Kimberly Drew, author of the popular Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art, joins artist and scholar Rashayla Marie Brown for a conversation about photography and bearing witness in the age of social media.
Kimberly Drew: It is such an honor to be on stage here with Rashayla. Oh, also, feel free to make noise on the internet, on your phones. I would be a totally hypocrite to tell you to put your phone down. But anyway, I like to start my talks with that ’cause it's important.
Rashayla Marie Brown: Yeah.
KD: This is a talk about social media.
KD: Rashayla and I met earlier this year –
RMB: In LA.
KD: – in LA and met through Nikita Gale, who is an artist that I also met on the internet, and it's really fitting to have this very like internet kind of matrix be the thing that really brought us together. And so today, we're gonna talk a little bit about the Witness exhibition, a little bit about what it means to ideate online, what it means to share images online, and then also about some of the conscious choices that artists and individuals make in deciding not to share images online. And I think, Rashayla, you wanted to kick off the conversation.
RMB: Yeah. I was really thinking a lot about this concept of really being on social media to show images that we relate to this concept of “witnessing.” So, I think a lot of us are very familiar with the ways that a lot of folks have been essentially showing for a lot of folks to see the police brutality incidents, thinking a lot about Black Lives Matter and the ways that we kind of get information about the most recent loss of life.
And one that I think in this idea of witnessing that was really striking to me that I wanted to kind of open us up to thinking about this concept of witnessing, I think we've seen a lot of these different videos that were essentially created by a person who is not the person who ends up in their demise. But I was thinking about Korryn Gaines, specifically, who – actually, for those of you who don't know, she Facebook Lived police coming into her house. And her son was there, and she was recording him talking about the police coming into the house. And she had a shotgun, and she was basically trying to barricade her house and say, “You can't come in here. You can't kidnap me,” to the police, and they killed her.
And that one, in particular, I think really started to refocus, for me, this concept of us showing these deaths as a way of trying to really challenge what is happening, that it actually ends up maybe doing this opposite of creating a kind of spectacle. So that was kind of what I was interested in starting off with you, Kim, and thinking about maybe what are some of your thoughts on maybe the difference between witnessing and a spectacle, essentially?
KD: Yeah. That's a great question and way to frame this dialogue, as well, because I think that there are a lot of concrete realities that go into documentation and into the ways in which social media allows us to respond to moments in real time, right? These things happen not instantaneously, but there is a different relationship to time and publishing that I think we're witnessing in this particular moment.
One thing, though, that I think about often is the relationship between authorship and witnessing and what it means to be present in a moment and how your relationship to the action changes. And kind of to your point about Korryn's story and to the story of – so many stories like that, where that person isn't necessarily the person that is killed. That person is the person who is just present.
Or you think about the work of an artist who is a photojournalist or something like this and how there is an immediate economic gain at the end of this moment of documentation. There is, of course, a huge risk if you’re a Vice reporter and first in the field and present. But then, also, you still may go back to your apartment in Crown Heights. What does that mean? And how can we create a system that is accountable to both the truth of the moment and also the story needing to be told; the story bearing the weight of needing to be told?
And it is interesting. I think a lot about apps. For example, I don't know if you've heard about this, but the ACLU has an app that like – so if you're in an altercation and you have your phone out and you use their app, it automatically delivers the video that you have recorded of the police or someone doing some injustice unto you and sends it to them. So if someone does take your phone, they can't delete the video.
RMB: Oh, wow.
KD: And so thinking about how technology can help to aid in those moments as well. It's a sad brilliance when people have to rely on these types of technologies just to say like, “This is what happened. This is the truth.” And so I was wondering for you, too, just to like put a question back on you –
RMB: Yeah. Sure.
KD: As an artist who is engaging not necessarily using social media as a medium in all cases, but for you, as a person who makes images, what does it mean for you, especially as a black woman, to share your images online? What is some of the thought process that goes into like, “Okay, is this body of work finished?” Is that what puts it online? Or is it, “Okay, this body of work is urgent for this moment, and now I need to publish it”? What are some of those thoughts for you?
RMB: Yeah. That's a really good question. I have a very kind of notoriously ambivalent relationship about social media, where I spend an inordinate amount of time promoting exhibits or talks or different things that I'm doing but then also will kind of go back and delete all of the images that I'm tagged in over like the course of several years. So I think, even at this point, the images that I'm tagged in, I think they only go back maybe like a year and a half because I go through this.
And that actually kind of started when Colleen Smith, another artist – brilliant, amazing person – challenged me when I posted a photograph that she had seen I believe either in my studio or at a show. And I posted it because I knew it was a very sexy image. It was gonna get a lot of “Likes.” It was gonna be something that could kind of promote what I'm trying to do.
And she asked me, “Does Mark Zuckerberg own that image if I put it on Facebook?” And I didn't actually know the answer to the question, and I think that her question was intended to be a provocation; not to say, “You're supposed to do this or that,” just, “Did you consider, or do you think about these things when you're posting?”
And once I started to understand a little bit more about the ways that these image archives are being stored and maybe potentially used for future purpose that we don't have, I'm very selective about which images that I put online now. I think the ones that I do put up are definitely ready for consumption. They're something that I probably would be exhibiting pretty soon.
