The internet is for surfing, not printing.
      ___           ___
     /\__\         /\  \
    /::|  |       /::\  \
   /:|:|  |      /:/\:\  \
  /:/|:|  |__   /:/  \:\  \
 /:/ |:| /\__\ /:/__/ \:\__\
 \/__|:|/:/  / \:\  \ /:/  /
     |:/:/  /   \:\  /:/  /
     |::/  /     \:\/:/  /
     /:/  /       \::/  /
     \/__/         \/__/
      ___           ___                       ___           ___
     /\  \         /\  \          ___        /\__\         /\  \
    /::\  \       /::\  \        /\  \      /::|  |        \:\  \
   /:/\:\  \     /:/\:\  \       \:\  \    /:|:|  |         \:\  \
  /::\~\:\  \   /::\~\:\  \      /::\__\  /:/|:|  |__       /::\  \
 /:/\:\ \:\__\ /:/\:\ \:\__\  __/:/\/__/ /:/ |:| /\__\     /:/\:\__\
 \/__\:\/:/  / \/_|::\/:/  / /\/:/  /    \/__|:|/:/  /    /:/  \/__/
      \::/  /     |:|::/  /  \::/__/         |:/:/  /    /:/  /
       \/__/      |:|\/__/    \:\__\         |::/  /     \/__/
                  |:|  |       \/__/         /:/  /
                   \|__|                     \/__/
      ___           ___       ___
     /\  \         /\__\     /\__\
    /::\  \       /:/  /    /:/  /
   /:/\:\  \     /:/  /    /:/  /
  /::\~\:\  \   /:/  /    /:/  /
 /:/\:\ \:\__\ /:/__/    /:/__/
 \/__\:\/:/  / \:\  \    \:\  \
      \::/  /   \:\  \    \:\  \
      /:/  /     \:\  \    \:\  \
     /:/  /       \:\__\    \:\__\
     \/__/         \/__/     \/__/
      ___           ___           ___
     /\__\         /\  \         /\  \
    /::|  |       /::\  \        \:\  \
   /:|:|  |      /:/\:\  \        \:\  \
  /:/|:|  |__   /::\~\:\  \       /::\  \
 /:/ |:| /\__\ /:/\:\ \:\__\     /:/\:\__\
 \/__|:|/:/  / \:\~\:\ \/__/    /:/  \/__/
     |:/:/  /   \:\ \:\__\     /:/  /
     |::/  /     \:\ \/__/     \/__/
     /:/  /       \:\__\
     \/__/         \/__/                                            

Black Net.Art Actions

Mendi + Keith Obadike


Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Black Net.Art Actions is a suite of new media artworks produced in 2001-2003. Each work in the Black Net.Art Actions can be thought of as a standalone work, or as a module in the couple’s larger, ongoing public performance.

Net Art Anthology presents three of the works in the series: Blackness for Sale (2001), a tongue-in-cheek intervention into the budding system of e-commerce on the consumer internet; The Interaction of Coloreds (2002), a website that looks at new manifestations of colorism and its potential role in online surveillance; and Keeping Up Appearances (2001), a “hypertextimonial” work by Mendi that follows in the tradition of Black Feminist personal narratives.

The Black Net.Art Actions all take different forms, but share a conceptual interest in discourses of color and race, and the racialization of the internet–issues which were often glossed over in net art discourse. Taken as a whole, the actions can be understood as an attempt to reformulate net art with race as a central concern.

“We did not feel that the net was a colorless space, but rather, that whiteness was being set up as the default.”

—Mendi Obadike

Read Simone Browne’s text on the Black Net.Art Actions

Keeping Up Appearances, Mendi Obadike, 2001


Keeping Up Appearances is a “hypertextimonial” in which Mendi Obadike recounts her interactions with a much older white male mentor as a young black woman. At first glance, the work appears to consist only of black, nonreactive Times New Roman text snippets, which make some sense on their own but fail to come together as a coherent narrative.

