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American Cipher: A Case Study in Collaborative Practice

Introduction

For more than 20 years, artists Mendi + Ketih Obadike have engaged in a collaborative “new media”  practice, ranging from hypertext, digital, and sound art on the early  Internet to large scale multimedia installations in art and community spaces. Their woks deconstruct and reconstruct narratives around American history (stories, data, text, music) to bestow new meaning.

Sound and its relation to the visual is of particular interest for M+K Obadike, as is the power of listening.  In their view, sound can be  a “sketch,”  sound can be as a complement to and a completer of sight/the visual; sound can be a medium for articulating and changing space(s). 

They collect, analyze, and weave a variety of what they call “ephemeral inheritances”—including artifacts, data, and archival material—-into a finished work. Through their studio experimentation, M+K Obadike (re)solving questions relating the philosophical, technical, relational, spatial, temporal, and practical aspects of artworks that are based on those inheritances. 

In my own practice, I use formal and informal archives and data to reflect on geographies, imaginaries, memories, legacies, and vestiges of historical violence and trauma. It is “a backward glance that enacts a future vision,” to quote José Esteban Muñoz. 

Using their American Cypher (2011-2013) as an example, I  will describe the “how” and “why” of M+K Obadike’s research-based process and examine their process of multimodal semiotic design.

About the Artists

M+K Obadike have worked collaboratively as an artistic team since 1996.  Mendi Obadike received a BA in English from Spelman College and a PhD in literature from Duke University. After working at the Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in Princeton, she became a poetry editor at Fence Magazine and an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and media studies at Pratt.

Keith Obadike earned a BA in art from North Carolina Central University and an MFA in sound design from Yale. He’s an associate professor in the College of Arts and Communication at William Patterson University and serves as an art advisor for the Times Square Alliance.

Collaborative Practice Exemplified:
American Cypher

American Cypher is part of M+K Obadike’s Americana Suites series that deals with key issues  in American culture through sound installations, texts, and performance. Mendi Obadike describes the suites as a process of

investigating the ways that art, music, and literature can function together. And so as a part of that long series of investigations, there are two series of two different kinds of practices that sometimes intersect…. Our series of intermedia suites are focused on the notion of America.

(M. Obadike 2016, “Brown Visual Art, ”4:44)

Specifically, American Cypher is a series of works that examine stories about race and DNA. It consists of five interrelated pieces, including two site-specific versions of an eight-channel sound and video installation, a series of letterpress prints, and a book. 

Figure 1. Excerpt from American Cypher Sound Installation

Arts-based methods can be seen as a process that “unfolds, guides, and frames the research,” formed by several factor including  (1) clarifying the subject and starting point of the research, (2) unfolding the presuppositions contained in the subject matter and the viewpoint of the research, (3) possessing the chosen research tools and the subject matter, (4) presenting research logically, persuasively, and precisely, and (5) evaluating the final result (Hannula 2005, 114-116).  American Cypher could be considered a “textbook” case of these factors. 

The starting point of the research was a commission from Bucknell University, but it was an encounter with a simple artifact— a bell that belonged to Sally Hemings— that clarified the project for M+K.

We were asked to think about this relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Originally we didn’t know what we would say about it. A lot had been written about their relationship. A lot of research had been done about it.

As we started to read much of the research to examine the relationship, we were looking for a sort of material connection to Sally Hemings…. And so we went through Monticello and we went through the historical documents looking for an object, a physical connection to Sally Hemings. And the one object at Monticello that belonged to Sally Hemings was a small bell. 

(M. Obadike 2016, “Brown Visual Arts,” 16:12).

This object functioned at the center of our project. It was a sort of a stand in. We needed a kind of physical object that would stand in for DNA for us. And this is her last remaining possession; it’s owned by Howard University but it lives in Monticello. We thought that was interesting.