I mean I have a lot of works in my studio right now that I was just really having a hard time trying to decide whether or not I wanted to post them, mainly because I just don't feel like they're ready. And I do wonder if this idea of needing to put oneself out there and try to promote your career or think of yourself as this kind of active practitioner actually creates a certain type of artwork. It makes people make work with the idea that eventually it's going to be something that needs to be consumed in that way.
So I think, for me, I'm erring on the side of caution when it comes to new work, but I do heavily promote – I think I'm more on the side of, “This is what's going on in my life,” type of thing, rather than, “Here's my brand-new artwork right out the studio. Here, comment on it. Like it. Heart it, whatever.”
KD: Yeah, I think a lot about – okay, so I work at the Met. Every day, I sit at my desk on a computer in Facebook or Twitter or scrolling through Instagram. And so the days in which violence is inflicted and performed online, I'm very attuned to those things. It was actually interesting as we were walking up because Rashayla was saying like, “Oh, I wanna talk about Korryn Gaines. And I couldn't recall which black mom she was that had murdered. There's just such a high volume of violence, where it's getting to the point where it's almost difficult to be able to tell one story from the other. And it gets to a point where not – I think within the kind of like the Internet of Things, there's just such a wide amount of information that one can take in if they're spending a certain amount of time online.
But I also think, on the other side of that, about what it means for me to publish online because like outside of my work in museums I'm really prolific on a lot of these platforms ’cause I'm really interested in the performance of life, the performance of black life, as well. And of course, the stakes are a little bit lower, the images that I'm sharing because it's not necessarily – I mean it is definitely intellectual property, and I think that that's something that everyone should be thinking about in the audience when they're sharing on these platforms, especially with relationship to authorship and ownership.
But for me, it feels imperative to be able to show like, “This really terrible thing happened today, but also, I'm still here.” And for me, sometimes, too, even if it's: Kanye's visiting Trump, and these are the five articles about it, or here's this fake news thing, I can also see a friend just had a baby. And those are things that remind us that even when it feels like time stops because there has been some great violence, that there's still life being lived. And I think so much about that's where kind of my Black Lives Matter politics really shows itself the most.
And so I was wondering if, Rashayla, you could talk a little bit more about the idea of consumption. I think about the ways in which, especially artists from particularly marginalized communities, how there is a different set of expectations around certain months, like February and March or May or September, and how we're, as people of color, called to action in different ways. In what ways do you feel like that impacts your image making?
Or if, like for you, if you think about it always as – and this being consumed, so I think about the politics of being consumed and also the politick in being indigestible, right? And so I was wondering if you could talk about what that process is, especially as your work is considered – or it considers a lot of like the outside gaze and how it is displayed upon your body.
RMB: Well, I think that's actually that whole problem of trying to figure out essentially where the authorship is in a moment of making a photograph that leads me to making things that are performative in a sense and thinking about photography as a type of performance. Because when I think of it in that way, it gives me a lot more freedom to occupy a variety of different roles instead of just like, oh, if I'm in the front of the camera, I'm somehow able to be exploited or if I'm behind it, I somehow have the power.
So I think that, really, all of us kind of thinking about the different ways – and this is something kind of related to what you were talking about a little bit when we were kind of chitchatting earlier, about how we all our getting more images than we've ever had before. And I think when we're inundated with that type of information, type of visual information, what really is happening is that we're occupying a lot of different roles in relationship to photography that perhaps, historically, were denied to us or were cost-prohibitive.
Anybody can make a really well composed, beautiful, high-quality photograph these days. And I think that it's important to consider photography within that idea of roles that are constantly shifting as opposed to, “I'm empowered or disempowered,” because honestly, I'm at the point where I think that there's been a lot of conversation in photography, especially when it comes to the marginalized of, “I'm using photography to empower myself. I want to make visible people like me because we haven't been considered a part of this canon,” or whatever the case may be – this archive.
And I think, now, we really have to critically engage that concept. Does that visibility automatically assume that you will have some sense of empowerment? Or is there another role that you can occupy relationship to photography than “I've been the victim, and now I have to vindicate myself”?
KD: Yeah. Yeah. That's true. I mean on the other side of this, too, we were talking earlier, thinking ahead of this talk, about speaking specifically about what it means to be a black body moving online as either the person who's pushing the pixels or the person who is being composed by the pixels and what that means. And I often think about virality, right? And how our images move quickly and how I have a lot of friends who are internet famous.
And I'll see them tweet something, and then, you get the meme, and it's like their account is cropped out. Or like The Shade Room will repost something that my friend Doreen sent out, and it's no longer Doreen's tweet, it's The Shade Room's tweet, but then, also, The Shade Room is a black-owned company. So how deep can it get in terms of ownership and visibility? And what does it mean to be made visible when you're not ready for it, or there's not – I think that we also have this kind of capitalist view of visibility that I think is difficult, especially for black peoples, because a lot of the black people that we see readily are the superstars or the athletes and like Ben Carson before he was awful. There's just very few examples and modes of being a highly visible black person, right?
KD: And then, now, you have like the Vine Kids. RIP Vine. But in what way is like Jay Pharoah, you know the young man who liked it, all of the – okay, he does these amazing –
RMB: So I'm a little old – yeah.
