American Artist’s ‘Black Gooey Universe’ Decodes the Tech World

In their first solo exhibition in Mexico City, the artist reflects on the history of computer technology through the lens of Blackness

M
BY Mebrak Tareke in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 05 NOV 21

American Artist’s first solo exhibition in Mexico City, ‘Black Gooey Universe’ at LABOR, focuses on research and critical thinking for social change. Working in a range of media, the artist looks to digital software and computer culture to reflect on how knowledge, connectivity and identity are constructed vis-à-vis Blackness in the African diaspora. Mining the history of race and technology, American Artist’s work also questions how we build community while living under the crushing weight of surveillance and capitalism, especially in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Comprising a boxy CRT monitor and component parts made from dirt, the sculpture Mother of All Demos II (all works 2021) is modelled after the 1977 Apple II – the last computer of its kind to use a black background for its interface. It sits atop a white desk onto which dark black goo has spilled from the keyboard; on either side are handprints in the same inky substance. The work’s title alludes to the very first demonstration of a personal computer by engineer Douglas Engelbart in 1968, known retrospectively as ‘the mother of all demos’. Here, however, the artist forces us to confront how the Black workforce has historically been the least represented minority group in Silicon Valley. In 2017, an article in the Guardian newspaper stated that African Americans only accounted for 2.7 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce – a figure that dropped to less than two percent at tech giants such as Facebook and Google, despite both brands having a global presence.

American Artist, “Mother of All Demos II”, 2021. Tierra, monitor CRT monocromático, partes de computadora, sistema operativo Linux, cable para subwoofer, madera, asfalto | Dirt, monochome CRT monitor, computer parts, Linux operating system, subwoofer cable, wood, asphalt 149.9 x 74.9 x 127 cm. (59 x 29.5 x 50inches) Fotografía por | Photography by: Ramiro Chaves Cortesía de American Artist y Labor | Courtesy of American Artist and Labor
American Artist, Mother of All Demos II, 2021, dirt, monochome CRT monitor, computer parts, Linux operating system, subwoofer cable, wood, asphalt, 150 × 75 × 127 cm. Courtesy: the artist and LABOR, Mexico City; photograph: Ramiro Chaves 

In Untitled (Too Thick) II – a tall, lean stack of used iPhone cases topped by a bulging blob of asphalt – the artist reflects on how today’s hyperconnectivity creates the illusion of a potential threat to white dominance. In the press release for the show, the artist describes the work as a ‘collection of phones kind of hive-minding […] their power and processes being combined for a more powerful device’. We need only think of how effectively smartphones have been used to mobilize Black communities for mass protests across the globe, through real-time, social-media messaging. Yet, beneath the semblance of all this influence and connectivity, the Black community remains fractured and dispossessed. The artist also offers an underlying critique of technology’s need to be ever-sleeker: what is all this shine glossing over?

Master-Slave Flip-Flop, a neon-white rectangular wall piece that replicates a circuit board commonly found in computers, serves as a biting critique of the language of race, power and identity. In computer science, the derogatory term ‘master-slave’ – describing the process by which one device controls another –  came to be used, according to the gallery’s press release, on a day-to-day basis in much the same way as the US employed it to exert control during its deadly military and colonial operations at home and abroad. The artist visualizes this parody in a work that is both shocking and mesmerizing.

American Artist, “Master-Slave Flip-Flop”, 2021. Neón|Neon 73 x 201 x 6cm. (28.74 x 79.13 x 2.36inches) Fotografía por | Photography by: Ramiro Chaves Cortesía de American Artist y Labor | Courtesy of American Artist and Labor
 American Artist, Master-Slave Flip-Flop, 2021, neon, 73 × 201 × 6cm. Courtesy: the artist and LABOR, Mexico City; photograph: Ramiro Chaves 
 

It’s no coincidence that the artist, who legally changed their name to American Artist in 2013, is hard to trace on the internet. This act of resistance speaks directly to how Black lives have been grossly forgotten in the fields of art, design and technology, among others.  While ‘Black Gooey Universe’ raises a number of uncomfortable truths concerning the complexity of being Black in the age of technology, there’s scope for an even deeper dive in the future. I’m excited to see what comes next.

American Artist’s ‘Black Gooey Universe’ at LABOR, Mexico City, is on view until 6 November.

Main image: American Artist, ‘Black Gooey Universe’, 2021, exhibition view, LABOR, Mexico City. Courtesy: the artist and LABOR, Mexico City; photograph: Ramiro Chaves 
 

Mebrak Tareke is the founder of TiMS Creative, a global consultancy on the future of storytelling. She has written for Arnet News, Hyperallergic and The Brooklyn Rail on art, politics and culture in the African diaspora.

SHARE THIS