Future of Cultural Criticism | Technology, Race, Popular Culture

Future of Cultural Criticism | Technology, Race, Popular Culture
Art + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Feb. 27, 2017

By: Tonika Sealy-Thompson

IMG_0051Through this series my peers and I have been given chance to think together with some of the sharpest commentators on contemporary culture.  We glimpsed the dizzying possibilities of new genres of performance and cultural expression made possible by new media platforms.  The February  27th edition of the series was especially delightful. The evening featured two award-winning young black women on stage in conversation with each other. Against the fuschia backdrop a visor-clad, blue-black Alek Weck bursts forward as if from some sartorial future.   The image was a placeholder for Jenna Wortham’s new project, Black Futures.  It is a collaboration with fellow superstar and social media manager of the Met Museum, Kimberley Drew.

Wortham herself wore a multi-colored bejeweled jacket.   Also on stage was Nadia Ellis an award-winning associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, specializes in African diasporic, Caribbean, and postcolonial literatures and cultures. She is the author of Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora, and has published essays on popular culture, performance, and music.  The stage was alight with Afrocosmopolitan badasserry.

The energetic exchange between the two was replete with empathy and probing personal questions. In response to Ellis’ opening prompt about her trajectory as a writer, Wortham’s answer is refreshing. She is gracious in crediting the New York Times with providing her a space where she can think and speak more sincerely and deeply about questions of sexuality, race, and gender in music and film as they intersect with technology and media culture.  She calls this a space ‘to wild out on their dime.’

Before moving to the New York Times Magazine in 2008, Wortham was based in the Bay Area where she worked as a tech writer for Wired Magazine. By 2008 she had won a Shorty Award and amassed a Twitter following of more than 600,000.  However she tells us she was so deeply dissatisfied and angered by the limitations of being a Tech Writer that it literally made her sick.  She noted  “it was hard to get older white men to be interested in race and gender and how it affects access to funding and publishing.”  They would not believe that structural racism existed in Silicon Valley.  At the same time they knew how much their success was being driven by innovative performances of minority users  – black, queer and other populations.  She noted that new media corporations benefitted both from the performances of young African American kids on such platforms as Twitter and Vine, and from the visibility they gave to the scenes of violence against black bodies and even the social movement that harness the platforms like the Movement for Black Lives.

I found Wortham delightfully sincere.   She played an excerpt from her weekly podcast, ‘Still Processing’ which she co-hosts with Pulitizer prize-winning, openly queer and unapologetically black colleague NYT Magain,  Wesley Morris. The show is from the November 09th, the day after the national elections.   I love the intimacy of the podcast. Their queer sapiomance  is palpable. They speak through tears and voice cracks of personal difficulties of thinking and functioning through the uncertainty of the days leading up to the election of Donald Trump.

Her take on the current crisis is that it not only brought her into a more acute awareness of the need for self-care but also into a coalition of journalists, artists, and other writers who are ‘doing the work that needs to be done’ now.  She notes that this crisis eroded the sense of competition that once could have been a barrier to this kind of collectivity and opened up a deeper way of relating among black and queer writers.  There is also more room for the kind of content they are interested in these days. Indeed, they are being encouraged not only to write but to experiment with that writing.

Wortham, Morris, and Ellis are the shapers of a new black intelligentsia who comprehend, create, and curate convergences of digital life with new forms of black expression in the art world, in the academy, and in journalism.  Nonetheless they note that there is a need for a network of support alternative subjects positions, especially black and queer, working in mainstream social media and journalism in the US.   It is too easy and too isolating to find oneself exposed to digital racism and racist harassment, with by tech companies unwilling to protect the very black and queer users who make them so much money.  The pair left me thinking about the resonant questions they raised.  How can we make creativity a force of disruption for a democratic social contract?  How can we redirect creativity to have a different conversation about the role of creativity that is not commercial and crass?  How can we take control of our own information against traditional publishing platforms and the monopolies of new media corporations?   How do we protect the most vulnerable users from the dark corners of the internet bent on the violently consuming the black body?  How can we lead digital lives that lead toward a black and queer utopia and away from the looming dystopia built on our creativity, to recall a distinction Profess Stephen Best makes?  The questions still ring in my ear and not just on Monday nights.

Tonika Sealy Thompson is a PhD student in Performance Studies who is concerned with Caribbean cultural and political thought, multilingual/hemispheric Black diaspora studies, Gender Womens and Sexuality studies and Afro Asian connections She grew up in Barbados and has been living and working globally as a curator, festival director and cultural consultant on projects in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific regions. She has served as artistic coordinator of the Africa Caribbean and Pacific Arts Festival, and is the founder of the Fish and Dragon Festival a platform for creative exchange between the Caribbean and China.