Coded Narratives & Sanfoka Science: New Participatory Design Methods

Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez. "Coded Narration (Demotion)," 2013. © All rights reserved by artistic bokeh.

Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez. “Coded Narratives (Demotion),” 2013. © All rights reserved by artistic bokeh.

I first saw Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez perform Digital Anthropophagy at ISEA2011/Istanbul, for the panel Cyborgs and Transhumans. I was there to present my paper Urban Metaphysics: Creating Game Layers on Top of the World. Later, I included Vanessa’s Coded Narratives project in my blog entry, Polyculturalist Visions Revisited, for Art21.

Polyculturalist artists use their work to project or augment aspects of their awareness that may intentionally undermine the illusory or fantasy aspects of their narratives, encouraging more critical views of their work. The projected self seeks to become a primary identity, demanding to be acknowledged and included. Awareness of immersion in the sociocultural realm has led postmodern artists to create work that either invites themselves, or their audiences to reflexively examine their own position in relation to the artwork in physical or virtual space and in the artwork’s institutional context.

Earlier this month Coded Narratives was part of the program at transmediale 2013. In this performance Ramos-Velasquez is the artistic agent who formulates a socially interactive environment where the audience is invited as users of a system to generate an event that the audience/users experience and critique as it unfolds. A tablet PC is passed from person to person for the submission of text lines that are transcoded into Morse code binary tone immediately feeding into the sound apparatus of the musician, A Guy Called Gerald, uses the tone as a layer of music composition.

This is techno-vernacular creativity as performance art.

Ruha Benjamin. "Sankofa Science (presentation)," 2013. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Ruha Benjamin. “Sankofa Science (presentation),” 2013. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

This idea of a community as active participants of a project is also the driver for Dr. Ruha Benjamin’s People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Yesterday I attended Benjamin’s lecture at Georgia Tech.

Benjamin argues that without more deliberate consideration about how scientific initiatives can and should reflect a wider array of social concerns, stem cell research— from African Americans’ struggle with sickle cell treatment to the recruitment of women as tissue donors—still risks excluding many. Even as regenerative medicine is described as a participatory science for the people, Benjamin asks us to consider if “the people” ultimately reflects our democratic ideals.

This is techno-vernacular creativity as STEM cell research.

Dr. Ruha Benjamin with middle school students from Kilombo Academic Cultural Institute in Lithonia, GA. Courtesy of Dr. Benjamin.

Dr. Ruha Benjamin with middle school students from Kilombo Academic Cultural Institute in Lithonia, GA. Courtesy of Dr. Benjamin.

Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez at Emergandsee Media Arts Festival, Berlin, 6.2011. Courtesy Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez.

Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez at Emergandsee Media Arts Festival, Berlin, 2011. Courtesy Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez.

People’s science or participatory science is about ways of seeing such as using metaphors that serve as rhetorical devices to help us address scientific problems. Coded Narratives is a participatory art form intrinsically linked to corresponding sound, generated live via text input from the audience using digital media—the tablet PC—as narrative tool and conduit of art. Ramos-Velasquez and Benjamin both explore notions of the vernacular by drawing art (performance), science, or technology into participatory design methodology. Both use new-old metaphors as tools to produce their work. Dr. Benjamin turns to multiple histories or narratives to fuel the imagination of future cell research. In her talk she provided STEM cell research vignettes to demonstrate how looking through the prism of Sankofa, the Asante Adinkra symbol of a a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, can help us address pressing issues in underrepresented minority communities.

Note: Participatory design methodology attempts to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. researchers, artists, scholars, audience members, users) in the design process in order to help ensure the project designed meets their needs and is usable. To this I add projects that not only involve all stakeholders but also multiple histories and artists who take everyday life and culture as subjects. Vernacular refers to the quality of being “indigenous” or “native,” thus, when I hear people’s science or coded narratives I am also thinking of vernacular.

  1. STEAM Workshop Ideas Pt. 2 | SL Art HUD Blog Thingie:

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