Friday, October 13, 2006

Blackness and the Sounds of Other Colors: New Media & African American Poetics

Blogger: Cherryl Floyd-Miller

Panelists: Tonya Foster, Duriel Harris, Mendi+ Keith Obadike

Moderator Evie Shockley introduced this panel by owning the fact that she is “intrigued, but intimidated and lives outside the realm of black new media poetry.”

Her first experience with this kind of art form, she said, was when Mendi + Keith Obadike, in 2001, offered Keith’s blackness for sale on Ebay. Evie admitted she laughed initially when she saw the advertisement, but this event made her follow the art of Mendi + Keith more closely.

[Note: Everyone had much to say about the plus sign as opposed to an ampersand in the Mendi + Keith collaboration/partner construction ... it elicited much positive response in this panel session.]

Some of the questions Evie wanted to pose to the panel:

*^* What examples currently exist of black new media poetry, including hypertext video poems, sound poems, etc.?

*^* Is there a community of black new media poets/artists? If so, how can interested poets enter that space?

*^* How does someone gain the technical expertise to do new black media poetry?

*^* Are there low-tech forms that allow those without the money or institutional resources to buy or use expensive equipment?

*^* Do new media forms challenge our conventional forms of creativity?

*^* Do new media poems have different approaches to process than poets who work primarily towards the written or performance piece?

*^* What is the role of words in a new media poem?

*^* What is new media poetry?

Evie let us know that all the panelists had told her they were not going to answer these questions (though, amazingly, somehow, they did).

Tonya Foster

Tonya Foster, who could not join the panel in person, was conferenced in via speakerphone to give her presentation. She was supposed to join us by videoconference, but there was a glitch in this matrix that prevented the video from happening.

[Note: It becomes a comedy, somewhat, the way Tonya Foster is present with us without being with us as flesh. At one point, the connection is lost and she has to ring us back right in the middle of Duriel's presentation. At another time, as we are all absorbed in Duriel's presentation, when some part of our consciousness seems to have forgotten that Tonya is still in the room with us, we hear Tonya's voice say, "Play it." She's egging Duriel to play a sound clip she's made reference to but says she won't play for us. Duriel looks at the phone, touches the receiver and says, "Tonya, you so black and lovely. The technology of this workshop -- both Tonya Foster on the phone the Mac computers plus large television monitors for the panelists presentations -- added new texure to the meaning of this gathering.]

Tonya Foster writes poetry, fiction, and essays. She is the co-editor of Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art, published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She has written a chapbook, A Swarm of Bees in High Court (2002, Belladonna Press). She is currently working on The Mathematics of Chaos, a cross-genre piece on New Orleans and Monkey Talk, an inter-genre piece about race, paranoia and surveillance. She teaches at Bard College and Cooper Union.

Tonya started her talk with these words: “I am not a real person.”

(We laughed at this, but how did we know she was real in that moment? There was no body, no normal means of identification, as proof. There was only a voice which responded to the name Tonya Foster. Of course, we believed she was configured as flesh and bone somewhere, but today, she was a voice more than she was a real whole person. It was an amazing moment to be inside of … on a panel whose topic was “New Media Art,” our first speaker came to us as a voice, long distance from “a room in Houston somewhere,” unseen, a vibration of sound through a telephone.)

Tonya told us that she doesn’t consider herself an expert on new media; she’s just begun a project that could be considered new media. There is a visual component and a DVD, along with text.

She opened her presentation with a question: Is Projection of Verse and Voice Programmable Art?

There are two ways, she said, that we come to know things: There is what we know because of what we do and what we know because it is what we think. Tonya wanted to know what this means for our ideas of new media technology or our notions of poetry.

The first image that comes to mind for her as she questions the meaning and impact of new media is the image of The Burning Bush – “voice of Judeo-Christian God speaks through voice called out from the midst of an object. Could this be considered as roaming voice mail?”

An irony of Tonya Foster transmitting her voice as a means of communication: She doesn’t own a cell phone. Long ago, she admitted, she joined the tribe of the IPod, laptop, digital video camera, CD/DVD player, flash drive, and voice mail. She, however, has resisted the cell phone. Having a cell phone, she said, says demands accessibility and continual interactivity.

“When one can be reached at all times, one is expected to be an audience and/or to be in front of an audience on demand,” she said.

Tonya said she believes that despite the notion that the reader can be co-creator of the meaning of text, the direction of words generally on a page are unidirectional - flow in one direction, from the writer to the reader.

Computers, however, offer a different kind of exchange. It is true that the way we interface with computers is informed by books … computers are meta language, a code in which all other media are represented. The page, for example, is represented in a computer, and having a computer does not erase our dependence on the printed page.

A page is “a rectangular surface containing limited info designed to be accessed in some order and having a particular relationship to other pages. Navigation of the web is dependent on our familiarity with the page. There is still a reliance on print …I still prints PDFs from the web to read them.”

