“The Interaction of Coloreds” (2002, 2018) and Racialized Online Identity

by Ekin Erkan

On Mendi + Keith Obadike’s The Interaction of Coloreds (2018)

Mendi and Keith Obadike — a married Igbo Nigerian-American artist-duo who work primarily with new media installations, net.art/post-net.art, and music -have been creating conceptual art and sound art since 1996. In 2001, while working on their first Internet Opera, the duo “started a suite of Internet works intended to explore the language of color and its relationship to art, the body and politics” (Obadike 2006, 245).

This marked Mendi+Keith Obadike’s foray into identity as it is performed on the internet and the virtual interface through which these performances manifest. This is a central thematic tenant of The Interaction of Coloreds (2002, 2018), which, in its 2002 rendition, facilitated an “online brown paper bag test” commissioned by the Whitney Museum’s Artport (where it featured for the month of August 2002 online).

Josef Albers’ color theory book Interaction of Color (1970) provided for a launching point and an uncanny double entendre for Mendi+Keith Obadike. In amending the title “Color” to “Coloreds,” Albers’ text launching Mendi+Keith Obadike’s work within a socio-politically charged sphere. Josef Albers, a German artist and educator of modern art who worked within the Hard-edge painting genre, published the Interaction of Color in 1970. An art education text that implored art’s formal elements and logic, there was a hidden social message in the text. Consequently, Mendi+Keith Obadike pulled a quotation from the book (one rife with bigoted sensibilities), drawing attention to racialized subtext that the pair would underscore as a protocol measure of internet participation.

The Interaction of Coloreds (2002) was the second installation in Mendi+Keith Obadike’s Black Net.Art Actions — Blackness for Sale (2001) and The Pink of Stealth (2003) comprised the two other pieces. Mendi+Keith Obadike refer to the works as “three suites,” and The Interaction of Coloreds (2002) involved itself with the deconstructed “language of color on the internet,” examining how this “language…reflects the persistence of identity categories like race, gender, sexuality, and class.” (Driscoll 2017, 56). Each suite in the Black Net.Art Actions partook in an unequivocal refusal of claims for the disembodiment of the internet-browsing subject, noting the values communicated by the social coding of language.

Mendi+Keith Obadike’s The Interaction of Coloreds (2002) actively stripped the encoding/decoding process(es) of spoken language, linking them to the technical language and protocol practices of the web . Their work makes the claim that online language — such as HTML, TCP, IP, and DNS (the “foundational languages of the internet”) — don’t solely “passively generate color” but, rather, “communicate color,” indicating that there subsists mobilized and coded social meanings to examine. The pair denounced “mathematical neutrality,” (Driscoll 60) eruditely constituting the ideologies of language that exist as intrinsic corollaries to any communication system.

The 2002 work followed a moment of idealist Internet utopian ethos, as evinced by works like Fred Turner’s From Cyberculture to Counterculture: Steward Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog and Ray Kurzweil’s book The Spiritual Age of Machines alongside a slew of “cyber-manifestos” extolling the internet as an egalitarian space. This was a remarkable and neglected voice within a deluge of net-art and post-net.art sensibilities that framed the internet with dominant and pervasive cyber-utopian utopian philosophies (or what is called the “California Ideology”) indifferent to the racializing practice. As Simone Browne notes, surveillance is not a “new feature” of the web “where surveillance practices, policies and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise” (Browne 72) as constitutional and deep-seated internet protocols.

Mendi+Keith Obadike’s 2002 piece set the foreground for the 2018 iteration. As we noted, The Interaction of Color (2002) began with a rather problematic quote by Josef Albers that exposes a complex history of pseudo-psychological defense of race-based bigotry. This quote reads:

“As ‘gentlemen prefer blondes,’ so everyone has a preference for certain colors and prejudices against others . . . As it is with people in our daily life, so it is with color.”

— Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, p. 17

The Interaction of Coloreds (2002,) then followed to ask a series of questions:

* “Interaction of Coloreds Color Check System® Hyper-Race® Based Solutions for the Discriminating e-Business *

  • Do you own stock in an airline that offers online ticketing? Are you worried about how the current climate of fear affects your profits? How can your airline offer lower rates on the web to customers with non-threatening bodies?
  • Are you looking for love in a chat room?W hen someone describes himself as “tall, dark, and handsome” would you like to be able to tell exactly how “dark” he is?
  • Do you represent a money-lending institution? Do you need online skin color verification for the purposes of determining projected property value?
  • Are you a member of a new African-American web portal or an old Negro social club looking for a way to maintain your club’s discriminating tastes in the information age?
  • Are you an art collector investing in net.art made by a colored artist? Do you need a method of determining the effect of the artist’s body on the value of the work?”

These sardonic questions foregrounded conversations posed by Keith+Mendi Obadike that examine the territorialisation of the subject by means of social filtering, framing digital discourse within racialising participation.