KD: – Anita Baker covers. In what ways is he empowered, and in what ways is he able to control his image? And is that something that we should reserve? I wonder so much, too, about how we can – where that impetus comes from, you know? And I guess it's kind of in that continuum of the history of documentary photography. Like, Jacob Riis showed us this truth, and then, it created this fight.
And so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about, for you, what made you want to go into showing your images from a younger age. Was it about this means of empowerment? Is it something for you, particularly, that made you see that shift from like – or like wanting to question power in images and representation?
RMB: I think that's what initially drew me into photography is this idea that I wanted to kind of make myself, that I wanted to be able to have the control over my image that I perceived that people ultimately should have. But I think that now that I've done a fair bit of showing of those types of images, I'm not 100 percent – I don't believe that I approached the active making a photograph with this idea of needing to kind of control my image or empower myself anymore.
I think that's a really dubious concept, and I think that there's a lot of people who have made really beautiful, fantastic work that's based off of that premise. And the social issue that is tied to whatever they're making images about remains. So the question is, “What next?”
So for me, I think that that's kind of where I'm at now. It's like, “What next?” Not, “How do I make myself look like an empowered individual.”
And I think when it comes to internet celebrity, the thing I think that's happening in a lot of people's kind of framework around, “What is image making? And how is this empowering to me?” is that they already know that these images are going to be proliferated anyway.
So they wanna figure out a way to try to capitalize on their image being monetized, which I think is noble in a type of way, but also, in the end, what you're saying is is that your value is ultimately kind of a monetary one. So that's the one that feels very – or the kind of approach that feels very troubling to me, and I think ultimately leads me to other media in addition to photography.
’Cause I don't refer to myself as photographer, performance artist, or kind of silo myself in that way, I just say I'm an interdisciplinary artist, and so whenever I'm engaging with whatever media. I usually am talking about the process of looking. But there's a lot of ways to look at something other than through this apparatus, which essentially what the camera is. It's like a prosthetic in a way. It's like a prosthetic eye. And it sees things in a way that you're not going to see them in the way that you experience them. Like the picture of the situation always is different than how you experience that. I mean but there's some people who say that you are internet famous, too. So I'm interested –
RMB: I mean really. How would that kind of characterization make you feel about the images that you're making or the way that you're operating in popular culture in addition to this world that we are in and the art world that's sometimes a little separate from that? 'Cause I feel like that kind of balance that you're riding right now is really what's interesting to a lot of folks who probably wouldn't perceive themselves as needing to be visual – visible in that way, like a curator or a writer or a critic or someone who's perceived as an administrator in the arts.
KD: Yeah, that's an interesting question. It's one that I actually think a lot about, too, in working at the Met because it's an institution that's 140 years old, and there are a lot of people who have a lot of the ideals from 140 years ago. And so there's questions like, “Why do we use the internet? Why do we have a website? Who built this anyway?”
And I have a deep respect for that because everybody's – I love Luddites. If you hate the internet, awesome. Let's talk about it. What specifically do you hate?
KD: ’Cause it's not the whole thing, and there are some things that I take issue with, too. And I think that those are the spaces – I mean it's always good to talk to people who don't agree with you. That's just how I was raised.
But in terms of the way that I live my life within the arts, for me, it's really I'm interested in presenting possibilities, and I have, for a very long time, been invested in that. I don't know where I got that crazy idea from, but it's been working so far. I think so much about how my path towards success was not one that was particularly linear.
There wasn't like someone who was like, “Let me take your hand from this internship to the Met.” No one's doing that for little black girls in the art world. That's just not what the deal is.
KD: And so for me, I'm really interested in showing like it can be a path that looks like this and that all of those things matter and all those things inform the story. And so I like to publish at each stage so that people can see and not necessarily as a means of saying like, “You, too, should want to do this,” because my life is cute, but it's not as fun as it looks on the internet.
But if it can inform the passion that you have, then that's – the goal for me is that it incites this fire in you and that people can understand that there's a value in that. And then, moreover, I'm interested in sharing other people's stories because I believe so much in celebrating minutia and being able to look at these little moments in time as parts of those paths.
And so if there's an ability for me to take someone else's step and be able to shine a light on that as a means of saying, “Okay, this artist was working on this in 2014.” And then, now, they're like – have this amazing show and this amazing place. And not to say that I take any credit for it because I 100 percent don't, but just being able to say this is a part of a continuum. This is not just a person who's making something for your shitty art fair in Eastern Europe, this is a person who has a practice that is full, and this person is reading more books than you could ever imagine. And I want people to look at these kind of people, these cast of characters in my social media and just think more in more complicated ways, especially about artists of color, because I don't know that we are in a discipline that allows for that kind of thought and imagination.
And I think that that's what social media affords us, to a certain degree, too. I think a lot about – and how in your work taps into the gaze and taps into this like idea of fantasy because you both are an individual in the images but then also presenting this universe that is not that at all. And there's an incredible amount of agency in being able to build narrative and work but also that you're tapping into this imagination.
And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how – like especially, ’cause you were mentioning before, that you've moved away from just like photography and performance and into other mediums and what that means for you now, especially as a person who was public. What does it mean for you to journey into something new within this kind of infrastructure of accountability, if you could call it that?
