I am an interdisciplinary artist who uses video, sculpture, and new media to critically examine networked life along the lines of race and labor. My legal name change is the basis of an ambivalent practice—one of declaration: insisting on the visibility of Blackness as descriptive of an american artist, and erasure: anonymity in virtual space where “American Artist” is unable to be googled or validated by a computer as a person’s name.
“It’s hard to leave your body behind, especially when your body is always being thrown up in your face,” said Glenn Ligon when writing about Concerto in Black and Blue by David Hammons. Ligon referenced this work, which is made of only blue light (and black space), to explain Hammons’ desire to elaborate a conversation on race through abstraction. For me, this method of abstraction, or as Ligon says, this “move toward lightness,” is particularly useful in the face of virtual infrastructures that operate with a high level of obfuscation. Inequity is coded into our lives, carried out by software and algorithms, recreating the historical imperatives of social reality. In my work I seek to indict networked life, its promise of agency, and to reveal alternate realities.
Sandy Speaks, 2017 is a chatbot I developed that responds to questions about prison surveillance, police brutality, and the case of Sandra Bland. The hypervisibility of Bland during and prior to her arrest, including dashcam footage and her online video series ‘Sandy Speaks,’ is paradoxical to the invisibility she experienced while in prison, unable to receive the minimum amount of surveillance to keep her alive. This struck me as the epitome of how state surveillance works. For Sandy Speaks I developed a chatbot in AI markup language, and a front-end interface users could interact with. For the exhibition Memory is a Tough Place, it was displayed as a projection on the wall and a keyboard visitors could type into. The chatbot present in the show was the same chatbot accessible online from any networked device. I chose to create a text-based work in contrast to widely circulated images of Bland during that time which contributed to a spectacle of Black trauma. It was a “move toward lightness” to engage a conversation on state-sanctioned violence without showing images of police brutality which are so prolific.
After this project I began to study digital interfaces and their position as “neutral” even though they carry implicit biases by design. I used the notion expressed by Jack Halberstam in The Undercommons “the wild beyond,” to fantasize about an outside to the white interface we have been socialized to accept as neutral. Thinking about what a black screen might look like and how we might find it, I built a device to transform the interface using only light. In the construction of the piece The Black Critique (Towards the Wild Beyond), 2017 I used blue light, a solemn allusion to the Blues, mourning, void and loss. The bulbs produce UV light designed to cleanse equipment through the extermination of bacteria. By placing smartphones or computers under this frequency of light I sought to transform these objects on a structural level—remove the white “neutral” interface and return them to a black interface. In this work, the black screen took the form of a command-line interface common in early personal computers, which processed quotes by authors before rejecting them as malformed commands:
Last login: Sat May 20 00:28:21 on ttys000
“The non-normative is precisely the absence of a point of view, which is therefore why it can never be about preservation. Eventually, I believe, he comes to believe in the world, which is to say the other world, where we inhabit and maybe even cultivate this absence, this place which shows up here and now, in the sovereign’s space and time, as absence, darkness, death, things which are not…”
~ Fred Moten
-bash: command not found
In the earliest computers there was no interface. People who used them worked manually with wires and switches to program them. When a screen did emerge, in the 60s, it was black, and used a command-line interface. My current body of work looks at the development of the Graphical User Interface in personal computers in the 70s, also known as a GUI, pronounced “gooey”. With the invention of the gooey, the negative space of the screen began to appear white. The gooey is a standard interface that allows the use of a mouse, “documents,” a “desktop,” and “folders,” rather than requiring a user to manually input lines of code. Through this change whiteness was asserted as a neutral ideological frame or “blank canvas” for virtual creativity. In these works I use afro-pessimist theory, which proposes that society is innately anti-black and requires Blackness to uphold it, to vouch for a mythical “black screen” that was systematically erased in the development of computer interfaces in Silicon Valley.
Mother Of All Demos, 2018 is a functional computer I made of dirt and cement, which crumbles when handled. From the keyboard a pool of black goo emerges, and remnant gloves imply the presence of a user that isn’t identified. As a counter to the straight, white design of corporate technology, my devices convey brokenness, excess, stickiness, slowness, and transparency overturning the stereotype that technology must progress in a predictable pattern. The objects in Black Gooey Universe allude to an alternative of broken but functional devices that have yet to be recognized as useful within the canon of Western technology. In Untitled (Too Thick), 2018 I merged many phones into a singular object. The title is a wry indication that this is one very thick phone, too thick to hold or use. The screen which erupts into a strange black mass is the interface.
In Untitled (Portal) and Don’t Boil Your iPhone in Coca-Cola!, 2018 I was inspired by Youtube channels that submit brand new smartphones to precarious and destructive situations, supposedly to test their integrity. It’s a form of entertainment and commodity fetishism that allows you to see an object considered precious put into a tragic situation. In my version of these films, I bring an afro-pessimistic logic to its resolve. I attempt to change the phone’s interface to black by submerging it in a lethal black goo (boiling Coca-Cola), but the phone is ultimately destroyed. The user can conclude that this transformation, though it can be entertained on a conceptual level, cannot materially exist and is not a viable solution.
