STEPH FOSTER, FROM ABOVE
Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.
James Baldwin, from the documentary I am not your negro (2016)
Steph Foster investigates mass surveillance with a focus on the capitalist nature of the prison industrial complex and the bondage of Black communities, which make up over 40% of the demographics of U.S. correction facilities – but only 12,4 % of the general population. Foster’s point of departure is the perpetuation of slavery in modern market-oriented culture, manifested in a questionable yet prevalent police stigma against people of color, with biometric technologies and AI preserving this racial bias via software built on prison databases.
Foster, whose own neighborhood has unsurprisingly been affected by targeted incarceration and probation, lays claim to art’s role in society as both a medium and a platform to denounce the systematic racism and the lack of freedom of one-ninth of the U.S. population. Connecting historical and present circumstances, he aims at collective awareness of white privilege, shining a light on policies of exclusion and restricted civil rights in what is often deemed to be a model twenty-first century democracy.
In his photographs, videos and mixed media installations, Foster produces compelling visual narratives embedded with baroque aesthetics, humor and drama – as eye-catching as they are unsettling – where visual codes and clues guide the viewer into an alternative system of reality, one of the dispossessed, which cannot be fully understood without extending the gaze to an extensive and proliferating apparatus of watchers, both human and technology-based.
To contrast surveillance – literally “to watch from above” – in the early 2000s, professor Steve Mann coined the word “sousveillance” – inverse surveillance, literally “to watch from below” – which refers to the activity of watching the watchers in order to denounce the asymmetries of power inside a surveillance system which spreads to every sector of human activity. From social media presence to high tech grocery shopping, embedded racism deeply affects the ordinary life of people of color, as recently pointed by a Saturday Night Live parody sketch of Amazon Go, a supposedly worry-free shopping experience entirely based on computer vision and algorithms which is met by the polarized reactions of actors of different ethnicities.
Foster follows Mann’s seminal concept and professor Simone Browne’s recent studies on “black sousveillance,” whose evidentiary images, mainly captured with smartphones, recently led to a glimmer of social justice when four former Minneapolis police officers were indicted on federal civil rights charges for the death of George Floyd. With his art practice, Foster attempts to produce a new iconography of black sousveillance; one that aims at social justice as much as at cultural relevance, where truth stands with knowledge, agency and representation.
With a solid background in the history of art and photography, he employs forensic flashes, slow-motion ritual actions, poignant audio footage and a research-based methodology to reveal uncharted territories within our society. These range from enclosed worlds frozen in time, such as Louisiana’s slave plantations turned into money-makers, and prison trade shows, “amusement parks” filled with companies wishing to profit from any form of detention. The ecosystems he chooses are accessible yet neglected by both mass media and self-proclaimed political artists, in spite of their impact on the life of people and what they reveal about the darker foundations and history of our society.
From Above (2022), his new commission for the Blitz Digital Residency, is the latest in a series of slow-motion videos started in 2018. The videos show only four seconds of an actual event, but shot with a high-speed camera which slows down the action forty times, each becomes two minutes long. Here, Foster tackles gestures and everyday interactions in the lives of Black people, which provide elements for rethinking the conditions upon which the community has formed and adjusted to violence in American society. All works are soaked in a black and white aesthetic; a metaphor for polarized nuances and perspectives, which also creates a sense of timelessness.
From Above, in particular, is Foster’s first double channel work. On the left side, a Black person sitting on a roof of a city dwelling is caught in the act of summoning pigeons out of a coop. Flipping pigeons is a common signal to let Black gang members know when police are around. On the right side, instead, a blindfolded Black man with a pair of wings – who turns out to be the artist himself – runs away from an old oak tree in what looks like a classic plantation landscape in Louisiana. As time passes, three drones emerge, chasing him from behind. Both characters are wearing white and seem to embody symbols of truth, justice and purity. They also have no choice left but to play defense, while an opera singer softly croons and steers the narrative to unexpected endings.
In Self love (2018), the focus is on pounding or dapping, a classic handshake practiced within the Black community which clearly identifies brotherhood. In slow-motion, the act of touching hands challenges the commonplace stereotype of Black masculinity, while a recording of Philadelphia activist Malik Amari discusses Black unity and loving each other as the two pillars of loving yourself in spite of racism and hardship. In the same year, Foster made Brand (2018), which explores the profitability of Black culture since the rise of capitalism, when society traded slavery for a consumerism targeting Black people with tailored marketing strategies and advertising. The scene is confusing, as two Black people remove the shoe of a third in plain daylight, their clothes offering no further information about their roles or intentions. Meanwhile, the sound in the background revives an old school 1954 retail training tape instructing the sales force on selling to a new consumer class.
Chain (2019) portrays the torso of a Black man, his tattooed skin speaking of justice and his neck adorned with diamond chains. This is the most openly symbolic video in the series so far. In Black culture, chains are a special token; while enslaved people were dragged to the U.S. in chains, a diamond chain is the extreme opposite, representing social redemption and wealth. Yet soon after the opening scene, a white man and a woman – ostensibly rich and clearly hinting at Black sexuality – reach the man and strip the chain from his neck. The voiceover is from rapper Nipsey Hussle discussing raping Africa of its resources; however, soon after this public recording, his efforts to lift his community in Los Angeles came to an end when he was shot outside of his store by a member of the same gangs that were created to provide protection to Black people.
The last video on display is Libation (2019), where two cheap 40oz bottles of beer are emptied on the ground. In Black culture, pouring the first sip of an alcoholic beverage on the ground is a ritual to honor friends or family who have passed away. By retrieving the original uncut audio of the funeral, Foster dedicates the libation to Robert (Yummy) Sandifor, an 11 year-old kid killed in Chicago in 1994 by his same gang members who feared he had become a police informant. The tragedy hit the cover of Time magazine and prompted the Federal government to pass the largest crime bill in the history of the United States, which brought about dramatic effects on the incarceration rates of Black people.
Foster’s practice is a portal to the politically charged, contemporary moral cost of traditional race and class roles in a modern society tied to media and technology, where virtuality alongside waning human control portends more damage than ever before.
Sara Dolfi Agostini, Curator