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Slowing Down to See Black and Blue

The sculptural works and multimedia installations of the Brooklyn-based artist who took the name American Artist explore the ways that structural bias permeates the development and use of technology. My Blue Window,” on view at the Queens Museum through Feb. 16, focuses on predictive policing technology and the Blue and Black Lives Matter movements.

Artist, 30, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, talked about some of their personal choices, the whiteness of digital interfaces and making art that centers on the victims of anti-black violence. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

You’ve said that changing your legal name to American Artist was an act of both declaration and erasure. What was your thinking behind the decision?

When I had the idea to change my name, I realized that if I asked anyone what they thought, they would tell me not to do it. So I just did it.

What do you think they would have said?

I think they would have just thought, as a person, this is a crazy thing to do.

After I changed my name, that’s when I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know if this is a good idea. I won’t be able to be a normal person in society.” But it’s worked out O.K.

Why American Artist?

I wasn’t thinking of it as an endorsement of an American identity. It was more, for one thing, questioning what an American artist is.

Who is considered the mainstream American artist?

I think, in America, it’s a white male abstract painter. That’s becoming less common, but that’s sort of how American art came to fore — white males in the peak moment of American art gaining prominence, painting big abstract paintings.

In many ways, I don’t represent any of those things. So I thought, “O.K., what if that’s my name?” Now you have to deal with the fact that that’s what an American artist is.

How did technology become part of your practice?

I’ve always thought about how growing up alongside the development of the internet has influenced my life and my artwork. Earlier on, I began with critiquing the internet as a socializing space. That branched out into looking at the larger structures of the internet and new technologies — who is behind that and how it came to be the way it is.

Can you talk about some of those structures and how they influenced your art?

For example, with Black Gooey Universe [the title of an essay by Artist and their first solo gallery exhibition], I was thinking about this early computer interface beginning with this black screen.

Then Apple released the Apple Lisa. The background was white, and that became the precedent for the interfaces that we have nowadays. When you’re making a new file or doing a web search, it always begins with a white screen. And so thinking about how that could function as representative of the values of this group of white men that made this computer.

One of the sculptural works in the “Black Gooey Universe” exhibition is of an early-model computer with a keyboard that has tar oozing out of it. Tell me about that.

I thought about what might technology look like if I thought about it from my own vantage point as a black person. What are some values that are sort of antithetical to those of the white interface? I was thinking about slowness or brokenness or stickiness, and these qualities that you don’t think about when you think about an iPhone, for example.

So what would it mean for a computer to be built around that? And not considering that as a device that’s broken, but just a device that’s designed for someone other than what we’re used to — and who is that someone?

What do you want to say in your upcoming show?

I’m thinking about the promise of technologies being a solution, especially with predictive policing. It’s presented as this optimal way to police people, and yet it can’t be proven that it even works. It’s software that’s continuing to incarcerate people that shouldn’t be responsible for the effects of the software.

From what I can see, the police are using this algorithm as a way to say, we’re not biased — we’re just following what the computer told us to do. But the data that goes into that system is based on past data that they’ve created. So it’s also inherently biased.

It’s also a matter of, “How is it ethical to rely on this thing that you don’t fully understand to imprison people that you also have no direct relationship with?”

Images and videos of police brutality and violence against black people are frequently in the headlines and going viral. How do they inform your work?

I try and take a step away from the spectacle of it, because I feel like it’s not something that we aren’t already familiar with.

So with some of my works, something that I’ve tried to do is just step back. I don’t know if you saw this piece I did called “Sandy Speaks.” It was about what happened to Sandra Bland in 2015. But seeing how her image was so widely used, and the conspiracy theories that arose around her mug shot, I wanted to not use her image at all and just focus on what she was saying.

What is it about the color blue that made you want to explore it in “My Blue Window”?

I’ve used blue in a lot of my work, and it’s taken different meanings at different times. Earlier on, that was the color that I used in reference to digital displays, as representative of the moment before an image appears.

But then realizing how overdetermined it is as a color, especially politically, I started to think about how the police are weaponizing that color by identifying as blue and by presenting blueness as if it’s a racial identity, thinking of the Blue Lives Matter movement.

As a viewer in the exhibition, you’re in the position of the police officer, watching dashcam footage. It has this voyeuristic aspect to it. The title “My Blue Window” is alluding to the mental space of the police officer, identifying with this notion of blueness. How does that make you feel? It doesn’t make me feel good.

What do you hope for people to take away when they see your show?

I want them to be curious. And to develop their own sense of criticality so that it’s not a matter of me presenting an argument but setting up the tools for you to ask your own questions.

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