Orlando-based Elizabeth Mputu is part of a rising wave of new media artists using digital platforms to express powerful political and social ideas through their work. Her art deals thoughtfully and forcefully with issues of feminism, gender, sexuality, inequality, and race, all projected through the lens of someone who has grown up saturated in all aspects of digital culture.
Mputu’s work combines abstract conceptualism, experimental video, performance, poetry, found digital ephemera, selfies, music (and much more) into defiantly cohesive trains of thought. Although her work is profoundly contemporary it is also increasingly informed by traditional and mystical concepts. Mputu has introduced her personal ancestral history and its healing spirituality into her practice, further reflecting the radical complexity of her thinking.
Mputu’s latest project, Broken Windows, was made for the popular new media art hub NewHive as part of a series exploring privacy, surveillance, and prison reform. Broken Windows is an interactive digital collage which guides us through a potent and personal reflection on a violent police state and the weaponized surveillance of those that live within it.
I spoke to Mputu about this project, the origins of her practice, and the place of spirituality and healing in her work.
Broken Windows on NewHive
Christian Petersen: What was your first experience of the Internet?
Elizabeth Mputu: Googling "beautiful women" and spending time in random pre-AIM online forums.
CP: When did you first think about using the internet as a platform to create art and does its potential still excite you?
EM: I think after people kept mistaking a lot of my troll posts for art, or my selfies and selfie videos for art, because that was a big trend in new media for a while, and rightly so. But, originally I had thot of myself more as a virtual community engineer. I felt like the art was what was collectively occurring within the online spheres that were curated by myself and many other friends on FB.
I think what fueled my passion to take myself more seriously as an internet artist was the demise of the alt-lit movement tbh, lol. The tendency of alternative literature artists at the time, that were more mainstream, was to focus on banality and drench it in a “still too cool for you” attitude that just left me feeling nauseous. When that vacuum sealed up in itself I felt more comfortable and free to navigate and become part of a different online art scene that I preferred to share my work with. Not saying all alt-lit was bad because a lot of my good friends who had engaged with the genre less self-indulgently and with sincere wit still inspire me to this day. Friends like Manuel Arturo Abreu or Tiffany Wines. But, I grew to learn that being a new media artist didn't have to mean I had to associate myself with that kind of work alone. That realization allowed me to branch out and assert what it meant for me to take up space virtually.
The internet is so far beyond any of us and its infinite potential will swallow us whole just as the rest of the earth will. Very few things are more exciting than that. lol.
Photo: Kim Schwirzer
CP: When did you start to use it as tool of creative expression of political and social beliefs?
EM: This was less intentional so I couldn't note an exact time. I think it's just what comes with the territory if you are someone who experiences any type of oppression at whatever degree and you also might have a tendency to be impulsive, loud, direct, or petty. All qualities that I find to be productive when the approach is fair and meant to highlight a reality that others might not be in the mood to address. People who really inspire me online in this light are artists like Sofia Moreno, Kenya Johnson, La Porscha, Brandon Drew Holmes, and Winslow Laroche for instance.
The point is not always to be right and to be a vigilante, but what these artists teach is the beauty of being blunt and how that tenacity situated in social media can create true platforms for growth, learning, and understanding because they dare to say things that are worth being challenged or are doing the challenging themselves.
Photo: Kim Schwirzer
CP: Social media is an integral part of your overall art practice. Why is that such an important part of your expression?
EM: I think we’re all just so young and green to this technology, and the accompanying culture around it, that many of us just want to have as much fun with the freedom of it as possible before those rights potentially get taken away. I’m someone who wants to take advantage of that for myself and for the people who I congregate with online too. You don’t want to log on and be bored or swamped with depressing and traumatic information or to fear you can’t say certain things because of how authorities might perceive you as a threat. The freedom of expression within this space transcends my status as an artist; we are all desiring this tool for this reason. However, I do find it difficult as an artist in particular because what I post as art may get taken down but content conducive to violence, racism, and rape stay up. That’s a problem. In that same light we’re still even just trying to normalize images of breastfeeding online. So sometimes it can be hard to expect much from a society that is so conservative when it comes to how we present ourselves and what comes out of our mouths with that.