With the premier of their first Internet Opera, The Sour Thunder (2002), Mendi+Keith Oberdike culled a number of hypertext writings by literary critic Houston Baker, Cuban-American interdisciplinary/performance artist Coco Fusco, and trip-hop turntabilist and media theorist Dj Spooky. It was clear that the Obadikes had an interest in the faculties of “cybertypes” and the commodification of race and racism as it pertained to what was championed as a “race-blind” platform. (Nakamura 2002, 179). The Sour Thunder (2002) told a double-sided story about language and migration, blending autobiography and speculative fiction while balancing a conversation on how geography maps identity and the notion of language as a technology. The opera was simultaneously performed in a webcast as well as at the Yale Cabaret and the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center.

The Obadikes’ deconstructive analysis of race and online performance had also gained notable traction in media theory, with internet utopianism keeling. Lisa Nakamura’s seminal text Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002) directed the database mode of digital culture towards an interrogation of race. Nakamura observed how race is configured as a “menu” online, analyzing the way that mestiza or culturally ambiguous identities “such as those belongings to the hyphenated Americans” are rendered “unintelligible” and inexpressible, with her commentary surveying websites such as AsianAvenue.com and BlackPlanet.com. (2002, 119). Much like the series of race-driven and “menu-ized” questions that the Obadikes’ The Interaction of Coloreds (2002) proffered with pastiche, Nakamura dictated how online identities were not fluid or multiplicitious, as Sherry Turkle claimed in her text Life on the Screen (1995) but, rather, are rigidly codified.

Simone Browne’s essay Get at a way of Telling (2017) accompanied the presentation of Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Black Net.Art Actions as a part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Browne commented on Blackness for Sale (2001) and it is worth a close read to help situate the The Interaction of Colored’s 2018 revival. Browne notes that:

“On August 8, 2001 Mendi + Keith Obadike listed Keith’s Blackness, Item #1176601036, for sale on eBay under the categories Black Americana and Fine Art. Ten benefits and ten warnings for this Blackness are outlined in Item #1176601036’s description, such as ‘This Blackness may be used for creating black art’ and ‘The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used in the process of making or selling “serious” art’. The auction of Item #1176601036 was set to last ten days, but was removed by eBay after four days, when that company decided that it was inappropriate for listing on its site. In an interview with Coco Fusco in 2001, Keith Obadike tells us that he “didn’t really see net artists dealing with this intersection of commerce and race,” and that he ‘really wanted to comment on this odd Euro colonialist narrative that exists on the web and black peoples’ position within that narrative.’” — Browne 2017, 58; (See Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: In August of 2001 Mendi+ Keith auctioned Keith’s blackness online at ebay.com. This project was part of Mendi + Keith’s “black.net.art” actions.

In Race-ing for Cybercultures (2004), Christopher McGahan offered a discussion of Keith Obadike’s Blackness for Sale, remarking that the conceptual net.art piece facilitated a critical commentary on the cultural politics of collected artifacts of “so-called Black Americana,” drawing attention to assumptions regarding the status of community in cyberspace. In order to contextualize Obadike’s work, McGahan examines eBay’s “emergence as a prominent instance of cybercultural community” (22), commenting that this may be related to the auction site’s “ambiguous bracketing of race” as a component of its brand of community. Eruditely, McGahan offered the Obadikes’ Blackness for Sale (2001) as a timely and critical response to eBay’s “attempt to position itself as a race-blind forum” (23) as many platforms were, at the time were vying for a mode of internet-entrepeneurship and consumerism that expediently benefitted from this practice. (2004, 23–24).

The Obadikes illuminated eBay’s participation in what Bernard Stiegler, Alexander Galloway, and Byung-Chul Han would later term psychopolitics. Psychopolitics delineates a digital paradigm shift from Foucault’s biopolitics and biopower, which were based on disciplinary regimes consolidating physical space. Psychopower and psychopolitics, on the other hand, are concerned with the use of digital surveillance and virtual practices that “intervene in psychological processes themselves” while steering the “unconscious logic that governs” the social behavior of the masses — a programming tool drawing on Deleuze’s notion of control society. (Chan 2017, 78–80).

Photographs of hands, elbows, the back of ears and other body parts appeared in a 2 x 2 grid formation in the On the Interaction of Coloreds (2002)(see Fig. 2). By clicking on the grid, users were taken to an IOC Color Check System® and encouraged to “protext your online community from unwanted visitors” as well as to apply as “websafe colors aren’t just for for webmasters.”

