Techno-Vernacular Creativity: Hackerspaces & Afrofuturism

My techno-vernacular Wordle.

My techno-vernacular Wordle.

Techno-vernacular creativity and innovation is a phrase/term I use to describe the myriad forms of cultural art and technology created by ethnic groups who are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. USC Annenberg Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Stokes asked me for examples that connect afrofuturism to hacking or technology design.  I figure why not make a blog? First I’ll start with artists/artworks included in my essay for UCLA’s Mediascape (RAMMELLZEE and Futura):


RAMMELLZEE (b. 1960, d. 2010) was an artist and theorist who lived for twenty years in a Tribeca studio loft nicknamed the “Battle Station.” Battle Station is a part of what the artist called gothic futurism, an urban art manifesto, cultural aesthetic, and socio-historical genre that embeds history, science, science fiction, mathematics, and technology. As a proto-hackerspace the Battle Station contained customized instruments and systems the artist called “letter racers,” “monster models,” and “garbage gods” – objects designed to access the “telememory” and “virtualisation” of the urban environment.” Here, the artist merged graffiti, hip-hop, linguistics and science fiction into a new category of art. The processes of collection, organizing, rearranging, recontextualization and reapplication of everyday objects is part of a broader creative practice.

RAMMELLZEE. "Battle Station," 2011. Musuem of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.

RAMMELLZEE. “Battle Station,” 2011. Musuem of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.

Rammellzee. "Letter Racers A through F."

Rammellzee. “Letter Racers A through F.”

Futura (formerly Futura 2000)

Futura was one of the first to translate “Wild Style” graffiti to other forms of art as a synthetic purification and intensification of certain ideas and visual elements.  In the nineties he gravitated to the World Wide Web to create an archive of original work and to communicate with users on multi-dimensional levels.  Futura’s latest medium is electronic LEGO sculpture, or what the artist refers to as a “pneumatic actuation system” merging “air pressure, battery operation: new school, battery operation: old school … and the newest technology: NXT.”

Futura's studio (Legos). Courtesy of 13thWitness, 2010.

Futura’s studio (Legos). Courtesy of 13thWitness, 2010.

The following artists/artworks are more directly associated with afrofuturism (Mark Dery includes RAMMELLZEE in his essay but the artist rejected afrofuturism in his gothic futurism manifesto):

Bobb Muchiri & Studio Ang (Kenya)

Kichwateli (Swahili for TV-head) is a short poetic film set in a post-apocalyptic African slum and city which takes the viewer on a spiritual and metaphorical voyage through a young boy’s dream. The film mixes new imagery of a young boy (actor Carlton Namai) walking around with a live TV as his head, with stunning visual effects to show the effects of media on a young generation or the society at large. Inspired by afrofuturism, the film has re-sounding theme of the ‘Sankofa‘ spirit from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana meaning ‘we must return to the past in order to move forward’.

Fatimah Tuggar

Fatimah Tuggar (b. 1967) is a Nigerian-born artist who creates alluring digital photomontages that juxtapose scenes from African and American daily life. Her works comment on potentially sensitive themes such as ethnicity, technology and post-colonial culture, although the artist chooses not to extend a didactic message, but rather to elucidate cultural nuances that go beyond obvious cross-cultural comparison.

Fatimah Tuggar. "Working Woman," 1997. Courtesy of BintaZarah Studios.

Fatimah Tuggar. “Working Woman,” 1997. Courtesy of BintaZarah Studios.

Fatimah Tuggar. "Money & Matter: Expense & Exploration (#9)," 2002.

Fatimah Tuggar. “Money & Matter: Expense & Exploration (#9),” 2002.

Saya Woolfalk

Saya Woolfalk (born 1979, Gifu City, Japan) is an American artist known for her multimedia exploration of hybridity, science, race, and sex. According to Nicole Caruth, Woolfalk works across media, combining painting, performance, sculpture, and video to “playfully re-imagine the representational systems that hierarchically shape our lives.” Her works are characterized by plush multicolored costumes and toy-like forms, and a coloring book aesthetic marked by fruit punctuated landscapes, sharp-toothed creatures and a palette pink aplenty. But taking her inspiration from ethnographic, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory, Woolfalks’ worlds of whimsy are for your more sophisticated inner child.

Saya Woolfalk. "Math simulation tool with set and costume," 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Saya Woolfalk. “Math simulation tool with set and costume,” 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Jacolby Satterwhite

Jacolby Satterwhite employs dance, performance, drawing, video and photos from public and private archives, combining these forms into new possibilities for generating narrative. He also experiments with 3D modeling programs and game platforms like Microsoft Kinect.

Jacolby Satterwhite. “Country Ball 1989 – 2012 video still,” 2012.

