Blackness And The Internet


In the catalogue essay for the recent show Wandering/WILDING (at IMT Gallery), Rhizome’s newest edition Aria Dean clearly outlines the issue at hand - ‘the black body is not permitted to wander’.

The early Internet then, at the start of the 90s, must have seemed like an Afrofuturist tale manifested IRL. Once upon a time, the Internet seemed like the Space, the Internet seemed like the Place: an ambient zone of weird and wild oscillations, wylin’ out and call and response connections. A place stuck in Free-Play mode where you could roam, and where marginalized subjects could safely centre themselves. ‘All these bars, no police’ (Doja Cat, 2014). Etc etc etc. But after, what may be just 25 years, the dance is a little different. Fast forward, and with the closure of ‘native’ black platforms like Vine, and the mining of intellectual and creative capital of black vernacular culture still rife and kicking, (see Hannah Black’s dissonant net-montage video work ‘My Bodies’, 2014), the Internet has proved to be a conditional space like any other. So the ultimate question becomes, come 2017, can the internet still accommodate the black flaneur?

Described as ‘a call-and-response’ to Doreen St. Félix’s critical essay “The Peril of Black Mobility”, the exhibition Wandering/WILDING at IMT Gallery (curated by Legacy Russell), hosted seven contemporary QPOC (queer persons of colour) artist-vigilantees from the USA and UK, Niv Acosta, Hannah Black, Evan Ifekoya, E. Jane, Devin Kenny, Tabita Rezaire, and Fannie Sosa. All of which use ‘the material of the Internet’ to demonstrate both problematics and possible options for online operations going forward. Two standout suggestions recommended operating ‘en-masse’ (in the crowd-sense) else being ‘en-mas’ (in the carnivalesque masquerade sense).

In terms of being en-masse, the rhizomatic structure of the internet already amplifies the unique double bind of the black flaneur who Aria Dean also succinctly summarises as ‘always a crowd herself’. One option then, is to stay online, stay connected, and extend the positive applications of this condition: the way that Black selfies on Instagram for instance, look past their own reflections to the hashtags that support and affirm them. And hence, form visual archives of resistant, representational imagery - #blackgirlsinflora, #blackoutday and @arthoecollective.

In the exhibition, Tabita Rezaire’s ‘Sugar Walls Teardom’ (Homage to Dark Labia)’ (2016) and Fannie Sosa’s ‘I Need This In My Life’ (2016), demonstrate a continued belief in the freedom found in online publics and processing. They also acknowledge responsibility for their own ‘crowds’, extending the internet’s primary function as a demonstration site and tool to reverberate concerns. These works use moments of congregation as an opportunity to give their audience legs. Created using content gathered from internet archives and distributed online, they adopt the guise of the instructional YouTube videos you might find on a vlogger-channel. They are accessible, and engrossing encyclopaedic interventions that equip their audience with DIY decolonial vocabulary and strategies for resistance. In Fannie’s case, this includes a transmission of binaural beats from her boombox pussy. For Tabita, midway through instructions on how to heal generational trauma; on gynaecological health and reclaiming the womb as a site of orgasmic reproduction ([“BREAKING NEWS: ‘Your wombs are traumatized’]) , she even guest-stars a brood of emoji fish free-flowing from her cosmic fanny. Clearly, you just couldn’t do that offline.

Encrypted performance, being en-mas, seems to be the other clear option, something that has arguably already become somewhat mainstream via the perishable presence supported by Snapchats. Many of the works in Wandering/WILDING aren’t for sale, they exist for view solely in this space. For exhibiting artist and personal heroine, E. Jane, refusal and opacity are key tactics, driven by her own NOPE manifesto, (published by Codette) which ends with the statement ‘I am outside of it in the land of NOPE’. Her displayed Newhive website ‘Mhysaxembaci-freakinme’ (2016), is like an act of self-enclosure, that presents an un-accommodating, unavailable, dancing avatar version of herself (her alter-ego Vysa) as a looping, hypnotic GIF. The mouse next to the work encourages tactile engagement from the viewer, who will be drawn to opening up the work, but no amount of clicking will change the image. This carefully coded motion-replay is like a permanent call-waiting message, reflecting back only a carefully constructed and flaunted disconnection. The avatar’s movement disturbs me a little. As a GIF on the one hand, it is a record of limited movement, a repeated one-two step that makes it seem to limp, or resemble a kind of gasping, dehydrated form. But this work is also arguably a record of resilience and an instructional example of conditional, but importantly self-defined online operation. That, in itself, is liberating.

Quizzed on the relationship between technological ingenuity and race (in an interview in 2001), early internet-auteur Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian-American Calculus whiz and super-computer king noted that ‘necessity is a mode of invention, but ‘we don’t have that necessity to invent.’ Wandering/WILDING suggests otherwise, showcasing inventive models of visibility and self-preservation. It’s about securing greater freedom for our own hard copies and for curator Legacy Russell, this essentially means ‘creating new options without escaping’. At this stage, nobody exactly knows ‘the answer’, it is about throwing ideas into the ring, and, like flaneurship, it is a necessary and ongoing process.

Title taken from the related ICA panel 'Blackness on the Internet, hosted by Legacy Russell, with speakers Taylor LeMelle, Derica Shields, and Rizvana Bradley.

Tamar Clarke-Brown

Image by Evan Ifekoya, Throw Rewind Body Slowly
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