Mark Sabb – A New Day?


Intro (0:10): This is Audium Listens. I’m Dave Shaff. We’re talking with artists about how their craft has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are starting to feel a bit more open again. Venues, museums are reopening. Indoor dining is allowed. Finally we can start to come back together just a little bit. The question is: what lessons have we really learned and how have we changed? Will the Bay Area arts scene return as it was, or is it something different now?  Mark Sabb is a digital content strategist for the Museum of the African Diaspora, one of the cultural institutions that was forced to close (laugh) and reopen and close again. Mark is also a founding member of Felt Zine, a digital art collective and online publication. And, he also makes digital art himself. We’ll get into what exactly is digital art, how the cultural spaces of San Francisco survived, and can we get that city back that we all love and miss? By the way, during the conversation Mark refers to a term you might not have heard of called glitching. Now, this is basically corrupting digital data with errors that you’ve done for kind of an aesthetic or artistic reason. For example, glitching a digital photo. 


Dave (1:40): ‘Cause you’re talking about, kind of, the confluence of like people involved with technology and people involved with art here, that’s kind of what you’re involved with. I guess, what do you call it, digital art? What exactly is digital art, for everyone who is not totally, uh, familiar?


Mark (1:55): I define digital art as, like, the way that the artist or the creative has a relationship to the technology they’re using, right? So that can be anything from like virtual reality, augmented reality – even just like photo collaging. Like, the way that painters are creating light or the way that photographers are like capturing light. I think for a digital artist, it’s like the way that you’re playing with pixels. ‘Cause like, there are some visual artists who, like, even go out and will take like pictures with like polaroids and then, like, scan but glitch scan them, right? That-I think that’s why the medium is so hard to, like, understand ‘cause it’s-like, it’s always changing and because it’s digital, like, technology is always changing and, like, what you can do with it, it-it just continues to expand. 


Dave (2:44): Especially when you say, like, the intention behind it is kind of crucial. You yourself are a digital artist – what do you focus on in your own work?


Mark (2:53):. I guess, like, the first art form that I really, really fell in love with deeply was rap music and just, like, hip-hop culture in general. I mean, when you have, like, a culture like hip-hop or even like punk, you know, like punk had like zines, hip-hop has like graffiti and breakdancing, like, and when you have these art forms that also have a culture around it, it’s like you have this whole idea around, like, almost like kind of these personas around like the artist and they way that is being presented. And for me, the idea of, like, internet art I think like-like adds that ‘cause it’s like you have the art itself and you have the means through which it’s being presented. But when you really take a step back and look at it, internet art and like the styles that have been created over like whatever, the last 5-10 years with internet art, that’s now what’s really influenced the style of art that is mostly being sold in cryptoart. I think we’re in a time where we’re, like, creating what it is. 


Dave (3:55): Yes, it’s exciting. You know, it’s constantly evolving at a much faster pace than any other art form just because the technology keeps shifting. When you say cryptoart, I hadn’t heard that term before. Is that essentially like people bidding on digital art?


Mark (4:09): It’s really similar to, like, trading a cryptocurrency. But, however, like, these are actually like pieces of art and I think what the big breakthrough that’s happened is now you have the opportunity to actually like trade the file. 


Dave (4:21): Ahh…


Mark (4:22): ‘Cause like once you upload that file onto a blockchain, now there’s data that says “this is the file, this is the person who uploaded it”. Now you have, like, actual proof that can’t be changed or, like, hacked or, like, manipulated in any way. And why a lot of digital and like 3D artists and internet artists are excited about it is because, like, you can actually, like, actually get out your art, um, for like the way it was intended.


Dave (4:48): It takes on like a physical imprint in the world or something because it’s secured in a blockchain. 


Mark (4:53): Exactly. 


Dave (4:54): That’s interesting. I have to think about kind of the implications of that. I think that could change kind of the art for a lot of things, especially in like music, there is so much more content that we’re being forced to create because that’s what the kind of marketing machine demands of artists now, online, but you’re not necessarily getting paid for all this content that you’re creating. But, I wonder if, you know, this is a way to kind of change that. Felt Zine. You founded this in 2011. So this is kind of like an experimental online platform and then also kind of like an artist collective?