Sun Ra & The Shadows Took Shape (exhibition)

The Shadows Took Shape at the Studio Museum in Harlem looks at contemporary art from across the African Diaspora, through the lens of afrofuturism. The exhibition draws its title from an obscure Sun Ra poem and a posthumously released series of recordings. Providing an apt metaphor for the long shadow cast by Sun Ra and others, the exhibition will feature more than sixty works of art, including ten new commissions, charting the evolution of Afrofuturist tendencies by an international selection of established and emerging practitioners. These works span not only personal themes of identity and self-determination in the African-American community, but also persistent concerns of techno-culture, geographies, utopias and dystopias, as well as universal preoccupations with time and space.

Sun Ra in rehearsal October, 1971 Oakland, CA. Photo from; Cyrus Kabiru's C-Stunner.

Sun Ra in rehearsal October, 1971 Oakland, CA. Photo from; Cyrus Kabiru’s C-Stunner.

Some of the artists and artworks listed here pre-date hackerspaces that became common in the 1990s. For example, RAMMELLZEE produced a huge body of work in the late 1980s. Sun Ra tinkered with electronic instruments in the 1970s and 80s. Other innovations not necessarily linked to afrofuturism but important to note include:

Afrika Bambaataa created turntablism as its own sub-genre and the ratification of electronica that developed due to advancements in music technology, especially electronic musical instruments, synthesizers, music sequencers, drum machines, and digital audio workstations. Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash pioneered the use of drum machines and synthesizers in the early 1980s, and the hip hop genre shared with other forms of electronic music an emphasis on sampling. Bambaataa, with Soul Sonic Force, wrote Planet Rock that inspired many afrofuturistic works.

"Planet Rock," a 1982 song by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force helped change the foundations of hip-hop and dance music.

“Planet Rock,” a 1982 song by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force helped change the foundations of hip-hop and dance music.

El Anatsui is known for his interest in African art and use of materials that he finds locally — like the whiskey bottle caps that he uses for his tapestries — and he puts it down to his upbringing which was cut off from traditional Ghanian culture. According to Lianne Turner (CNN), Anatsui started using materials from his local environment, recyclables like the bottle caps. “A lot of people call them waste, but to me they are not waste …There are people who collect these things, smash them and make them into utensils like big cooking pots,” he said.

El Anatsui. "Gli (Wall) (detail)," 2010. Aluminum and copper wire, installation at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

El Anatsui. “Gli (Wall) (detail),” 2010. Aluminum and copper wire, installation at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Kodjo Afate Gnikou, a resourceful inventor from Togo in West Africa, has made a $100 3D printer which he constructed from parts he scrounged from broken scanners, computers, printers and other e-waste. The fully functional DIY printer cost a fraction of those currently on the market, and saves environmentally damaging waste from reaching landfill sites.

Kodjo Afate Gnikou and his 3D printer. Courtesy

Kodjo Afate Gnikou and his 3D printer. Courtesy

Kelvin Doe, age 16, signed a $100,000 contract with Canadian firm Sierra WiFi to research, design, test and develop his own solar-panel technology, to be installed at 400 3G network sites around Sierra Leone. Not only is he leading the project, but the company is building him his own research lab. According to Brian Finke (Wired UK), Doe was using only scrap components found in the garbage dumps in his hometown. He has been inventing things since he was 11. By the age of 13 Doe was a fully self-taught electrical engineer, inventing a metal, soda and alkali battery that his neighbors use to light their homes reliably. At 14, he was playing local parties under the name DJ Focus, using mixers, amplifiers and microphones he built himself. “I believe if you focus, you can do an invention perfectly,” he says. Soon he’d rigged up his own antenna, running a radio station out of his house and earning enough to pay for staff — average age, 12. Here is Kelvin Doe’s TED talk:

I think there is a close connection between the experimentation (improvisation, reappropriation) of Sun Ra (father of afrofuturism), Grandmaster Flash who used scientific methods to invent the cross-fader that DJs around the world use, to African artists like El Anatsui who are inventing new production methods to help their communities. Yinka Shonibare M.B.E. created A Flying Machine for Every Man, Woman and Child and Other Astonishing Works that features an idyllic family riding human-powered flying machines modeled after 19th century drawings, alluding to the  continual freedom sought by immigrants and tourists alike.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE. "Alien Man on Flying Machine," 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE. “Alien Man on Flying Machine,” 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney.

Last year, I recorded rap pioneer and co-founder of Public Enemy, Hank Shocklee who joined the NAMAC 2012 hackerspace for an impromptu jam session. The circuit-bending group is Beatrix Jar: One of the things I observed was how engaged Hank was and how he was able to use what he had mastered in professional music production to create sounds with new objects. This was when I considered that there might be a link between Afro-traditional arts and crafts, hip-hop and afrofuturism.

Hank Shockee in the NAMAC 2012 Hacker Space.

Hank Shockee in the NAMAC 2012 Hacker Space.

Reading List

The Afro-Futurist Exoskeleton: Rammellzee and Iconoclast Panzerism by Meghan Trainor

Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity by Rayvon Fouché

Urban Metaphysics: Creating Game Layers on Top of the World by Nettrice R. Gaskins

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha Womack

Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life by Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu

Sanford Biggers’ Conundrum: The Mothership Lands at Mass MoCA

Exhibitions: Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui via Brooklyn Museum

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