The latest in a series of interviews with artists who make work that responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Ryan Kuo: Let's rewind to 2017. You are presenting your digital work Sandy Speaks at Eyebeam, to a crowd of artists, technologists, and everyone that crosses that intersection. Sandy Speaks is an AI chat platform that “speaks” as Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was arrested at a traffic stop in 2015 and died in her jail cell soon afterward. Someone in the Eyebeam crowd asks you to share the design principles behind your Sandy Speaks user interface. His recourse to logical decision making, which presumes that everything exists for a reason, marks a retreat from a work about social death, on which the reasonable has no bearing. Sandy Speaks describes, as Frank B. Wilderson III writes in Afropessimism, “a situation that resists retelling, for the simple reason that narrative's causal principle, the ghost in the machine we call the causal logic (or ‘because principle’) of the story, is missing.” The work recites the facts of Sandra’s final days and of America’s prison industrial complex. It positions Sandra as a ghost in that machine, an AI that might somehow account for the reality of her death. How did you approach the writing of this complex persona?
American Artist: I think it’s important that Sandra Bland’s name is still spoken, despite the countless Black people who have been victims of police crime since then, the way we are presented with news of Black death with each news cycle is troubling. This work asks for a slower engagement, one that feels closer to mourning. Along the lines of Wilderson, I often cite Christina Sharpe and her concept of “the wake,” (or the social conditions that frame and inform Black diasporic life) as being of central importance. Sharpe describes “deathly repetition” as a conceptual frame for living in the aftermath of Atlantic chattel slavery. When death is always around you, because of poverty, lack of healthcare, police violence, you get used to it. Being in “the wake” means remaining with loved ones lost. I wanted to bring that feeling into a space of computation. I’m not interested in forgetting about Sandra Bland, even if remembering what happened to her makes me feel some type of way.
Many of the phrases used in the piece are Sandra’s own. Before she died she made several videos on social media where she spoke about many things, her daily life as well as social justice issues and what she envisioned as solutions to racial violence. I watched all of these videos and read many of her tweets, she was very active on twitter, to create a voice that reflected hers. She was optimistic and endearing, but also stood her ground. I think it’s important to distinguish that the bot is not meant as a proxy for her but rather as a dedication or a monument to what she spoke about actively. One of the questions I asked myself was “What would Sandra have said on social media if she hadn’t been entirely silenced in jail?”
RK: What's unsaid but apparent in Sandy Speaks is that Sandra is speaking from someplace beyond the logical frameworks of AI and user interfaces, where cause and effect hold no water. In what ways are the incongruities between a work's format and premise, its reality and ours, instrumental to you?
AA: I’m trying to do a bit of alchemy, or make more than what appears, become present. The art object is something to hold onto, but there’s an additional thing that goes on inside you when you encounter the work. Sometimes to create that feeling, or to arouse that concept, the thing in front of your face has to be mostly unfamiliar.
It’s interesting that you bring up causal relationships, because they are so central to computer programming. I often teach Wendy Chun’s essay On Software, Or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge which draws a connection between programming and ideology. Part of what she describes is the way computer users believe that when they click their cursor on a folder, the folder will open. There is a causal expectation that each time you do an action there will be a specific outcome. The pleasure attached to that expectation is what makes people invested in using digital devices. But there’s actually no reason for us to have such an expectation with our actions on a computer. She equates it to pure faith.
I think there is a similar thing that goes on in society and politics. Many people believe if you follow the law, if you pray to God, if you do things in a particular way you will live a good life. But I think what comes out of Afropessimism is this particular contradiction, it reveals that that is not the case, you can do all those things and still be killed just because you’re Black. And for that reason I think many Black people don’t subscribe to that logical reasoning that you described.
In the case of Sandy Speaks, which was built on a simple AI language called AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language), the bot had a hard time responding in an expected way, or portraying the unique character of a Black woman. It started from a default set of scripts, a chatbot named Rosie, presumably a digitized white female office assistant, created by the chat platform.
In the sculptural works I created afterward for Black Gooey Universe, I used materials like asphalt which is black and sticky, dirt, or broken screen glass, to convey a version of computer technology that is the opposite of everything we associate it with.