Photo: Kim Schwirzer
CP: When did you first start to see that people were noticing your work?
EM: People have always noticed my work because showing work is a regular activity in the spaces I have inhabited and will continue to do so regardless of what level that work is seen at. So to me, the fact that more people are noticing my work as of late doesn’t negate the fact that I’ve always had friends, family, and peers who have been there paying attention and nurturing me from jump. They make space for me to do the same and witness the development of their own practices.
S+S Project Event, 2015; Pictured: Artist and Curator Sofia Moreno and myself
CP: Do you agree that the new media/net art community has traditionally avoided political and social issues?
EM: That's never been true for my experience. I've been fortunate enough to have friends online who are very open about what they’re thinking. Whether it’s about eating ass, eating pussy, not trusting Hillary Clinton, aliens being real, or how depressed they are about their opinion of themselves. Or just something slick they caught a random person saying in real life which provoked them to think more abstractly about something political, and then open that dialogue with their cyber friends.
Our existence is inherently political. If you don’t have a choice but to have that notion constantly in your face because of the media’s politically incorrect depiction of who you are (and the role you play within society) then I think you fall prey to making your social media presence a platform for consistent self validation. This is entirely its own, not necessarily harmful, thing that I won't speak on at length here. Otherwise, I don't know many people who I see posting online not saying something powerful even if it seems superficial simply because of what it means to be them and to be alive and surviving.
If you aren't learning and growing from the people around you IRL or URL then switch it up. The blessing of the net is selectivity and catering your experience.
CP: New media has become a vital home for the expression of feminist and gender ideas. Why do you think that is?
EM: Why not? Why shouldn’t that be expected and the standard for what we demand as discourse within this culture? Do you find it surprising? If so, I challenge you to look further into your questioning of this narrative becoming more predominant. From the history I know these dialogues are ancient and have been suppressed. Their reemergence is only new to those whose histories pretend not to be negatively impacted by their lack of reverence for feminist and non-binary gender ideologies.
CP: The digital art scene is also undeniably, predominately white. What are your thoughts of the reasons for that and how will that change?
EM: The digital art scene is a microcosm for how our global culture interacts. Globally we see the impacts of western colonization and racism. We see how certain cultures are made to feel inferior and their life strategies obsolete. The digital art scene has reflected this same pretentiousness because it still exists within this paradigm of existence despite touting ideals counter to it. So it becomes a constant struggle and war for everyone. This turmoil is the only way we can power through it.
Artists of color are going back and forth in their heads feeling like they’re having to compromise the integrity of their work just to survive and get resources to continue making their work. At the same time we wonder if it’s not best to just branch off on our own because the incremental change we get is unfulfilling and ever more stressful.
We don't just want an art scene that’s no longer predominantly white. We want an art world that's fat loving, and gay, and not ableist, and genuinely safe for trans people, that doesn’t leave its artist feeling exploited. One that respects sex workers, that helps to care for and not just glamorize varying illnesses, that looks beyond celebrity and who can be an artist and de-establishes this hierarchy that has continued to build over time because of the institutional support coming in. Fuck all that noise. So with those ideals in mind, it makes it difficult to see how that will come about in what has already been structured as the “scene.” I do know that the people who want that kind of art scene are making it for themselves and not limiting what they can achieve by who is backing their work.
CP: As an artist of color, what are the specific advantages and disadvantages to working in a digital/web based medium?
EM: There are no disadvantages to being an artist of color working in this medium, only unfortunate truths to bear when you are confronted with the fact that others hold your ethnicity to you with warped standards. But that’s not a disadvantage for us as artists of color, but for those we end up challenging. People who are unable to swallow the truth of an artist of color in this realm because of the racist and prejudice perceptions they’ve been conditioned with, and grown comfortable and accustomed to, are limiting themselves not me and mine, lol. I’m glad to be able to avoid people like that whenever they out themselves for the narrow minded views they have...
On another note, I am interested in knowing how many white creatives you interview and ask this question to? I ask because artists of color are constantly having their race made a factor in their work when it might not always be relevant to them. How do we collectively stop projecting our own demands on what an artist of color must be, think, do, and respond to because of who they are?
