Space as Algo-Rhythm: Situated & Embodied Interactions in Making

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readMay 20, 2023

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Nettrice Gaskins, “Sun Ra,” 2023. Created using Midjourney

In 1971 writer/critic Amiri Baraka envisioned more human-centered developments in technology. His essay “Technology & Ethos Vol. 2 Book of Life” inspired what became techno-vernacular creativity, a term I coined as a PhD candidate (and it’s the title of my first book). Baraka writes,

The so called fine artist realizes, those of us who have freed ourselves, that our creations need not emulate the white man’s, but it is time the engineers, architects, chemists, electronics craftsmen, ie film too, radio, sound, &c., that learning western technology must not be the end of our understanding of the particular discipline we’re involved in.

Sun Ra and Bill Sebastian with first OVC

Techno-vernacular creativity connects technical literacy, equity, and culture, encompassing creative innovations that are often overlooked. Take, for example, jazz maverick and proto-Afrofuturist Sun Ra who once collaborated with fellow musician and engineer Bill Sebastian to invent a “light color organ… with an array of sensors that you could ‘fingerpaint’ with, and lights on a structure overhead.” Peter Kirn likened the Outerspace Visual Communicator or OVC to Alexander Scriabin’s clavier à lumières, or “keyboard with lights” that was constructed in 1915, for the performance of Prometheus: Poem of Fire in New York City.

Alexander Scriabin’s clavier à lumières, circa 1915

Due to the size and complexity of the original OVC the Sun Ra Arkestra could not tour with it. The 1980 “Live at MassArt” performance was one of the only videos that was ever shot of the original OVC in performance (see above). It was released for public viewing 37 years later, along with another video of Sun Ra performing in a video kaleidoscope called the OVC-2D, a second version of the original machine. As Bill Sebastian noted,

This consisted of a pair of 6 foot long front surface mirrors with servo motors controlling the positions and angles of the mirrors, monitor, and camera... This 2D version was essentially the bridge between the original performance instrument and the OVC-3D which would be completed 30 years later.

I experienced the OVC-3D in person when I visited Bill’s studio in 2017, and later that year when we presented our work together at Flux Factory in Long Island City, NY. The 3D version consists of a computer-generated sound visualization that a person experiences by using a virtual reality (VR) headset. Much like Amiri Baraka described, all of the versions of the OVC are embodied and situated in humanistic Space-Age cultural production, i.e. Afrofuturism.

Next week in NYC invited participants will be able to experience the OVC-3D in celebration of Red Hot + Ra “Nuclear War”. The VR project is set to Irreversible Entanglements’ 18-minute track that is featured on the album.

So how does the OVC connect to making?

The Maker Movement was driven by the rise of maker culture, moving in tandem with the democratization of tools and technology and the sharing of tools & knowledge. However, not everyone was on board or included in maker culture, which initially targeted white males. Over time, more efforts were made to include other groups but projects such as the OVC have been overlooked… Afrofuturism was overlooked as a creative maker production that goes back decades.

In many ways RAMMELLZEE was the hip-hop equivalent of Sun Ra, minus the band. RAMM developed a philosophy, Gothic Futurism, and an artistic approach that he called Ikonoklast Panzerism. Both he and Sun Ra were featured in the Mark Dery essay “Black to the Future” that first coined Afrofuturism. Since then artists/performers such as Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) who is part of the DIY scene in Philly and often collaborates with projects such as Irreversible Entanglements and Black Quantum Futurism with Rasheedah Phillips.

[The] embodied perspective in itself is a shift towards recognising a plurality of (individual) bodily perspectives that appreciate the value of accommodating those differences rather than trying to reduce them to one single perspective… — Sophie Landwehr Sydow

So I’m putting it here now that VR and artificial intelligence are the next wave for Afrofuturism, or as Stephanie Dinkins calls it “AfroNOWism”. The work featured here connect with emerging research that explores situated and embodied interactions in making that deals with new technologies in combination with craft to create artifacts in physical, digital and hybrid forms. Afrofuturist practitioners have developed a maker mindset, which includes “material literacy” when taking artifacts apart, “machine sensibility”, which shows our interaction with machines: computers, electronics, 3D printers, laser cutters, and now VR and AI-driven systems.

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Nettrice Gaskins

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