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Interactive art in blackface

Perhaps the most intriguing piece I’ve seen at Ars Electronica so far is called WIA<>WIA, “Water in Africa, Water in Austria”. On the surface, it’s a well-thought through piece of installation art by a set of Malian artists, led by Melissa Fatomata Toure. It builds a connection between a toilet in Linz and a well in Koulouninko, a village outside of Bamako. The well in Koulouninko produces only 200 liters of water a day, and the toilet uses seven liters per flush. Once the water usage in Linz exceeds the capacity in Koulouninko, the Linz toilet shuts off and can only be reactivated with a 1€ coin. The proceeds of the project will be donated to WaterAid.org, which operates well-drilling projects around the world.

So far, so good. But there’s something a little odd about the photo that shows the installation in Koulouninko – the woman in the left foreground appears to be three meters tall and casts no shadow. And things evidently got weirder when the festival organizers interviewed the artist over Skype. My friend, involved with the interview process, tells me that the artist looked distinctly non-Malian, and while she was supposed to be in Bamako, the interview ended at 6:30pm and the background she was speaking against showed broad daylight. (The sun sets very quickly in equatorial climes, and it’s usually quite dark by 6:30 in Bamako.)

As it turned out, the “artist” interviewed by the Ars team was a German collaborator of artist Niklas Roy, wearing black face paint and a wig. None of the team of Malians responsible for the project actually exist, and the project photos were photoshopped.

Ars Electronica made the interesting decision to feature the piece despite its origins. My friends explained that the rules for the contest “encouraged creative hacking”, and that the guidelines never specified that the projects had to be real, not fictional. Given the social value of the project, the ability to direct attention towards global water issues and the artistic merits, the piece was accepted and displayed at the festival, with a note on the accompanying text, noting the hoax and listing the creators as a set of fictitious Malians, followed by “AKA Niklas Roy”.

Roy is clearly enjoying the success of his hack. His website includes a picture of Duchamp’s legendary “ready-made” sculpture of a urinal, and notes “Next week, I’ll present my latest project at the Ars Electronica. It is the exhibition of a toilet, that I didn’t even build myself. Another clou of the project is, that I entered the exhibition under an invented name.”

I don’t quite know what to think about the piece. Would this piece have been as interesting if it had been proposed by a German artist without the cooperation of any Africans, or was it initially viewed favorably because it was from a female Malian artist? Is putting on digital blackface the magic ticket towards being displayed at Ars, where there aren’t a whole lot of African artists featured? Is the piece a wry commentary on race and artmaking? Is it poking fun at our fondness for feel-good projects? And if the piece is, in no small part, about the artistic fraud, why is that story not front and center at Ars Electronica, where it’s presented almost as a footnote?

That last sentence, it turns out, wasn’t a fair one on my part. Ars actually documented the fraud pretty well – it just did so on the back of the exhibition displays I looked at. I still have lots of uncomfortable questions about the project, but I feel much better knowing that Ars hung it with an explicit discussion and display of the prank/fraud nature of the piece.

2 thoughts on “Interactive art in blackface”

  1. Ethan, thanks for writing about this interesting but troubling project. If it raises funds for and awareness of the need for well-drilling, then it does have some social value, as you say. But it clearly also benefits the German artist–who gets a nice entry in his CV and the chance to compare himself to Duchamp–and the Ars Electronica organisers–who get the appearance of a more “diverse” festival. It raises complicated questions about creative and political intent, about “authenticity”, about cultural power relations, about the infuriating history of the Western art establishment’s interactions with creative practitioners from the rest of the world, and about who gets to represent who and where and why and (crucially) who gets funded along the way.

    Given that African artists–and, I gather, artists from the developing world generally–are under-represented at events like Ars Electronica; given that the project itself is based on the notion of a kind of reciprocity–an actual toilet flush in Linz enabling a hypothetical one somewhere in a generalised Africa; I wonder if the festival curators could not have included WIAWIA under certain conditions. Specifically, they could have specified that Roy undertake a parallel project with an actual Malian artist involving actual reciprocity, including support for that artist to show his or her work in Ars Electronica and participate in the conversations there.

    I know that’s not the way international art curators usually think, but maybe they should?

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