CP: Has your art practice changed because of how you felt you were being perceived as a digital/web artist of color?
EM: Yes, in an interview with Rhizome I go into more detail about it but to summarize I just knew I was worth more than what the white gaze had to offer and now my practice centers that.
CP: Spirituality and healing are an increasingly important part of your work. How does this relate to your general practice and what made you decide that it was something you needed to explore?
EM: It was important for me to give myself the gift of my ancestors’ wisdom as guidance in order to better navigate my life. Especially because it was intentionally deprived of me so that I would better assimilate to the culture and customs of the U.S. I’m first generation Congolese American and it didn't interest my parents much to teach my brothers and I about pre-colonial, pre-Leopold Zaire (the Democratic Republic of Congo’s former name). So with the assistance of my friend Toi Scott’s Queering Herbalism program I gained access to that for myself, along with doing my own research into my people’s modes of wellbeing. I also, pretty early on as a student in Chicago, became exposed to sensational artists who had already been on that path for themselves and were making very moving work about that. Artists like Kiam Marcelo Junio, Efrén Arcoiris, and Anja Morell, to name a few. So I felt comfortable making a place for that within my own practice. One of my peers, Tabita Rezaire also makes work on this and reinforces my belief behind the need for this particular healing-based creative process. Her artists health collective Seneb is something I’m really proud to be a part of because it ties together multiple ways of healing and spirituality by different collaborators.
CP: What art do you find most inspiring and challenging?
EM: My mother used to doodle little flowers in her notebooks, on opened envelopes of mail or whatever was lying around. I’ve been thinking about how I miss that and the impact those little sketches had on me. My little cousin Norline is 10 and also makes amazing work [below]. As for challenging art, I guess I’m more interested in the personalities behind the work because I love a good story, lol. So with that said I would say my friend Sofia Moreno’s work and voice has the most captivating impact on me as a person. She’s always challenging her audience to see things for what they really are regardless of consequence.
(left) Norline Mubini, Self Portrait, Age 10 (right) Norline Mubini, This is from Spain, LOL, Age 10
CP: Tell us a little about your current project on NewHive, Broken Windows.
EM: Broken Windows is an interactive web browser piece that encourages the audience to educate themselves on different aspects of the prison industrial complex through the many hyperlinked objects presented in each portal. You can select which portal to explore by clicking on one of the broken apartment windows. Each window addresses a different theme, whether it be surveillance culture or for-capital prisons. The piece is loaded with resources and media content to give people a better idea of the kind of beast we're up against when it comes to prison reform and even abolition—which I believe should be society's end goal. It's a part of a campaign with NewHive that Zach Verdin invited me to participate in.
CP: What other projects do you have coming up?
EM: I am currently working on a collaborative project with artists Mx Angel, Paula Nacif, Alfredo Salazar-Caro, and a few others called LVLZ: Healing Center. It will be another interactive browser piece that lets the audience take a look into the concept of CyberSerenity, which is something I’ve been working on for about a year now and just received support from Rhizome to further produce.
I'm also really excited to be working with my friend from New Orleans, Xena Ellison, on a project for Poonie’s Cabaret (in part associated with Art AIDs Chicago) that my friends J’Sun Howard and Joseph Varisco called us to be a part of this November. Xena is someone who always keeps it real and offers me unique ideas of what salvation could look like. Her work combines text, sound, and visuals that send distinct messages on what her stance on the world is from the lens of someone who is a radical ball of pure, raw, mystical energy. Being able to tap into the frequency that is Xena is time and time again an unforgettable opportunity. The wisdom she imparts challenges you to question whether or not you’re really well informed about the reality people who aren’t privileged in numerous ways face and what you’re determined to do about it. Right now the work she’s focusing on centers on loss and putting our loved ones (specifically those impacted by H.I.V., or who have died from AIDs-related complications) to rest. She’ll be using video art as a vessel for this knowledge. You should def check in with her to hear more about that! I’m excited to be a cultural producer with my friends and I know we really have big plans to keep getting better and providing more, thanks for the interview!
This is the cover art for Xena's upcoming mixtape, "UNDER/WET: SPIRITUAL THIRST CHRONICLES"
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(All images: Courtesy of Elizabeth Nputu)