Mark (5:31): Yeah, exactly. Exactly. All of those things. When we started, our idea was that we’re gonna be like an art and fashion magazine, um, but that we were just gonna do like really cool things on the internet. And, it’s interesting because, like, as we started to even like get set up, there was this, I guess like, art and music movement that was called vapor wave that really started to take off. And-and I think very quickie, like, I felt like oh whow, there is a movement here that’s happening. Someone needs to be capturing this. I felt like if-if someone who’s a part of this culture is not the one talking about it, then we’re just gonna wait for someone else to define us. And like, wh-why would we do that? We have the means to do it. Then we started doing gallery shows, we started doing events and so we would like work on art, we would premier people’s art, and I think that that’s the thing — is we kept our idea, um, very organic, you know, I think in a lot of ways, like, it’s interesting that I do so much work with like museums and galleries now, because, like, I really created a of this stuff thinking we might never be accepted by any gallery ever.


Dave (6:41): Hahaha…


Mark (6:42): I was like we’re gonna have to go make our own gallery. Like, museums are never gonna get this. I mean, the cool thing is like even at, um, the Museum of the African Diaspora, like, I can help elevate digital art, you know, like, that’s something that’s super important for me. I feel lucky that I was able to get in the doors that I’ve been able to get into. So like, I try to bring everybody else in with me too. 


Dave (7:05): ‘Cause you said, like, there’s such a big difference in the perceived legitimacy of the art form now compared to like, uh, when you started and I was curious about COVID… Has, you know, the fact that that everyone’s home all the time and like, you know, yearning for more art and content, has that kind of helped legitimize the perception of digital art and, like, Felt Zine?


Mark (7:25): Yeah. I mean, 100%. Like, I think COVID – to me, the biggest difference. Like, the fact that now people feel comfortable like opening up a link, and like seeing an exhibition, and like, walking around, you know, like, moving their mouse or moving their keyboard around a virtual space to look at art and that’s acceptable is like… I mean, it’s incredible. Even when I first moved to San Francisco, I would go to galleries and I’d be like “I can digitize this space for you”, and they would be like “I don’t see the purpose”. Like, why would we put it for free online when we can get people to come in and see it. You know, for me, in a lot of ways it-it really taught me to understand that, like, people are gonna be able to get things when-when they can. Like, you really do have to have, like, the patience with people. 

Dave (8:21): Haha, yeah!


Mark (8:21): Like, if you believe in something. The biggest thing is like, you know, people wanting to take the time now to say, like, “wow, like, this artist VR experience is something that, like, I’ll take time out of my day to experience, and this is just as powerful as a painting or-or a picture about the same subject.” I think that it’s really been like an audience and an institutional change that it-it’s just so much more acceptable now. Then they’re like, even when we open up, how do we still keep this audience tied to us? The idea that digital can work with the physical and that this all can be one experience and both, like, enhance each other… I feel, like, that’s like the dopest way we could use all of this, you know? 


Dave (9:14): I love that-that kind of vision of the future. For a long time, part of it – the issue is the technology couldn’t mesh as, kind of, seamlessly as it is now, with-with our everyday lives. But, I originally heard you, I guess, when you were a-a webinar with SF Travel talking about COVID’s impact and, kind of, what it would take the Museum of the African Diaspora to reopen. At the time I was kind of taken with that ‘cause it’s like, you know, you have to rethink not just the safety regulations, but literally how the audience – you’re-you’re people coming in – are gonna experience the art. So, how did that go? Because, that-that was back before you did this, so you did reopen it, right? How-how was that experience for the museum and-and-and for people who explored it?  


Mark (10:03): There are like some really practical things which were – which also, um, made it harder. Like, when you’re walking through a space, you do have to be very cautious of, like, people who, you know, like, might gather around one piece. And there’s just certain pieces that people are gonna gravitate towards. And so, breaking that up is interesting and it’s also, like, how do you do that and not mess up people’s gallery experiences. You-you wanna be a good host, but being a good host then means making sure that everyone feels comfortable. So, like, you’re dealing with some people who are more relaxed – and this is no judgement either way – you’re dealing with people who are like “I don’t care if I’m six inches away from people” and you’re asking them to move over, but then you also have to… there’s people who want to be 30 feet-


Dave (10:47): Right, right, right!


