Digitalia: Examining Blackness in a Museum Through Technology
Consider this: In the future, you’ll walk into your local museum and see nothing. That’s right. Nothing at all. Gone are your museum preconceptions about popularity, prestige, inclusivity, and from which rich family’s collection the museum sourced the work. Instead, you’re welcomed by encrypted images, digital kiosks, and instructions to “download additional materials” that will guarantee storage upgrade alerts appearing in your notifications. You may initially think that you’re at your local Apple store, with these steps having similarities to a visit to the Genius Bar, but this space is far cry from the world of Silicon Valley. Well, at least it used to be.
Digitalia: Art in the Economy of Ideas at The Museum of African Diaspora marries the relationship between technology and art with the black experience through eighteen artists of color, debuting fifty-two interactive creations that easily align with their daily experiences. The exhibit, lightweight in scale but enormously impactful, features groundbreaking digital work by emerging creatives championing its place alongside traditional practices of art-making (painting, sculpture, and tapestry) that routinely display in museums. Using tools provided by technological advancements in society as the medium of communication, black artists have begun to redefine their positions in the creative realm. This re-engagement with space has allowed for the representation of black intelligence to be defined by the artists themselves, creating an economy of shared ideas – a new currency to initiate a cultural resurgence.
Collaborating with EyeJack (a platform that specializes in the curation and distribution of augmented art.), curator Lady Phoenix of the YesUniverse explained the importance of interactivity as a “huge part in the way a visitor appreciates, engages and interprets the art.” She believes in the philosophy through the connections of the work and space, with augmented reality as the visual narrative. The more captivating, thought-provoking and inclusive the artwork or the artist is, the more “real” these works seem to the public in general. “Black people need to use different mediums to appear different when trading in visual culture.”, Phoenix adds.
After you’ve downloaded the app and initiated the technology you start to immediately experience a new digital “reality”. Using my iPhone camera and facing it toward these coded displays, with the help of Lady Phoenix I was able to unlock the essence of the show. What appeared as branding and design elements of the exhibition transformed into lively works of art as the features of the EyeJack App helped bring these to life. The first work I hovered over was “Xhosa Woman-Intombi I, 2017” by Tony Gum, an augmented portrayal of a topless black woman, body painted in a combined mix of skin color shades, taking a selfie on the Instagram Live platform while a continuous audience of viewers posts, comments, and questions. I was immediately drawn into the work. This work set the tone for what I was about to experience with the rest of Digitalia – Technology directing the whole black museum experience.
The new museum is digital. As you make your way through the show you get a sense of what’s on the minds of black artists today and the ways they’re using new technology to address self-awareness, community development, and social issues involving race, class, and human behavior.
The installations of tech standout Iddris Sandu and South-African visual artist Trevor Stuurman respectively, displaying works of sheer excellence reexamining new landscapes and visual poetry. New Palo Alto, 2018 by Sandu takes to the creation of a new futuristic environment equipped with modern architecture reminiscent of the country of Wakanda from Marvel’s Black Panther. Stuurman dazzles with an augmented version of a black woman dressed in glowing fabric blindfolded with flying fans hovering pattern-like behind her trending upwards. Simultaneously, her face opens up and diamonds spill out in a mesmerizing loop.
Portland-based artist Momo Pixel’s virtual game titled “Hair Nah” brilliantly communicated the frustration that black women have with people of other races wanting to touch their hair. In the game, you choose hairstyles, a character, and a major city trying to complete tasks avoiding the barrage of reaching hands that must be slapped away during the allotted time. Each “slap” adds more to the progress indicator which I’m not so sure is determining victory or level of frustration of women from the repetitive act.
You immediately understand the connection of visitors to the story of the art itself and how its contents correspond with what they experience outside the space. Oakland based artist Ye.Tunde also used Instagram features as a medium to research digital psychology. Through Instagram Stories, she presents questions and polls to her audience allowing them to complete the artwork with thought and contemplation. In these works she asks questions like “Do you feel like you have to tell people “bad news” about the person they might be seeing?” and “Do you have specific folk(s) you send hoe/thirst traps to?”, about the difficulty of dating and temporary promiscuity alongside questions of loss like “Have you had to let go of toxic folks already in 2018?” using the poll results and answers as a litmus test of the sentiments of her followers. The type of outbound engagement allows the artist to use traditional methods of surveying and focus groups to zero in on topics in the black community. My only wish is that they were touch screens allowing the visitor to themselves sit for an “evaluation”.
Changing the rules of engagement makes the visitor experience just as paramount as the art itself, it helps the viewers to understand their part in completing the artwork. How important is the artwork really if the viewer cannot take anything away from it? While this exhibition opens the door for a new way of experiencing black art in the age of new media, it also shows how interactivity can change the way visitors grasp, understand, and engage in our communities — artistically. BM
Artists Included: TS Abe, Underdog the DJ, Trevor Stuurman, Osborne Macharia, Dorias Brannon, Iddris Sandu, Mark “Digital” Sabb, YETUNDE, Laneya Billingsly, Jeron Braxton, KESH, Momo Pixel, Tony Gum, Manzel Bowman, Kyle Yearwood, Francois Beaurain, Medina Dugger and Dario Alva.
Digitalia is on view at The Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission Street (at Third) San Francisco, California 94105. Through Aug. 26, 2018; (415) 358-7200, https://www.moadsf.org/