(K. Obadike 2013, “The African Diaspora,” 5:14)

Both describe the unfolding that happened, the concepts that emerged, and the viewpoint of their research:

[Mendi] We were doing research on Sally Hemings, and Thomas Jefferson, who, even during their lifetime, were rumored to have children together. Sally Hemings was an enslaved person on Jefferson’s plantation. And she was also the half sister of his wife. And we’re doing research, we found that the last known possession of Sally Hemings, that was still around was the bell. And we did that when we read that we didn’t really know what it was. 

But when we got to Monticello, and found the bell, it was a service bell. So we were really, I don’t know, they hadn’t occurred to me at all. I don’t know if you had thought of it. I was like, “Oh.” And this was given to her by Martha Jefferson. So it was interesting to think that, you know…

[Mendi]  We don’t know what it meant.  I mean,  what I was imagining something very different. You know, maybe this was like, “Oh, now you’re free. I can’t call you anymore.” I don’t know how that happened, what the gesture was.

[Keith] Just a normal gesture between sisters.

[Mendi]  But so the fact that this being passed on in this way, passed from Martha to Sally, but also passed down to through generations of Sally Hemings family. 

We just got really interested in this and how this stood in for inheritance. And at the same time, some of our research was leading us to a more contemporary engagement with this story, which is that DNA analysis was done in the descendants of the Jefferson family and the Hemings family. We got very interested in what did change after in the way that people talked about their descendants, after the DNA analysis. And that just got us on this whole, you know, investigation on what people want DNA to do, what they think it does and what they want it to tell us about who we are.

(M+K Obadike in Chen 2017, “Artists on Art,” 10:57)

In this description of their project, as Chen noted, M+K described how their engagement with the artifact lead them down a conceptual path: from the bell to a gift between two people, to what’s passed down to the descendants, to DNA and genetics, to the modern scientific analysis of DNA, and then to cultural aspects of what individuals and society want from DNA. This progression is indicative of their practice, of compressing or collapsing content, time, and space.

Once they decided that the bell was the focal point, they had to get permission to use it, which involve extended conversations with the staff of Howard University, which owned the bell, and Monticello, which was a bit concerned about the “why” its use. The staff of Monticello gave permission, once they understood that M+K only wanted to record its sound.  

This set M+K into the intensive experimentation phase of the project, which involved recording the bell, recording other field sound, and developing a sound score based on DNA data related to the Jefferson-Hemings family. Keith Obadike describes the process thusly: 

I recorded the set and the sound of the bell just, you know, raw sound, and maybe I recorded that over, I don’t know, maybe over half an hour, you know, just sort of listening to it and trying to understand it and make making sure that I had enough takes of whatever we might want to use, you know, we didn’t know what we were going to make with it exactly. You know, we just knew we wanted the sound of the bell itself.…

We knew that we wanted to use the numbers from the DNA analysis as a score in some way, you know, so we knew we were going to tune the bells to the, to those frequencies, and so, you know, we did that process, you know, over, maybe we did a few few different passes over a couple of weeks. 

Then we mixed that a little with field recording done from Monticello… you know, like the ambient sounds, conversations with the tour guides… So those things pop up in the installation…. Those things are sort of filtered in, the primary thing that you hear is the sound of the bell sort of stretched out and tuned to these numbers that come from the families’ bodies or the families’ code.

(Chen 2017, “Artists on Art,” 20:10)

M+K note that as the project grew, they started thinking about different ways they could say more about DNA and American identity.  At the end of the process, the M+K made two versions of the bell piece: an installation in the Bucknell University student center (2012) that consisted of moving speakers that project the sound when an individual interrupted the speaker’s beam; and an adaptation presented at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2013). They also created video and print works for five other stories: Barack Obama and his lineage, Oprah Winfrey’s claim to be descended from the Zulu, James Watson (who co-discovered the double helix), and two men with different relationships to the criminal justice system (James Bain, who was exonerated after 34 years in prison because of DNA evidence, and Lonnie Franklin, a serial killer arrested because of DNA found in a ancestry database).  

