Sound Artists Decline German Art Award: ‘Pitting Quality Against Diversity Is Pernicious’

Sound artists Mendi and Keith Obadike declined to accept an honorable mention this weekend ahead of a ceremony for the annual Giga-Hertz Award administered by the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. On Saturday, Kieth Obadike published a statement on his Facebook account to announce that he and his partner declined to accept the honor in response to a ZKM representative’s comment that the organization “had to choose between ‘quality and diversity’” during a remote rehearsal for that award ceremony that was live-streamed. Obadike wrote, “Talk of pitting quality against diversity is pernicious and should not be tolerated.”

“A ZKM representative mentioned in his rehearsed commentary that this year was the award’s most diverse year with applicants from many countries and a number of women and people of color. As we waited on Zoom for our cue to begin our portion of the ceremony he mentioned they ultimately had to choose between ‘quality and diversity,’” Obadike wrote, describing the statement from ZKM as an “old false binary.”

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The married artist duo were being recognized for their work Fit (the Battle of Jericho), a 10-minute-long multi-channel sound installation inspired by a 1930s African-American spiritual exhibited as part of the musician Vijay Iyer’s curated showcase “Relation” at New York’s Met Breuer in 2016. The couple, who are Igbo Nigerian American, have produced other major projects on race and American history including American Cypher, a 2013 piece that uses sounds recorded at Monticello, the Virginia plantation and estate of Thomas Jefferson, that was installed at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

In the artists’ joint statement, Obadinke said that because the organization’s commentary demonstrated racial bias, they found that ZKM is not suitable to administer awards to “artists from the global community.” Obadinke concluded that “the places where media art, electronic music, and sound art are overwhelmingly white and European by design suffer from a lack of intellect, a lack of vision, and a lack of imagination, and are therefore in no position to honor or rank us.”

The recipient of this year’s Giga Hertz Award, which in the past has recognized such luminaries as Pierre Boulez, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and Pierre Henry, was German composer Christina Kubisch, who received the main prize of €10,000 (around $11,000). Yvette Jackson and André Damião were awarded Giga-Hertz Production Awards. Maja S. K. Ratkje and Viola Yip were given honorable mentions. Each of the recipients accepted their awards during the formal ceremony on Saturday.


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