Mark (10:48): Away from another person. So like, you… and you have to make all of them feel comfortable. I think people have rediscovered why these spaces are important and the’ve-they’ve understood that, like, if-if we want these things, we also do have to fight for them. Before the pandemic, we just took all these things for granted. Like, of course restaurants are gonna be here, of course museums-


Dave (11:10): Right!


Mark (11:11): And live venues are gonna be open. Um, but now it’s like “oh, we could lose these things”. The things that we decide to keep and the things we decide to make a part of our-of our practice going forward are gonna be beneficial to the audience experience overall. And I think that, like, these cultural shifts that we’ll have are gonna have a really positive impact on, um, spaces that are dedicated to arts and culture. 


Dave (11:37): Mmm. Yeah, that-that’s great. I’m hoping for that (laughs). For the future, you know? When we do come out of the pandemic, like, what benefits do you see like sticking around? 


Mark (11:48): I think a lot of institutions that were… sort of, like, resting on their morals, I think they’re gonna have a lot of trouble moving forward. Even when I say arts and culture, like, I mean, like, the highest of like the high art museums to, like, clubs. And, like, bars. You know what I mean? I think that you’re really gonna have to be innovative now in ways that you are a part of your community. Now the relationship between audience and institutions is gonna have to be mutually beneficial. If-if you’re an institution that considers themselves, like, a gatekeeper and you keep that gate pretty shut, I think it’s gonna be really, really difficult to convince people to want to support you or to be a part of what you’re doing. ‘Cause, like, alright, if you wanna get me to come and see your film screening, you’re gonna have to really convince me to not just, like, chill with a couple of friends and, like, you know, do whatever, like projected off of a wall in a park or a parking lot. Like, now we can make our own experiences, we’re more empowered to do that than ever before, and I also think that the artist and the creators are gonna have to be centralized and they’re gonna have to be some of the biggest beneficiaries of these gains now. 


Dave (13:11): Absolutely.


Mark (13:11): Because there’s too many means to go direct to consumers. So I think, like, institutions now are just gonna – they’re just gonna be forced to be more inclusive and more equitable, and I think that transparency is becoming more important than ever before. It’s really difficult now to just say that you stand for something and not make actions that show that.


Dave (13:31): Right, right, right. (laughs)


Mark (13:31): ‘Cause like, if you’re gonna talk that talk, like, people are gonna pull up their receipts. And I think institutions are willing to hear that and learn from that, then what we’ll result in is actually, like, institutions that look like the communities that they’re benefitting from. 


Dave (13:49): Yeah. You know, this kind of reckoning that all the institutions across the board kind of faced starting in the summer of last year is pretty profound, you know? And like, I was kind of curious about – for the Museum of the African Diaspora – ‘cause I understand, you know, especially for very like Eurocentric organizations, which you know are most of the arts organizations unfortunately, or a lot of them, they definitely uh, we definitely need to, uh, take a lot of these ideas about equity into consideration. But, uh, like in terms of like the MOAD, is there a change in the way that the MOAD is treating itself or it’s perceived role because of black lives matter? Or, like, is it more like the work on other kind of more Eurocentric organizations?


Mark (14:31): I think the first thing is also the recognition that, like, no one is innocent and that, like, at the end of the day, we’re all a part of this system at some point and maybe it’s even making sure that, like, we’re representing like all sides of, like, even like all people of African descent. Like, are there places and like countries or people that are from where, like, we haven’t necessarily told their stories. The other side of it is how much-is how different the range of what people want from an institution like us can be. So like, on one end, there’s people who are, like, they want us to be, like-like, you know, out there in the streets with them as much as possible, they want us to be supporting their cause, then there’s another group of people who are probably like equal in size that are saying when I turn on the news, I gotta deal with that shit. In my regular life, I’m, you know, a person of African descent, I have to deal with all these issues. When I-when I experience your museum’s content, I wanna be able to be, like, shown something else, right? Like, I wanna see, like, the creativity, the art, the beauty, the love. And so, there’s people that actually, like, don’t want to be reminded of all of that other stuff, and I think that, you know, both feelings are legitimate. 


Dave (15:50): Right.


Mark (15:51): And so, like, how do we be there for, um, for that person and for all those feelings, and how do we be a, um, an example that-that there’s more, but that also we’re here for you, we support you, and we’re in this fight with you. 


