Afrofuturist Software: From Conception to Manifestation

Sanford Biggers. “Lotus,” 2011.

Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic and philosophy that melds the African Diaspora with science and technology. Some look at this evolving production like the Marvel universe, where stories that seem peripheral stories in one context often have their own moment in the sun. Others exist in the speculative (design) realm. Academics such as Michael Dando and Isabel Correa see it as as critical constructionist design. I was thinking about space-time portals (i.e., cosmograms) as third spaces.

Early “Animator” CSDT using art by Saya Woolfalk.

In 2013, I contributed to the on-going development of educational software
known as Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDTs) that are based on the idea that many cultural designs — native beadwork, urban graffiti, and cornrow hairstyles, for example — include math and computation in their creation. These ideas are often too “embedded” to see directly, so, through pattern simulation, the embedded ideas are brought to the surface.

The Animator approach makes use of cultural variation as a kind of “scaffolding” in which users gain increasing knowledge and skill with the software, moving from culturally specific applications to broader use. With each “step,” the user is given more and more freedom.

Libby Rodriguez’s RPI Masters thesis hypothesized that CSDT users would be more at ease with mathematics and computation they learned, and
more likely to continue to incorporate culturally creative materials rather than simply replicating video games and other commercial media. I know this was the case for me because after working with Libby, Ron Eglash and Audrey Bennett I started thinking about math and computation in funk music.

From top left: Sanford Biggers. “Lotus”; Xenobia Bailey. “Re-Possessed: Fiber Work”; Will Wilson. “eyeDazzler”; CSDTs by Ron Eglash/RPI and Libby Rodriquez.

So let’s take a quick walk through the process of developing Afrofuturist software, starting with jazz pioneer Sun Ra and the “Disco 3000” cover art that features a logarithmic spiral (space portal), transporting listeners to Outer Space: a spiral for which the radius grows exponentially with the angle. The black and white shapes are self-similar spiral curves (also see fractals).

Sun Ra & The Myth Science Arkestra. “Disco 3000,” 1978.

Now, with the Sun Ra cover art in mind take a look at artist Xenobia Bailey’s crochet artwork. “Static Station” has the same self-similar spiral curves; the same logarithmic spirals. These designs convey waveform patterns in music. Thus, there is a close relationship between math and, as we will see, computation in the art. The cultural references are embedded in the art.

Xenobia Bailey. “Static Station,” 2003.
My visit with Xenobia Bailey in her studio in 2013.

As part of a suite Afrofuturism CSDTs, the RPI developers created a CSDT that simulates the patterns of Xenobia’s work. Why is this important? Well, according to Libby R., the software makes use of “cultural variation as a kind of scaffolding in which users gain increasing knowledge and skill.” By simulating the logarithmic spirals and fractal-based curves in the artwork, users can see that they have ownership over math and computational concepts. This can help underrepresented ethnic users (especially) develop self-concept or the belief that they, too, can do math and computer science.

“Mandala” CSDT simulation inspired by Xenobia Bailey’s artwork.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how these concepts connect to emerging fields such as data science, specifically sonification (of data) and music visualization. I’m now experimenting with several tools and devices to create new ways to make art and teach STEAM using algorithmically-generated cultural designs. More on this work soon…

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