TechnoShamanism with Ayodamola Okunseinde
By Sofia Fortunato, contributor
Sofia Fortunato: Your project involves a combination of two disciplines - art and technology. Can you tell us why you decided to combine them, and how do you blend them in your art practice?
Ayodamola Okunseinde: Though my work is situated at the intersection of art and technology, I primarily consider myself a storyteller. The use of technology or design in my work is purely for the furtherance of expressing narratives, often speculative, predominantly about people of the African Diaspora.
I use processes from my fine arts experience (i.e. painting, filmmaking) as well as traditional design processes such as iteration and prototyping in my work. In addition to these I am always interested in incorporating participatory design and speculative design in the works I create. I am currently enrolled in the cultural anthropology masters program at The New School for Social Research and as a result I have begun to utilize anthropological methods and processes in my works as well.
As for notions of technology, I hold a broad definition of what this consists of. Reading glasses are a technology - so are pencils, scarfs, political systems, agricultural knowledge, and basically any artifice of humanity. To this end oracles, divination, and shamanic practices fall, for me, within the domain of technology. As a result I combine "T" technology (that of electricity and silicone origins) with "t" technology (that of social and cultural origins) in my work. The resulting combination is at times described as technoshamanism, magical, and perhaps slightly strange. The strangeness helps created stickiness with the audience, causing them to take a second look and engage in ways they may not have without such a perspective.
My work is mainly done collaboratively with other artists and local communities, as I find "collaborative practice" a particular way of knowing and making that yields more considered works. Additionally because of the ongoing nature and community engagement aspect of my art, working with a team allows for a broader audience interaction, particularly when it comes to the project related workshops we conduct.
I consider project workshops, public engagement, design processes, technological inquiry, and my fine arts processes all as modes of creative research that produce questions and knowledge that I inject back into the work I produce.
For example in my "Unit 1" series, I envisioned an African science team from an alternate dimension living amongst us. As part of my process I went around the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn interviewing interesting individuals about their notions of the future. I took photos and then graphically superimposed elements of their narrative world. The resulting artifacts, altered photos and audio interviews, was then treated as evidence of the existence of this infamous team, "Unit 1."
SF: Environmental scientists create mathematic models and use computers to predict future scenarios (e.g climate change). What does the process of creating versions of the future look like for you when making your projects?
AO: It is not only the future that I want to model or predict with my works. Yes, my works are about an interface with the future, but they are also interfaces with the past. Additionally, I consider my work interfaces with not only temporal dimensions, but also geographic and spiritual dimensions. I see them as portals to these various dimensions. By traveling through these portals to alternate dimensions, I can find problems and solve them, I then travel back and present my solutions as a critique on contemporary conditions.
This process of temporal and dimensional displacement speaks to the speculative aspect of my work. Additionally it is a manifestation of embracing alternate cosmologies that challenge contemporary Western epistemologies. I regularly rely on my Yoruba heritage to see these alternate cosmologies and epistemologies as creative research and sources of inspiration.
When done successfully the works imbued with this particular viewpoint and my current studies in cultural anthropology problematizes our ways of knowing and being. One such example is Incantation, a project that challenges the power dynamics of lingua francas such as English.
Participants are grouped and asked to represent pictorially, via painting, a communal notion that is inexpressible in the lingua franca. The glyphs (akin to Nigerian Uli or Haitian Veve designs) are analyzed and normalized via a machine learning algorithm. The resulting data is then transmitted to a haptic body suit which relays the communal glyphs tactilely onto the body. This process bypasses the need to translate the inexpressible into a language froth with colonial or imperial remnants.
Furthermore, Incantation critiques AI and machine learning algorithms as languages of exclusion, challenging us to reconsider the ontologies and predictive power of such systems.
SF: Some of your projects seem to emerge out of the realm of science fiction - is that the case? Who or what influences your projects?
AO: A lot of my work is science-fiction related, I guess because of my interest in science, technology, and the speculative. I have many influences, may of them Afrofuturist in nature. Pionniers such as Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and W. E. B. Du Bois inspire a lot of my work.
One of my works, Iyapo Repository, is an example of work inspired by Octavia Butler's "Xenogenesis" series. Iyapo Repository, a collaboration with Salome Asega, is a resource library that houses a collection of digital and physical artifacts created to affirm and project the future of people of African descent. The collection is managed and developed through a series of participatory workshops where participants become archivists of a future history they envision. Participants sketch out and rapid prototype future artifacts in domains of food, music, politics, fashion, etc. The repository then works to bring a select few of these artifacts to life so that they are completely technologically functioning objects that stay true to the participants’ original blueprints. Alongside the art and artifacts collection, Iyapo Repository also hosts manuscripts, films, and rare books, and more. Art Hack Practice: Critical Intersections of Art, Innovation and the Maker Movement elaborates further on the genesis and process of Iyapo Repository.