By clicking once more, users were taken to an information page. “In this fast-paced, ever-changing world of e-commerce and online communities, who can afford the time and embarrassment of taking or administering a brown paper bag test in public?” read the info page, detailing “Wouldn’t it be refreshing to get trustworthy color info like John Smith, #FFFFFF (read: true white) when you receive an email?” The page asked the user to answer a series of questions (“Has anyone ever checked for your color behind your ears?”) and follow their strict JPEG guidelines for uploading. Thereafter, users would receive a dedicated hexadecimal color code for the purposes of verification, identification, and measurement of one’s worth. (Browne 2017).

Fig. 2: The IOC Color Check System®, from Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “The Interaction of Coloreds” (2002).

Now, in 2018, the artists return to this work, drawing attention to the fact that there persists a strong link between skin color and finance in the filtering and tracking involved of online commerce. Mendi + Keith Obadikes’ the Interaction of Coloreds (2018), a part of the Whitney’s exhibition Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 (on view until April 14, 2019), reinvites the Color Check System®, billed as the world’s first online skin-color verification system. Their website enables the translation of skin tone — as captured in a photo or screenshot — into HTML language that represents color. Notably, the question are the same as the 2002 iteration. However, by positing these same inquiries in 2018 — in a moment following countless cases of police brutality on black bodies, the election of Donald Trump, Charlottesville, and burgeoning reactionary/fascistic right wing political fringe parties — work asks if it is galvanized by a markedly different ethos. Is the humor and pastiche absent in the face of harrowing race-based violence? Is the Color Check® system no longer a caricaturization but a potential possibility?

This moment in 2018 also follows a period of post-humanist optimism, prompted by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto towards the fluidity of identity and the possibility of post-identity singularity, the likes of Giorgio Agamben’s “whatever singularity”. Nonetheless, this idealism has been parsed in the wake of social realisms that have unfolded during this epoch, whereby post-race o fluidity is solely sustained in the imaginary and escapist context of Afro-futurist narratives (English et. al, 218). Mendi+Keith Obadikes’ project, reified in 2018, prompts us to inquire if much has changed since 2001- certainly the protocols of the internet and race are as surreptitious and prevalent as ever, as Alexander Galloway has demonstrated in Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (2004).

One notable change that Galloway traces is the “eliminatation of mediation,” where navigable “continuity” developments in interface design make the Internet as intuitive as possible, alloting a McLuhanesque realization of the network as a natural-feeling extension of the user’s own body. (2004, 68). Any mediation between the user and the network is eliminated as interfaces work towards user-movement with unfettered ease. The antipodal message here is that the racialized codes of the Internet become further and further camouflaged, inciting a necessary revisit to Interaction of Coloreds.

Mendi+Kieth Obadikes’ net.opera projects Four Electric Ghosts (2011) and Big House/Discolosure (2014), which catalog variegated tales of Afro-futurist collision in manifesto form offer escapist Afro-futurist narratives, in 2018 The Interaction of Coloreds (2018) is a far more sardonic, astringent, and direct text. Why do the duo’s sonic projects prompt Afro-futurist departures while their installation work occludes these possibilities? One answer may be medium-specificity and another may be that 2018 is readily saturated in a racialized and jarring social divide - postulating Afrofuturist possibilities within the white-cube would be imminently burdened by the very pernicious idealisms that Mendi+Keith Obadike have dedicated their careers to eviscerating and dismantling.

Kodwo Eshun, in Further Considerations of Afrofuturism (2003) posits that the sonic cyborg fantasies “were used both to alienate themselves from sonic identity and to feel at home in alienation.” (Eshun 2003, 49). Thelma Golden’s discussion with Huey Copeland points towards the formulation of a twenty-first-century “post-black” aesthetic in the 1990s as more satisfactory a studio-based sonic process than it gallery-based visual practice. (Copeland 2009, 2–7).

Nonetheless, Mendi+Keith Obadike continue to proffer Afrofuturist sonic projects, though they are now mediated by real-world concrete landscapes, situated in public space. Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin] (2015) is a 24-channel sound installation that uses the glass facade of The New School’s University Center as a delivery system, mending the structure itself into a sonic vessel (see Fig.3). The 12-hour piece, reminiscent of Philip Glass’ additive layering compositions, is created using slow moving harmonies and text from Baldwin’s writings. Ambient recordings bud and build along the streets of Harlem while conferring an archival inventory of sound contained in Baldwin’s story Sonny’s Blues (1957). Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Ring Shout (for Octavia Butler) (2016) is a four channel sound installation that uses elements from an unpublished story by the author that the duo found in Butler’s archives (see Fig.4). Circularly panning audio recordings of the Earth’s electromagnetic atmosphere converge with a shuffling rhythm as sine waves sonically proclaim Butler’s name — Ring Shout (2016) concludes with the African-American folk song “Watch the Stars”.

