Looking at the landscape of the internet today, it’s hard to imagine conversations about race not being a central part of net culture. Consider “Black Twitter,” a concept that goes beyond user demographics to describe the significant role the internet plays in promoting dialogues about race in all parts of our lives. Or spend some time exploring the many social media accounts dedicated to the cultural heritage of specific racial and ethnic groups, from influential Asian Pacific Islander women to artists of Africa and the African diaspora. You’ll also find these conversations happening in art-specific venues like Rhizome, which in 2017 hosted First Look: New Black Portraitures, a primarily online exhibition that links the history of portraiture to questions surrounding blackness, representation, and image making in our networked present.
However, net culture looked very different back in the 1990s when internet use first started to become popular. It’s not that no one was talking about race online—there were actually quite a few email lists and other proto-social networks focused on race and ethnicity—but these discussions tended to be ignored in the mainstream, or simply treated as peripheral. Cyber enthusiasts had long promoted the misguided perception that virtual communication could allow users to interact without the prejudices associated with physical difference such as race, gender, or disability. When advertisers seized on this premise as a strategy for making the strange new world of the internet seem more approachable, they popularized the idea that, to quote a 1997 internet ad for telecom MCI, on the internet “there is no race.” In fact, the notion that race was simply irrelevant to life online became so prevalent that sociologist Alondra Nelson once declared it the “founding fiction of the digital age.”
During this same period internet art, or net art, was becoming a more widely recognized category of artistic practice. Like in the rest of net culture, race was not a common topic in early net art—but that doesn’t mean there weren’t artists addressing it. Here, we’ll focus on Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Black.Net.Art Actions (2001–2003), a suite of retroactively grouped artworks that argue that racial discourses aren’t just relevant online, they are essential to how we interact with computer networks.
Blackness for Sale
In 2001 the Obadikes released Blackness for Sale, an online performance in which they attempted to auction Keith’s Blackness on eBay. It received twelve bids over four days before eBay shut the project down, calling it “inappropriate.” The item description includes benefits like “This Blackness may be used for making jokes about black people and/or laughing at black humor comfortably” as well as warnings like “The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while voting in the United States or Florida.” The work thus reminds us that “Blackness” never just refers to a value-neutral color or the hue of a person’s skin. Rather, it is bound to a complex history, simultaneously recalling the experiences of one individual and the condition of race relations across the United States.
By highlighting the field of meaning that surrounds language, Blackness for Sale also directs attention to how we talk about the platform that hosted it: eBay. As Keith Obadike has pointed out, many of the words we use to describe our activities online also describe the activities of colonization and slavery. We cross the new electronic frontier, taking browsers like Navigator, Explorer, and Safari to plunder the Amazon and trade in the eBay. There we find representations of the Black body returned to the auction block, not just in this artwork but in the mammy figurines and other racist memorabilia sold alongside it as “Fine Arts and Black Americana.” Blackness for Sale argues that this digital frontierism is ideologically linked to the “real world” histories of colonialism and the slave trade, histories that cannot be divorced from how we interact online. In other words, even though our internet exchanges may appear to be virtual and therefore disembodied, what MCI called “communicating mind to mind,” we still come to those exchanges with the experiences of our bodies and all of the histories that shape them.
Website for the Whitney Museum
The Obadikes continued their investigation into how color and race signify online with The Interaction of Coloreds (2002), a website they originally produced for the Whitney Museum’s now-defunct Artport gate page program. Both the work’s title and the grid format of its opening page reference Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color (1963), a modernist text that theorizes the relationship between color and personal preference. Moving your mouse over that grid reveals famous lyrics from a Big Bill Broonzy song that remind us how such color preferences emerge in our ideas about race: “if you’re white you’re right / if you’re black get back / if you’re brown stick around / if you’re yellow you’re mellow.”
When you enter the main site you find the IOC Color Check System®, which the artists describe as a “brown paper bag test for the internet.” Using photographs of applicants’ skin alongside answers to a “Hyper-Race Analysis” questionnaire, the System promises to return a precise hexadecimal color for your skin. This is a six digit HTML (hypertext markup language) code that tells your web browser what color to show you—or, in this case, assigns a color value to a human being. Now, the System exults, “Websafe colors aren’t just for webmasters,” a reference to the fact that when IOC was produced there were only a limited number of “websafe” codes that would display consistently on all browsers. By proposing that the color of a person can also be used to designate her as “websafe,” IOC demonstrates how social meanings are reasserted when human beings interpret the apparently neutral mathematical system of HTML. In the Color Check System® the “true white” of #FFFFFF is like the “right white” of the Big Bill Broonzy song, representing not just a full amount of additive light but also a full human being. And the #000000 of “absolute black” (“get back”) doesn’t just signify a lack of light; it signifies the lack of humanity too often associated with blackness. (Or, as Blackness for Sale put it, “The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while making intellectual claims.”)
The IOC Color Check System® also invites us to consider for whom we are being designated “websafe.” In addition to wry mentions of dating websites and airlines hoping to “offer lower rates on the web to customers with non-threatening bodies,” the System suggests that it may be useful to 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.” This is a reference to the racially oriented proto-social networks that flourished during the 1990s, such as the immensely popular BlackPlanet. Although these networks offered an important platform for many people who didn’t see themselves reflected in other areas of internet culture, IOC points out that they also threatened to exaggerate racial segmentation and reduce Black internet users to a consumer category. In this way, the Obadikes not only challenge the idea that race is irrelevant on the internet, they also critique the assumption that simply having more Black people online will make the internet a more equitable place.