Two notable works produced from the Iyapo Repository are Artifact_012 and Artifact_025.
Artifact_012 is a sensory suit that simulates the feeling of being underwater. This suit pumps water from the Atlantic Ocean over the wearer and alleviates the cultural trauma of crossing large bodies of water.
Artifact_025, AKA Khemo, contains a GPS unit that connects to a database of police involved shootings of Black bodies. When a wearer is within the geolocation specified Khemo lights up, in effect providing a space for contemplation and memorialization of the deceased.
Another work inspired by my interest in science fiction, a la Parliament-Funkadelic and The Brother from Another Planet, The Rift: An Afronaut’s Journey is an Afrofuturist scifi time-space travel narrative and performance that follows the expeditions of Dr. Tanimowo, an Afronaut from the future. Dr. Tanimowo travels back in time collecting archeo-biological artifacts in hopes of finding the reasons for the collapse of his culture. In so doing he generates a vision of the future where people of the African Diaspora are represented. Bystanders encountering the Afronaut are thus forced to reconsider their notions of representation with regards to future African Diasporic peoples and culture.
SF: Your art involves interaction with people - not only with other artists and scientists but also with the public. Can you tell us about this aspect of your work, and how it has evolved your art practice?
AO: I regularly inform my students that if they make a masterpiece in their studio and do not share it with anyone, it cannot be truly considered art. Art is a cultural artifact, as a result it must interact with society to gain it's value. The art object, as Arjun Appadurai would contend, has a social life that necessitates a relationship with societal forces. For these reasons I make my works publicly encounterable. I view my works as not just aesthetic objects, but objects that require touching, encountering, smelling etc. to generate knowledge and influence the affective states of my audience.
The different spaces my works are encountered, whether in a museum, science conference, the public sphere, or academic settings teach me different things about my subjects. I regularly pull from each space to impart understanding in another. This multi-spatial, multidisciplinary approach evolved from the fact that the language of one discipline, or space of encounter is insufficient to render the full impact of a creative idea. Thus, I find that I try to represent the same creative idea via different mediums and in different interaction spaces.
An example of my multi-spatial and multidisciplinary approach is The Temple of Taste and Remembrance by sacra collective, a performance collaboration with artist Teresa Braun. sacra performances often involve consumption as a means to sustain and/or transform; we are particularly interested in the notion of the consumable as a metaphor for memory. For example, a great meal is a visceral, intimate experience that eludes description. It emerges through a series of active, interconnected systems: planting, growing, hunting, harvesting. It is prepared... consumed... and gone within a matter of minutes. Though the acts of production and preparation can be documented and shared through manuals and recipes, the emotions and pleasures associated with consumption too often remain trapped within the individual. sacra seeks to record, archive, and release the fleeting moments that comprise the subjective experience of eating within The Temple of Taste and Remembrance.
SF: What message are you trying to convey to people through your work?
AO: My works are about learning and teaching, they are about generating space to recontextualize stayed notions of politics, race, culture, memory, and futurity. I hope that my works convey an appreciation for communal understanding, that is to say, an understanding that is generated bottom-up by communities, rather than furthering the notion of an autocratic or "sole genius" top-down hierarchy.
Additionally it is my hope that the works I produce engender a participatory spirit. By participating with my interlocutors I reject the traditional anthropological notion that the interaction with observed subjects diminishes the strength of the record. I consider participation and collaboration acts of solidarity with participant's issues, comparable to Johannes Fabian's call for "coevalness" as an anthropological act of temporal solidarity with interlocutors.
One such project that I believe conveys the notions of participation, education, learning, and collaboration is Artists Navigating Digital Borders, recently presented at Culturehub's New York City location. In collaboration with Yvette King, Christoffer Horlitz, and Ella Hillström, the project explores questions about the impact of digital borders on artists with panelists, participatory discussions, and workshop sessions. It garnered speculative and practical solutions to how to overcome these hurdles and developed a manifesto and new platforms for collaboration and created meaningful allyship.
Panelists include Shaka McGlotten (Artist and Professor of Media Studies, State University of New York), Bassem Saad (Artist and Writer, Beirut) and Carolyn Kirschner (Researcher, Architect and Designer, Parsons School of Design, New York).
Like Artists Navigating Digital Borders, SlimeTech Lab, a collaboration with Ashley Lewis, employs similar participatory and educational methods. SlimeTech Lab is a mobile living system that roams around New York. It experiences feelings akin to the diaspora as it navigates to unpack its own narrative. As a beacon for explorations of "Reclamation," it unfolds to teach spectators of the marvels of slime mold, revealing a workshop area, a slime incubation chamber and exhibition space.