RK: We spoke together at Bitforms in 2018, and we titled our conversation Black Stroke, White Fill, which now regrettably only exists as a Facebook event post. At the time, we noted that our critiques of whiteness were "complementary" to each other. In retrospect, I feel this downplayed the ways that your approach is intrinsically a characterization of Blackness. The critique in Black Gooey Universe is a turning away from whiteness, or perhaps a turning down of its brightness and a turning up of its contrast against slowness, thickness, wetness, and darkness. As with Sandy Speaks, your sculptures and images use a very concrete element—here, the black color of the Command-line terminal, a power cable, or asphalt—to speculate on Black ontology and its unboundedness. Given your training in graphic design and critical theory, how do you relate to the color black on the screen and in the gallery, and how does it continue to function as an element in your practice?
AA: I think there’s some validity in our earlier observation because our critiques are dialectical. I feel many of your works take the logic imposed by white office culture to its absurd conclusion. They ask, “What happens when that causal expectation doesn’t play out the way it’s supposed to, and this flawed system is all we have to work with?” You cited the myth of the model minority, which takes whiteness as a blueprint, that isn’t necessarily functional, and certainly isn’t universal, and tries to play it out. This feels important in comparison to what I was doing at the time. You were using the (computer) system, taking it to its logical extreme. I was undermining it in a different way, trying to flip it on its head, by speculating on what a Black space of computation would be.
I’ve accepted the black screen as a default now for everything I do on a computer screen. As Fannie Sosa said in A White Insitutiton’s Guide, “This visual association between whiteness and ‘infinite potential’ is ideological, because it makes us think of white as default, as the quantum field, the ‘everything-nothing,’ as the place of creation. The artist of color knows the quantum field is Black and femme.”
RK: You presented Looted, a part of the Whitney Museum's online Sunrise/Sunset series, amidst widespread protests against police brutality and carceral capitalism in 2020. During its 30 second duration, Looted visually "boards up" whitney.org, replacing every image of an artwork with a wooden plank texture, as well as blacking out the website's usual white background. I've struggled with the Sunrise/Sunset series, where the curatorial label (which is superimposed on Looted in stark white) assures the visitor that nothing wrong is happening and also foregrounds the institution. In a more technical sense, the Whitney's infrastructure enabled and now owns the digital boards and even the transformative blackness of the work, which resembles less a direct intervention than an ambiguous act of inhabiting the museum space. How did you formulate your own position against the Whitney's interest in presenting this work, especially at that time? Was it worth the collaboration?
AA: A lot of people ask me about this work because they have a hard time reconciling how the museum was ok with publishing it. I think it’s important to consider it in real terms, it didn’t financially devastate the museum. The statement of the work is an indictment of museums, but the Whitney didn’t risk anything by producing it. This piece illustrated a frustration that almost everyone was feeling, even people working there, towards abuses of institutional power, while wanting to see a dramatic shift take place. I think of this piece as one brief moment in a continual struggle for institutional accountability and abolition that I’m interested in. So I’m not concerned with the efficacy of this individual work to “destroy” the museum. If anything, this piece lit a fire under people for a moment, and showed them what the removal of a museum collection would look like. Visualization is an important part of abolition. In this case that might mean repatriating historical objects, or de-privatizing the museum collection. I’m convinced most people who know about the work didn’t wake up at sunrise to see it anyway, so we can forget the museum. People were motivated by what the artwork proposed.
RK: You're often photographed next to pieces of hardware as though you have a knowing relationship with technology. This reflects a quality I appreciate about your work, which is that it doesn't lose you or the audience to technology. Your work signifies the technological while standing at a remove from technological processes, to say nothing of technological promises. Instead of being centered as the foundation or the critical object, technology enters the frame when you decide to turn your sights on it. In your past and present life, what interactions with or without technology have shaped your feelings about it?
AA: I’ve always had an interest in technology from when I was a kid that loved robots and was good at drawing. I think that’s where it began. I considered becoming a mechanical engineer but when I got to high school my math skills dried up, and I was left with an obsessive creative energy. Because I’m not involved with technology in a traditional way, like someone who works for Tesla or Google for example, I’m inclined to be completely analytical and critical of its implications. I look at the question of progress from an interdisciplinary standpoint. It makes me ask, “What would my ancestors think about what people in silicon valley are doing?” or “What did Black artists like Octavia E. Butler tell us about the future that we’re failing to heed in the moment?” These are not questions that would be useful from a capitalistic perspective, but maybe from a philosophical or ethical one. What I love about art is that it sits outside all of these realms, I kind of think of art as anything that isn’t anything else.
Age: I’m in my Jesus year.
Location: New York
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Myspace.com
What did you study at school or elsewhere?
I studied Graphic Design in undergrad and then got a Master’s degree in Fine Art.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I make art for a living and I educate for a living, those are the things that give me life. I worked as a graphic designer for many years.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)