True Colors

Throughout the media circus that is our election season, few have thought to query: but what do the Dutch think? Luckily, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei and Jonas Staal have been in residence at InCUBATE here in Chicago working steadily on The Barack Obama Project. Their work hones in on the marketing of racial identity as a key aspect of this election season. It’s a significant, if usually unaddressed issue, as evidenced by this statement by Obama’s senior political adviser David Axelrod on the cover of the New York Times yesterday: “I think there is a general inclination on the part of the older voters to vote for what is more familiar . . . Here’s a guy named Barack Obama, an African-American guy, relatively new. That’s a lot of change.”

I first heard about the project a few weeks ago, when it raised an interesting debate about skin tone and the medium of photography. Staal and van Gerven Oei presented their findings on these and other issues last night at the Congress Theater, but took a quick moment first to answer a few questions.

How did The Barack Obama Project start?

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei and Jonas Staal: The Barack Obama Project that we have realised during our one-month stay at the InCUBATE project space in Chicago investigates the role of photographic representation within the 2008 Democratic race for the presidential nomination. The ethical dimension of photographic representation has become poignant in the candidates’ efforts to obtain the nomination for their party, generating excesses like the controversy concerning the photo of Obama used by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, presumably portraying him “more black” than he actually is, compared to the original, “unaltered” image that K Magazine published at the same time. The “manipulation” was most probably performed in order to stress Obama’s African-American heritage.

The small riot that occurred after the discovery of this photographic “manipulation” recalls a similar riot after the publication of apparently “darkened” images of O.J. Simpson by Time in 1994. Newsweek published the same picture the same week, “unmanipulated,” which rendered the difference obvious. Thus, even on the most fundamental level, photography as a technique is not neutral, but is founded in an ethical standard.

These issues raise fundamental questions on the standards maintained in the discussion on race and its representation in the media. For example, the ten-step gray scale, which you brought to our attention after your lecture at InCUBATE, that was standardized during the early stages of black and white photography was based on pure light and pure darkness at both ends of the scale and the color of a white male’s palm as the “neutral” center point. Since all photographic technology that has been developed since was based on this practical, apparently scientifically constructed scale, it would be theoretically impossible to create a “representative” photograph of a black man.

The Barack Obama Project / A More Perfect Union is presented in three stages, entitled Study, Intervention, and Installation. Their components comprise a video with one thousand continuously merging skin fragments taken from photographs of Obama, accompanied by the soundtrack of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, a lightbox with a The Barack Obama Project logo and buttons showing the Obama campaign logo placed on 250 skin fragment buttons—meant for distribution among Obama supporters on the night of April 22, during the PA primaries at the volunteer headquarters in Chicago.

This gets to the heart of the representation and marketing of people. What have you learned about what people want? And what have you learned about how people will allow themselves to be represented?

We were very surprised that during our intervention at the Barack Obama Volunteer Headquarters in Chicago, where we handed out part of our edition of one thousand unique skin-tone buttons of Obama, people reacted very enthusiastically on our project. Rather then being offended by our de- and reconstruction of their candidate, they immediately appropriated the work within the Obama discourse, browsing through the buttons, trying to find a button to their likening. A lot of his supporters were even matching the buttons to their own skin, looking for one that would “fit.” It was somehow awkward to see that a project that raised so many ethical questions on our side had such a simple and banal reception.

Another detail that made the project work out very well was the fact that the Obama merchandise is incredibly expensive. Supporters even complained to us that they worked many long hours for free, but never got anything. So even though some people were reluctant due to the ethical nature of our investigation, they still were eager to take one of the free buttons.

What are your particular interests in this race as foreign, non-voters?

