Interviews

An Afrofeminist Project Uses Technology to Empower Marginalized Communities

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism engages Black womanhood and technological possibility, rejecting the marginalization of people of color in the scientific realm.

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (all images courtesy of Hyphen-Labs)

Hyphen-Labs uses virtual reality, art, sociopolitics, and science to build futuristic landscapes and products that utilize technology for the benefit of marginalized communities. Their mission, grounded in intersectional representation, is actualized with projects that fuse public technology, creativity, and social need. Their intention is centering humans, specifically women of color, in technological advancements.

Their 2017 project NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF), is an engaged means of reigning Black women into the rapidly growing field of virtual reality (VR). Born in the wake of the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two Black men gunned down in the summer of 2016 by police officers, NSAF was cultivated out of a pressing need by its collaborators to interrogate social stratospheres and experiences within the technological universe.

NSAF comes in four parts: VR, physical installation, cognitive-impact research, and speculative products (present in the VR itself and actualized in the physical realm). Each of NSAF’s facets is rooted in solving real-world issues faced by women of color through artistic, scientific, and analytical advancements.

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism

As a participant, you find yourself in a beauty salon (or neurocosmetology lab), and to start your journey you are fitted with Octavia electrodes (aptly named for science fiction legend Octavia Butler, a Black woman herself). You exist as a badass, Afro-puff-adorned avatar in a world where the bias against Black women has been annihilated by a feminist community and technological advancements. You interact with products designed with real-world strife in mind, including earrings fit to record police interactions, a visor that reflects microaggressions back at the assailant, and a scarf that scrambles facial recognition technology’s ability to register the wearer’s actual face.

The universe of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism was manufactured by creative directors Carmen Aguilar y Wedge (Hyphen-Lab’s co-founder, structural engineer and artist), Ece Tankal (Hyphen-Lab’s co-founder, designer, and new media artist), and Ashley Baccus-Clark (Hyphen-Lab’s director of research, molecular and cellular biologist, and multidisciplinary artist). Drawing from their lived realities as women of color, and addressing a lack of representation in the scientific field, they constructed the multi-part experience, centering Black women in VR. I spoke with the public technologists about their motivations in an interview below.

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Jasmine Weber: How did the idea for Hyphen-Labs come about?

Hyphen-Labs: Hyphen-Labs is a design studio and think tank started in 2014 as a platform where we could create and connect with other women across the world. Within our respective industries, we saw the lack of female representation from creators to leaders. Carmen and Ece met in a masters program that was full of individuals from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds and we were encouraged to explore and create outside of our comfort zones. Ashley, a writer, and researcher brought a new perspective to our work and joined our team in 2016 when we began collaborating on NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism.

Weber: What would it have meant to you, as a young woman of color, to see yourself and/or other WoC represented in mainstream technology and/or media?

Poster for NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism

H-L: Before Hyphen-Labs, we were all working in fields that lacked gender and cultural diversity: architecture, engineering, and science. We saw very few women who looked like us in our respective fields and also across media. There is a quote by Marian Wright Edelman that we came across very early in our practice that says, “You can be what you can’t see.” This rang so true for us because we didn’t have access to all of the ways we could exist in the world. We were dreaming from a place that often wasn’t reflected in images we saw in mainstream media. We knew that there was more we could be and we had a responsibility to create the type of content we wish we had access to when we were younger.

Weber: How long have you been interested in public technology and virtual reality?

H-L: Public interest technology is something we really started exploring in 2016. Since then, we’ve challenged ourselves to create work and take on projects that get our audience to think critically about issues going on in the world. We want to drive change through our practice and empower others to do the same. For us, virtual reality can be an expansion of the space we inhabit. Playing with the restraints of time, space, and embodiment in virtual environments is appealing because we’re not limited by the same laws of physics that we are in reality. We’re a team of architects, scientists, and engineers using VR as a platform to test our hypothesis about technology, world-building, and the evolution of minds.

Weber: Can you tell me what you intended to speak to with the name “Hyphen-Labs”?

H-L: The Hyphen in our name defines who we are. We’re a global collective using our broad experiences and cultural perspectives to make meaningful work. The work we create reflects the very intersections of identity, ideas, and experiences that our name implies.

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism

Weber: Can you explain the concept behind and the process of participating in NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism?

H-L: NSAF is a transmedia project in which we use various platforms to explore themes of black womanhood, technology, security, protection, and visibility. We’re looking at speculative object design, virtual reality, and scientific research as spaces where there is an underrepresentation of women of color, particularly black women. There are many entry points to the story. The NSAF experience starts in a real hair salon installation that we build at each festival, once participants arrive for their appointments, we invite them to put the headset on. Upon entering VR, participants are transported to the NeuroCosmetology Lab, a futuristic hair salon located somewhere deep in the multiverse.

Weber: How can people experience NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism?

H-L: Currently, The full installation of NSAF — including the speculative objects and virtual reality — is exhibited at the Paul Robeson Gallery at Rutgers University until December 20, 2018. Additionally, we just launched the Oculus Rift and mobile experience on the Oculus store so anyone who has access to an Oculus Rift, Oculus Go or Gear will be able to download the experience.

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism

Weber: Were you inspired by any specific artists, computer scientists, writers, etc. while producing the project?

H-L: Many different creators inspired us while we were producing NSAF; Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Ella Baker, Missy Elliot, Solange, Blood Orange, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, and Björk in addition to other artists we follow on social media — to name a few. This project was about creating a piece of work from a self-directed curriculum of studying the histories and contributions of Black Women (and creators) across many different fields. We wanted to make something that empowered us to continue to do the work to bring visibility to the digital landscape.

Weber: How did you come to work with the Ford Foundation?

H-L: We were invited to participate in the Emerging Media Summit by the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative. Also, we contributed to Kamal Sinclair’s Making a New Reality Series which was supported by the Ford Foundation. (Carmen from Hyphen-Labs was an interviewee in Kamal Sinclair “Making a New Reality.”)

The Ford Foundation supports institutions and individuals using imaginative methods to advance “civil rights, education, arts and culture, human rights, poverty reduction and urban development.” Learn more about Hyphen-Labs’ efforts with the foundation below:

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