When I first came across the twitter link for Tammy Brown's open access e-book Black Arts Live! I was extremely excited by both the form and content. As the recent review of the fabulous show Now Dig This! in the New York Times reveals, African American artists are often still subject to asinine criticism (disclaimer I was a Getty Scholar on another exhibition that was also part of Pacific Standard Time, which sponsored Now Dig This! as well). So when Fiona Barnett tweeted a request for a review of Black Arts Live! I jumped all over the opportunity to find out more about Tammy Brown's process and inspiration. We conducted a conversation in a shared google document, from which I excerpted the following review.
Black Arts Live! which includes multimedia sketches of eight, up-and-coming visual artists, poets, and musicians. Brown created the free ebook “to celebrate Black History Month and to acknowledge the fact that Black History is American History.” The project combines her nterests as a historian, visual artist, and creative writer with commitment to public education.
Michelle Moravec: I guess my first question is what led you to take the bold-to-many-people step of publishing open access?
Tammy Brown:I came to this project after years of organizing public programs pertaining to African-diasporic literary, visual, and performance art for university and museum audiences…
My longstanding interest in public programming has evolved over time to suit our current historical moment. For instance, as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and his re-election campaign in 2012, I was blown away by how Organizing for America used digital media to not only reach a broader, younger constituency but to turn that connection into actual votes. That campaign experience combined with ongoing conversations with publishers and editors about the growing popularity of eBooks inspired me to think of new ways to use digital media to create engaging, educational materials for my students and the broader public.
Michelle Moravec: How did you select the artists you focused on?
Tammy: For this first edition of Black Arts Live! I deliberately selected poets, musicians and visual artists who are at the start of their careers and producing quality work. I like the idea of sharing the artistic production of emergent artists with (virtual) audiences that might not normally have access to their work. Because the artist intellectual biographies are the centerpiece of this project, it’s fitting that my own intellectual biography factored into my selection of literary, visual, and performance artists included. For instance, mixed media artist Tayo Ogunbiyi was an undergraduate at Princeton University when I was a graduate student, and we met in a painting class. I was introduced to Terry Boddie’s work at an art exhibit in New York during the year I taught at Lehman College; I met poet L. Lamar Wilson at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow and Lamar is a graduate student in English. And so on. I also chose these artists because they represent a diversity of cultural experiences shaped by specific locales--from California to Morocco.
Michelle Moravec Since HASTAC is largely comprised of people with the common interest of doing digital work, it there anything you’d like to say about the digital aspect, the technical production, the epistemological transformations of presenting digital as opposed to linear text? I was impressed by the multiple media you incorporated into Black Arts Live! I think people who read HASTAC may be quite interested in the technical aspects of creating the book and if you had assistance/collaborators? I think the “production” aspects of digital work are sometimes daunting to people in the humanities.
Tammy: Yes, I like that question. But first, one confession--I am an unabashed Apple technology lover; so, I own a Mac desktop, laptop, iPhone, and iPod. Because Apple produces such useful software for creative projects, it’s my technological format of choice. I’ve used Adobe Photoshop, Garageband, iMovie, etc., for the past ten years to create multimedia educational projects and artwork; however, in the past five years my technological repertoire has evolved to include smartphone media--(I credit the purchase of my first iPhone in 2008 with piquing my interest in educational Apps and games).
When working on any digital media project—website, video, eBook, or smartphone App—I teach myself as much as possible by reading online articles and watching YouTube videos. Even if I decide to hire a software specialist for his/her expertise to save time, I still want to understand the technology because, for me, the process is just as important as the final product. The production of Black Arts Live! as an eBook and iPhone App followed this trajectory. After completing my “market research” on FREE Apps pertaining to African American Culture and History, I played around with App development programs, then I worked with software specialists and professional eBook designers to complete the project. As I continue to build my own technological skills, I’m welcoming the challenge of completing an App (and eBook, which is much easier) on my own.
Michelle Moravec: yes I think many of us are apple-philes thanks for explaining your process. Another thing I think people might be interested in is time frame/project management. Can you outline (roughly even) how long/what happened when/timeline? I think many people would be interested in how you managed to do the work while teaching (yes?) or were you on fellowship etc. At the recent women’s history in the digital world it seemed details about how were as valuable as the what and why. Also did you have any “productive failures” that you could talk about?
Tammy: This year I’m on research leave from Miami University of Ohio and in residence at The University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill on a writing fellowship—completing revisions of my manuscript City of Islands: West Indian Immigrants in New York. Because the manuscript writing process is so intense, I like to vary my daily writing assignments to prevent burnout. For me, collaboration with other artists that yield interactive, educational, (& dare I say, entertaining?!) work is a win-win endeavor because the artists’ work is presented to a broader audience and the eBooks/ Apps are fun for me to produce. While steadily working on manuscript revisions throughout the course of this academic year, I enjoyed the counterbalance of completing an eBook and iPhone App on a much shorter timeline.
I initially thought Black Arts Live! would be a more conventional, hard copy book, then after several helpful conversations with professors and editors at Duke University and UNC Press, I conceived of it as an ongoing website curation. I had a great conversation with leading digital humanities scholar Mark Anthony Neal that piqued my interest in the eBook format. Then, after months of researching educational iPhone Apps and playing around with literacy games on PC tablets and smartphones, I decided to create an iPhone App. From start to finish, the process took five months. I e-mailed artists of interest in September 2012, and their overwhelmingly positive responses buoyed me. Participants sent me artist statements, video interviews, and samples of their work by mid-January 2013.
Then I opened a Developer’s account with Apple, worked with software developers, and submitted my App for approval at the start of February. The approval process took longer than I expected (two weeks instead of five days) because the App crashed during the first round of testing. Because I wanted to release the App for Black History Month, and February 2013 was quickly drawing to an end, I decided to convert Black Arts Live! into an eBook (which was completed in a record three days!) in order to release the product within the month of February. You may download the FREE eBook on my website at the following url: http://tammylbrown.com/black-arts-live-ebook-new-release-5/. While I worked on the eBook, my software developers fixed the glitches in the App’s programming, I resubmitted the App, and Apple approved it within a week after the eBook release. So, the App appeared in the iTunes store before the end of February; the App is also FREE, and you may download it at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/black-arts-live!/id601741466?mt=8.