Dave (16:10): Also, like, uh, Felt Magazine, and your art too, have you been influenced by like all these thoughts that-that are kind of like reflections from the black lives matter movement?


Mark (16:20): There are people who are in our space who I think, like, are really on the edge of a lot of things, like, really the darker sides of like the internet. The idea is more like, if you have connected with us and you feel you’re a part of this community, and you probably didn’t even know that they were like a black artist or a black creative, then maybe you should reflect on that. I’m also, like, lucky. Like, I’m not necessarily, like, impacted the same way that other people are. I-I’m not economically in a place where, like, I have to be, like, around, like, (laughs) cops every day, either (laughs). You know what I’m saying? Like, I’m just not, like, I’m not threatened in the same way, and I think- but like, that distance, it does give me the ability to have a little bit more patience. I don’t expect that from everybody else, but, it’s like if I could do this part – like, I understand these issues deeply. I know how to, like, articulate myself through them and I can be chill enough about it to have a conversation with someone.


Dave (17:21): That’s great. The internet really, kind of, bridges the gap, ‘cause you are reaching people that you could never reach through a physical institution like, uhh, the Museum of the African Diaspora, you know? So you get this whole new audience on there. Looking to where we were a year ago compared to now, I think everybody’s perspective and perception of the world is, like, so different now, you know? And uh, hopefully for the better (laughs), you know. I mean, the kind of conversations that we’re having, like, it needs to be had and I’m wondering, like, how could we use this whole ordeal to move forward into, like, a positive direction for the arts?


Mark (18:02): Well, in every way, change is inevitable and that, like, a big part of life is loss– a big part of life is struggle. The more that I can embrace that, almost like the-the healthier I feel mentally, right? Like, knowing that this is gonna happen, knowing that things are gonna be harder in some ways, and then accepting that and then saying okay, now, like, now what? Like, now what do I actually want to do, who I actually want to be. And I’ve also realized, like, especially in this pandemic, it’s way better to try than to fail when you have the opportunity to try, than to just keep waiting. That’s a positive feeling to understand that. Like, yo, time isn’t gonna wait for you. There’s been a lot of loss that’s happened in this city, like, even before COVID, right? Like, we were losing art institutions left and right, we were losing galleries… But, then I think, like, yo, there’s, like, there’s a lot of opportunity in this. A lot of people who were in San Francisco or in the Bay Area – there’s a lot of people who were there who didn’t want to be. Well guess what, like, now they’re leaving!


Dave (19:13): Yeah.


Mark (19:14): Hey, like, bye (laughs). 


Dave (19:15): (laughs)


Mark (19:15): And you know what? Now there’s more space, and so now it’s like what are we gonna do with that space? People who have dreamed about ever having a space, now you can also think about, like, can I do that, right? Like, can I open my own space? How can I contribute to spaces knowing that there’s probably more opportunity than ever. Hopefully (laughs) we can get a lot of things happening here that left-


Dave (19:21): Absolutely.


Mark (19:21): Um, ‘cause the truth is like, the city needs us again. Now we have the opportunity to really bring culture back. Um, and I think for that to be the story that defines the Bay Area post-pandemic, in a lot of ways, it’s what fits the Bay Area the most. 


Dave (20:00): Cool, man. Well, that’s-that should just about do it. That-great talking with you. 


Mark (20:04): Yeah, same. Same here. 


Outro (20:10): Well, I’m inspired. Especially on that last piece. People who stayed – you know, the ones who really stuck around the Bay Area during these tough times – are the ones who love and are really invested in the community here. Let’s hope there really is the kind of change that Mark is talking about. Yeah, we’ve all been through this craziness for the past year and let’s hope at the end of the tunnel there really is some sort of creative, cultural renaissance. Let’s fill those empty buildings with art, folks! Well, I’d like to extend thanks out to our little Audium podcast team. We’ve got Nate Tedesco doing all the editing and sound design, Odin Rosado on final transcriptions, and Emma Scully handling storyboarding. Thanks again to Mark Sabb for his time and insights, and also a big thank you to Dev Moore, Chris H.K., and Jawn Diego for allowing us to use their music in today’s episode. You can find links to Mark and all these folks in the show notes. Until next time, stay safe and keep glitching…