Beyond American Cypher: Considering the Overarching Process of M+K Obadike

American Cypher was a (heavily) research based project. They used an intuitive process to produce a cohesive and dynamic series that engaged with discourses about DNA, race and lineage. Although intuitive, their process is comprehensive, with clear methods (processes for collecting data), methodology (criteria for how to collect and use the gathered data), epistemology (ways to make sense/ meaning of the data), ontology (description of how they view the world), and axiology (the values that underlie the research).

The project is indicative of their wider practice in which they (1) collaborate on conceptualization/theorization/ selecting the research subject/object, (2) select datasets, (3) identify the elements of the datasets to use, (4) manipulate and transform the data, and (5) make aesthetic choices on how to combine sound, text, visuals to create the final piece. Chen (2017) noted,The piece that the audience hears is packed with meaning, but not necessarily immediately graspable. It’s almost like an arc, where you do a lot of research that leads to something very streamlined and almost embodied, rather than cerebral.”

Their method of inquiry incorporates both empiricist  and interpretive focuses, which is characteristic of discursive methods (Sullivan 2010, 108). They use conceptual and analytical techniques to identify patterns, consistencies/inconsistencies, and logics/illogics in data/information. In their studio research setting, objects, sound, text, and visual images are used as a means to investigate meanings and as sources of meanings across discourses related to race.

This way of working allows for an expanded concept of representation(s) of Blackness. The use of sound as the primary medium allows them to address Blackness/ anti-Blackness without reproducing the violence(s). This is possible because of how sound functions differently from visual, and from the effects of ambient co-habitation. Mendi Obadike notes:

We’re particularly interested in the power of listening and how sound articulates space and we mean both architectural space and social space.  That’s something that runs through all of our projects. There are three ideas that—they don’t tell us what the projects are going to be about but we notice that these ideas that we have about listening run through our projects as well. [1] Often because we’re working in a visual art space, the kind of relationship to looking is a question and so one of the things we notice is that when we look, we’re not just using our eyes, what we hear and what we think also informs what we see.  [2] The second idea is that the way we make meaning of sounds is slightly different from the way we make meaning of images and so one of the main ways that we make meaning of sounds is in relation to an image. [3] And then the last idea is that even when we don’t have an image present  to stabilize our are listening we have other things like memory and feeling and so we think, we make meaning by calling up other times that listening has helped us feel or has helped us understand something.

(M. Obadike, Being There, 2020, 8:40)

The special grammars, rhetorics, and aesthetics of sound, the form of knowledge it produces, and its intertextuality articulate (as Mendi put it) differently than visual ones. The aurality (as opposed to the visuality) provides a different way of perceiving.

I would say that you know we have a different goal from um someone who would be communicating to lecture about history, politics, religion. You know, for us we are trying to experience what the sounds hold, the information the sounds hold. (M. Obadike 2020, “Being There,” 45:55)

Part of the reason why we like working in this medium is that it operates kind of differently. It’s like it in a way can be something that acts on you without you thinking about it and in other ways it can be very very present. So it’s unlike other things because it can be both, it can make itself felt and it can also not call attention to itself. ] I would say part of the reason we work with some of the other materials we work with, meaning like, working with architecture or light and stories, is because at times sound acts like each of those things. (K. Obadike 2020, “Being There,” 50:00)

Their concept of ephemeral inheritance is important to this work. They define it as not just material objects that convey belief, philosophies, meaning but also those immaterial things passed down. For example, music is one type of ephemeral inheritance, of which Keith Obadike notes:

We understand that these things that we’re working with have had to carry all kinds of information, you know, philosophy, cosmology, ideas about architecture. Very few built artifacts exist from African American culture, so the music has had to hold everything.  And so part of what we see ourselves doing is kind of decoding that and unpacking that, the architectural ideas built into the history of African-American music. How do you unpack that in a physical space?

