Virtual Emancipation: Living the Algorhythms & Envisioning the Future

Emancipation is the fact or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation. When I was 17-ish I left Louisville, KY for New York City to enroll in Computer Graphics at Pratt Institute. For me, the experience felt like liberation. While at Pratt, I embedded historical artifacts in multimedia applications, learned how to code and created 3D models. The computer was part of my freedom.

Somewhere along the way I learned about Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — which had become official January 1, 1863.

For several decades, economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities. Classroom and textbook education in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices stifled the interest of the youth due to less emphasis and detail on the lives of former slaves. Today, Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.

Ten years ago, IBM sponsored my exhibition Alternate Futures: Afrofuturist Multiverses & Beyond, an interactive, immersive 3D art experience primarily concerned with Afrofuturism. I imagined virtual 3D avatars teleporting back through time in an airship to the American South in the 1800s. At the end of the journey, visitors (as avatars) watched Lalee’s Kin (2006), which is about the legacy of cotton in the Mississippi Delta. This was a virtual 3D Juneteenth celebration.

Today, I celebrated with participants of A.I. Assembly via Zoom. A.I. Assembly, conceived by Stephanie Dinkins, is made up of a group of artists, researchers and academic of color and allies working in and around artificial intelligence. One project that came out of this group was “black beyond” and I was commissioned to create art for The Forge, as part of compilation of articles exploring the rise and fall of racial capitalism. This includes a time-based illustration demonstrating the sonification of unemployment data.

Sonification is the practice of mapping aspects of the data to produce sound signals. This time-based illustration demonstrates the sonification of unemployment data for each state. Software was used to turn the data into sounds and music. Additional software was used to create an animation that responds to the music. Today, I used data on fatal police shootings in the US from 2015–2017. The Washington Post has been compiling a database of every fatal shooting in the US by a police officer in the line of duty. Over 80% of the fatalities are black. Here is the result:

Here, I reflect on a trajectory — from Computer Graphics to Second Life and sonification— involving technology that has, for me, been a liberator. We can imagine the future, simulate the possibilities and, eventually, design/code things within systems that impact or change things in real life.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

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