Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Artists and superheroes

Put eighty artists in a room and you’re going to get some overlapping ideas. One of the ideas to emerge in the last few presentations at the Creative Capital summer retreat is the power of the superhero.

Kenseth Armstead has multimedia ambitions for his superhero, Spook ™. Spook is James Armistead Lafayette, a double agent spy and slave, who provided the key intelligence used to force the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown. Armstead discovered the revolutionary figure when researching his own name, and has decided to reanimate his memory with the goal of “adding a name to the list of founders.” Turning Armistead into a Hollwood hero, Spook, is a truple entendre, playing off images of ghosts, spies, and derogatory terms for African Americans. While Armstead’s tongue is firmly in cheek – I think? – he’s trying to launch a feature film and a videogame, as well as a website, Spook1781.com.

The artists behind “Otabenga Jones and Associates“, a Houston-based collaborative of four artists and educators who work under the tutelage of the (fictional) Otabenga Jones (named for Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy who was displayed in the Bronx Zoo in 1906 next to an Orangutan.) Their work hearkens back to Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, invoking historical clashes like the Watts riots (represented by an upended police car in a gallery, accompanied by music) and arguments over ideology (a two-man protest outside an exhibit of African art, including protest signs that read “My blackness is bigger than your white box.” An upcoming piece will create The Uhuru Squad, a set of action figures designed “to get the truth to Black youth.” What does a Harriet Tubman action figure look like? And do plastic superheroes advance an educational agenda or make fun of older ideas of Black nationalism? Both?

Brad Lichtenstein believes that DJ Spooky is the hero who can lead us to the promised land of the Common. Recognizing that yet another speech about the importance of the creative commons will likely fall on deaf ears, Lichtenstein, legendary guitarist Vernon Reid and Spooky are collaborating on a remixable movie that features DJ Spooky on a hero’s quest: What We Got. Ready to play a show, Spooky discovers that his samples have disappeared due to overagressive copyright enforcement, and he’s forced to search for the commons. The project will be released with a software widget, the WeJay, that allows viewers to scratch and remix the footage, and which will allow for visualizations of the social networks that allow people to track how creativity moves through groups of people.

If there’s an anti-hero at a gathering of American artists, it’s probably President George W. Bush. He’s the central character in Chicago’s Theater Oobleck’sThe Strangerer“, a collision of “the untheatrical theatricality of a presidential debate” and the President’s unexpected interest in the works of Camus. The setting is the 2004 first Presidential debate, and Bush is Meursault, determined both to kill the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and to have the audience – the nation – applaud the murder. It’s designed to ask two questions, “Why does our president want to murder innocent people? And what will it take to have the whole nation applaud?” It’s evidently a popular idea – it’s the most successful piece Oobleck has ever produced and is currently opening off-Broadway in New York City.

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