Fig. 3: Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin] (2015) is a public sound art installation dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924–1987). For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodic language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story “Sonnyʼs Blues.”
Fig.4: Ring Shout (for Octavia Butler) (2016) is a four channel sound installation that uses elements from an unpublished story by Octavia Butler. Mendi + Keith found this story in Butler’s archives. This text is underscored by circularly panning audio recordings of the Earth’s electromagnetic atmosphere, a shuffling ring shout rhythm, and sine tones that sonfiy Butler’s name. The piece concludes with the African-American folk song “Watch the Stars”.

One of the duo’s most recent sound and public art mediations is Compass Song (2017) — an app-based public sound artwork that contains lyrics about navigating the “crossroads of the world.” Much like the Obadike duo’s double entendre with “color”/ “coloreds,” the app considers the compass as a multi-moded navigational tool, as a circular path, or as the tonal range for a music instrument. When launching the app, the bustling sounds of Times Square are re-performed vocally — as if New York’s streets were crooning. Walking through Times Square triggers the app to launch an accompanying narrator who reads poems about searching for freedom, navigating New York, and cross-cultural myths about the cardinal directions. Compass Song quotes and reworks the African-American spiritual and Civil Rights freedom song “Walk with Me,” spreading the piece out over several blocks of the city.

Thus, the Obadikes have grounded the stars and turned away from the oceans where Afrofuturist mysticism such as Drexciya’s The Quest (1997) once found inspiration (see Fig. 5). Mendi+Keith Obadike are not gazing up at the stars or the seas of a map but, rather, staring pensively at the charged streets of the contemporary world, which reflect the internet protocols and their “interface effects.”

Undoubtedly, Net 2.0 has simulated and posited socially-scripted ontologies (Galloway 2014, 19) that media theorists have been actively working to uncover and decode. The Interaction of Coloreds (2018) is steeped in the discourse of racialized interface effects and autosurveillance — Mendi+Keith Obadike’s questionnaire gains new traction in the wake of the listicle and the pop-psychology public polls that suffuse social media.

Fig. 5: Drexciya ‎– The Quest (1997). Liner Notes originally read: “Could it be possible for humans to breath underwater? A foetus in its mothers womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. During the greatest holocaust the world has ever known, pregnant America-bound African slaves were thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air? Recent experiments have shown mice able to breathe liquid oxygen. Even more shocking and conclusive was a recent instance of a premature infant saved from certain death by breathing liquid oxygen through its undeveloped lungs. These facts combined with reported sightings of Gillmen and swamp monsters in the coastal swamps of the South-Eastern United States make the slave trade theory startlingly feasible. Are Drexciyans water breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorise (sic) us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi river basin and on to the great lakes of Michigan? Do they walk among us? Are they more advanced than us and why do they make their strange music? What is their Quest? These are many of the questions that you don’t know and never will. The end of one thing…and the beginning of another. Out “ — The Unknown Writer

Nicholas Mirzoeff in The Appearance of Black Lives Matter (2018) notes that a new solidarity is taking form — “solidarity as a mutual seeing, enabled by social media, which creates a transnational space of appearance that might in turn form a different kind of politics.” (91). Mirzoeff is hopeful in new cross-cleavage spaces of unity, remarking on Black-Palestinian activist groups and the social-media proclivity for calls to activism, tracing the foment of the Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter.

Nonetheless, in the very moment we must balance Mirzoeff’s optimism in solidarity with the reactionary end of the political spectrum as indicated by Christopher Cantwell’s December 2018 call for a Dylan Roof-esque violent call to arms against People of Color. Cantwell’s disturbing reaction to the James Alex Fields Jr.’s murder conviction does not exist in a vacuum chamber. Cantwell, who took to Gab (an alt-right social media alternative) to vocalize his hate, received an outcry of support and media outlets have not covered this latent, unexposed, and troubling element.

Thus, The Interaction of Coloreds (2018) is not only the reintroduction of a piece from 2002 to new audiences but, rather, is framed by contemporaneous concerns and should quite possibly be taken more seriously for it. The piece now not only refuses any notion of internet utopianism but situates itself as a critical and sardonic menu that not underscores the inherently race-driven database modality of Internet protocols alongside the concomitant social framework of 2018. To call the 2018 Interaction of Coloreds simply a “revisit” would be folly — it is necessary that we think of this piece as a social work that necessarily reappears in new context, though it is inherently burdened by the bondage of ongoing and constantly-permutating noxious racialization as it is “smoothed over” to appear anything but visible. This means that we must be even more wary of Internet Protocols and read Interaction of Coloreds (2018) with cultivated discernment so as to apply it to our daily life in navigating the constitutionally racialized Internet.

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Browne, Simone. “‘Get at a Way of Telling.’” Rhizome, 11 May 2017, rhizome.org/editorial/2017/may/11/get-at-a-way-of-telling/.

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Ekin Erkan

Ekin Erkan

Ekin Erkan studied Film and Media studies student as a graduate student and is currently pursuing post-graduate study in Critical Philosophy at The New Centre