A.I. Ethos & the Afro Now/Futurism

“Skylark” (2017) by Zak Ové

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

In 2017, I was in “We Have Always Lived in the Future,” a group show at Flux Factory in Long Island City that was described in Art in America as a “multivalent investigation of how bodies collide with technology.” At the time I was exploring algorithms and Afrofuturism, sound-generated virtual reality and fabrication (sculpture). My inspiration was Sun Ra and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Princess Steel” a science-fiction story about a black sociologist who created a “Megascope” machine to see across time and space.

“Megascope” (2014) by Stacey Robinson

In Du Bois’ story, visitors look into the historical “Pit of Pittsburg” to see an allegorical origin-story of steelmaking that frames steel production within a narrative that critiques historical colonization and primitive accumulation — the transformation of feudal production into capitalism (see Slate). The Flux show also included works by LaJuné McMillian and Stephanie Dinkins. Dinkins met “intelligent” robot Bina48 and presented information about the conversations they shared together that explored race, identity, and agency.

In the same year as the Flux show, Stephanie started hosting meetings at NEW INC, a New York based art and tech incubator at the New Museum. AI.Assembly has continued at Data & Society Research Institute as a series of intimate, exploratory encounters. The gatherings make space for “lateral-minded practice and thought around intelligent systems where we can think about what AI needs from us and what we want from it.”

“What does AI need from you?”

Recently, Stephanie invited me to join, especially to seed and cross-pollinate broad-based contributions to ethics, equity, transparency, and innovation in machine learning and techno-cultures. Around the same time, two new books by Ruha Benjamin (Captivating Technology & Race After Technology) had dropped. The former being more of a collection of essays that includes one by me (“Techno-Vernacular Creativity & Innovation”).

We put so much investment in being saved by these objects we create, by these technologies. But our real resource is ourselves. — Ruha Benjamin

Ruha argues that digital technologies recreate the same kind of racial hierarchies and segregation we’ve witnessed in our daily lives. Stephanie notes that ever increasing computational power, combined with almost limitless data, has led to a turning point in the abilities of artificial forms of intelligence. AI.Assembly centers the concerns and needs of those who (historically) are often excluded from mainstream discourse. Last week’s event took place at The Ford Foundation (day 1) and Google Code Next (day 2). I was one of 25+ black and brown artists, designers, scholars, engineers, coders and professors who came together to explore this subject.

Day 1: participant interviews
Day 2: ideation and strategizing
Group photo

On Day 1 we (participants) started by saying our names, pronouns and our relationship to A.I. For the rest of the day we paired up and interviewed each other, then each pair presented to the entire group. I interviewed and was interviewed by Stephanie Dinkins. I asked her to talk about “Not the Only One,” a multigenerational memoir of a black American family told from the mind of an artificial intelligence of evolving intellect. Stephanie asked me to talk about the “techno-vernacular.”

“Not The Only One, V1. Beta 2” (2017) by Stephanie Dinkins.

On Day 2 we were tasked with brainstorming issues around A.I., then breaking into small groups to explore the issues such as “language/vernacular/lexicon/linguistics”, “ancestral intelligence” and the “global black experience (Afrofuturism)”, among others. We attempted to braid or weave together ideas from each group.

Vernelle Noel’s Bailey-Derek Grammar

I shared what I knew about “shape grammars” that includes the development of a shape grammar by Vernelle Noel that records the dying, undocumented craft of wire-bending in the Trinidad Carnival. This craft is important for the building and continuation of cultural heritage and identity. Others explored this with Kuba textiles, which have been linked to African American quilt making. Shape or “platform” grammars are a possible bridge between heritage/vernacular, computation (algorithms) and machine learning (A.I.). One of the three offerings we discussed was distributed de-centralized ways of passing on escape patterns such as quilt making (i.e. “freedom quilts”). Linking Ai.I. to improvisation and automation was also explored.

Amiri Baraka + Deep Dream by Nettrice Gaskins

Think of yourself, Black creator, freed of european restraint which first means the restraint of self determined mind development. Think what would be the results of the unfettered blood inventor-creator with the resources of a nation behind him. To imagine–to think–to construct–to energize!!! — Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka’s 1971 essay “Technology & Ethos” came to my mind as we came to the end. Baraka wrote that artists, engineers, architects, chemists, electronics craftsmen, and so on must not let learning western technology be the end of their understanding of their particular disciplines. AI:Assembly challenged us to reframe our understanding of artificial intelligence and imagine something new. The event was a beginning and it’s a work in progress, not only for the future but also for NOW.

“Nubian Returned” (2011) by Zak Ové

Exploring the plains of Africa and the Caribbean before colonialism and trying to imagine how that landscape might look, hundreds of years in the future is something that I am very interested in. — Zak Ové

The current exhibition at The Ford Foundation includes work by Astro-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové’s “Nubian Returned” that explores the idea of bringing past and future together in the present. Ové is invested in carnival characters as super heroes or space/time travelers. Carnival bridges Ové’s work and Vernelle Noel’s shape grammar, revealing how we might design culturally sustaining algorithms (rules)and a generation engine that selects and processes these algorithms. This is a new beginning and a continuation.




Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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