RMB: It's super nerve wracking. I mean I'm kind of having a little crisis in my studio right now thinking about – and I think this is what artists do. We go through like mini crises all the time. We're like sitting in there, like, “Oh, no. Did I paint myself into a corner with the work that I've made so far? Now, I can't go and do this other thing,” or, “How do I create a path for me to get to this other thing that kinda makes sense to people who are not here in this process with me?”
So it's been very – I've been starting to get to the point where I do feel like I'm about to have one of those “I need to get off the internet” moments, just so that I can have the time to breathe and think about what's happening in my work without this public gaze. But then I think that that's like really dramatic, also, that I could probably just not post or not log in and just leave it at that for a while, while I'm working on my work.
So I think the way that young artists are participating in the art world now – and when I say the art world, it's like that's a very problematic term, but I think ultimately I'm talking about spaces that are institutionally validated in some type of way, have resources, because I could think of a lot of places where art is being made where people don't consider that the art world.
But ultimately, I think engaging with these places where now we have visible models of success that are also coming from different communities. We have our superstars of every race you can imagine. From throughout the world, you have major art stars, and a lot of them are fairly young, and I think that creates a lot of anxiety for people in a way that's kind of – it's very typical. It's like you compare yourself to other people. It makes you feel bad about yourself. Even if you're better than them in their comparison, eventually, you'll find somebody who's like better than you, and so like the cycle will perpetuate itself. So I think that whole idea of needing to be able to be really present with the work and really trying to not look at – I mean ’cause you even were talking about how your life looks more interesting on the internet than it does in real life.
I say that to people all the time. They're like, “Oh, you were just in Johannesburg,” or, “You were just in whatever.” And I'm just like, “Yeah. And I was also just in my pajamas for like five days trying to pull myself together, and it was really hard.” And those are things that I'm not gonna show on the internet because that's not the kind of persona that I'm necessarily cultivating.
And I think that's another thing that's crazy. We have to think about the persona that we're cultivating. I know my personal is jetsetting, professional, but a little kooky. What else? Real family person, always leopard print, and a lot of crazy outfits.
I mean that's like I'm aware of how I look to people, and that kind of concept really is double consciousness on steroids. And I think that a lot of people who probably wouldn't perceive themselves as being a part of the double-consciousness rhetoric are now going to be because – social media is making all of us have this process of looking at ourselves from other people's standpoint or other people's views of us.
KD: Yeah. It's so weird how we perform online. I'm thinking about what you're saying in terms of the performance on the internet and how that might relate to recording these incidents of violence and what that means ’cause I think – okay, so you guys read the news, right? ’Cause you know this talk happened, so you're on some sort of the internet.
I think a lot about how people are like, “And now more than ever . . . ,” after Tuesday. Or they're like, “In this year, where all these awful things happened.”
KD: And I was like, yeah, 2016 was like a hot bag of fiery garbage.
RMB: Yeah. Prince died.
KD: No question about it, right?
KD: Ugh. But, so many of these really terrible things are, one, a part of a system. So let's just get real. These things don't happen as totally isolated incidents. The ways in which people read certain bodies on the street is just something that we're hardwired to do. Watch the 13th when you get home if you haven't already.
And I think so much about how social media has, instead of saying that social media is a vehicle for being able to better visualize black pain, but it's just like a different way of performing it, right? It's a different – or a kind of more nuanced way of performing what a black life lived can be. And sometimes that shit is difficult. And sometimes, other lives are difficult as well, but this is the technology that we read into truth now in the way that, traditionally, maybe we would have totally relied on photography to do. Or I was in Baltimore yesterday, and there was The AFRO-American Newspaper, which was like one of the oldest black newspapers in the country – how that was like the way of being able to tell these stories. Or you think about Chicago – Johnson Publishing Company.
RMB: The vendor.
KD: Exactly. This is now just our way of being able to say, “Hey, this is what it looks like from this side of the table,” because there is difference. I don't know. I'm curious about that performance and what it means, especially, too, as an artist that performs, if you can maybe talk about your relationship to an audience and how you enter into a moment of performative gesture and what that process looks like beforehand, especially knowing, if you were to perform in 2017, what kind of considerations might go into the way that you set the ground rules for the space that you're performing in?
RMB: Well, I think with performance, in general, it's always like the first thing you have to know is the context. What's been going on in this space before I got here? What are people thinking about? What are they talking about? Am I being brought to solve a problem? Like lack of diversity. You know? Or am I being brought in as a responder to somebody else's thing instead of – I'm a frontline responder instead of someone who would be impacted by these things? So I think that's like the first set of questions that I have to be able to answer.
And for all the curators out there, if you're ever interested in curating performance, please make sure that your performance artists have that context because I've been in so many situations where it's like you're just kinda thrown in the middle of something. And then, you don't really know what that information is, or it was presented to you in a way that wasn't making the work be able to develop kind of on the ground, so to speak.
And so I think that that's the relationship to the person bringing me in is probably the most important thing or the group of people or the institution. And then, also, if I know that there's gonna be a certain kind of racial dynamic, that's really important to me to know that I can't do the same exact performance for a room of black people that I do for a room of white people or mixed group of people or group of Asian people or a group of people who are in art school vs. people who are coming off the street. Those are all things that are really important to know.