Recently presented at Genspace and Culturehub NYC, SlimeTech Lab offers opportunities for researchers, artists, and educators to interact with non-human species, i.e. slime mold, to produce speculative narratives addressing pressing contemporary issues such as post-humanism, migration and displacement, borders and more.
SF: One of your most recent project, C.T.R.L. (Culture, Technology, Research, Language) sounds highly technological and advanced - can you tell us more about it?
AO: C.T.R.L. Alliance (Culture, Technology, Research, Language) is a research collective consisting of myself, Nikita Huggins and Nicole Lloyd that seeks to address bias in machine learning systems while creating tools and artworks that make machine learning environments more accessible. The collective not only produces and analyzes alternate machine learning datasets, but also creates related artworks that are meaningful and expressive. Some of the methodology implemented include identifying unique modes of communication internal to specific communities, analysis of language structures and syntax, the use of machine learning tools to attempt to pull meaning from text, and the creation of physically based works that promote diversity in the machine learning field. The collective aims also to teach machine learning tools and methods to underrepresented communities, develop related art & technology curricula, and to archive datasets and assets that may be utilized as research material.
Recently presented at The Library of Congress, the C.T.R.L. Alliance project Unbroken Meaning investigates the ability of current speech-to-text algorithms to understand African Diaspora-derived Creole, Pidgin, and Broken English. It seeks to demonstrate the bias of these algorithms while developing new algorithms that are better suited to recognize phrases and languages of these communities.
C.T.R.L. Alliance is currently working with a collection of 3,000 Nigerian films to create audio and video datasets for research. Additionally the alliance is working with University of Kansas's History of Black Writing History project to analyze and generate datasets from a corpus of writings by authors of color.
SF: One more question about the future - can you share with us any projects you have ongoing, such as the one you’re engaged with at Pratt’s STEAMplant residency?
AO: As part of Pratt's STEAMplant residency, in collaboration with Caitlin Cahill and Daniel Wright, Iyapo Repository is creating Contesting Space, a speculative lab and resource library focused on envisioning emancipatory urban futures. We are creating a series of interventions around the idea of reclaiming space and reimagining a more inclusive city for the next generation.
The project utilizes both participatory design practices and virtual reality technology. We are currently prototyping new technologies that allow for participants to create and control virtual assets and environments that elucidate the challenges of displacement and gentrification.
Also included in my ongoing work are more design anthropology related works. Osculator, an ongoing performance project with Teresa Braun utilizes ritual and a series of ceramic sculptures in an attempt to transform the affective state of disgust, induced by breathing in a strangers breath, into an act of desire.
As I continue with my anthropology studies I expect my work to be reflective of more design anthropology practices. I am excited to combine this discipline with my varied skillsets, and hope the works I continue to make are deepened by its inclusion.
1 Saad-Sulonen, Joanna, et al. “Unfolding Participation over Time: Temporal Lenses in Participatory Design.” CoDesign, vol. 14, no. 2, Dec. 2019, pp. 4–16. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/15710882.2018.1426773.
2 Dunne, Anthony. Raby,Fiona. Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. 2013.
3 I eschew the tern Afrofuturism as it tends to focus too heavily on the future and presuppose purely technological solutions. I prefer instead the term "Reclamation" as it suggests a "polytemporal" engagement that is not technofetishistic in nature. See Martine Syms for alternate proposal for Afrofuturism - Syms, Martine. “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto.” Rhizome, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/dec/17/mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/. Accessed 2 Feb. 2020.
4 See the short stories The Comet and Princess Steel by W. E. B. Du Bois
5 See the Xenogenesis series AKA Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler, particularly Dawn. Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York :Aspect/Warner Books, 2000.
6 “Art Hack Practice: Critical Intersections of Art, Innovation and the Maker Movement, 1st Edition (Paperback) - Routledge.” Routledge.com, Routledge, 8 Nov. 2019, www.routledge.com/Art-Hack-Practice-Critical-Intersections-of-Art-Innovation-and-the-Maker/Bradbury-OHara/p/book/9780815374916
7 Okunseinde, Ayodamola. The Rift: An Afronaut's Journey. 2015. Parsons The New School of Design, M.F.A. thesis.
8 Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things : Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York :Cambridge University Press, 1986.
9 Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. Columbia University Press, 2014.
10 See redefinition of the "human". Rees, Tobias. After Ethnos. Duke University Press, 2018.
11 ml5.js. “The Subtext of a Black Corpus.” Medium, 20 Apr. 2019, https://medium.com/ml5js/the-subtext-of-a-black-corpus-4440de02eb32
12 Ingold T.: Design Anthropology is not and cannot be ethnography. In Research network for design anthropology seminar (2014)