Rita Keegan on Digital Diversity and the Colour of Computers

By Stuart Taylor, 10 January 1997

Stuart Taylor interviews Rita Keegan

Rita Keegan, Bronx born and educated at New York High School of Art and Design and the San Francisco Art Institute, has been based in England since 1979. She has, since then, been engaged in the growth of black art in the UK and been involved with numerous artist run initiatives and explored issues of identity and representation. The use of family narrative and autobiography features strongly in her work. Trained originally as a painter, over the last fifteen years she has experimented widely with lens-based media, using the photocopier and computer in both 2D and installation work. she currently lectures in historical and cultural studies at Goldsmith. Her course is entitled “New Media and Digital Diversity”.

ST: Tell me about the range of your current professional activities, you are not solely operating in one field of practice is that right?

RK: At the moment I'm finishing a commission for a public arts piece; I have an exhibition up in Salford and another in Ealing at Pitshanger Manor, both of which were shown originally at the “Lovebytes” Festival in Newcastle. It's a five monitor video work called Hands which was constructed on the Mac using a three-pass scanner. It was quite interesting to use a technology that was already obsolete, even though it was quite new. I was also using the scanner as a camera, placing objects directly on the scanner, and then using video and combining these sources through montage. The brief was on love and romance and new technology; I used my hands as a metaphor for the self. I am also teaching at Goldsmiths College, in the Cultural Studies department on a course called “New Media and Digital Diversity”. It's quite a wide ranging course which is trying to find the essence of new work that's being done today in this area. We are looking at issues around critical practice and contemporary art history, and how they are linked to the use of electronic media; issues such as the use of surveillance technologies and their applications in art practice, video, sound, the effect that IT and computers have on contemporary art practice etc.

ST: How did you first begin to work with electronic media?

RK: I guess my first real work with electronic media was helping set up an organisation called “Community Copyart” which, in the end, was based on Battlebridge Road behind King's Cross. Copyart began in '83 / '84. We did a lot in the battle to save the GLC and had a short life after its demise. Copyart had two main prongs. One was to work with community organisations in creating their own publicity, making an affordable resource centre available for them, the other was working with artists that wanted to use the photocopier as a form of printmaking. It was actually my first real work with lens-based new media, using media that were not necessarily designed for art practice and thus effectively subverting them. Then I got invited to produce a piece in Wolverhampton. I wanted to make a film, but the more I thought about it, the more the logistical processes seemed to remove it further away from me. Then a friend of mine suggested that my work would lend itself to the computer and sadly enough it did!! It was very exciting to have control over how long my image was on the screen, how I could colorise and manipulate it and how I could move from a still image to a filmic piece.

ST: How do you feel the media you are working with allow you to continue developing your practice?RK: What I like about working with new media and with computers is that I am making it up as I go along. The medium has a life of its own in terms of what it creates. I'm always being surprised by that, by the things that I can put together and how they come out, there's a spontaneity and surprise. I'm not saying that I know everything that paint can do but it can only do so much. People have been working with paint for two thousand years or more whereas they haven't been working with computers for that long. I try not to have too many preconceived ideas about what I'm going to get at the end of the day. I've tended to be media led; I''m more interested in what the computer can do on its own rather than whether it can mimic existent practice.

ST: Can you talk about some of your most recent work, the commissions you are working on?

RK: My most recent piece is a piece that I'm doing for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. They've gotten money from the Lottery to do an extension to their building, creating new studio space and enlarging the entrance to their theatre. The piece I'm doing will be on one of the new buildings facia 16m long and 4m high. I'm doing a frieze inspired by the Parthenon to go across its glass fronted extension. I'm excited about it because it's something I haven't done before and it's a public work. The building should be finished in October 1997.

ST: How optimistic are you about other black artists having an opportunity to work with electronic media in the future? Is this something that's an issue for you as a mature artist?

