Behind the Scenes with Mendi and Keith Obadike

What do you like about working with sound?

Sound is basic to the way humans make sense of the world. We hear even from the womb, so our individual practices of listening are old and elemental. Because sounds are vibrations, they can be felt. Sounds can be heard from far away and sounds move through your body. As such, they are very powerful; sounds have the power to heal or to harm. We are attracted to sound because it can carry emotional information and/or spiritual information in narrative and in our lives. We also like working with sound because it is a medium of music and a medium of storytelling. Or perhaps we like telling music and stories because they can happen in sound.

The Big House/Disclosure project addresses a lot of complex ideas. Could you talk about the genesis of the project and how all the various elements came together?

We received an invitation from Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson at Northwestern University to contribute to an international conference and multi-site exhibition called Out of Sight: Slavery and the Visual Imagination. We immediately started to do research on Northwestern and the Chicago area and found that the city of Chicago in 2002 became the first city in the U.S. to adopt a Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance. This ordinance requires any company doing business with the city to disclose whether it or its originating company had profited from the slave trade in the Americas. While the ordinance does not bar these companies from doing business with the city, it does collect important data for future reparations legislation and suits. As this ordinance was enforced, many companies were outted, including Fleet Boston, J.P. Morgan, Lehman Brothers, R.J. Reynolds, Aetna, and New York Life, and many others. We wondered how, armed with the knowledge that the slavery-based industries and this legacy were all around us in America (rather than neatly tucked away in some imaginary time and space in the south), people would envision the archetypal "Big House" and their place within that structure. We decided to work out these questions in house music. We liked that this form of music invoked both a domestic and industrial space, was born in Chicago, and was linked to a particular African-American experience and mode of expression. We thought a lot about the early endurance pieces of 1970s performance art, which tested the limits of the body, and how in some strange way this paralleled all-night house-music parties where a DJ would spin for hours and hours. We were also thinking about the long hours of labor that occurred in the now old abandoned warehouses often powered by a migrant workforce of African-Americans from the south where later some of the first house events might happen.We came up with a modular project that would be accessible though a Web site housed at Northwestern. The project would be based on 200 interviews with Chicago area citizens about the slavery era ordinance and related issues.Here are the questions we asked people:1. What do you know about house music? 2. Do you believe that slavery has an impact on present-day life in the United States? If so, how so?3. Who is responsible for the impact that slavery has?4. Can you describe a southern plantation mansion? What does one look like?5. What do you know about Chicago's Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance?6. Do you think this ordinance is a good idea? (Why or why not?)7. What do you think the companies that have profited from slavery should do to make amends?8. Have you benefited from slavery? If so, how?

What did you hope to achieve with the project? How did people respond to it? We hoped to get people talking and hopefully thinking about slavery in America, the places it actually lived (and lives), the cultures that grew out of it, or the cultures that survived in spite of slavery, and general social responsibility. We wanted folks to reflect on the political, economic and spiritual ripples from any action. These are the major issues in the work. By taking the video interviews and making them audio only, we hoped to encourage people to take what we call "the good listen." This is when someone allows sound to enter not only through the ears, but rather, through the whole body. The good listen is when people allow what they hear to change them. This is how we listen when we listen to the things that mean the most to us. A favorite song that we've listened to for many years or the voice of someone who is close to us can affect us in a powerful way. New sounds can also affect us powerfully if we are open to them.Sometimes in order to open ourselves up to sonic information, we have to abstract it from the images. We found ourselves more open to the voices in "Big House / Disclosure" when we weren't looking at the faces of the interviewees. When we watched the people entering the installation space in Chicago listen, we literally saw them opening up to the voices, leaning into them, rearing back with surprise when they heard something they didn't expect to hear. We doubt we would have seen such visceral responses, such obvious surprises had the audience members been looking at images of the people to whom they were listening. **What themes emerged in the interviews conducted with Chicago-area residents? What surprised you about people's responses

Very few of the interviews were predictable to us. We were surprised that so few people were aware of the ordinance, since it has been well covered by local media. We were also surprised that very few people who were interviewed knew that house music was from Chicago, with the exception of a couple of people who knew a great deal about the music's local history. One generalization we can make is that more African-Americans had an opinion about the city ordinance while some Euro-Americans said that they felt unqualified to speak on anyone's responsibility for slavery or reparations issues. We were also surprised that many of the people interviewed who were students expressed concerns about the policy infringing on the rights of corporations. This might be surprising to anyone who thinks of college campuses as a bastion of anti-establishment views or hotbeds of leftist activity. One interesting thing was that many people's image of a plantation "Big House" is from Gone With the Wind . We would say that approximately 70 percent of the people referenced this film specifically when imagining a "Big House", which probably makes it the most consistent aspect of the interviews. But we found that we couldn't make predictions about how people would answer a particular question, even just based on their answers to other questions. ### You work across many different kinds of media (print, performance, sound, the Internet). What do you like about each medium and what unique qualities does each medium offer? How did you arrive at your very intermedia approach

We started out making music, writing, and making images separately. We could talk (or write) for hours about what we like about each genre. Although working across genres as we do, we appreciate different aspects of different genres, we are coming to a place where our own approach to intermedia feels like a genre in itself. We began to work online for two main reasons: first, it was a place for us to collaborate in music, art, and literature without being on territory that is primarily for music, art, or literature. Secondly, working online was a way to work across genres in such a way that the genres in question were simultaneously integrated and fragmented. While in theater you have sound, images, and narrative integrated, you can't as easily engage these aspects separately. Conversely, in the case of our Internet art, such as " Big House / Disclosure," an audience member can just listen to the project, just watch the video interviews, or just read the statement, linked documents, and interview questions and still understand a great deal about the project. This is how most people surf the web. We are interested in the kind of art experience that lives in the worlds where many people live and work and play and mourn. We also liked that by making the music/interviews go on for a week, people could just drop in and listen when they had a moment. It is very difficult to do this with conventional film or theater practices.