Several months ago, I wrote a post about the mask as technology, but after reading Louis Chude-Sokei’s essay about PT Barnum and Joice Heth, I want to think further about saying that the mask is technology, specifically in reference to German producer Frank Farian and the groups Boney M and Milli Vanilli.
Most people know Milli Vanilli as the group that were eventually found out to be lip-synching when their music started skipping at the a live performance. But did you know that the producer behind the group Farian used similar actions with the Euro-Caribbean group Boney M in the ’70s? Whereas Farian hired other singers to record the songs for Milli Vanilli, Boney M began as Farian singing the vocals himself and then adding others later. The common feature between the two is that Farian did not think the actual singers were marketable and so used dancers to be the front for the singers, including himself. In a way, it was like electronic ventriloquism.
Boney M and Milli Vanilli’s story are kind of similar to PT Barnum’s use of Joice Heth and the turk machine is his early shows. Joice Heth’s body was seen, but Barnum controlled what she said and her story. He even called her a robot. The turk machine was a fake machine with a human inside controlling it. Boney M and Milli Vanilli basically treated as visual extensions of Farian’s musical production and sound recording technology. Chude-sokei wrote about PT Barnum as the beginning of media deception and the exploitation of a black face in order to produce that deception and hide from the brunt of the consequences. Think about it, at the end of the day who was majorly affected by the Milli Vanilli controversy — the two men who were seen (although you can make an argument about agency in the modern situations). To further expand on this, there is a whole history of white use of black, often exaggerated, visual and sonic representation (ex. minstrelsy) and the issues and discussions surrounding that history.
2 thoughts on “The My-Stery: Revisiting The Mask as Technology”
This is super interesting, and also makes me think of Cheryl Thompson’s work on Aunt Jemima. I saw Thompson’s paper at this conference http://chreculture.blogspot.com/search/label/Abstracts . The point that links for me is that Aunt Jemima was the first corporate logo associated with a product, but she was also a woman – a series of women, hired to perform this role, embodying the white supremacist fantasy of service through providing this other kind of performative service in which a Black woman’s body is still being used in the service of white capital, but for representational labor (although it was of course physical labor for the actresses as well).
My thoughts coming out of it were that this ventriloquism is also at the heart of advertising and thus modern capitalism and the further mystification of value.
Good Point! Thanks for bringing up Aunt Jemima, and by association, there is also Uncle Ben rice ads. It’s the continuation of our bodies used as products/capital for capitalist means from slavery to now.