Wikimedia Fellow Kristen Owens and Fred Wilson

On the Artist’s Project, ‘Black Now’

Published Thursday, Mar 2, 2023

Kristen Owens, whose interdisciplinary research, writing, and curatorial work is situated in African American and Black diasporic studies, is the Librarian for African American and Black Diaspora Studies at New York University Libraries and the inaugural Wikimedia Fellow with Pace. Her research in the Wikimedia Fellowship—which was established in 2022 as part of an ongoing partnership between the gallery and Black Lunch Table, a nonprofit organization working to build a comprehensive and robust digital archive of Black artists’ stories—culminated with the recent exhibition [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, presented in Pace’s library at 540 West 25th Street in New York.

On the occasion of [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, Owens spoke with artist Fred Wilson about his practice and his Black Now project, which will be the subject of an exhibition in the US next year. Further details about this presentation will be announced in due course.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Kristen Owens: Fred, the work you have done with Mining the Museum has shown up multiple times throughout my education. It's interesting because I've heard you talk about your experience in museums and how that has impacted you. Would you mind telling me a little bit about your new Black Now project?

Fred Wilson: It was something I just wanted to do—it's not a money-maker. In the early 2000s I began to notice that notions of Blackness were shifting. The general public were having very different semantics about Black and Blackness. It seemed to me that in some kind of natural way, language, words, images, objects, the culture in general—there was something happening, and I wanted to understand that. But my way of understanding is looking at common objects, not art, and listening to language, which seemed to be changing meaning. For example, the notion of nightlife, where the blackness of night was always considered a negative, began to be much less of a frightening concept and came to even be a positive thing. But it went way beyond that. This project is about looking at objects and images that would not have represented Blackness before—and I'm talking about things on television, but mostly about products where the word 'black' was not a negative. In 2005, I started to collect objects and things that I thought would not have occurred a decade or two earlier and would not be named something like that. The large body of this collection are things where the word 'black' or the color black would never have been used as a positive thing in the past and somehow it has shifted in the cultural thinking. It is fascinating to me how that happened.

KO: When will the collection be shown in its entirety?

FW: Next year, 2024.

I don't even know how many objects I have! I think it's over a thousand. In the beginning, I was collecting everything that jumped out at me because it seemed different for that moment. In 2005, I would never have imagined that we would have a Black president in such a short space of time. But if I had watched my collection, I would have seen that it was truly a possibility because it seemed like the thinking or the semantics around Blackness was shifting.

The large body of this collection are things where the word 'black' or the color black would never have been used as a positive thing in the past and somehow it has shifted in the cultural thinking.

Fred Wilson

KO: Will the objects be black collectibles, or will it be things like newspaper articles that have text or signs?

FW: It’s a very wide collection. As it has grown, it’s become very clear how things have shifted. One newspaper article that I continually think about covered a rally in Albany about gun control. The protestors were guys who are really passionate about protecting their gun rights. They had a huge sign with a big black gun on it, a rifle or something, and it said, 'You don't like me because I'm black.’ And these were regular gun owners, redneck gun owners, and I was really surprised that they would even verbalize that as a kind of twisted joke. They were using the voice of a Black person to make their twisted point. It became interesting to me what had seeped into the general culture for positive or negative reasons. It was invisible but really palpable.

When I travel, I try to buy things as well—just common items or advertising. Every once in a while, I have to get something that still contains negative content. For example, there is a particular hotel in Germany that has coffee cups with stereotypical Black characters on them. Why would somebody still have these golliwog looking characters on a coffee cup? I want to try to understand how some of these residual stereotypes are still out there. When I'm in Europe, it's particularly surprising how easy it can be to find these problematic objects. Black Now is a very wide collection, but largely it is rooted in semantics as well as the use of the color black in everyday life.

I've shown the collection in different locations in smaller iterations, but next year's presentation is going to be great because I get to see it all together and try to understand how germane it is to the culture at large. Everything is in storage, so I haven't seen a lot of these objects for years and years.

KO: Coming from a background in fashion and black cultural studies, I’m thinking of things like door knocker earrings or even baby hairs or long bejeweled nails and how they were at one point seen as negative things done by Black and Latinx folks in a particular area of a city, but now they’re fashion trends. So, Black Now makes me think about that in terms of how these ideas of Blackness are shifting from something negative to something more mainstream and accepted.

FW: Fashion is not my area at all, but certainly contemporary fashion and trends change. That is really fascinating how certain things have gone into the culture. Well, this is the history of African Americans. Even though early on in the United States everything associated with Blackness was negative and not something you'd want to mimic, but we also know that everything we do—like dance and music—was used and taken and seen as new.

Black Now is sort of limited to visual culture because that's my realm, but the fashion thing also makes me really curious—fashion has always followed Black folks. I was really trying to just begin with what was shocking to me, how Blackness crops up in everyday objects. That's the other question: is this emblematic of some change? Like I said with Obama becoming President of the United States, which was shocking to me. Of course, I voted for him, but I didn't expect him to win. And then win twice.

KO: Fred you once said in an interview, 'It has been my experience that there has to be a rupture with our assumptions in order to grow.' I wonder if you could talk about the ruptures in your early life that have inspired the way you have worked and collected and curated and created over the years?

FW: Our biographies do guide us in certain ways, whether we like it or not. I was the only Black child in my elementary school and the entire neighborhood. It was a very nice, friendly school, it's just that I was the outsider. I was not much different than the other kids, except that I looked different and my background was different, but it made me really question everything around me. I didn't take anything for granted. When we left the suburbs and came back to the city, I was different because I was a Black kid that knew more about Carnaby Street than what was going on in fashion or language or popular culture in the Black communities of the US. So, again, I had to make another shift. But the thing is, it made me realize that there are different ways of looking at things that I would have never encountered if I had lived in the same neighborhood for my entire upbringing. It taught me how to negotiate these situations and be an examiner of people and places and how they interact and how visual culture shifts and changes. If you don't have that varied experience, positive and negative, you don't question. So having to be a bit chameleon was quite useful for me to see how others see the world and how your environment really can restrict you.

That's why the projects I do in museums have become successful—because I'm not hitting anybody over the head or telling them they have to change or anything like that. I'm just pointing out what they're not seeing in their own environment. And that includes—if I'm in a place long enough—the interpersonal relationships and hierarchies within the institution, which nobody outside the museum will know.

KO: I'm a part of a committee where there are a lot of conversations happening around this subject of invisible labor, which is making me think about your collecting as a labor of love. In terms of bringing these things that might have been a shameful part of your experience when you were growing up, but now repositioning them with a new meaning.

FW: Sure, yeah. I hope to learn things, too. This is a huge experience for me because basically it's me putting all these objects together and asking: What does that say? What am I saying? Who am I in relation to this stuff?

KO: It feels as though you’re making the parts of you that you had to suppress in order to move through certain spaces more visible for other people to appreciate.

FW: I think that's what artists do.

  • Essays — Wikimedia Fellow Kristen Owens Talks with Fred Wilson About the Artist’s Project, ‘Black Now’, Mar 2, 2023