Keeping Up Appearances, Mendi Obadike, 2001

Mousing over the page reveals lavender text that fills in the blanks to reveal a series of confessional asides, the literal subtext of her interactions with the man—his over-familiarity and her silence.

Keeping Up Appearances, Mendi Obadike, 2001

Notably, Keeping Up Appearances is not interactive, unlike many other hypertext works. Purely a spectator, unable to intervene in Mendi’s narrative, the user is reminded of the historical inevitability of dynamics such as the one she describes.

“I have bombarded the viewer with disappearing hypertext as a way to work back into the smallness I might model in my day-to-day life.”

– Mendi Obadike

Artists and writers like Audre Lorde, Faith Ringgold, and many others have discussed what might be called a politics of silence in the experiences of Black women, where silence can be at once disempowering and a necessary means of survival in the face of oppression. Mendi follows Lorde in asking, “how do I disclose?”

“I have been thinking about the challenges black women autobiographers face when it comes to disclosure. I am particularly interested in the way their narratives are often heavily structured by silences or denials.” —Mendi Obadike

Blackness for Sale, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 2001


In August 2001, Mendi + Keith Obadike placed Keith’s “blackness” up for auction on in the site’s “Black Americana” category. The listing included no image, only a lengthy description of the “Benefits and Warnings” of the item. The winning bidder would receive a certificate of authenticity.

Blackness For Sale, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 2001 (detail)

“1. This Blackness may be used for creating ‘black art’”

“7. The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while demanding fairness.”

At the time of Blackness for Sale, a new wave of net artists were beginning to explore the internet’s growing role in commerce, often focusing on the relationship between the self and new online marketplaces. In most cases, these artists glossed over the central role played by blackness in the longer history of commodification of bodies and subjects.

“I was also very tired of the trend of net.artists posing as corporations and not really saying much. While watching what many were doing with, I didn’t really see net artists dealing with this intersection of commerce and race.”

—Keith Obadike

Mendi + Keith Obadike

Blackness for Sale draws a connection between the commodification of black bodies during American slavery and the commodification of blackness on the internet. The Obadikes placed Keith’s “blackness” specifically in the “Black Americana” category of eBay, calling attention to this existing marketplace, just one of many sites of transaction where blackness is something to be bought and sold. eBay’s auction format, when it comes to “Black Americana” and Blackness for Sale, conjures up the auction block as ground zero for the commodification of blackness.

Blackness For Sale, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 2001 (detail)

eBay removed the Obadikes’ listing after only four days, citing “inappropriateness.” This act of censorship functioned as an inadvertent intervention-into-an-intervention, prompting questions about the terms under which blackness is permitted to enter the marketplace. The black ephemera—including images and figurines featuring racist caricatures—that circulates on eBay is deemed appropriate, while Keith’s blackness is not.

The listing separated Keith’s blackness from his body, highlighting the absurdity of notions of the internet as a place to try on different identities and avatars unrelated to one’s lived experience. By offering up Keith’s blackness to potentially non-black buyers, the Obadikes reframed these practices as new manifestations of a longstanding dynamic in which blackness is understood as something that can be donned at will, gesturing toward the historical practice of blackface and prefiguring the contemporary appropriation of black language, fashion, and even identity.

“Many people understand blackness as something that lives in the realm of vision and because there was no photo on the auction page it gave room for some to fantasize about how they would occupy this space.”

—Keith Obadike

The Obadikes chose to auction Keith’s blackness in part because black maleness is normative and could therefore be read as ungendered, in a way similar to whiteness’ reading as unraced. This choice, along with the choice to post the listing without a photo, leaves space for the visitor to project their own racial imaginary.

Following eBay’s censorship of the auction, the Obadikes reconstructed the auction page in HTML, creating a non-functional duplicate that stands in for the original. Keith’s blackness is now always on sale, but never finally sold.

