The Discrete Sound of Skin Color

I think of the words “performance art documentary”, and I’m not quite sure what to imagine… perhaps some video of a guy doing experimental painting in his studio? Or maybe an audio guide to a site-specific installation in a city? It doesn’t really matter what I picture. The point is that I picture something at all: the very words “documentary,” “performance,” and even “art,” at least for me, connote something visual. These tend to be visual words.

But it certainly doesn’t have to be the case. Dmae Roberts and damali ayo have made some brilliant examples of performance art captured via audio. Check out Living Flag and Paintmixers.

In both cases, ayo is the performer: with low-tech audio recording equipment, she provides random people with a fresh, quirky, original opportunity to talk about race, then she captures their candid responses. These are social experiments as much as artistic endeavors.

In Living Flag, she asks white people to pay reparations for the former enslavement of Africans, then turns around and gives the payments (which range from $0.20 to $10) to unsuspecting African Americans. And in Paintmixers, she asks paint-store workers to provide a color-match for the tone of her skin, her “flesh tone.”

Since race is the central element in both experiments, they might have translated well into video or film, but it’s clear, through these pieces, that you don’t need the image in order to get a good idea of what’s going on, and the choice of audio provides her with some key advantages.

People get anxious around cameras, especially in unfamiliar circumstances. In these pieces, the circumstances are intended to be unfamiliar (“I’ve been at this store since 1974 and I’ve never matched any body before,” says one paint-store worker), so it’s important to be discrete with whatever documentation apparatus that’s used.

It’s easy to be discrete in the audio business. Really easy. When she says, to an unwitting participant of “Living Flag,” “it’s a payment for the work of my great-great-grandfather who was enslaved to people related to you,” it’s fun to know that the person’s response (“What now?”) is a response to ayo, directly, not influenced by some camera in-between.

The audio quality is actually fairly poor at some moments in these pieces, and that’s ok. It just emphasizes the fact that she’s experimenting. The sound quality in “Paintmixers” sometimes feels almost like one of those reality TV spy cams, like on a cop show. It doesn’t engage the listener by sounding beautiful – it engages the listener by sounding real.

You don’t need top-notch multimedia equipment in order to make compelling art. You don’t even necessarily need press-releases. You just need a good idea and a decent-enough way to record it. Sometimes a microphone will be less intimidating than a camera, and you will find that people will be freer to move toward the edges of their comfort zones. Just play with what you have, and see what you can get to happen.

Living Flag and Paintmixers
by damali ayo and Dmae Roberts in 2007 and 2004
10 minutes and 6 minutes, respectively
via Reality Radio