Tonya reminded us that computer media offers exciting possibilities for invention and interaction, but sometimes the interaction that is beyond our control can be frightening:

“What who is interacting with what whom and to what end? The reader, who assumes s/he is clicking privately, is being watched.”

The example she gave was this one: One poet/anthologist was upset that another poet/blogger had trashed her book, but the blogger, who was very tech savvy, was able to track the anthologist’s obsessive visits to the blog site (ten hours). Anonymity, she said, is not what it used to be.

The reader often enters an interface with text where s/he can be id’d by the writer. The reader, who has often been in a position to be the watcher, is placed in a position to be watched.

Tonya also talked about the use of computers to give rise to something called the Flarf Movement, considered by some to be the first major literary movement of the 21st century. Flarf as a term seems to have been coined by poet Gary Sullivan and a flarf poem is created by doing extensive googling of odd search terms and then using the search results to write something hilarious and disturbing. Many people are not fans of this kind of art.

Tonya read a Gary Sullivan poem that she says inaugurated the Flarf movement:




Mm hmm

It’s true

Big birds make big do

Gary Sullivan submitted this poem to, and it prompted other artists to do the same kinds of poems. They were building an aesthetic based on google searches and their idea of "community" was generated from the idea that one idea in a poem was linked to the idea in another poem. Apparently, this movement caused a lot of fuss (scandal) when linked the names of poets to flarf poems that they didn't write in order to entice people to submit poems to contests.

The flarf art is something Tonya Foster admits she's not fond of. After she read the poem, she said, "This is a bad poem." But there are other forms of new media art that she admires -- Keith Obadike's blackness for sale, for example and damali ayo's

Duriel Harris

Author of the 2003 Elixir Press published Drag, co-founder of the Black Took Collective, and poetry editor for Obsidian III, CC alumna fellow Duriel Harris teaches at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.

Duriel wanted to read excerpts of a paper she had already prepared for another panel titled, "The Demands of Dis/Ease" and she wanted to segue into talking about some of the new media art she's engaged in at the moment, including the "Amnesiac Media Art Project."

She started by playing a recorded poem for us that used her voice, sound clips from other sources, and music. The piece was titled “Pomofunk Memo: Notes to Myself,” and it appears in Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Quotes Community: Notes For Black Poets. At some point in the course of her introducing her work to us, Duriel said, "Pomofunk is my aesthetic." I wanted to hear more about this, but was okay, too, with her leaving us with that as a statement and letting us find our way with it. It allowed me to listen to the connections between all the media of her work. Here is a small excerpt from her "Dis/Ease" paper:

"By vocation, poets are called to imagine, to be enthralled by words … and to invent ... We poets are charged to be transformed by language and are granted the opportunity, by means of language, to facilitate others’ transformations ... We are also charged to pay attention."

Duriel's current works are very focused on trauma:

“Trauma is defined by its capacity to wreak havoc and to sustain itself … Unleashed, it multiplies itself, infects the sensory organs, roots in the soft tissues.”

She is most interested in the idea that the victims of trauma are its hosts and the vicitms of racism, poverty and sexism are more susceptible to traumatization than the general population.

New media is giving us an opportunity to explore much of what Erica Hunt calls for in her notes on oppositional poetics. And new media is more than just putting technology together with poetry and language. It means to actively engage the difficult.

One of the cautions Duriel issued about new media, though, is that it gives us an opportunity to be less concerned with concrete conditions and disparities as issues in our community than with mastubatory exercises in intellect. It is our task to develop poetics in new media that address this danger.

Amnesiac Media Project takes an opening quote from Olga Broumas' Artemis: "I’m a woman committed to a politics of transliteration … for which, like amnesiacs in a world on fire, we must find words or burn. The project has four components -- a book, DVD, sound recording and website."

She played an excerpt form the Amnesiac Project titled "Self-Portrait." Over music, her voice on the sound track kept repeating the lyric/words, “Spoiled Negra is the meat.”

Duriel also played another excerpt, "Living Body" to give a demonstration of an Apple software program called GarageBand. She showed us how she used this program to record, loop, cut, overlap and merge sounds. The program costs about $80 and makes this kind of art generation possible for people who might not have thousands of dollars or tons of resources to invest. We have many things like GarageBand at our disposal to explore.

Mendi + Keith Obadike

Mendi + Keith Obadike are interdisciplinary artists and have performed their work internationally. Their album, The Sour Thunder, (also called an internet opera) was released on Bridge Records. They have done commissioned work for the Whitney Museum (The Interaction of Coloreds), by a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship (TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves), and most recently for Northwestern University.

They decided to talk us through several projects and explain how the projects came to be and what kinds of processes created them.

Keeping Up Appearances

This project, Mendi said, had its origins at Cave Canem. She was having lunch with Duriel Harris, Toi Derricotte and Harryette Mullen, and they were talking about sexual harrasment. The timing of this talk also intersected with a course Mendi was teaching on black women's autobiography, which gave a history to things that people didn't talk about.

