Sundance 2021: Immersive Natures, Legacies & Codes

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readFeb 1, 2021


Gerald Donald

Right now I’m listening to a panel of Black women talk about the “power of story” and speculative fiction. The panel is one of several talks and events for Sundance Festival 2021. At the top of the festival last week I had, once again, followed Drexciya down a rabbit hole, through Gerald Donald who isn’t with Sundance but speaks to the spirit of the moment.

One has to be careful when bifurcating fact from fiction because the fiction is a projection of what may one day become fact. The only reason it is fiction is because certain technologies have not come to pass and matured. That is, critical understandings of nature remain open.

For many people, especially in the U.S., there is a real tension between what is fact and what is fiction. There is also something emergent about technology that sits underneath or drives conflict. For Black people and other historically excluded groups there has been a compulsion to use technology (science, etc.) to create alternatives to dominant narratives and world-views.

Akinola Davies’ “Lizard”, production still (2021).

Akinola Davies’ “Lizard” is a short film that stood out for me. The short tells the story of an eight-year-old girl, who gets ejected from Sunday school service for her unusual ability to sense danger. “4 Feet High” tells the story of Juana (Marisol Agostina Irigoyen), a high school student who uses a wheelchair and, while looking to find herself, gets enmeshed with a group of fellow students protesting the country’s lack of sexual education in schools.

Stephanie Dinkins’ “Secret Garden: Our Stories Are Algorithms,” production still (2021).

“Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler” is inspired by the ideas of Octavia Butler, voyaging into the interstitium: “a liminal space, a cultural memory, containing the remnants of our ancestors, a place of refuge, a place of re-centering, a portal into an alternate dimension.” Stephanie Dinkins’ “Secret Garden: Our Stories Are Algorithms” consists of interactive audio vignettes that generate a multi-generational narrative that collapses past, present, and future. Both of these projects are part of New Frontier and showcased in a custom-built digital platform.

Stephanie Dinkins’ “Secret Garden.”

Connecting Gerald Donald to this work through speculative fiction is one thread but there is also a link to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics). For Donald, science and nature is a reoccurring theme and plays a central conceptual role in the music — from theoretical physics to computer science. During a talk with Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) and Sanford Biggers I posted a question about Sanford’s use of sacred geometry and he talked about codes. You can hear his response at the 44:25 mark:

There was a great discussion about the construction, dissemination and deployment of the grand narrative of the United States, and the critical role of independent media in its retelling. At the end the panelists, including Ruha Benjamin, are asked to speculate on the future based on where we are now. Ruha wrote the Afterward for my upcoming book.

I also enjoyed the premiere of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” The film covers the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka “The Black Woodstock,” which emerged from the ashes of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, as well as the Civil Rights movement, and was created to celebrate Black music, culture and politics, and to promote Black pride and unity.

“Summer” exemplifies “black eraser” because it took 50 years for someone to find the footage and create a movie from it. Another talk with Questlove and “Judas and the Black Messiah” director Shaka King revealed their struggles of getting studio approval. “Judas” will be on HBO Max next month. I watched a talk with Sophia Nahli Allison (lead artist for “Traveling the Interstitium”), Jewelle Gomez (author), Wanuri Kahui (filmmaker) and production designer Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther”).

Overall, the fully virtual festival was/is a success (I went to Park City in 2013).



Nettrice Gaskins

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