“Our conceptions and misconceptions of each other unfold through the digital," said Nora Khan as she introduced an audience of live and live-streaming attendees to The Current's first-ever collection committee salon. “As a critic working with software-based art and artists working within the digital, I really focus on how systems either enhance identity or flatten it out.”
Four times a year, friends of the open, boundary-defying museum participate in a salon conversation and vote new artworks into the collection. It’s a gathering that’s social but educational, of-the-moment but looking towards the future, and grounded in tech but driven by cultural documentation and preservation.
For the inaugural session, on February 20th, Nora Khan invited curator and meme-artist Pastiche Lumumba and designer, technologist, and speaker Yasaman Sheri to discuss identity, surrounded by VR and screen-based works related to that same theme.
Panelists Pastiche Lumumba and Yasaman Sheri at the salon. Pictured: Meriem Bennani ‘Fardaous Funjab’ (2015-2017)
The speakers talked about artistic practices and how technology shapes culture, but much of the conversation circled back to the simple act of surviving the internet. From being physically harassed in virtual bodies, to growing tired of telling Twitter strangers the inner workings of your experience, the digital systems where we're building culture are fraught with identity-based challenges.
You can listen-in on the full conversation (runtime: 1hour, 37minutes) and in the excerpts below, we gather some of the questions and solutions raised in this salon.
Panelist Pastiche Lumumba at The Current // Identity
Pastiche Lumumba: Think About The Social Capital You’re Chasing, Find Your Venn
“I get to choose what identity I want. As is the case in real life, it’s based on capital. I get to choose what community I want to have social capital with. For me there was a breaking point feeling like, ‘Oh, wait, I actually don’t care what you guys think.’ For multiple communities that I know, either explicitly, or belong to in a very soft distant way. I have to make work for myself, and still forge my identity in a way that is not necessarily tied to social capital either.
The whole point of making memes is that they relate to people. I want to relate to people who listen to hip-hop and have been for the past 15 years, and also the people, who within that subset, listen to ASMR videos. This is how a specific ‘Ying Yang Twins ASMR’ meme that I made came about. This might be obscure – not because either one of the two things are – but the combination of those two things might not reach the same ears. I make something that I think is going to be either obscure, or not connecting these two communities, then it does and I'm like, “Okay, cool. I'm not alone in these Venn diagrams.”
Yasamin Sheri: Remember Your Context Is A Projection
“The platforms that we've created are very much based on a kind of ‘ad world’ where you have to constantly project yourself and have these expectations met and have people watch you. It creates a completely different platform, where all your attention, and other people’s attention, is the reward for the amount of work that you're doing. What's actually being compensated for? Right now that amount of work is free.
I like to think about that as a consideration for how we might create the future of platforms. Especially because when an artist is creating something they're forced into these buckets that other people have created for them. There are tools that we use as a way to shift our personality and shift our identity, and I find that very beautiful because I use them – even without VR – like wearing a different outfit. Or listening to music that really gets me in the mood to just type really, really fast. VR in that way also becomes very literal – visually, auditorily and haptically – to create these kinds of realities.”
Pastiche Lumumba: Not Every Conversation Needs To Be A Broadcast
“It was the first week of January this year, and I was like, 'All right New Year’s, how am I going to change myself?' My New Year’s resolution was to not be in frivolous arguments as much. The week after New Year’s the H&M thing happened. Then the Oprah presidential speculation. I was just over it. I told myself, 'I don’t want to have this conversation with the general population.' I'm going to group chat with my sister, I have a couple of friends who I like to text things. Otherwise It's like trying to have a conversation about how long it takes to get around the curvature of the earth. Then there's a person in the room that's a flat Earth person.
That's how a lot of conversations – especially about identity on the internet – happen, because we’re in a general population. I might be talking about something that's specific to black people or something that's specific to West Indian people. Then somebody who is not with that lived experienced either asks an innocent question or just wants to know more and slows down the conversation, or in a very un-okay way just derails the conversation.
One of the survival tactics for doing that is literally just narrowing the viewership. If I don’t want to have this conversation with a person, then I just don’t show them that the conversation is happening. Just keep the flat Earth people out of it.”
Panelists: Pastiche Lumumba, Yasaman Sheri and Nora Khan at The Current // Identity
Yasamin Sheri: It’s Not Always Your Job To Educate
“I guess I want the world to be educated, and I want to be educated. It’s not always my responsibility to do that job. There is a moment where I think I can help that person learn more, and I have the patience to do that. Then there are times when it can do damage, or it can be a moment where it’s important to walk away and allow that person to come to it on their own.”
Pastiche Lumumba: Think About Where Your Energy Goes
“I love talking to people, but I think at some point we have to just realize that there's an efficiency thing and that’s why I make memes. I was on the internet for a week straight answering questions about a conceptual performance that I had done. That week could have been a book, and that book could have been 10 pages long with memes, instead of what I actually wrote, which was probably 100 pages of a thesis. I think we just owe it to ourselves and the information infrastructure to be a little bit more efficient, that’s my solution.
A lot of the times when I'm having these conversations it's a reaction to a popular culture event but I think it would go a lot better if people were not reacting to a popular culture event. I had somebody reach out to me last week say “Hey, I saw you said something about something.” It was something to do with racism, and this is a white guy that I don't know from anywhere. I don't think we have any friends in common, but I have certain posts that go viral, so people will know my name and they will try to message me.
If that happens during a post that’s live, I’ll be like, “No, I started this publicly, let's continue doing it publicly.” But this person just out of the blue messaged me about something that happened probably months ago, I don't even remember what post it was. Because I wasn’t in the heat of the moment of fielding questions from other people, trying to do this battle-win argument, in that moment it was a lot easier for me to be like, “All right cool, I can chose to or not to answer this”. I didn’t really feel like this person is coming at me as a reaction to something that happened, that we are all in at the same time, and so I answered him.
I answered in a very thorough way, I spent a lot of time on it, in the way that I spend on certain threads. But because there wasn’t this emotion attached to it, I didn’t feel as though this person was coming out of backfield, even though that question was a question that dozens of people have asked me on threads before and it's been annoying.
The way that I try to handle it is by not engaging with people in conversations when the tensions are high and maybe come back a couple of months later. I probably would be better equipped to ask that question, and somebody else to answer it and vice versa, if it's not during the time that we are all thinking about it.”
Nora Khan, curator and moderator of the salon discussion The Current // Identity
Nora Khan: Remember To Log Off
“I think a lot of artists and people who work for five different jobs are becoming better and better at managing their own time, we are all managing our friends or output. For me it's being really aware of digital fatigue, you don't even realize the cost of it until you literally feel your eyes are hurting, and your back aches, and all these things, so maybe I should log off because I'm not meant to be so extremely online.”
Read more in Part I – Founding The Current's Collection