Arts & Culture

From the Glitch to the Lightbox: Reclaiming Black Media Through Artistry

From fact to fiction and the blurry in-between, media documents everything, and individuals are engrossed by the constant loop of information. To make sense of this perpetual consumption, the Tufts University Art Galleries is showcasing Index, a collaborative exhibit between artists Jibade-Khalil Huffman (he/him) and ariella tai (they/them). Huffman and tai reconstruct clips from television, film, and other forms of media to understand how media representation has both helped and hurt Black people in the United States. Through techniques like glitching and collaging, their work examines how the media has infiltrated human life and how it can be reconstructed to examine race and visibility. 

Huffman curated the exhibit alongside Tufts’ Chief Curator Dina Deitsch. The exhibit centers around Huffman’s Untitled (Texas) 2017, with a combination of videos from both artists displayed alongside it. Untitled (Texas) uses stills from cell phone videos recording a 2015 incident of police brutality, where a police officer violently restrained a 15-year-old girl. The image, however, is disrupted by a lightbox. 

“When you’re standing in front of it, the glare of the light is painful. It’s very visceral, and you both feel the anger and exhaustion [caused by] the cycle of violence and media,” said Deitsch. 

tai’s piece, cavity, is positioned in relation to Huffman’s Untitled (Texas). Their piece imagines a revenge scene for Kerry Washington’s Scandal character, Olivia Pope, who is caught in an abusive relationship with President Fitz Grant. 

“I really wanted her to kill Fitz because he treats her terribly. The actor who plays Fitz had a cameo in the show called Dexter, where he was somebody that Dexter murdered. I took the footage from Dexter and intercut it with Scandal. Out of that, it blossoms [into] these other moments of revenge that I found in other films,” said tai.  

tai is interested in the portrayal of Black women in mainstream television. They draw interest from Shonda Rhimes’ productions and her power to create complex narratives for Black women in an industry that is rooted in anti-Blackness. 

Huffman and tai comment on media and its societal implications from different perspectives. “[Huffman] is very interested in thinking about representation in media—what does it mean to see yourself reflected in media as a Black man? And what are those impacts on his own psyche and development? [tai] brings a queer, femme approach to that,” said Deitsch. 

Despite differing paths, tai believes they have the same goal as Huffman. “A lot of the ways in which Black women…are dehumanized are reflected in the narratives and imaginaries in the media we consume. So in that way [Huffman and I] are [both] seeking the recuperation of agency for Black women and girls, we’re just taking different avenues to do it,” they said. 

Assistant Professor of English Kimberly Bain specializes in Film and Media Studies and Black Studies. When she saw the exhibit, she noted, “They’re both trying to comment upon [the] long histories of anti-Blackness and also how Black folk trans-alchemize that anti-Blackness. The work that I managed to view in the art gallery is not simply a replication of certain kinds of balances, but in fact, it’s a celebration of Black life.”

One of the styles that tai experiments with in their work is glitching, a technique where artists intentionally cause digital errors to create a malfunction in their images or videos. “[tai] uses a strategy of the glitch, which is a way to think about fluidity between identities and oneself, and [the] line between the digital and non-digital. It’s an abstraction, and it’s beautiful,” said Deitsch. 

For tai, “The glitching is a way to feel like I can materially connect to these images. It feels like I can touch the images. In a lot of the work that I’ve made thus far, the glitching looks like [this] 80s aesthetic. This aesthetic [is] produced by these analog processes, [but] I’m experimenting [with] more with digital tools for glitching,” they said. 

Reflecting on the glitching techniques used by Huffman and tai, Bain said, “Black media is always glitching what we think of as standard media.” 

Huffman began his artistic career as a poet and still draws on poetry techniques to structure narratives in his visual pieces. Noting Huffman’s poetry background while viewing the exhibit, Bain said, “The way that images are put together and the way…at times the audio didn’t match up exactly to what was being shown; Black poetics was being displayed at all times.”

tai became familiar with Huffman’s work when he used cavity and another one of their videos in a program he did in Portland, where tai is based. “I became really interested in his work because [of] the way he chose to develop the curatorial statement for the program [through] short video essays, as opposed to writing formal text. These video essays of appropriated images were marked in between each piece, and I had never seen that sort of approach to creating a curatorial statement. I thought it was really beautiful,” they said. 

Outside of art, tai is creating a space for Black people to use their voices in film. They curated “the first and the last,” a workshop, screening, and exhibition project in Portland. 

“I wanted to create spaces for Black people to have conversations about Black film that were more intimate and private, so ‘the first and the last’ was born out of that desire as well as the desire to provide concrete material support for people trying to make new video work,” they said.

While tai is cultivating communities in Portland, Bain hopes the Tufts community gains a greater discomfort with stillness after seeing tai’s and Huffman’s pieces. The videos force the viewer to physically contort their head and to listen carefully for audio changes. This creates a sense of discomfort that Bain also thinks Tufts should be more open to approaching. 

“We always should be pushing how we approach media, how we mix it, at the same time, [how] media has to do far better than it is currently,” she said. 

Bain also believes Huffman’s and tai’s works bring people together. “I think the pieces are really great for providing a sort of an imagined community…with the sort of effect of collaging or consciously overlaying things. And so producing our own imagined communities as a result of watching or seeing or participating or walking through the exhibit,” she said. 

Deitsch sees the entire exhibition as a collaboration of disparate forces, from the different sources of media coming together to the collaboration of both artists. For her, in a world that is saturated with information, the synthesis of existing media is important in creating conversation: “In these moments of trauma, in terms of the uprising this summer, and racial injustice happening in this country right now, it’s important to remind [oneself] about community, and the importance of remembering Black American life as being very joyful. We can analyze the complexity, but also aim to find the space of joy.”

Index will be in the Aidekman Arts Center on the Tufts Medford campus until March 26, 2021. Admission is possible with a Tufts ID. An online version of the exhibit is available at the Tufts University Art Galleries website.  

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