“Social media is a hivemind thing,” says E. Jane; the Philadelphia-based artist-musician taps into this hivemind in their prolific art and activism. Spanning media and combining visual, sonic, experiential, and performative elements, their practice interrogates the existential moment of art in digitality: the slippage between IRL and URL, between the notion of access/shareability and the reality of power. “I’ve found that the best way to contend with the feed is to work with others and have people on your side that care and are invested in social change,” Jane says. A recent project, #NotYetDead, exemplifies how the collective consciousness in cyberspace can have radical potential. For this, Jane designed a Photo Booth background bearing the word “ALIVE” and circulated it on social media. The reception has been incredible; as they say, “through the project, Black women get to check in with each other and show solidarity but also we were able to generate images collaboratively with people literally all over the world.” These aesthetics of resistance challenge the relationship of the art institution to contemporary digital culture, namely in how they are both constituted by and implicated in structural oppression.
This is a common strain in Jane’s body of work. SCRAAATCH, their collaboration with plus_c (chukwumaa), was recently praised by The Fader as one of the “voices disrupting white supremacy through sound.” Other works, like E. The Avatar or Getthamoney.irl.mp4 –with the latter currently exhibited in people sometimes, die at Edel Assanti –interpret industry through the lens of imperialist history, reparations, and self-commodification. Circling back to the internet, their alter-ego, Mhysa, the “popstar 4 the underground cyber resistance,” releases an EP through NON records called Hivemind on February 16. I reached out to E. Jane to discuss their projects and personae, and how they conceive their position in art.
SCRAAATCH recently performed at the MoCADA in NYC. Would you say that DJing, and, to an extent, nightlife, affects your experience as an artist and how you navigate the institution?
E. Jane: I generally call myself a sound designer but do often get labeled as a DJ. I do work with DJs and some of my favorite artists like Julianna Huxtable and Yulan Grant are Black women who are also DJs so I’m fine with the association. That association, as well as my work in night-life, definitely affects my experience as an artist. I think I started taking night-life production more seriously because I needed space from how corporate and controlled contemporary art/life can feel. I needed a place of release, as the club always already claims to be, mostly for performances that I could never do inside the white cube. I also needed a place I could be Black and queer and deal with what that all means for me, and the only place where that has ever felt possible for me is at QTPOC dance parties (though these spaces also rarely live up to their utopian personas). I think Juliana Huxtable’s party SHOCK VALUE and Papi Juice (run by Oscar Nn) really come close though. I’ve also been meaning to get to a Kunq party for a while now.
It is sometimes frustrating to be associated with night-life, though. The association will lead some people to try to discredit your art. (Nevermind that many well-respected artists were/are also fully engaged with night-life scenes.) I sometimes feel that everything I do is perceived as related to night-life or the club, but most of the people who think that haven’t ever been to what they are assuming is ‘the club’. ‘The club’ becomes more of an elusive idea than a real occurrence. ATM is thrown in an Eritrean restaurant. We move tables out of the way to form a dance floor. It’s a party in a restaurant. I hardly go to what is literally deemed “The Club”.
The only club I’ve been to in Philadelphia is called Voyeur and I’ve only been once to see Venus X play. So things that have been used in art to mean an array of things are now reduced to being props of a fictional club, at best props of the party, which are generally just props of spectacle and other-space. It begins to make you feel that a Black body admitting to being interested in night-life becomes a trap because then a cultural conservative can easily dismiss your ideas and/or art as having little merit because it belongs “in the club” and not “the gallery”. Still, as a way to keep certain art gestures from purely being fungible, the club has been a safe haven for me.
Your ‘E. The Avatar’ project abstracts your person into an avatar/image, and that image into clothing and accessories –‘you’ become wearable. What is it like to design yourself as wearable? What does it mean for you to self-commodify?
EJ: I’m reading Claudia Rankin’s Citizen. In it she describes scenarios that lead Black women to be frustrated inside of predominantly white spaces. She describes the violences Serena has endured over her career, for example. And that frustration has only been resolved for me through a type of disassociation one adopts for survival. Being wearable kinda just feels like being Black. The Black body being a fungible product was fundamental to the rise of america.
So I guess I am fucking with/analyzing my body’s history. I also think a lot about safety and how we can protect the Black body. I was wondering if the Black body could be protected if it were code on the internet that only appeared as garments for mass consumption.
It feels surreal to truly be clothing though. I saw a picture of Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, wearing one of the sweatshirts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it felt good. It felt like we were co-conspirators. I imagined the faces of cultural conservatives or uniformed white people, wondering why on earth he would be wearing a young Black woman’s face as a print. Afterall, I’m not nearly as famous as Drake, even though E. the Avatar does have a web series. Were I Drake, they may not even wonder. It seems we imagine our celebrities, especially the Black ones, have signed some contract with the general public, allowing themselves to be our property. We feel we own celebrities. But celebrities are people, even in the brand-centric space of 21st c. life, Drake is still a person, who gets reduced to objecthood.
Sondra Perry bought a piece and put it in her collection. I think the work means something very different when consumed by the Black viewer. Maybe wearing me then becomes an act of love, like “I will carry my sister’s body with me.”
The disassociation/fungibility seems relevant to an exhibit you’re currently part of people sometimes, die, curated by Jesse Hlebo for Edel Assanti. Could you talk a bit about what you’re exhibiting?
EJ: The piece I’m showing in people sometimes, die is called GetThaMoney.irl.mp4 and I think it is really about refusing that type of disassociation and relationship to objecthood. I was thinking a lot about F. Gary Gray’s Set it Off (1996) last semester and what it means for a Black woman to die standing up, to die refusing. I was thinking about Sandra Bland. I was also thinking a lot about Rihanna’s [‘Bitch Better Have My Money’] video and what it means to fantasize violence/when is violence ever reasonable/when does it become a Utopian demand to be a fugitive rather than go along with a violent system? That piece is really a part of all those questions.
In reference to your #NotYetDead project and #cindygate call-out of last year, what utility do you think social media has to artists and to the art world? What do you view as the limitations?
EJ: I think social media can be super useful if one is willing to do the work and by that I mean spending almost 24-hour cycles contending with the feed. The 24 hour news feed online inevitably swallows most stories. We have to fight against it to really make a wave. For #CindyGate, I remember posting like 30 times in a day or something, probably more. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The hashtag really helped keep all the moving parts together and center the information. I also had to answer questions, take tips from others and include information that people were sending me, ask for help. Nine Yamamoto was sweet enough to update Cindy Sherman’s Wikipedia page. Fannie Sosa found the initial photograph.
Mendi and Keith Obadike first pointed out to me and chukwumaa that the internet is a great space for public art. I think viewing social media as a place to activate public art is something I’m still growing into through experimentation and there seem to be real possibilities there.
The limitations of art on social media would be that it takes a lot of you to really do it. You have to be present, online, for long hours. I now take Vitamin D pills to counter not getting enough sun, but that’s probably not enough. At times, it feels like the body would really need a prosthetic to keep up with it all. But Martine Rothblatt is working on mind clones and maybe when we all have mind clones, the only limitation will be buying one that can then be your second mind and you could post at double speed and easily beat the 24-hour news cycle. **
Header image: E. Jane, ‘#NotYetDead’ (2015). Courtesy the artist.