Aria Dean:
Eulogy for a Black Mass (2017)


Acquired Aug 2022

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Poor Meme, Rich Meme

"Memes have something black about them," the artist Aria Dean proposes in her video essay Eulogy for A Black Mass, 2017. "That something is complicated, and hard to make recognizable. It has to do with a lot of black people making memes, caressing them, carrying them, spreading them to and fro." As she speaks, videos from YouTube, Vine, and Instagram cycle on screen: a man dances to a piano rendition of “Heart and Soul,” a young boy confesses his love, a crowd in Nigeria erupts in joy to Migos’s "Bad and Bougie."

In Eulogy, Dean meditates on the way that memes, both in their content and their circulation, mirror aspects of Black life. We can see it in the use of Black vernacular speech (“bruh,” “lit,” “fam,” etc) but also in the way memes survive and mutate across platforms. Blackness, as Dean sees it, is ever-present, yet willfully forgotten; it is endlessly creative, yet its creators repeatedly devalued, suppressed. She connects this dynamic to the way we have become inured to the juxtaposition of Black death and Black joy online, as documentation of police violence rubs shoulders with these memes.

Ultimately, she wonders if we can learn from the way memes circulate, if they can lead us towards a future less driven by race and identity: "The meme moves so quickly and unpredictably as to establish a state(lessness?)"—Dean writes in ‘Poor Meme, Rich Meme,’ a 2016 text that precedes this video—"a lack of fixity that might be able to confront our simultaneous desire for visibility and awareness of the violence it brings."

Eulogy serves as a conversation starter on the relationship between digital culture, race, and identity. It is a key early work in Dean’s artistic practice (a video that she made while she was still serving as the Editor and Curator of Rhizome, the net art incubator) and is foundational to understanding the way her work continues to engage with popular media, theory, and image culture today.

"Black people love social media, and social media loves black people."
Aria Dean


Introducing Aria Dean

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Aria Dean is a New York-based artist, curator, and writer. Her videos, essays, installations and sculptures challenge the representational systems of race, power, and form. Born in 1993 and raised in Los Angeles by parents working in the entertainment industry, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Oberlin College. Following graduation, she returned to Los Angeles to take a position as a social media strategist for the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2016, Dean was appointed curator of net art and digital culture for Rhizome, where she worked to preserve, present, and reperform internet native art from the 1980s to the present day.

Dean describes herself as "someone who is all too easily incensed by the art world’s bad-faith political discourse." Taking digital representational systems, particularly those of Blackness, as her starting point, Dean deconstructs traditional histories and explores the potential for other political and technological realities to provoke and challenge our preconceived notions. As she asked at the MMK Frankfurt, "Do we have an adequate politic of looking and being looked at?" Exploring this politic, it is through minimalism that her art finds its most fertile expression; "insofar as minimalism evades the representational sphere almost entirely," she writes, "pure play of forms and volumes and densities—it’s like having an amusement park all to myself, with the lights out." Engaging with an array of theoretical orientations—structuralism, poststructuralism, minimalism and Afropessimism ­—Dean has created an ambitious, but urgent, artistic project, working within and adjacent to the representational systems she challenges.

"The driving question that I’m still constantly asking," she says, "is what are the things that make up our reality, and how does perception and an objective sense of the world collide? Film and art are places where that’s constantly being negotiated."

Dean’s first solo exhibition, "Baby is a Cool Machine," opened at American Medium in 2017. Since then, she has had five additional solo exhibitions and many group exhibitions, all at prominent artistic galleries and institutions. Aside from her writings and public-speaking engagements, she has also presented performance works at Swiss Institute (New York) and Centre d’Art Contemporain (Geneva). Her work is in the collection of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Her writing has appeared in publications including Artforum, Art in America, e-flux, The New Inquiry, X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Spike Quarterly, Kaleidoscope Magazine, Texte zur Kunst, CURA Magazine, and November.


Second Skin

Images walk among us. Over the last 30 years it has become increasingly clear that our real and online worlds are deeply porous in both dangerous and creative ways. How does the online world warp, exacerbate, and cloak offline power relations?

Our digital world is made up of memes, TikToks, and video games, but also AI bots, police cams and live streams: creative expression and deadly surveillance rub shoulders with one another. Contemporary artists have sought to address this condition in many different ways. Some make fantasy worlds in the space between the mechanical and the sensual, others present searing diagnoses of reality, still others make YouTube shows, interactive videos, and personal diaries. Together, they speak to the way that images press themselves into reality, taking on lives of their own.

On August 8, 2022, Arkive launched an acquisition round titled "Second Skin", engaging in dialogue, discussion, and debate on these topics. Eulogy for a Black Mass was considered alongside other contemporary works from the current moment that address the relationship between labor and identity in a reality where the digital world increasingly affects the real world, and vice versa.

After a series of votes, the community selected Aria Dean’s Eulogy for a Black Mass as the fourth acquisition into the collection. Core team members then worked with Dean’s gallery to acquire the video work. Eulogy for a Black Mass will go on display globally via an Arkive traveling exhibition in late 2022. Following that, the work will enter into long term residency at a prominent public location, as selected by the Arkive membership.

About the acquisition

Select Voting Member Comments

"This one feels simple to me: if we're building ‘The Last Museum’, then having a work that portrays the intersection of meme culture (which has existed since the written word was developed) and Black culture (which has existed since the construction of Black as a race) seems like it has more long-term cultural weight behind it."
"Eulogy for a Black Mass is the epitome of mediated cultural participation. When individual memes which represent micro-level mediated engagement are aggregated, they have an macro effect on a societal level. Aria Dean's work highlights how memes can expand discursive opportunities by potentially transforming antagonism into constructive agonism. In the wake of #BLM, this appears especially poignant as participatory culture melds into grassroots action."
"Aria Dean's work for me captures a critical period in cultural history wherein our obsession with the soundbite, the GIF, the Meme, opens us up to the subconscious manipulation of our perceptions and thereby shapes a new more syncopated actual reality. It calls out how the desire for the quick, the easy, the laughable moments reinforces this shallow idea of who we are and who is the other. In 100 years, it will still speak to an inflection point in our cultural identity and whatever comes next will be partially defined by either the agency or the complacency we adopt."


Additional Materials

We encourage you to read further into Aria Dean, her works, and her career. To kickstart the process, please find a few selected readings and interviews. As always, this is just the start. Apply to Arkive to continue the conversation with the community.

Learn more