Let’s first assume that there’s no pun intended in your question. As artists we always work within political contexts, investigating the (possible) positions of art in dissecting “current events,” often in relation to the media. In this case, the role of photography as a medium was clearly present in this case, but in a problematic way. We, as artists, are completely aware of the fact that photography is not representational of anything else than that what you want it to represent: the process of framing, taking and selecting photographic material is in no way unbiased. However, our “realistic” position suddenly seemed a radical stance in comparison to the way the media reacted/objected to the “false” representation of Obama. This made us want to broaden the context in which these issues are perceived, which generated the three stages of The Barack Obama Project / A More Perfect Union – confronting non-artists with an ethical dimension that for us is a natural part of perceiving reality.

Also there is the fact that the American elections somehow have become worldwide elections, as the US foreign policies have affected and involved so many Western and non-Western countries. For us, and for many people in Europe, there is much at stake in this elections. This made our involvement, considering our past projects, somehow very logical. We felt well-informed to anticipate on the course of these current events, and felt the necessity to position ourselves towards this material.

Let’s take this question again assuming there is a pun intended. You expressed hesitancy about your work pointing out a diaspora of skin tones, and therefore allowing supporters the opportunity to more carefully choose the color they preferred to support. As a white artist working with a non-white community, I’ve often wondered to what degree my racial identity grants me the space to pose “realistic” questions. In other words, how do your racial identities figure into this work?

We have the idea that the whole concept of “race” is fundamentally differently perceived by us than by the general American public. We feel that, at least in The Netherlands, race is not a prominent category of politics. That is to say: not as prominent as for example nationality or religion, although of course race and nationality are concepts that have been intimately linked throughout European history. We do believe that the act of representation is always already organized within prominent cultural categories such as race, gender, or nationality, e.g. the representation of Obama is always already organized with the construct of race. Acknowledging this is part of what you refer to as “realistic questioning.”

Thus, as soon as we, in our work, encounter a context in which a specific construction is more prominent, as is the case with race in the US, this doesn’t mean that our personal race or national identity for that matter, Vincent being Chinese/Dutch, and Jonas Swiss/Dutch, get into the work in a fundamental level. On a pragmatic level however, we realized that the fact that Vincent, being of a mixed racial background, might possibly have a slight advantage in physically presenting the buttons to the mixed Obama crowd. From an American race-oriented perspective, a work about the representation of Obama’s mixed heritage presented by a person of mixed heritage might be more “acceptable,” or even more “logical.”

It is probably this element that has fascinated us so strongly: seeing the fact that on one hand, race is still a pressing issue (media continuously speak of black and white voters), and on the other hand, during our intervention at the Obama headquarters, seeing people that are affected by these issues, from being completely unashamed to very hesitant about us presenting the subject matter in the most direct way: by forcing them to make the same ethical choice that we and also photographers that represent Obama had to make: that of a selection that reveals the (unconscious) constructs from which we perceive him.

Based on your artistic findings, who is the superior candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America?

We do not think that artistic findings in general or the results of The Barack Obama Project in particular—if there exists something such as an artistic result in a scientific sense—would be able to inform us on the value of the different candidates.

We are also not interested in participating in these elections in a superficial, non-confrontational way, that is to say: by choosing “our man,” or “our woman.” We don’t work as artists, just in order to confirm the stupid antagonism between Republicans and Democrats. We are here to broaden the perspective of these events, and to confront our public with a question that deserves a thoroughly public analysis: by showing, and moreover, including the moral and ethical aspect of photography within The Barack Obama Project, we not only contest the illusory “objective” quality of photography, but also stress the responsibility of the author: the responsibility for the act of placing between oneself and another individual a device that cannot, under any circumstance, be acknowledged as a neutral mediator; the responsibility for the ideologically and morally charged basis from which one chooses to perform this act, an act of a profoundly ethical nature: an act of representation.

P.S. I’ll be in residence at Providence, RI’s AS220 for the month of May; this column may fall into hiatus and I apologize for any sorrow this brings you in advance. I’ll be giving a talk there on May 30, however, so come on by!

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One Comment

  1. […] First, at the Anti-Advertising Agency site, Anne Elizabeth Moore interviews Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei and Jonas Staal about their Barack […]

  2. eric c says:

    can you say “byron kim?”

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