And then, from there, I kind of go off into a back room or wherever I'm staying and just kind of incubate those ideas and really think about how I'm going to disrupt any assumption that people have about what a person like me would do in that context. So that's – ’cause I'm like more interested in provocateur kind of roles or people who you can't tell if they're performing. I'm really interested in Tania Bruguera. I love Theaster Gates’s work.
I mean I just think about a lot of people where you're just like, “Is this a performance, or is this you being yourself?” And so I'm really interested in the ways that that type of work is able to occupy a lot of different spaces, but the artist will tune it a little bit differently.
So I'm learning that. I've only been doing live performance probably for like – I don't know – two and a half years. So I feel very fresh in that. But I think it's the same thing that we all do when we're in a social situation, when we're all learning how to occupy a space. And some of us are better at that than others – or at least we know how to get people to do what we want in those situations better than others.
And so I think my whole goal is to try to draw that process to people's attention, to be like, “You could just as easily be here on this stage talking, and I'm gonna go sit in the audience, and you can figure this out.” So yeah, I don't know if that –
KD: Yeah. Totally. Yeah. I mean I think a lot about that, especially – and this is kind of an odd tangent, but it makes me think about the ways in which you read gender in public space, where people are like, “Oh, I didn't know you were a ‘they.’” And I was like, “You didn't know this person. You didn't know this person before you met this person, so give gender a chance.”
KD: Also, what's a myth? Also, what if we, just when we encountered people, just allowed for this moment of reading and as a means of becoming a more literate people in the way that we engage with others and in other? So yeah, that's really interesting to think about ’cause I've been to so many performances where – especially performances wherein there's this assumption about how I want to respond to the truth of our times, where it's just like I actually don't want to see you perform death.
KD: Or I was at the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore yesterday – or two days ago, and they were like, “Don't you wanna go to the lynching exhibition?” I'm like, “I'm not trying to mess up my Monday.”
I know that history, and I respect it. I respect the display of it, but I also took an entire semester on Ida B. Wells and just will break down and not come back. And that's a thing and a right that I reserve to take up that much space, and I think about that, too, to your point earlier about wanting to have this grand moment of being like, “I'm deactivating.”
KD: I always will be like so ready to be like, “I'm deleting my ’gram.” And some people will care; some people won't. But it's such an interesting –
RMB: A lot of people will care.
KD: It's a interesting thing to do. I love the drama.
RMB: Yeah. Right.
KD: I love the constant threat where you're like either these platforms won't exist anymore, like Vine, or I'm gonna delete it, and life will go on. I don't know. It's an interesting thing, which has nothing to do with this talk.
RMB: No, I think it is relevant. It actually makes me think about two artists that I've really been thinking at a lot that I wanted to kind of bring into this conversation – David Leggett's show at Gallery 400. I think there's a couple more days left on that. If y'all haven't seen it, go.
KD: I'm going tomorrow.
RMB: It's so good. So good. But just for the sake of us having a conversation about it, David has a blog, and he, everyday, is posting drawings, and a lot of times, they're in response to things that people ask him to draw on the Tumblr blog. So for that reason, he has a very active social media presence in that sense, but you're not gonna see him personally posting a lot of details and minutia of his day-to-day life. And if you do see any of those details, it's gonna show up in his work – that you'll see that in the painting in the gallery.
And Martine Syms also makes work about net art and essentially this concept of like what is like a black net-art aesthetic, but she doesn't have a social media presence other than a Twitter, where she just will, very occasionally, post things that are just – they're not even super interesting to to be quite honest. I mean no shame, but they're just –
KD: Don't be talking about my girl.
RMB: I mean I'm just saying they're just kind of like – they're just real – okay – simple. It wasn't trying to be something really climactic or super art –
KD: It's kinda like an anti-performance.
RMB: Exactly. And I know that she's really interested in that concept of anti-performance, as well. And I love Fred Moten's notes on non-performance and blackness, as well. But I have been thinking about that, the artists who are making work specifically about the internet or some kind of engagement with it, but they don't actually post the minutia of their day-to-day life on the internet, and what that type of relationship to – I don't know – I wonder if I wasn't posting myself and my image and my family and my vacations, would that, then, kind of make me feel like, “Oh, there's some space to make work about the internet”? ’Cause in the space that I'm in right now, I don't really feel truly compelled to make work about the internet.
KD: I mean I think it's really a matter of personal preference ’cause a lot of times, people are like – I get the questions, “What's the future of the internet?” I'm like, “I don't know. I just like tomorrow where I get on it again and the day after.”
Twitter changed where the images don't count in the characters, and it's still messing me up, like, right Abraham? You got an extra 24 characters. It's amazing. It's like the best thing, but for the longest, we were waiting for this thing to happen. And it was not gonna happen, and then it did. So now, I'm just like, “This changes my entire job.”
But as an aside, yeah, I mean I don't think that everybody necessarily has to make work about the internet. That would get so boring. Oh, my god.
