online black art is moving from instagram to bitmapping

Created in collaboration between New Museum and Rhizome, the online exhibition 'New Black Portraitures' features work from Juliana Huxtable and Sondra Perry.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
31 January 2018, 3:15pm

In 2018, technology and art possess an increasingly unique relationship with each other. This was proven earlier this month when Google Arts and Culture released an app that matches users’ selfies with historical pieces of art. However, “selfie match” was not a positive experience for everyone. For people of color — especially those of Hispanic, Asian, and black heritage — the app was yet another reminder of how white and Eurocentric canonized art was. The matches black people received were frequently exocitized figures or subservient subjects. Thankfully, artists of color are working hard to ensure the increasingly large and influential net art space is inclusive and progressive. They have turned platforms like Instagram and Tumblr into exhibition spaces. And they’re utilizing today’s technology in captivating ways too. One standout is Sondra Perry, who, in a video piece, finds a way to artistically connect the Windows “blue screen of death” to police killings of unarmed black women. The effect is chilling.

New Museum and digital arts organization Rhizome have come together to explore how the internet and black identities intersect in intriguing, meaningful ways. Titled New Black Portraitures, the “browser-based” exhibition examines self-representations of blackness online and their continuing evolution. “So much is coming out of online black culture simply because black people are able to talk to each other,” Aria Dean, who curated the interactive exhibition, tells i-D. “Historically speaking, black people gathering in public spaces — and privates spaces as well — has been criminalized. To a degree, the internet has made it possible for black people to kind of ‘hang out on the block’ without it being an issue.”

Pastiche Lumumba, "Community Standard (a portrait across platforms), 2017, courtesy of New Museum and Rhizome.

Featuring work from artists like Juliana Huxtable, Sondra Perry, and N-Prolenta, New Black Portraitures showcases fully realized black identities and half-formed ones too. This approach highlights how technology and digital spaces can be both comforting and confusing for blacks. Rindon Johnson explores how software can fail black people in their VR piece Away with You. They try to make a character in NBA 2k16 that resembles them, using the game’s facial recognition. The end result is a basketball player with discolored lips, a misshapen jaw, and ears two different shades of brown. “Biometrics are still so rooted in white supremacy,” Aria argues, “that the technology can't image a black person fully.”

And manuel Arturo Abreu pushed the boundaries of portraiture by using sound to illustrate faces. “They made ‘sound portraits’ of their friends,” Aria explained to me of the high-concept project. “So, they took an image of the person and fed it into a bitmapping program that randomly generated up to 12 sounds for each photo, which manuel then used to compose the portraits, gently mixing them to make them listenable and have a sound output.” For example, manuel’s friend, Hamishi, facial features produced high-pitched synths that sound like a faulty harmonica. While Rafia’s created low, ominous rumblings.

In a way, manuel’s subversion of bitmapping fits perfectly into the history of how blacks have interacted with tech. We have always conjured up new, ingenious ways to use contemporary technologies — from crafting vines that permeate pop culture to Black Twitter leading awareness campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite — and manuel’s sound portraits are simply another example of this creativity. “There’s this quote from a documentary called The Last Angel of History,” Aria says, elaborating on the historical pattern. “It goes something like, ‘If you give black people a technology, we won’t use it the way it’s meant to be used. We’ll sort of crack it open. Like, for example, DJing. Here’s a record being played, but then we ask, What happens if we flip the function of that?

Aria was well-positioned to curate New Black Portraitures. The 24-year-old assistant curator at Rhizome has made studying how technology has impacted black culture, and vice-versa, a chief focus of hers. She’s written essays exploring meme culture in relation to blackness and the relationship between feminism and race online. At Rhizome, she is assisting on a two-year exhibition that presents a work of net art every week. The exhibition is attempting to provide a survey of net art’s history, starting with pieces from the 80s and progressing to the present. And in her off time, Aria is working on forming strong communities and bonds with black artists. “I think the idea of creating infrastructures to help each other is really important,” Aria says. “A friend and I have just started doing Skype critiques with each other where we talk about work we’ve made recently. Because if you’re a black artist, you’re not always hearing the things you need to hear. A white audience is often just like, ‘Yeah!’ And sometimes, in a white world, it’s hard for black artists to find the space to lovingly critique each other.”

Aria predicts that online black art will continue to move into exciting new spaces. Like, artists focusing on the day-to-day concerns of life and moving their work from apps like Instagram and Tumblr to Venmo and Paypal. For example, artist Rafia Santana has an ongoing piece entitled #PayBlackTime. Rafia will continually post links to a Paypal account online and use the money she receives to distribute meals to people of color in need. And Winslow Laroche ran a list of black artists that white people could donate to as reparation. “These things are very performative on one level, but they are also workshopping how to move money around,” Aria explains. “Figuring how to throw the weight of an institution behind the idea of reparations and creating the idea of actual channels for money to be funneled back towards black people.” And perhaps this is the most stirring thing online black portraiture will deliver: Not just providing images of our lives, but also changing them.

You can view New Black Portraitures here.

net art
Juliana Huxtable
New Museum
Sondra Perry
manuel arturo abreu
new black portraitures