As my work progresses I want to challenge the notions that we accept as the norm. I want to continue imagining “a wild beyond to the structures we inhabit and that inhabit us.”
b. 1989 Altadena, CA. Lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Studio Program, Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, New York, NY
F.A. Fine Art, Parsons The New School For Design, New York, NY
F.A. Graphic Design, California Polytechnic University Pomona
Black Gooey Universe, HOUSING, Brooklyn, NY
I Was Raised on the Internet, MCA Chicago, Chicago, IL
TAILBONE, 47 Canal, New York, NY
Are We In Sync?, Pfizer Building, Brooklyn, NY
Citizen: An American Lyric, John’s University Art Gallery, Queens, NY
Lack of Location is My Location, Koenig & Clinton, Brooklyn, NY
Site After Sight, Two-person exhibition with Ryota Sato, SLEEPCENTER, New York, NY
Memory is a Tough Place, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, New York, NY
Public Formats, ESTE, Brooklyn, NY
Whitney ISP 2016-17 Studio Exhibition, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, New York, NY
Public Formats, Abrons Art Center, New York, NY
Harlem Postcards Spring 2017, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
Closer Than Ever, Art Meets Camera, Cape Town, ZA
Privacy, Surveillance, and Prison Reform, Online commission, Newhive.com
Summer Fling/The Barn Show, Johannes Vogt Gallery, East Hampton, NY
Show #31: Online Exhibition, Field Projects, New York, NY
UNPAINTED Art Fair, Lab 3.0, Mixed Munich Arts, Munich, DE
Abra Cadabra 2020, Two-person exhibition with Andy Wentz, Standard Practice Gallery,
New York, NY
Off Pink, The Kitchen, New York, NY
Beyond The Obvious, 25 East Gallery, New York, NY
Wohstxeteht, 25 East Gallery, New York, NY
Awards & Residencies:
Denniston Hill, Exodus, Glen Wild, NY
Eyebeam, TRUST Resident, Brooklyn, NY
University Scholars Award, Parsons The New School For Design, New York, NY
Provost’s Scholarship, Parsons The New School For Design, New York, NY
Lectures and Presentations:
Whitney Study Sessions: Ja’Tovia Gary and American Artist, Whitney Museum of
American Art, New York, NY
Spiritual Machines, A Screening and Conversation Led by American Artist,
Panel discussion with Marquita Flowers and Henry Murphy, Eyebeam, Brooklyn, NY
Vision and Technology: Toward a More Just Future, Panel discussion with Tonia B******,
and Stephanie Dinkins, moderated by Nora Khan, Knockdown Center, Queens, NY
African Mobilities – Im/Mobility + Afro-imaginary, Panel discussion with Justin Moore,
Tinashe Mushakavanhu, and Nontsikelelo Mutiti, moderated by Mabel O. Wilson and
Mario Gooden, Gavin Brown Enterprise, Harlem, NY
Black Spatial Cultural Memory, Julie Mehretu, Mabel O. Wilson, and American Artist in
Conversation, moderated by Connie Choi, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem, NY
Hypervisibilities with Sondra Perry, Panel discussion with Alexandra Bell, Dread Scott, and
Kwame Rose, moderated by Mia White, Theresa Lang Community and Student Center,
The New School, New York, NY
Trust and Believe, Symposium with Jacqueline Feldman, Sam Hart, Mitu Khandaker,
Caroline Sinders, Francis Tseng, hosted by Nora N. Khan, Eyebeam, Brooklyn, NY
Identity & The Body / Anti-Body, Designing Digital Knowledges: Production, Action, Labor
with Marcea Decker, Culture & Media, Eugene Lang College, The New School,
New York, NY
American Artist, Black Gooey Universe, unbag Issue 2: End, January 11, 2018.
American Artist, Sandy Speaks: A Chatbot That Talks Prison Statistics & The Failure of Surveillance, PAPER, September 20, 2016.
American Artist, Sandy Speaks: A Chatbot That Talks Prison Statistics & The Failure of Surveillance, Newhive, September 19, 2016.
American Artist, A Declaration of the Dignity Image, The New Inquiry, September 13, 2016.
American Artist, Reflections on Dinner Without An Agenda with Hallie Ringle, Queens Museum Blog, June 30, 2016.
American Artist, Bobby Shmurda: Viral and Invisible, New Criticals, May 12, 2016.
American Artist and Dorothy Howard, In Conversation with Tao Lin on his mandalas, Arachne, February 1, 2016.
American Artist, New Glory Blue/The Blue Screen of Liberation, American Artist Studio, September 1, 2015.
Rahel Aima, Blackness and Blueness: American Artist and Rahel Aima in Conversation,
Mousse #64, Jun 12, 2018
Andy Battaglia, Every and All: Fred Moten’s Oneness as a Poet, Theorist, and Artistic Muse, ARTnews, March 27, 2018.
Danielle Wu, Blackness As The Original Technology: American Artist’s “Black Gooey Universe”, Filthy Dreams, February 9, 2018.
Louis Bury, An Artist Named Artist Finds Order in Digital Waste, Hyperallergic, February 8, 2018.
Ilyn Wong, Automation // ‘Sandy Speaks’: An Interview with American Artist, Berlin Art Link, December 22, 2017.
Dylan Kerr, ‘Like’ Art: 7 Masterpieces of Social Media Art That Will Make It Into the History Books, Artnet News, December 20, 2017.
Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe, Dignity as aspiration: The privilege of representation + the obligation to attend in the work of Amalia Ulman + American Artist, AQNB, July 21, 2017.
Louis Bury, I’d Prefer Not To: ‘Enacting Stillness’ at The 8th Floor, Hyperallergic, December 10, 2016.
Priscilla Frank, Chatbot ‘Sandy Speaks’ Continues Sandra Bland’s Legacy Of Education And Activism, Huffington Post, September 27, 2016.
Kristin Iversen, Questions About Police Surveillance? Prison Reform? This Chatbot Will Help, Nylon, September 22, 2016.
Ashleigh Kane, This chatbot tells you what to do if the police stop you, Dazed Digital,
September 21, 2016.
Nate Hitchcock, On UNPAINTED lab 3.0: Nate Hitchcock, Reflektor M, February 2, 2016.