Saturday, May 28, 2005

5/19 Art for Black People? (Lower Manhattan, Part II)

Erika Muhammad moderated our panel at the South Street Seaport event. As some of you know, Erika was the curator of the massive Race in Digital Space show that was exhibited at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem, & the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. She also introduced K & me to Sandra D. Jackson (the director of education and public programs at SMH), which ultimately led to our doing a performance of The Sour Thunder there in 2002. Well, I could say a lot more good things about Erika. The point is that a lot of her work has benefited Keith and me personally and it had been a long time since we'd seen her. So this was a happy reunion.

The event was planned by Steffani Jemison and Jessica Sucher of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, who had partnered with Li Sumpter of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. They all said a few words to introduce the event and then handed the mic to Muhammad. Keith and I played the 5.1 version of The Pink of Stealth. We were really happy with the listening b/c the speakers, which were provided by HarvestWorks for the occasion, sounded great. Then we performed some pieces from 4-1-9 and Mendi+Keith's Pop Quiz and Rico Gatson showed and discussed History Lessons. Then we all sat around a table and Erika asked us questions. There were lots of friends -- old and new -- in the audience: Candice Jenkins, Kamau Imarogbe, Nia Tuckson, Shelagh Patterson, R. Erica Doyle, Ogechi Chieke, Courtney Baker, Anne Barlow . . . I'm probably missing people. Unfortunately, I can't remember many of the questions, because so much has happened between now and then. I do, however, remember that they were fun and challenging to answer. There was a question about how to categorize interdisciplinary work (is it performance? is it music? etc) and a follow-up question about market. Someone from the audience (Shelagh, I think) asked whether we had ever answered the 4-1-9 letters we'd received. Because we had posed the question of what idea of Africa 4-1-9 letter writers are invoking, somenoe in the audience asked what we thought as we read the letters. One of the questions from Erika Muhammad was about audience. Now, in our pre-event meeting, we talked a little about what it means to work in new media art and about whether the communities we feel we are a part understand what we're doing. So I knew there was to be some question about audience, but the way Muhammad posed the question was very straightforward -- Who is your audience? Or maybe she said: Who is your ideal audience?

Now, the obvious answer is: everybody. Or: everybody who cares. And I truly do make work hoping that many different people, with different interests in the work, come to our projects. But in the panel conversation, I talked a little about who I was as a kid and what kinds of things interested me as I was deciding to become an artist. I talked about wanting to make work for people who had interests like those and ended up saying Simply, black people. After I said that, I had the urge to say more -- to say, for example, that I didn't see the work as exclusively for black people, that I wanted people who were not black to also connect to the work, that what I meant had to do with feeling like a lot of contemporary art wasn't necessarily directed towards me. I want to make work for people who think things are funny that I think are funny because we're black, for example. I want to make work about things that bother other people in the way that they bother me because we're black. I didn't feel like clarifying what I'd said, though, because I felt like it would come off as qualifying what I'd said. I really wondered how people heard my answer. Did they think Well, yeah, of course? Did they think How sixties of you? Did the black people think That's great! Or did they think Who needs that? I wonder.


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