KD: But I do think that if there is a criticality to which we bring to our engagement with all of these things that we've become so readily dependent on, it's definitely necessary. I think a lot about, especially now, like the politick of screen time, where sometimes adults don't let little people be on the computer because it melts their brains, where it's just like, “No, maybe not.” Maybe we understand that the technology, and this digital world, has – is very much a mirror of things that we've always been engaging with and thinking through. And we need to bring a critical lens, even if this is a child, to what these things do and mean in the world. Our president is on Twitter. That's just a fact. That's, unfortunately, not going away.
And so maybe we should talk more critically about what these mediums do, where they come from, and how they've operated over time. So I don't think you necessarily have to, but if you want to, you should. I'd love to see that.
RMB: Well, I think that the only ways that I would be interested in it is if there would be some alternative platforms, not the ones that are like the major corporations, so no Tumblrs, no Twitters, no Facebooks, no – I don't know – LinkedIns, SeekingArrangement.com – I don't know. You know.
RMB: Right – BlackPeopleMeet.
KD: I miss BlackPlanet.
RMB: Oh, I miss it so much. Okay, so I was a really huge, crazy BlackPlanet.com person. I actually found my first girlfriend from BlackPlanet.
KD: That's beautiful.
RMB: Yeah. So yeah, BlackPlanet did a lot for people. But yeah, I think that those types of –
KD: It's true. It's true. Look it up. There's this guy named Omar Wasow, who's a black person who founded BlackPlanet. He's also the first person to help Oprah send her first email. It's historic.
RMB: It really is. They also had MiGente.com and Asian Avenue.
KD: There was – yes.
RMB: Yes, they were all owned by the same company.
KD: There's DowneLink. Do you know DowneLink?
KD: It was the queer one.
RMB: No, I didn't know that.
KD: It was called DowneLink.
RMB: Oh, okay.
KD: But anyway –
RMB: So anyway, the whole point being just different types of platforms that may be potentially underground I think would be kind of interesting. I would like to see this D – I don't know – just something where we kind of disrupt, a little bit, the mass corporation owning all social media thing. I think that that's kind of the place where we're at. We need that back.
RMB: But I think we're getting a little warning time.
Ann Meisinger: So is this on? Yeah. So we've got 10 or 15 minutes for Q&A. I have a microphone. If you wanna throw out some questions, I'm happy to bring it around. Just flag me down. Questions? Up front? Oh. Nice.
Audience Member 1: Hi.
Audience Member 1: You mentioned that you tune your performance to the space that you are performing in. And I'm curious for both of you, what are the ways in which you tune your online performances on these social platforms? Do you restrict it to certain audiences? Do you have interactions with folks who you didn't realize were in your network or were following you? And how do you deal with that?
RMB: Well, yes. I have a restricted category for some people, and some of those people are related to me. I think because they post too much, so like the random auntie who doesn't know how to stop. You love her. You don't wanna unfriend her, but she doesn't understand the purpose – well, maybe she does understand the purpose of the internet, and I don't understand the purpose –
KD: Do you have people in your family that post Bible memes? Does anybody in the audience have a family member that posts Bible memes? Thank you, James, in the front. Yes.
RMB: Yes. Yes.
KD: My mom is all about that, and I'm just like, “Oh, my god. What?” There was one that was like, “It doesn't matter who was elected because Jesus is King.” And I was just like, “What?” I mean, “What?”
RMB: Can Jesus take the wheel?
KD: Where did you get that from? Sorry. I just needed to vent.
RMB: Do you have a restricted category?
KD: I do. I totally do.
RMB: I feel like you would have to.
KD: Yeah. No, I do. It's relatively new. I have a Facebook group that I started called “Very, Very Rare,” and it's specifically oriented around information sharing amongst people of color. And the only people who can be in the group are people of color, and so there's like between 400 and 500 in it. So it is pretty public.
But in scale with the other sides of the communities I engage with, it's quite small. But yeah, I like to reserve that space as one where it's just like, “This is really an unapologetic space for sharing these particular types of things.” And it's not about necessarily being super reverent, but just being really selective about engagement.
But otherwise, I'm pretty public, and I think very critically about things before I publish them. And they're just fun stuff – things that happen in my life that I wanna share, but I know that they're very low consequence. Like, I definitely put Rashayla eating a red velvet cupcake on Instagram live before we came downstairs, and it's like a low-stakes game.
But I think a lot about images, especially of my body, online, too. And so I definitely think about restricting those kinds of images in the world, especially, or thinking about if I sit for a portrait, who I choose to sit for. As aside from social media, something that I think really way too much about it and almost just like totally trying-to-resist-narcissism way, but just thinking about how I want to be remembered, especially at this age in my life and what that looks like is something that I'm always constantly kind of ruminating on.
RMB: Yeah, that's good.
KD: Any more questions?
Audience Member 2: So something you said about these restrictions on your social media accounts made me think about my daughter—who's gonna kill me—she's applying for colleges, and the idea of safe spaces has come up a lot, which – I graduated from SAIC in 2007. So the concept of safe spaces is still somewhat new to me.
So I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on the necessity of, the authenticity of should we be looking for safe spaces? Do safe spaces really exist? How much does it matter like in relation to social media and IRL?
RMB: Okay. I mean it's –
KD: I can answer it, too. I just –
RMB: Yeah. So my day job is the director of Student Affairs for Diversity at SAIC, the School of the Art Institute Chicago. And the concept of a safe space is like a higher education lingo. It's like a concept that has become very popular in higher ed, specifically.
