Art is Information, Part I

Exploring the research methodologies of artists in Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ #libeyrianship

Yesterday I published a research guide on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. Below explains why I, as a librarian, am interested in this body of work.

From Beyoncé’s video Formation.

I was blown away by Beyoncé’s Formation video and her performance at the Super Bowl. I considered myself a bigger fan of Beyoncé than her music, but now I can’t stop listening to her latest album Lemonade. She’s collaborating with different artists and expressing powerful ideas visually through the one hour visual album released Saturday. For these reasons I want to know more about what I’m seeing and hearing.

I should not fail to mention that I’m a huge nerd. I was a terrible student in middle and high school. Besides a few great teachers, I was mostly treated like a lost cause. I didn’t learn the way everyone else did and we were all too impatient to realize this. I was terrible at being a child student. I’m awesome at being an informed adult, or at the very least, an adult who can find information. That’s why I love being a librarian — a career I never thought about pursuing before graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where I currently work.

via Giphy.

I’m trying to focus my work on information, digital, and cultural literacy as well as bridging the gap between artist and archivist. I edit Wikipedia for fun. I look for ways information science intersects with my other interests: movies, television, art, feminism, social justice, etc. And I’m always looking for people to drag down information science rabbit holes. Particularly those people who ask why we still need libraries in 2016.

Art is full of information and it rarely just lands in an artist’s lap. Generally artists must go through the iterative process of searching, organizing, analyzing, and remixing information.

So when I saw Bey’s performance at Super Bowl 50 and her dancers’ nod to the Black Panther Party, I immediately thought about the creative research process, what it meant for the dancers to be dressed this way, and how to talk about these things with art and design students.

  • Who had the costume idea and how did the people who made them research the Black Panther Party’s look?
  • If a Fiber student at MICA wanted to update an iconic, recognizable image, where and how would they begin? How would they search, organize, analyze, and remix visual information?

It’s important to note that before and/or after Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, her dancers were paying tribute to Mario Woods, a 26-year old black man who was shot and killed December 2, 2015 by San Francisco police.

I ran my questions by a new colleague, Siân Evans, co-founder of Art+Feminism and Instruction Librarian at MICA. I mentioned that I could see this as a library program and she turned it into the basis for a library instruction session. It occurred to me that there may be more college freshman that know who Beyoncé is than ones who know of the Black Panther Party. Considering the backlash and criticism for Beyoncé’s backup dancer outfits, it may be that some of these students are also misinformed about who the Black Panther Party was. This is the perfect time for a discussion on references to history in popular culture.

Beyoncé’s backup dancers at Super Bowl 50. Credit: beyonce (IG)
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they stand outside the New York City courthouse under a portion of an Abraham Lincoln quote which reads ‘The Ultimate Justice of the People,’ New York, New York, April 11, 1969. April 11, 1969. Credit: David Fenton. Getty Images. Did you notice the woman on the far left?

Other things that can be gleaned from Formation:

Video aesthetics. Ashley Blewer wrote a great piece about video playback errors as seen in the video for Formation. Calling out those playback errors and sharing what caused them is just another way to extract information from art. Someone had the idea and a knowledgeable person — or someone who knew how to research video playback errors — implemented it. Research. Collaboration.

From Beyoncé’s video Formation, via Giphy.

Copyright. Because I work with students, I am constantly thinking about how to explain and get people to think about copyright. Fine art and design students must produce work at high volumes, so they might not always think about copyright infringement. As an example, there was controversy over footage in Bey’s Formation video. In Lemonade, Beyoncé collaborates with a lot of musicians, cinematographers, and directors to develop the visual album. This kind of collaboration requires permission, contracts, and trust.

Whenever a student asks me for help with locating footage or images for their own work, I always steer them toward Creative Commons and public domain material because I figure they would want to add whatever they’re working on to their portfolio. They’re generally disinterested because they’re in a hurry. What some people might not realize is doing this work at the onset will save them time later. Communicating this is something I need to work on.

New Orleans. Beyoncé called Big Freedia, a New Orleans Bounce music superstar, to ask if she’d recite something over Formation. Clearly Beyoncé was interested in developing an authentic atmosphere for the song and video. The variety of looks in Formation — from the Southern parlor Victorian white outfits to the Gothic French couture black dress — were the result of a team of stylists, and all of them make you want to watch the video for days. Based on the photo below, details were extremely important. All information of potential importance and interest to art and design students.

“Formation” 👯👯👯👯👯👯
www.Beyonce.com Credit: beyonce (IG)

The visual album Lemonade, is an hour and five minutes of influences, collaborations, history, poetry, and music. There’s so much happening in Lemonade, it’s why people can’t stop talking about it. It’s art. Lots of articles unpacking specific areas of the album and visual album have already been written and there’s no doubt there will be more much to come. I put some resources together in a research guide.

From Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. Tidal.

Finally, I’ll end on an archival note. Beyoncé has had a “visual director” following her around during her every waking moment since 2005 according to GQ. In 2011, reps from Parkwood Entertainment (founded by Bey), sent a Digital Archivist job posting to a library and information science program listserv. They indicated that the archivist would “build an archive” starting with 130 terabytes of data.

I can’t help but wonder how the archivist is handling metadata, file naming, inventorying, backing up the digital assets, creating derivatives, and if they’re using a digital assets management system. What is clear is that Beyoncé understands the importance of gaining intellectual control of her work and appearances.

She has closed the gap between artist and archivist.

This is something I’m very interested in helping students pursue as the Digital Initiatives Librarian at a fine art college.

From Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, via Giphy.