After hearing Sanford Biggers speak at Emory last spring I felt compelled to see more of his work in person. My interest in Afrofuturism as a discipline or area of practice (production) led to my research into what scholar Rayvon Fouché refers to as “techno-black cultural syncretism” and “black vernacular technological creativity”. It also led to the discovery of science and mathematics principles embedded in works by Sanford and several other contemporary artists (more on this development later). I started covering my excursions to Sanford’s exhibitions and posted my impressions on the Art21 blog. When I asked Sanford which pieces he thought I should focus on he told me about the re-purposed quilts in the Codex show at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL.
Roy Ascott writes that syncretism is an attempt to “reconcile and analogise” disparate religious/spiritual and cultural practices in disciplines such as art and may contribute to our understanding of multi-layered worldviews – material and metaphysical – that are emerging with our engagement in, amongst other things, ubiquitous and creative technologies. At his Emory talk Sanford briefly talked about syncretism, among other topics. Artist/filmmaker Cauleen Smith gave me more words to ‘analogize’ this work: hybridity, transtemporal, collage, recycle, melange, appropriation, hopscotch, leapfrog, the tether, the loop, synergy, hand-made, bricolage, improvisation, mongrelisation, margin, void and transculturation. Another word I honed in on was “ethos,” or ‘spirit of the times.’ Then I started noticing similar patterns and mathematics-based design, i.e. in street art from around the world.
Sanford is a musician, so in his work music and sound figures in as well as mathematics (and science-fiction). His new work visualizes five harmonic scale patterns, or more specifically the perfect fifth that, according to Hermann von Helmholtz is “found in all the musical scales known.” In the future I may ask Sanford to further elaborate on this.
For my Art21 blog post (re: Codex) I write about Sanford’s use of spray painted stencils, cloud and wave motifs heavily influenced by the Edo period in Japanese art. Sanford lived in Japan for three years, so we see this influence, among many others, in his artwork. The harmonic scale/portal motif was used in an earlier work on view in the Codex exhibition. The new one has been acquired by the Miami Art Museum.
Sacred geometry (geometric design) and raw cotton “clouds” figure into his work such as in another quilt I saw him working on this week. Here, you can see Julie Mehretu‘s influence (she is his friend), as well as other motifs seen in Codex such as Lotus, his “highly stylized,” twenty-four petal filigree pattern in the shape of a flower.
The individual units that make up the interlaced pattern are schematically rendered bodies place side by side. The shape of each elongated petal and the configuration of bodies within in correspond to a particular eighteenth-century diagram: that historical image that shows the layout of the tightly packed human cargo holds of slave ships crossing the Atlantic from Africa to America, what is called the Middle Passage of the triangular trade route that also included Europe. [Eugenie Tsai 2011]
Sanford showed me Lotus printed in red on a piece of muslin cloth and for the first time the whole pattern has been sewn directly onto his work, rather than appliquéd or painted on (or etched into glass-like material).
These various motifs or ideas that have appeared in works in several exhibitions are merging into a harmonious collection of artistic objects (artifacts). Sanford is also planning to continue exploring hip-hop in a music-based performance piece involving several DJs. I told him about meeting Maseo of De La Soul at the High Museum of Art last spring, i.e. the use of U-Stream (Internet streaming) technology to stage several DJ ‘happenings’. It was this thread of our conversation that inspired me to find Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity. In it Fouché writes about DJing.
DJ legend and hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash was instrumental in recreating a set of new technological objects and practices that addressed black cultural needs. [and] His technological rhetoric acknowledges that he understood he was re-creating technology based on his own personal aesthetics as well as using scientific methods to develop his technique.
I talked with Sanford about lots of other things: Gabrielle Douglas, Venus and Serena (Williams) in New York Times Magazine, Kara Walker at the Atlanta Cyclorama, Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney, etc. Sanford asked me if I had any of his books and then surprised me with one from his show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2011). He even signed it.
I don’t know what the future holds: I really want to invite Sanford, Julie Mehretu and other artists who are exploring artifactual culture and techno-vernacular creativity to Georgia Tech for a symposium to discuss how to study these activities to alter the current discourse, i.e. in digital media where there is a dearth of such references. I also want to explore how this research can inform new media design and education. Fouché (2006) writes,
By uncovering African Americans creating technological artifacts, practices, and knowledge that have become parts of the American material and technological cultures, black people will become visible metaphorically and materially. This work will enable black people to move out of the shadows, lift the veil, remove the mask, and solidify and develop decidedly positive technological representations and existences for African Americans within American society and culture.
As a social construction (of technology) this development encourages practitioners to negotiate to “close,” or stabilize, the meanings of artifacts (artworks). As this domain relates to Sanford’s and other artists’ creative production these are the major tracks/themes I want to explore:
Black (and Indigenous) vernacular technological creativity
The finer language that defines a relevant social group as a fluid assemblage of individuals who share a common meaning of an artifact opens up interpretive flexibility to acknowledge and consider a multitude of coexisting technological meanings for a variety of social groups and creates an opportunity to study how African Americans, and other marginalized peoples, create their own relevant social groups that decide which technologies work for them and how to use them. [Fouche 2006]
“Culture in mind”
The emergent world is a coming-into-knowledge of another world that already exists. This is the Murngin version of culture’s twice-born character, the ceaseless flow of semiosis, inside-out and outside-in, linking culture in the world and culture in the mind.” [Brad Shore 2009]
I plan to continue to ask professional (and dedicated amateur) artists questions to generate threads that lead to even more questions. As it relates to production: Ideally there should be enough states of a medium to create a sense of a continuum of possibilities. I see this in Sanford’s work: There exists sensations of different states that become unified through many iterations of ‘making’ or craft. Through this work Sanford is creating density (of forms, artifacts, etc.) and coaxing his materials. Although this is difficult to document, the importance of continuity to reflective, masterful processes cannot be underestimated.
[Some of these notes/topics will be used to write an addendum to Polyculturalist Visions, New Frameworks of Representation: Multiculturalism and the American Culture Wars for Art21.]