I don't personally believe that it's possible to guarantee a safe space, and so I've kind of started to refrain from using that specific language. I think a lot of people are starting to talk about the concept of a brave space. So we're showing up. We're doing our best. We're gonna make mistakes, and you have to be brave, and you have to deal with that.
I think that there are still legitimate spaces where we can kind of come together with people that we feel share our interests and care about us. And that's kind of up to each person to determine what that safe space is. I don't know if the institution necessarily can guarantee that space for you.
I think it's – and I encourage my students to do this all the time – it's like you need to find your people. You need to connect with the folks who get you, who understand, and then y'all need to go and do something because you can't be relying on the person who's like the beleaguered diversity job guy or whatever to do that work because it's not always about that. It's about actually creating that sense of – I mean the really overrun word “community.” But it really – I think that really is, but those are my feelings about that.
KD: Yeah. I totally agree. The first time I heard the phrase “safe space is a myth” was like a bell hooks moment. She was talking at The New School, and I was like, “Yeah, I guess.” When bell hooks says it, I kind of am like, “Well, what even is a safe space?”
KD: She'll convince you of some stuff that you believed your whole life, but yeah, no, I think what's really, especially as you're entering into an undergraduate institution, what's really most paramount is that you feel like in a space that you can be empowered. But I think that the greatest gift that you can have, especially as a young person, is just constantly auditing the spaces that you're in.
If it doesn't feel right, trust yourself. You do not wanna be surprised because you trusted too much in a space. Do not trust institutions. You use institutions as a means of doing something else. College is four years or six or seven. That doesn't matter – take your time.
But it really is about understanding that you were there for a purpose, and you wanna be in community spaces that aid in that purpose. And if there is a feeling of – there's not people who are on that team, “find your people” is really an important thing.
Aside from that, I do think that one of the dialogues that's really interesting on college campuses that I'm more interested in is the concept of the “safe haven campus” and thinking about immigration policies. So I think that that might be a really good conversation to have with admissions officers in relationship to how they're treating undocumented students on their campuses. That'll give you a lot more information than a “safe space” question.
RMB: That's really, really important. Yeah, I agree.
Audience Member 3: Hi. Just one more question. You mentioned earlier about how looking at social media all day and seeing the violence all the time and how you see that on a daily basis. My question is: How do you find the balance between your own personal self-care and taking on that responsibility of getting all of this violence and all of these hard and heavy topics out to other people in a more digestive way for them? So how do you have that balance yourself with your own self-care and these heavy topics that you're dealing with?
KD: Yeah. It's really about pacing. Thank you for your question. It's amazing. I love that 2016 was the year we all mobilized and militarized around self-care. It's like so dope. I don't feel like there was time like this before, but anyway – or in my lifetime, specifically. I'm sure it was happening before that, like obvi.
For me, yeah, it's really more about pace. Two years ago, if you had asked that same question, I thought a lot about, “Okay, have I seen a lot of people sharing this particular story or this particular video? I don't need to share it because I know someone else has.”
And I kind of have that politick in a lot of things where I don't wanna overshare on things that I know are already making people feel a certain way. But I also think a lot about – to that other question about just finding your people, for me, I know immediately who to call when things hit the fan.
I'll just call Morgan Parker and be like, “Hey.” And from the “hey,” she knows what's up. So finding those people who can be present for you or the people who you know you can just have a conversation about apples, and they know that you're in a moment of crisis, like the people who really know you the best. And I think that that's a lifelong process and one that you have to continue to audit, but for me, that's kind of my modus.
And also, this year, I started to do more collaborative projects. And that's really aided in my self-care practice because you're able to – for me, I wanna do everything all the time. I am in a constant pursuit of excellence, and I'm really unapologetic about it.
But I also know that working in collective groups that I can be able to share with others some of the burden of that even if for a moment, and that freedom to know someone else can carry this load for just a day is freeing. That is how the new choreography of my life is really run right now. Yeah. Thank you.
AM: That's it. Okay.
Audience Member 4: Hi. Thank you guys for speaking. My question is about, I guess, the role of social media and witnessing some of the really violent and brutal events that we've seen and experienced and heard about. I guess I'm wondering, do you think social media augments physical conversations in real time, real life, between two people? Does it augment that conversation? Or, in some instances, does it usurp physical conversation in the sense of we're talking about these issues on social media, but people aren't talking about it physically? Or maybe some other third option. You know, maybe there are pros and cons either ways. Could you talk about that a little bit?
RMB: I mean I think you just named all the ways that that can happen. I think that it depends on the people. Like Kim was saying, it's a – I’m sorry. I don't even know if you go by Kim, and I've just been calling that.
KD: You can.
RMB: Right – was saying it's a personal choice. And I think that it kind of depends on – there's some keyboard thugs that if you saw them in real life, they would just totally back down. And then there's some people who are gonna be doing that, and they will be doing that in real life. So I think it kind of depends on each individual, really.
And I think maybe what's also kind of behind your question a little bit is this idea of each person kind of being able to plug into human interaction when they feel like that's what they need. And I've definitely shut down conversations on my page when I was like, “You know what, y'all need to get in person, the two of y'all, 'cause y'all are doing all this on my wall, and I don't like it. I don't want people getting upset. I don't want anybody to get hurt. Love both of you. Deleting this.”
