Juliana Huxtable explores the intersections of race and the internet

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 10:57pm

Niki Williams

Niki Williams Buy this photo
NOSELL

It’s apparent that the internet has shaped our culture in ways our grandparents couldn’t have imagined. The internet holds endless information that will take years to even brush the surface of, information that lends to the shaping of nations, of cultures, of racial oppression and destructive gender norms. The internet is a powerful force that has shaped the individual identities of all of us, whether or not we realize it. Growing up in the age of the internet has exposed us young people to endless content that has impacted the way we live and, more specifically, the way we create art. Juliana Huxtable, an American artist, writer, performer, DJ and co-founder of the New York-based nightlife project Shock Value, seems to understand it better than any of us. Huxtable’s performance at the Lydia Mendelssohn theatre last Wednesday invited the audience to “contemplate the power and powerlessness of the body as well as its dispossession in relation to technology, violence and blackness.” 

As soon as Huxtable began to speak, I immediately thought of a quote from the popular film, “Juno”: “You’re the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even try.”  On days when I’m particularly lucky, I meet someone and think exactly this. There are people in this world that are so effortlessly cool that it seems to be a genetic trait they’ve inherited, like hair color or height. Huxtable is a perfect example of this effortless coolness. The energy of the Lydia Mendelssohn theatre that night was that of a New York City nightclub. Huxtable and her entourage seemed to illuminate a swanky, “relax, enjoy and let me take you on a journey” vibe that I was excited to experience.

I had previously been exposed to Huxtable’s work in an art installation at the UMMA’s exhibit, “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.” After the exhibit, I was impressed by her understanding of the history of the internet and its impact on culture and art. I expected her performance to touch on similar themes. During this concert, it was apparent that these themes seemed to be a driving force in her work.

Huxtable has complex thoughts about the internet and the way it influences various — but particularly Black — identities. Rather than a performance, I’d go so far as to label this event as a live art installation. The evening was filled with mixed media, including lighting, projections, music and spoken word poetry that brought to light Huxtable’s thoughts on the perception and presentation of identity, history and online communities. I was immediately impressed by the lighting design created by Michael Potvin that was exploding throughout the theatre. Potvin’s lighting techniques were as complex as the words being spoken on the stage. With each different shade and varying projection, I was reminded of the brilliance that lay behind the lighting board.

In addition to the lighting, I was enchanted by the music of both Joe Heffernan and Ahya Simone. It was constructed in such a way that instead of overpowering Huxtable’s spoken word, it complimented it. Her words were an additional instrument to the music that was moving and reshaping the members of the audience. Huxtable’s rhythmic speaking voice over the equally rhythmic tunes allowed the music to be more than easy listening. It pushed audience members to question and analyze what they were hearing on stage, rather than accept the role of a simple bystander.

Yes, Huxtable and the rest of her entourage have a sort of untouchable coolness surrounding their art, but they also have a very accessible message that audience members need to hear. While the constant shaping and reshaping of our world by the internet and technology can be a very beautiful thing, there are also some dangers that lie within it. Remaining overly aware of every act you take on the internet, of your own privilege and of your art that the internet influences is immensely important. In times when the pursuit of truthful media is dire, it’s important that the media we contribute to is honest. There is no time to sit idly as forces of unknowable danger are forever shifting the information we consume. Huxtable is a great example of an artist that uses her talents and knowledge to not simply promote, but directly partake in positive social change.