The Interaction of Coloreds, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 2002. Commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art for its artport website.


IOC Audio, Mendi + Keith Obadike. Play this soundtrack while browsing the site.

The Interaction of Coloreds is a browser-based work that administers a “digital brown paper bag test” to visitors, toying with historical systems of racial categorization and contemporary discourse around digital surveillance.

The “brown paper bag test” originated during slavery in the Americas and was used to separate the “light” from the “dark” in order to decide who would work in the master’s house (light-skinned) or in the fields (dark-skinned) and receive the social benefits—or drawbacks—associated with each. The shade of a paper bag was the cut-off point. The practice continued post-slavery in employment practices and school admission, as well as in black communities and organizations such as churches, fraternities, and sororities. Today, it lives on in the social realm through rampant, if veiled, colorism—discrimination against individuals with darker skin tones while privileging those with lighter skin.

The Interaction of Coloreds can be found on the Whitney Museum’s Artport website, where the work lives as a part of the museum’s permanent collection. It begins with a popup window, divided into four quadrants, featuring animations that rapidly cycle through images of body parts in various shades of brown. Mousing over each quadrant reveals a different message: “If you’re white you're right.” “If you’re black get back.” “If you’re brown stick around.” “If you’re yellow you’re mellow.”

From here, the user clicks through to a page featuring language that seems to be selling a product: “PROTECT YOUR PORTAL! Websafe colors aren’t just for webmasters. Register with the IOC Color Check System® and protect your online community from unwanted visitors.”

The Interaction of Coloreds, Mendi and Keith Obadike, 2002

The Interaction of Coloreds, Mendi and Keith Obadike, 2002

The IOC Color Check system (the brown paper bag test) is a lengthy online form that asks basic questions like, “How do you currently identify racially?” as well seemingly absurd questions like, “has anyone ever checked for your color behind your ears?” Other prompts are very personal: “List all the slurs you have ever been called by strangers.” Others are comical: “Do you get ashy?” “Do you know what ashy is?”

The IOC Color Check System promises to provide users with an official hex code for their skin color and register them in an “international database.”

The Interaction of Coloreds, Mendi and Keith Obadike, 2002

Image used in The Interaction of Coloreds, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 2002

The Obadikes’ Color Check System’s promise to provide an objective index of race speaks to growing anxieties around fixed user identity that accompanied the turn to consumer use of the net. Assigning every user a hex code allows others to know who you really are online, and restrict access accordingly.

“Do you represent a money-lending institution? Do you need online skin color verification for the purposes of determining projected property value?”

The Interaction of Coloreds suggests that the correlative relationship between race, money, and mobility persist online. The arrival of e-commerce and introduction of the net to a wider consumer base only made the internet more like meatspace—mediated by capital.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200-hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. They were invited to develop their first “opera-masquerade” by writer Toni Morrison at her Princeton Atelier. Their recent projects include a series of large-scale public sound art works: Blues Speaker (for James Baldwin) at The New School in NY, Free/Phase at the Chicago Cultural Center, Fit (the Battle Of Jericho) at The Met Museum, and Ring Shout (for Octavia Butler) at Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, CA. Their other honors include a Rockefeller New Media Arts Fellowship, Pick Laudati Award for Digital Art, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Vectors Fellowship from USC and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Biennial Award. Their intermedia work has been commissioned by The NY African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix, The Yale Cabaret, Whitechapel Art Gallery (London), and The Whitney Museum of Art, among other institutions.

Keith received a BA in Art from North Carolina Central University and an MFA in Sound Design from Yale University. He is an associate professor in the College of Arts and Communication at William Paterson University and serves a digital media editor at Obsidian. Mendi received a BA in English from Spelman College and a PhD in Literature from Duke University. After working as a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University, she became a poetry editor at Fence Magazine and is currently an associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute. Mendi and Keith also serve as art advisors to the Times Square Alliance and The Vera List Center for Art and Politics.