ATC Revisited: Jennifer González

16 Oct, 2013

ATC Revisited: Jennifer González

For those unable to attend the ATC lecture on Monday, October 14th, we've brought you a brief recap of the highlights!

Jennifer González continued the 2013-2014 season of the Arts, Technology, and Culture Colloquium with her talk entitled “Skin Play: Visual Ethics and “Race” in Digital Art” on Monday, October 14th in the Banatao Auditorium of Sutardja Dai Hall at UC Berkeley.

In her talk González examined how new media artworks and their interpretations by scholars effectively and ineffectively probe issues of race and skin color. She asks, is skin today nothing more than a commodity and plaything online?

González critiqued how artists like Burson, who seek to commune with the many through an erasure of identity via composite photography, suggest that race itself is voluntary. The apparent move beyond racism that arises through sameness ignores context, politics, and cultural translation. Participants themselves experience no change in their own racial prejudices as they watch new palettes play across their face.

She is more sympathetic to those artists who converse with Lévinas’ face-to-face concept, which argues that the face presents a domain of ethics and that differences provide an opportunity to enter into a discourse with the other. While a man can be killed or enslaved, his uniqueness cannot be contained, merely responded to. González explored this notion through the Mongrel project. In this work, faces were covered in a mask. When viewers clicked on the face a story detailing an incident of racism played, and a splatter of spit marked the mask. Viewers were thus forced to recognize their own complicity in racism. Similarly, in Keith Obadike’s work in which he tried to sell his blackness on Amazon, readers realized how hard it is to understand the secret of a difference that stubbornly resists transformation.

González then investigated how racial bias applies to avatar bodies, noting how online incredible money is spent to play with one’s skin color. Participants obsess over their palette, determined to find “the best skin.” Skin becomes a play thing. Race becomes a public commodity. It does not help individuals explore and move across cultures, as we often might expect from these new worlds, but rather stands for, and masks history.