And I know that that's something that a lot of people would perceive as like really aggressive, but that's because I don't want that kind of drama on my page. But I think everybody has to kind of figure out what their own barometer is. I don't know.
KD: Yeah, I think it's an issue, too, of proximity because I think, for me – I'm a person who has anxiety. I struggle with it. I don't like big groups unless I'm on a stage. This is totally chill.
But for me, going to a police sanction protest is actually the worst thing possible. I don't feel safe in those spaces. I don't feel empowered in those spaces. I don't feel seen, nor heard, nor felt, and I think that, a lot of times, that's what resistance looks like, especially in New York. Every time something happens, we're like, “We're going to Union Square.” And it's just like, “I'm not. I'm not going to Union Square.” But I know that if I can be a purveyor of information about an issue with the platform that I have, that feels really urgent to me. And so I'm always really sensitive to critique of social media as this sovereign island where nothing is possible because I do really think that the ways images are transferred online inform the actions that can be taken later.
I also think about issues in the Middle East or thinking about my relationship and understanding of Aleppo where that is totally funneled through social media. And if people weren't sharing those things, I just wouldn't be abreast of that information. And as a person who spends as much time within social media spaces as I do, I'm thankful for that information, and it's hard to digest. And I'm not exactly sure what I can do to make change about it, but I'm so glad to know that it's happening.
And perhaps, in the same way that I'll see a video of something atrocious. I'll see a Facebook group of people who are assembling in small groups to talk about these issues together. And people who are really informed may come, and people who may be ignorant about issues can come but have really fleshed out dialogue in a space that isn't particularly surveilled in a way that social media spaces can be. So I think it really is about understanding how complicated that can be for everyone, and then also that it happens more than just in these immediate circles. So thank you for your question.
AM: We've got time for just two more questions. All right.
Audience Member 5: So I was wondering, as someone that manages social media for another agency, when you are done doing that, how do you maintain sort of your desire to even do it personally? And do you think it's necessary, sort of, in the way that social media's emerging, to have a very public, personal platform in order to gain sort of career success?
KD: Yeah. I don't necessarily think having a social media presence is vital to success in the arts. It's just the path that I've chosen. I'm really – I mean so I work at the Met. The Met is 140 years old. The Met treats 5,000 years of art history. The Met is an encyclopedic collection, and so it represents many, many different cultures.
And I am 26 and represent my black, queer self. And so the stories are just vastly different, and so I don't necessarily see it as one stops and one begins. But there's just a lot of different stories that I'm able to channel and use these mediums to portray and purvey in the world.
But to the point about having a social media presence is really just what you have the bandwidth to do in your life. I've made it so that my bandwidth is that like I'm out here. If there's a meter, I'm here on “out here,” and that's just something that I've committed myself to. But it's not necessarily everyone's path.
If you just love – if you take to Instagram and that's the one you like, go for it. If you take to Flipboard because you love stories, and you know that you can find the best interviews online and you wanna use that to do that, go for it. But I think that, a lot of times, people think about digestion of social media or this onboarding process as this like really behemoth thing. And it's really just finding the right way to tell the story that you wanna tell, and it is about finding the stories that you feel urgent, and that you – 'cause that is what keeps you committed.
’Cause I'm five years into this, I'm like, “I'm down. I wanna keep it going.” But that's because I found a thing that I love, and I feel very lucky for that. So if there's something, like some story that you wanna communicate, go for it. Just make sure that you find something that works for you 'cause, at the end of the day, you are the one who's gonna be a part of all of that. And I think people often forget that, too.
AM: Get the last question right here.
KD: We gotta pump fake in the front.
Audience Member 6: Okay. Okay. She wanted to ask – oh – who's your favorite artist? She kept asking me and –
RMB: Oh, wow, that's a really tough question to answer. I mean I would probably say the only person that I've ever been a fan of was Prince. Yeah, he's my favorite artist.
KD: Yeah. I don't really have one, right now. I hate answering, “Who's your favorite artist?” It's a difficult – it shouldn't be so hard 'cause there's so many great ones in the gallery over there. I encourage you all to go see the show after this.
But I mean I guess if I'm cheating, I could say Dawoud [Bey] ’cause he's amazing. He's a person who – I mean like Rashayla. I love any artist that's had a career as a teacher. I think that that work is really necessary and vital and almost a silent kind of work that happens in the arts.
So look up to your teachers and know that they have lives outside of school, too, and that that – I don't know – that informs a lot. I think about how many artists that Dawoud has touched in his career. Like Carrie Mae Weems, you know, it's like, “Whoa!” Or someone like Charles Gaines and his time at Fresno.
There's just so many artists – too many artists to count. And sometimes, I cheat and say my favorite artist is the artist I don't know yet, but that's an answer that makes me wanna die inside. But yeah, thank you for your question.
RMB: Yeah, that was great.
AM: Thank you, Kim. Thank you, Rashayla.
KD: Thank you, Ann.
RMB: Thank you.
AM: Thank you all for coming.
KD: Thank you, guys.
AM: This was great. Thank you. Thank you all so much. Hope to see you next Tuesday.