Curating in an Era of Change: In Conversation with E. Jane by Ashley Stull Meyers
Ashley Stull Meyers: You've catalyzed the internet so well in both your work as an artist and in personal efforts to talk about problems in Contemporary Art. Can you talk about the importance of the internet as a platform for you? Is it the best mode for visibility and reach, or is your love for it something else entirely?
E. Jane: In some ways the internet has always been my primary platform for communication. I’ve been on a computer since I was four, and I think I came to consciousness there. I think the internet makes reality feel malleable or shapeable in some way; platforms like newhive are making it easy to express art ideas on the web without needing to code.
ASM: Conceptually though, is it a large part of your thinking? You’ve housed several projects on Instagram, and hashtags like “#cindygate” and “#notyetdead” have crowdsourced a discourse for the issues you raise in a way that may not be as far-reaching otherwise.
EJ: The internet is a site to think, and I do think about its role in my work and in our world, but it’s more embedded into my reality than something I think about daily. I think about the internet as a site to make work and the abilities that that space allows, as well as its limitations. Early on in grad school, I had more hope about the internet as a safe space, but the safety there is contingent on so many things -- security settings, offline networks, etc.-- and so, I’m still searching for that real safe space Black women and femmes can go, while also utilizing the internet as a place to disseminate certain works and ideas rapidly.
ASM: I've done a lot of thinking and writing about the internet as alternative exhibition space, and as we're in desperate need of space for makers of color, is the web the next frontier? Is a radical, political practice a mis-match for the white cube?
EJ: I think there are plenty of contemporary art practices in material space that refuse the white cube model. For example, I was in a show in Switzerland called PROJECT 1049, and my work was shown on a car dashboard in a train station parking lot. The scary thing about the web as a frontier is that it still takes up physical space and you do feel like you’re in The Matrix territory when you see a solar farm and think, “If I house all my art online, I’ll really just be showing in solar farms.” So, maybe the internet is a site where art can happen, but I don’t think the future of art will solely be online.
I think the social media feed has some Utopian possibility inside of art, in that the artist, especially artists whose cultural groups are socially dispossessed, has more agency and access than inside the gallery and can reach more publics that may be afraid or intimidated by traditional art spaces.
ASM: Certainly not! But, I like the idea of occupying it as a self catalyzed territory. I like thinking about the democratization of sites and the structures necessary to make that possible. And speaking of neutralizing problematic space, you're recently graduated from an MFA program. Can we spend a minute talking about the current state of artists of color in these programs? In my Curatorial Practice cohort from several years back, the ratio of students of color to white students was something like 4: 14. That was one of the more diverse classes there have been! What are your perceptions about artists of color feeling like they can and should attend graduate arts programs? There’s some privilege in being able to attend that we still need to combat.
EJ: I was the only self-identified Black woman who graduated my year and that made me feel kind of stranded alone in the middle of an ocean—a sea of whiteness if you will. The internet again helped because I could reach out to other Black women who had gone through a graduate program or were currently in one, and we got to be in school together and be a support system for one another through brutal critiques and micro- aggressions.
I think we should feel entitled to education. I think we should take the money, get the degree, and run. Call it reparations. There are a lot of systemic oppressions making that hard for us, and I think the thing that oppresses Black artists interested in art education the most (aside from the constant fear of death imposed by the state) is feeling like we can only go if we can afford it because debt is very scary. And debt is scary, but I think it’s also moralized in violent ways in the public imagination. Maybe if we felt more entitled to our government’s money (as entitled as white institutions felt to our labor during slavery) then more of us would feel better about going.
I also think it is violent that people need to go. I think it is violent how differently you are treated before you get an MFA versus after. It’s frustrating, because you can only imagine how many talented young artists are being passed up because maybe, they’re afraid of debt or the kinds of violence they may face at a white institution. I didn’t really have the privilege to go to Penn; I did it anyway. I took out student loans. If you don’t go, you really have to be extraordinary to be taken seriously.
ASM: Tell me about "NOPE: A Manifesto". I read it and found myself compelled to share. The statement "I am not an identity artist just because I am a Black artist with multiple selves," has stuck with me. How can curators champion Blackness within the space of exhibition without tokenizing?
EJ: I don’t know if Blackness needs to be championed to be supported. I think the specific thing the work is about should be championed. I make art about issues that are important inside of Blackness, in that they affect everyday Black lives, but they are not just about the notion of Identifying as Black. Blackness is kind of the fact of the matter, but then there are specific ideas inside of it. The Nope manifesto was my attempt to express that. I was trying to articulate the specificity of the issues I’m grappling with, which directly relate to Blackness and are specific and rich and worth diving into. I think I was trying to get off the surface. I am Black and because of that there are certain things that concern me, when I look at the news and I keep hearing about Black people being murdered by the state, I can’t help but wonder about safety and futurity, both in a collective sense and also as in, ‘is it safe to leave my house?’
ASM: It feels petty to speak about in the wake of a sentiment like that, but what do you most want to see shift in the ways art institutions grapple with political content and those who produce it? Most shy away from it completely, and others would like to engage but are waiting to have a safe, historical distance. Do you think the museum has a place in the movements of people of color, and if so, what's the strategy? As an artist, how would you like to be approached in bringing urgent, living, breathing work to white cube spaces?
EJ: I think artists should be thinking about their publics and the people they’d like to reach. The institution at it’s best is a facilitator of the interaction between an artist and their publics.
ASM: “At it’s best” being the operative phrase. At the end of all these interviews I think its tremendously important to give a shine moment to artists or arts administrators of color who are out here doing incredible things. Can you shout out a few?
EJ: I think Jasmine Nyende and Elizabeth Mputu are two amazing artists. I love watching Jasmine’s work and process develop through her Instagram, and Elizabeth has a really interesting video practice as well as a knack for online organizing and creating cultural hubs like inb4. Legacy Russell is an amazing and supportive curator and I think much of the Black digital art scene is in debt to her for all the hard work she puts into thinking about us and our work.
E. Jane (E_SCRAAATCH) is a Black woman, conceptual artist and sound designer currently based in Philadelphia, PA. They are thinking about softness, safety, futurity, cyberspace and how subjugated bodies navigate media/the media. They have shown recent installation, sculpture, video, performance and sound-based works at The Kitchen and MoCADA in New York as the other half of sound duo SCRAAATCH, Various Small Fires in LA, Little Berlin in Philadelphia, Pelican Bomb in New Orleans, Edel Assanti in London, Bar Babette in Berlin, Gstaad, Switzerland and all over the internet. E. has a degree in Art History with minors in English and Philosophy from Marymount Manhattan College in New York and recently received their MFA from the University of Pennsylvania. Visit their website: e-jane.net