RK: Well, I could lie and say that the world has changed and isn't racist, but for the most part it's very easy to assume that there are certain things that certain groups of people should do. It's not that there haven't been good black artists, it's just that in a white supremacist state it's very difficult to perceive your work as your own. I think a lot of artists have moved into electronic media because they see they can make their own rules rather than follow somebody else's. I think a lot of artists of colour are working in new media because it's uncharted territory. The same with women. Since you have nothing to lose you might as well try something new. This is probably why you have women who have led the way in installation aswell as performance. For me, I felt the things I wanted to do and say didn't work for me in painting. Also, I sometimes have a problem with agitprop; a lot of paintings about contemporary times are like social realism. Apart from the fact that I don't do social realism well, I feel that the time I'm living in is about the monitor, and about the computer. This is not to say that still images don't have great relevance in the world today, but I was raised on television, television and the movies, and I know that if a TV is on in a space, it doesn't matter how riveting my conversation is, the conversation will stop and we will all go to the box. This intrigues me, how we are so locked in to that flickering light.I think I became more conscious of it after I had done a filmic piece, Hands. Hands is a five monitor piece, with a three minute loop. It's not synched so it plays at differing times through the monitors. It's quite hypnotic – sometimes the images are the same on one or two of the monitors but then the times in between the black space it doesn't always happen. You can stand there for an unspecified time before the images end up repeating themselves. By then you will have forgotten the sequence in which the images occurred.

ST: It sounds to me that you are interested in the materiality of your work, given that you have an interest in 'seducing' your audience.

RK: Well, that was what came out of it. I didn't know what it was going to look like in advance, so those things weren't in my mind at all while making the piece. The piece was about love and relationships and technology – I used my hands as a metaphor for the self. The hands are reaching and experiencing the world, the hand then builds and destroys. It's also about the state of being alone – ultimately.

ST: Do you feel there are particular perspectives that manifest in your work with electronic media due to your being a woman – a perhaps obvious but appropriate question.

RK: Because I use a lot of my own images in my work, I've never shied away from the fact of gender and race. I'm a black woman and I've never shied away from that. I think that these media are accessible for women because you can just pick them up and put them down; if you are home-based – and a lot of women work from home – you can do that. Of course, this would be in a perfect world with all your shit-hot memory capacity and equipment needs met. The computer can start and stop when you want to; when you are rendering, you can do your shopping or have your dinner or whatever. Initially, computers were designed for secretaries, for women. I find it very interesting that when they were originally designed they were almost white-ware, you know kitchen white-ware, all light and bright. Now that they've become accessible to men they've gotten darker and darker to the point where you now have your external drives that are like black phalluses. I think it's really interesting how this colour change has happened, if you go to places like Curry's your female side, the kitchen stuff, is all your white-ware and your male side is all dark matt black; sound and vision equipment. The computer has changed its colour, almost its gender.

ST: In your teaching, how conscious do you feel your students are of the politicisation of the media. Is this something significant to their thinking and practice at this stage?

RK: Well, I make sure that it is. I think that one cannot look at computers and the information revolution without dealing in the socio-economic issues around it. It's easy for people to say that there are no gender and no race issues in cyberspace, but that's because most people using it have been white men. When you're talking to someone on the net there are certain cultural issues that must inevitably come up. We all have our baggage – whatever it may be – and your baggage comes with you. I can pretend to be a white man on the net but I don't even know how to be a white man on the net – why would I want to?There are issues to do with who owns what that I talk to my students about. I also show them a video from 1985 in which the future of new technology is talked about. Even though the video is just ten years old it is a projected future in which they already live. I show them this video to illustrate how far and how quickly things have gone, and as a way of telling them not to take the technologies around us for granted.

ST: What are some of the core problems you have encountered in your work?

RK: Getting what you need. I call it the ultimate white man's media – outrageously expensive and immediately obsolete. I don't think people need to own their equipment, print makers don't have to own a whole printing press; the world is too full of people with equipment that goes dusty. That's why it's good that there are places like Artec and Metro New Media which provide access to facilities and resources.

ST: Personal difficulties aside in creating the work, do you feel it is a general issue of inventing contexts for the showing of work?

RK: Yes. Or maybe inappropriate contexts. There isn't anything wrong with the existing spaces they just have to be prepared to do something different. Though part of the problem is that most gallery spaces don't have sufficient finances. As someone who has worn many hats, gallery director, artist, lecturer and panel member, I'm aware of all the issues around creating and showing work, constantly juggling priorities; perhaps this is just part of late 20th century art making.

ST: Do you have any specific ambitions for your work in the future within electronic media.

RK: Well I would like to keep on doing it.

Stuart Taylor <panther AT>