The Pink of Stealth or Keeping Up Appearances
The final work the Obadikes choose to include in the Black.Net.Art Actions varies depending on the url where it is accessed. In some publications it’s The Pink of Stealth (2003); in others, it’s Keeping Up Appearances (2001). What these two works share in common is an emphasis on the gender and sexual politics that are only hinted at in Blackness for Sale and The Interaction of Coloreds. Keeping Up Appearances is a hypertextimonial poem by Mendi Obadike that explores the relationship between Blackness and femininity, in part through the visual signifier of the color pink. This signifier is picked up by The Pink of Stealth, which integrates a website, hypertext poem, sound collage, and Flash game to play with the different class, gender, sexual, and even health-related meanings that have been associated with pinkness over time. The inclusion of either work in the Black.Net.Art Actions rounds out the suite’s focus on the multiple meanings of color language by insisting that racial discourses cannot be separated from their intersections with all of the other factors that influence our experiences—online as well as off.
As discussed at the beginning, the fact that race no longer feels peripheral on the internet is a dramatic change from the years when the Black.Net.Art Actions were being produced. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the myth that race disappears online still shaped how many people understood the emancipatory potential of computer networks. The Actions helped to counter that myth by revealing how the histories that influence our ideas and experiences of race persist throughout our encounters on the network. In the process, these artworks also demonstrated that the relationship between race and computer networks is an essential subject for internet-based art.
- Donovan X. Ramsey and Meredith D. Clark, “The Truth About Black Twitter,” The Atlantic (April 10, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/the-truth-about-black-twitter/390120/
- Aria Dean, “An Introduction to New Black Portraitures,” Rhizome (blog), October 26, 2017, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2017/oct/26/an-introduction-to-new-black-portraitures/.
- Email lists like the Afro-Am Listserv started popping up in the early 1990s, and by the end of the decade commercial enterprises like Community Connect were launching racially oriented social networks such as AsianAvenue and BlackPlanet. The latter quickly became a sprawling platform that would only be eclipsed in size and popularity by the rise of MySpace.
- Two of the most well-known promoters of the model of the internet as disembodied home of the mind are John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the internet advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993), an oft-cited book on The WELL, the internet’s first social network. This well-meaning argument is based on the assumption that a world of the mind would be inherently more just. However, it ignores the reality that embodied experience does shape life online, for better and worse, as well as the fact that not everyone is able to shed the histories associated with their bodily characteristics even in an apparently all virtual environment—nor does everyone want to.
- Alondra Nelson, “Introduction: FUTURE TEXTS,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (71) (Summer 2002): 1, https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-20-2_71-1. In 1998, Nelson founded the influential Afrofuturism online discussion group. While scholarship on race in early net culture was also relatively rare, she’s not the only person working in this area. Other prominent voices include Lisa Nakamura, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Jennifer González, and Tara McPherson.
- It’s important to note that while race wasn’t central to early net art, it wasn’t entirely marginalized either. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the Mongrel group, Prema Murthy, Tana Hargest, and Mendi + Keith Obadike are just a few examples of artists who made relatively well-known work addressing the relationship between race and computer networks during the 1990s and early 2000s.
- This is a reference to large-scale voter disenfranchisement in Florida during the 2000 US presidential election, which disproportionately affected Black voters. See Ari Berman, “How the 2000 Election in Florida Led to a New Wave of Voter Disenfranchisement,” The Nation, July 28, 2015, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-the-2000-election-in-florida-led-to-a-new-wave-of-voter-disenfranchisement/.
- Coco Fusco, “All Too Real: The Tale of an On-Line Black Sale; Coco Fusco Interviews Keith Townsend Obadike,” September 24, 2001, http://blacknetart.com/coco.html.
- This is the category to which the Obadikes submitted Blackness for Sale in 2001. eBay has since changed their categories, but a search for “Black Americana” still turns up plenty of racist memorabilia, much of it filed under “Ethnic & Cultural Collectibles.”
- The brown paper bag test is an historical form of colorism (racial prejudice within communities of color) that is said to have been used to admit—or deny—access to certain African American social institutions. Stories about this test claim that only those whose skin was lighter than a brown paper bag were allowed in.
- The one area in which scholars did focus on the relationship between race and computer networks during this period was the question of access, often referred to as the “digital divide.” While being able to use the internet had already become undeniably important, scholars such as Alondra Nelson argue that the digital divide narrative tends to frame Black people as inherently anti-technological while paying little attention to how race influences experience once people are online.
- The Obadikes feature The Pink of Stealth as the third work in the Black.Net.Art Actions in Keith + Mendi Obadike, “The Black.Net.Art Actions: Blackness for Sale (2001), The Interaction of Coloreds (2002), and The Pink of Stealth (2003),” in Re:Skin, ed. Mary Flanagan and Austin. Booth (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), 245–50. It was later replaced by Keeping Up Appearances in the Black.Net.Art Actions’ entry into the Rhizome Net Art Anthology. Neither source is more authoritative; rather, this reflects the fluidity of internet art, which, like performance art, is often characterized by change over time.