She was interested in exploring the theme of what lives behind language ... what's unspoken -- left out -- in a conversation, how what's left out gives a completely different narrative sometimes. Aesthetically, she and Keith were interested in playing with white space on the page and in playing with hypertext language.

They created net-based hypertext pages in which some text which tells a story appears on the page. Some of the backstory and subtext for the seen text does not appear, though, until a cursor is moved over the white space.

This device helped them explore, Mendi said, all the things we might see if we could see what was behind the language that we see up front.

Keith added that the way hypertext usually works is that it links you to a new page. For this project, it was important to keep all of the text contained on the same page.

The Sour Thunder

This musical project is called an internet opera, defined broadly by the Obadikes as music and poetry coming together to tell an epic story. The structure of this project as performance art explored the positioning of audiences. The opera is a live performance piece first performed at Yale Caberet and the Afro-American Cultural Center on Yale's campus simultaneously. At the same time, audiences online could see both of those spaces at the same time. This online audience could also read backstory and download MP3s. In real time, the actors were moving back and forth between theatre spaces on the Yale campus. At intermission, the audiences switched spaces.

The Sour Thunder is an art piece that Mendi described as "half autobiographical and half speculative." The autobiographical component arose from Mendi going to the Dominican Republic and learning to speak Spanish. She learned how changing language changes reality. The speculative component tells the story of Sesom, who goes to another world on a mission to find something called The Sour Thunder. In this other world, scent is a language.

Keith said Thunder is grounded in the idea that language is akind of technology, something that people created to make their lives easier. In that way, it was technology ... and a technology in flux, as it is constantly changing and adapting to our needs.

Keith played an excerpt of The Sour Thunder called "Trouble." This piece uses text from other artists, including a few CC fellows (Dawn Lundy Martin, John Keene, and Duriel Harris, to name a few.)

The Pink of Stealth

The Pink of Stealth was a project commissioned by the New York African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix. Keith and Mendi created the work for this commission for a show called "Digital Africa."

The artistic ideas for this project came from thinking about how the color pink worked in two films, one of which was Six Degrees of Separation. In this film, Will Smith plays a black con man who charms his way into the lives of wealthy white people. He tells them he’s the son of Sidney Poitier. They like him so much they give him a pink shirt. He wears that shirt throughout the film and it functions like a piece of skin.

The other film that motivated this project was Pretty in Pink. This is the (early Molly Ringwald) story of a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with a rich guy ... she wants to be "pink enough," so to speak.

The third element that inspired The Pink of Stealth was the British Parliament debate about whether to outlaw foxhunting. They vote on it every couple of years. Mendi and Keith were thinking about how foxhunting related to the color pink. There’s a term: “To be in the pink of health”…which, believe it or not, came from foxhunting. Thomas Pink first became known for making English hunting jackets about two hundred years ago. If you were doing well, you were said to be "in the pink." Another saying suggested if you were doing physically well, you were "in the pink of health." (There is now a corporate entity called Thomas Pink, which makes specialty clothing. The company gets its name from the Thomas Pink who made the jackets a couple centuries ago.)

The Pink of Stealth uses a videogame of foxhunting, which Keith and Mendi played us an excerpt of.

In the same way, Mendi + Keith's other projects draw on story and art from other sources: Four Electric Ghosts is inspired by a novel by Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the age old videogame, Pacman; TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves, about a woman who goes through a transformation while trying to become a lady, is based on Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and the notion of the debutante ball. (With the TaRonda work, your body triggers music when you enter the space and your movement in the space constructs the walls.)

Team Obadike is now working on a new piece commissioned by the black museum at Northwestern University titled "____ Disclosure" (couldn't catch the full name of this). It's a dance piece to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. They let us know the piece is leaning towards a 200-hour long series of house music. The project gets its name partially from the citywide Chicago law that if you do business with the city of Chicago, you have to disclose whether you profited from slavery.

A snippet of Q&A:

Brandon Johnson recommended open source software, Audacity, for those with limited funds who are interested in trying to make new media projects but might not have the resources or equipment to do so.

Q: I'm concercerned with the idea of the term "interdisciplinary" vs. "collaboration." What are the aesthetic values that are native to new media that allow us to reach a hybrid form and not just a different form of production?

A: Keith : "I do not really have a conviction to new media. Poetry is always at the root of what we do." Mendi: "We are using tools that are at our disposal, tools that will be old. Some people will come up and say, 'You're using hypertext. That's kind of passe.' I don't care. I'm using hypertext. The idea is that I do something I really want to do." Duriel: “When I started moving in this direction, it was because Drag as a book was not enough. The printed media was not enough. I like the digital option because it gives you these different kinds of texts and different layers and different ways for people to access them.”

Q: (for Duriel) Are you suggesting that a specific gender, race is akin to a kind of trauma or are you saying that those experiences make you more susceptible to trauma? How does new media relate to all of this?

A: I think I"m saying both. What I see as possible with new media is that I can create actual spaces for bodies to inhabit. My challenge is to make sure that I don't retrigger the trauma.

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