Reuse, remix, recode: Digital identity politics and the Power of PL►Y
Katherine Finerty, Curator

An online exhibition featuring video works by Rashaad Newsome, Tameka Norris, and Phoebe Boswell

Everybody makes that noise. Globally.
It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just automatically.
It’s just like a universal phrase.
You know?

Rashaad Newsome

With technology at the tips of our fingertips, the capacity to play with how we present and represent ourselves and others has never been so readily accessible. Malleable. Whether through composition or reception, artists and audiences alike utilise digital media as a powerful platform to experiment with identity formation and expression. Through visual, sound, and web languages, human portraiture exists in a realm of the fluid, multiple, unfinished – an interface where control meets chance and our senses can be activated from a single click.

Presented in this online exhibition are the works by three contemporary artists whose multi-media practices activate the digital as an integral strategy to deconstruct identity politics: Rashaad Newsome, Tameka Norris, and Phoebe Boswell. Through personal expressions and confessions, these videos employ the manipulation of voice (from inflection and cadence to signification and representation) to challenge stereotypes and explore modes of storytelling. Each is set against a neutral background to highlight prominent and intimate portraits: Newsome tests momentary intuitive clichés; Norris challenges everyday internalised insecurities; and Boswell indulges rare poetic adventures. They conjure distinct senses of consciousness through their digital compositions – Newsome’s sampling, Norris’s editing, Boswell’s overlaying – to generate moments full of both critique and celebration; specificity and universality.

Behind these digital video artworks is the power of play: just click.

Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions Screen Tests Graz Study (2016) features screen tests from the casting for Shade Graz (2014), the most recent rendition of the artist’s Shade Compositions performance series. We are confronted by all different kinds of ‘tsks’ (or ‘tuts’, depending whom you ask) – dental clicks indicating annoyance or disapproval that are one of the many sounds and gestures forming Newsome’s greater composition. The final performance presented a cast of twenty-three local Austrians, first generation immigrants, and refugees, creating a choir of cliché and personalised expressions remixed and repeated to create a symphony of fragmented constructions of identity. Individual languages of Styrian German, English, Edo, Creole, and Farsi resonate in an orchestra of global shade.

Shade Compositions is an evolving and traveling work that has taken place across the globe since 2005 examining black, local, and global vernaculars. From Paris and New York to Moscow and now Graz, diverse groups of individuals add their own dynamic twists to each arrangement of engendered vocal and body language stereotypes. The piece acknowledges the distinctions of each construction of race, gender, sexual orientation, and national identity, whilst ultimately bringing them together in harmonious performances. It serves as a playful critique and powerful celebration of human communication. Moreover, infinite shades of shade lie within this project. With an ever-growing source of digital documentation from the layered processes behind each composition (screen tests, rehearsals, performances), Newsome is armed with endless possibilities to remix, recode, and reclaim.

►►

What is the threshold, what is the minimum one
can do in order to become someone else or
transcend one’s self.
A wig, an accent,
being physically removed from
the landscape of one’s origin/context.

Tameka Norris

Tameka Norris’s two short videos did you like that and i don’t feel anything present an affected persona challenging what is seen and unseen, said and unsaid, in the negotiation between identity expression and exploitation. Reflecting upon W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of ‘double consciousness’ (outlining the sensation of identity fragmentation experienced by racial minorities in a hegemonic society), Norris’s work addresses the anxiety of black visibility/invisibility in principally white spaces. The states of consciousness/unconsciousness performed by the character in these videos activate this doubling: seeing and hearing yourself through another’s perceptions versus your own. Through purposeful statements and side glances – pausing, repeating – awkward, daring – Norris realises the tensions of subjecthood through a critical exploration of inner and outer voice. 

Ultimately, however, each video ends with a deliberate, fleeting stare from the artist’s persona, penetrating through the minimalist, raw green screen and fading finish... A return of the gaze. 

Norris’s practice often turns towards the digital as a source of data accumulation and editing that expands beyond the studio. Equipped with six hard drives and free from having to constantly erase material, the artist turns towards past footage (such as these performances shot four years ago when she was in graduate school at Yale) to resurrect, remix, and reflect on an ever-growing discourse. Here Norris utilises ripe digital fuel to experiment with loaded digital formats, such as the confessional video portrait ubiquitous in internet forums like YouTube. As with Newsome’s practice, sampling becomes a source of power and reflexivity, where old footage can become ‘final’ artworks drawing new conclusions at once fluid and formal. Furthermore, Phoebe Boswell approaches the digital play of sampling in her video through a straightforward technique of overlay and looping, creating a physical, cyclical doubling that questions not only consciousnesses at odds, but also methods of personal articulation and storytelling.