(SOURCE)

Not only how does one unpack that in a physical space but also in what may be a relatively short encounter. In each of their sound installations, the audible disruption of public cial space is an exquisite exercise in social semiotic design. Other projects, including Blues Speaker (for James Baldwin) (2015),  Number Series (2015-present), Free/Phase (2014-15) exemplify this. Keith Obadike said: 

We’re always thinking about them [sound installations] as a meditation and meditation on a topic, but also an invitation for meditation. But how you invite people into that kind of encounter is different in the public space, as opposed to, you know, a private gallery space or museum .

(K. Obadike in Chen 2017, “Artists on Art,” 7:19)

Decentering the visual produces alternate ways of understanding both the realities of Black abjection and the possibilities of Black transcendence. A colleague of M+K Obadike best sums the finished works that their practice produces:

Their work looks at and makes audible some of the meeting points among digital and cultural networks as it relates to blackness. They describe it as being about finding personal ways to examine persistent questions in our culture and then making that process accessible. They also know that all of our works spring from a dialogue about things that are just at the edge of language. It is perhaps for this reason that their work often features a sharp twinning of abstraction and materiality….

Whether in the act of Keith putting his blackness for sale on Ebay, or in the sound of Sally Hemings’ bell which is used as the material for a composition derived from both Hemings’ and Thomas Jefferson’s genetic code, their work functions as both a sign and a calling, at once a statement of condition and an invitation to engagement. The strength of their practice comes from a deeply considered lived experience, one that allows a natural production of art from life, and one that sustains both life and art. Their work and working methodologies evidence rigor and insight, clarity and grace, and substantial amounts of joy.

(Ed Osborn in  Obadike 2016, “Brown Visual Art,”  2:48)

References

Chen, Lenore Metric. “Artists on Art: Mendi & Keith Obadike.”  Podcast, April 4, 2017, 36:03, https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/artists-on-art/mendi-keith-obadike-kWvBSCOq_Tx/

Fancher, Lou. “Mendi and Keith Obadike: Sound Art, History, Remembrance.” San Francisco Voice, November 15, 2021,  https://www.sfcv.org/articles/artist-spotlight/mendi-and-keith-obadike-sound-art-history-remembrance#

Hannula, Mika, Juha Suoranta, and Tere Vaden. 2005. Artist Research–Theories, Methods, and Practices. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts.

Obadike, Mendi and Keith Obadike. “Being There: Tuesday Evenings with the Modern.” Visiting artist lecture, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, November 11, 2020, YouTube video, 1:12:15,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JjTptiOfrw

Obadike, Mendi and Keith Obadike. “Brown Visual Art Presents Mendi + Keith Obadike.” Visiting Artist Lecture Series, Brown University, March 9, 2016. YouTube video, 1:08:01. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jM4QteoPhAQ

Studio Museum of Harlem. “In Conversation: Sondra Perry, Andrew Ross and Mendi + Keith Obadike.” January 7, 2016, YouTube video, 1:37:16,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_aGqGyUF10

Obadike, Mendi and Keith Obadike. “The African Diaspora: Integrating Culture, Genomics, and History: American Cypher Project.” National Human Genome Research Institute, November 13, 2013, YouTube video, 29:34, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80F-d93bNBc&t=74s

Manhattan Neighborhood Network. “Mendi + Keith Obadike on Culture Context.” June 3, 2012, YouTube video, 29:56, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BLxQESDV6E

Napolin, Julie Beth, 2018. “On Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]: A Conversation with Mendi and Keith Obadike.” Social Text Online, August 21, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/on-blues-speaker-for-james-baldwin-a-conversation-with-mendi-and-keith-obadike/

Sullivan, Graeme. 2010. Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in the Visual Arts (2nd Edition). Los Angeles: Sage PressThe Burton Wire. 2013 J  “American Cypher: Mendi + Keith Obadike Talk race, DNA and Digital Art.” The Burton Wire, June 8, 2013. https://theburtonwire.com/american-cypher-mendi-keith-obadike-talk-race-dna-and-digital-art/