Black History: Black Algorithms?

Kuba women decorating woven cloth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, photographed in 1970. In the past, women were the main creators of the legendary Kuba textiles. Eliot Elisofon/Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art.

February 1 is the start of Black History Month, so I decided to post about heritage algorithms, a term coined by Professor Audrey Bennett (2016). Bennett notes that some cultural artifacts can re-circulate as a form of computational agency. For example, Congolese women who create Kuba textile designs incorporate spontaneity and improvisation in their work to achieve uniqueness and individuality, part of their African aesthetics (Rajagopalan et al.).

Sherry Byrd, , 1989, gift of the 2019 Collectors Committee, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Kuba cloth’s complexity derives from semi-symmetry that is achieved by the juxtaposition of distinct geometric motifs and by controlled variations in texture, scale, shape, orientation, and/or color. These motifs are similar to Ghanaian Kente and other African textile designs. You can also find these motifs in African American quilts. The knowledge and practice crossed the Middle Passage where it became codified and passed down through generations. What makes these designs computational is that they use a generative (shape) grammar that, in effect, formalizes algorithms that generate strings in a particular language.

Ghanaian Kente cloth
Effie Jackson, , early 1940s, gift of the 2019 Collectors Committee, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

In computer programming, a string is a sequence of characters, either as a literal constant or as some kind of variable. The latter may allow its elements to be mutated and the length changed. Algorithms generate or drive these sequences. I’m fascinated by the idea that an algorithm used for creating textile designs can survive African enslavement in the Americas, then re-appear in quilts and other cultural artifacts.

This algorithm is also used to create music, as evidenced by James Brown (and others) who pioneered funk and hip-hop/rap. James Sneed wrote about it in a 1981 essay titled “On Repetition in Black Culture.” Snead says that human culture evolves and things from the past emerge in the future as either improved or retrogress. What is interesting to me is how, in computer science, the generative grammar used to create the textiles and musical sequences are linked to artificial intelligence, specifically neural nets and machine learning. I use the latter to create art such as this piece:

Nettrice Gaskins, Fair Fighter, Digital algorithm painting generated by Deep Dream AI, 2020, Courtesy of the artist.

At the heart of these examples is creativity and innovation. For the rest of Black History Month I will be further exploring the notion of the black algorithm or what I often refer to as the ‘algorhythm’ in emerging technologies such as machine learning. Machine learning algorithms are able to improve without being explicitly programmed. In other words, they are able to find patterns in the data and apply those patterns to new challenges in the future.

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