Everything we tell you today is true...
If you wish to believe it is.
It’s all just words anyway, right?

Phoebe Boswell

Phoebe Boswell’s Prologue: The Lizard of Unmarriedness (It’s All About How You Tell It) presents the real-life adventure of the artist’s trip to Zanzibar, told in very different ways. Overlapping two outtakes on a whim, Boswell created a double video diary narrating her desire to research the island’s belief systems and subsequent encounter with a local witch doctor who discovers a lizard spirit in her belly. One storyteller is jovial and sincere, if slightly cynical. She is a dear friend confiding in you after several glasses of wine at a dinner party. The other storyteller is serious and measured, if a bit dramatic. She is a sage narrating a grave and moral tale that haunts you in whispers. Overlaying these two raconteurs  – the tempos of their voices and meanings of their messages – exposes the intrinsic nature and power of storytelling. Rhythm and cadence resonate against all odds, revealing an inner world and unconsciousness beating at the core of the concerted experiment of conflicted double consciousness.

Through spoken word and a digital visual language, Boswell creates new vernaculars to tell a complex story in a dually complex way. Her artistic process brings together a diverse spectrum of media in unexpected combinations, activating drawings, animation, and sound through immersive installations. This video was initially presented as part of a multi-sensory exhibition, The Lizards Within Us, comprising interactive sculptures, drawings, films, and sounds. By working across different media and utilising innovative digital strategies to render, remix, and retell, Boswell successfully creates not only new languages, but also new concepts of syntax.

Languages layered and expansive enough
to be able to house stories,
complex stories,
stories that can’t be told
in a single drawing,
or a single screen film...
Because there are still translations to be made
when creating visual languages,
there is still necessity to consider how
we as artists are speaking,
who we are speaking to,
who is listening, and
what we want to say.

Phoebe Boswell

II

Yet how may these voices and languages be changed, twisted, amplified, or silenced in the age of the internet? Will they go viral or will they be deleted? Will they serve as a medium for multiple identities, imposed upon as a token or liberated as a chameleon? In a world where identity politics gets turned into hashtags and appropriated until all sense of original meaning and ownership is threatened with each repeat tweet, how can cultural expression remain authentic yet accessible and adaptable? It welcomes the challenge: rather than alienate or simplify people through digital communication, how do we bring them together? 

We can start by gathering multiple voices, telling manifold stories, in places where anyone and everyone can hear them. We can recognise that this impenetrable yet fluid screen through which we experience these video artworks (and their potential load times, pauses, traces) is full of possibility. With an underlying sense of consciousness and critique, artists are in a unique position to address the crises of the digital by shifting modes of power from the creator to the user and back. Personalisation engages participation; cultural specificity invokes universality; and in the face of alienation, ultimately, there is connection.

Both.  
I think it fluctuates between the two.
Sometimes the specificity is in what’s unsaid
(the inner voice that the character is reacting and
responding to)
and the universality in what is said and vice versa.

Tameka Norris
So, when I think about language,
and how to tell truthful stories,
and specifically how to tell stories of ‘home’,
I think about what it is that connects us,
rather than what it is that sets us apart...
There is so much about language that is universal.
Just use that.

Phoebe Boswell
Everybody makes that noise. Globally.
It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just automatically.
It’s just like a universal phrase.
You know?

Rashaad Newsome

Katherine Finerty is a curator focusing in socially activated practices and contemporary translocal art. She works collaboratively to develop alternative global discourses and multi-disciplinary art experiences that encourage progressive exchanges and participation. 

Recent professional experiences include participating in the 2016 Tate Intensive and ICI Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans; working as Curatorial Assistant for GIBCA 2015 (Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art) and Biennale de Lubumbashi 2012/2013; co-founding the nomadic art radio station «ECHO»; and assisting artist Theaster Gates. She has interned at The Met, Studio Museum in Harlem, Guggenheim, and White Cube.

Finerty has a Masters in Curating Contemporary Art from Royal College of Art, London; a BA in History of Art and Africana Studies from Cornell University, New York; and has studied History of Art at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.

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