It is the far future, and humanity has transcended its bodily limitations. By visiting a neurocosmetology lab — which looks quite a lot like a beauty salon — you can be fitted with a set of Octavia Electrodes — a form of trans-cranial stimulation that allows access to a digital multiverse, but looks quite a lot like a set of braid extensions. This is the world of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, an art installation and virtual reality experience that appeared at this week’s Sundance Film Festival.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, developed by studio Hyphen-Labs, is composed of two parts. The first is a series of inventions meant to address modern-day problems for women of color — from the potentially dangerous, like surveillance and harassment, to the mundane, like sunblock that won’t blend with dark skin. HyperFace Camouflage, developed with privacy-focused artist Adam Harvey, tricks facial detection systems by printing “false faces” to distract computer vision algorithms. Artist Michelle Cortese helped create a pair of chunky earrings with audio and video recording capabilities, in order to record police misconduct or other altercations. And AB Screenwear worked on a visor that, when worn, reflects unfriendly faces back at themselves.
The second piece introduces an in-development piece of VR speculative fiction, with a cast of characters that includes a transhuman “techno-Africana” expert who crafts prosthetics for her own body, an androgynous and always-connected neurocosmetologist-in-training, and a futuristic venture capitalist based on African-American entrepreneur Tristan Walker. At Sundance, people can sit in a spinning salon chair and put on an Oculus Rift headset, which puts them in the body of a customer about to have Octavia Electrodes installed. From there, they’ll go through a surreal experience that the creators describe as a kind of temple.
As science fiction fans may have guessed, the Octavia Electrodes are named after Octavia Butler, author of groundbreaking novels like Kindred and Parable of the Sower. The piece in general is meant to nod toward people the team admires, particularly women of color — neurocosmetology lab owner Brooks, for example, is named after black poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
While most of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism’s characters don’t appear in the VR experience at Sundance, character cards hang from the walls. Their futuristic occupations suggesting a world in which art, science, and technology are indistinguishable, mirroring the creators’ own lives. NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism director and Hyphen-Labs co-founder Carmen Aguilar y Wedge has a structural engineering background, and writer and designer Ashley Baccus-Clark is also a molecular biologist. Ece Tankal, a Hyphen-Labs co-founder and the piece’s creative director, is an architect; so is Nitzan Bartov, who led the VR experience development.
At a time when people are buying 1984 en masse to understand the political climate, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism presents a future that seems ultimately hopeful, and where women and people of color are part of a social and technological vanguard. At Sundance, I spoke to two of its creators about how it started, how to use technology for social good, and what role art will serve in the world to come.
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Could you tell me a little more about the inception of this project, and its VR component?
Ashley Baccus-Clark: Carmen and I were living together in New York. This has been a really politically and emotionally draining time for us, and we decided to implement these self-care weekends. We wanted to go to Storm King, which is a sculpture garden in upstate New York. It was a really hot day, and I put some sunblock on, and it just colored my whole face white. It's really frustrating, because so often it's the case where either people of color have to modify products to fit them, or they can't use them at all.
We looked at that and said okay, this has to end, and we have the means to think through these problems as a product designer would. If we were to come at this problem as something to be solved rather than to continue complaining about, this is how we would do it.
How did you decide on the roster of products you made?
Carmen Aguilar y Wedge: They all tell a story. So it was all about security, protection, and visibility of black women's bodies, women of color's bodies. What are the issues we face during our daily lives, what is the technology that is available to us, and what kind of alternatives can we offer to ensure security, and to ensure visibility and protection?
Baccus-Clark: There is a technology called trans-cranial direct stimulation, all of us want to use it, but it doesn't work with our hair, you know? We either have to modify our hair or cut it off, or just have to deal with this nasty goo that you put on with the electrodes. So we were like, if we were going to make something, how would we do it? We used braiding rituals and hair techniques as sort of an entry point, and our virtual reality tells the story of who we imagine to be the creator of these Octavia Electrodes.
What do you think is the ultimate purpose of this sort of design fiction? Is it to raise awareness; is it to inspire people to make these things?
Baccus-Clark: It's all of it. We have working prototypes, and we're working through how to produce and distribute them right now. But it's a means to tell this story to people who might not necessarily be technologically inclined or want to engage with these forms of new media or new technology, so that gives them an entry point.
Aguilar y Wedge: Also to look at product design from a human-centered design perspective, to create products with users' needs and experiences, instead of with a return on investment, at the forefront of production. So these are all really provocations, and we hope to inspire the product developers of the future, and the VR developers of the future, and the scientists to start incorporating women of color into the narrative of design.
VR right now is not particularly accessible. How do you get more people to be aware of this and experience it?
Baccus-Clark: We've been talking about that a lot. Our main goal is not only to bring this around to festivals or to galleries or museums but also to bring it into the communities that we want to most be impacted by this work, or bring them into the spaces where we are.
How do you actually see the future at this point? Does it match up with your expectations here?
Baccus-Clark: It's really hard to think about this question, just in terms of where we are politically, and in our current cultural climate. But I do think there are a lot of people who feel like they have agency to tell stories and see themselves in future narratives. Because so often when we read science fiction, things that project you into this future, we're left out of the story. And it's like, okay, where am I in this? And if I don't write it, I don't build it, I don't create it, then there's going to be an erasure of an entire history and mythology in these emerging spaces.
Aguilar y Wedge: And also, this was a very timely piece because as we've seen, there are freezes already, changes in the political climate that are not good. So we needed to do this piece now, because we don't know what's going to happen in the future, and if we're — how we're going to be silenced.
Baccus-Clark: We really honed in on the empowerment of this, because it isn't a story that has a sort of dystopian nod to doomsday. It's about okay, we're here, and we're in a very sort of scary time — but we also have the ability to make the things that we want to, and this is a blank slate.
What do you think is the role of art and storytelling now and for the next few years?
Baccus-Clark: It's an important role, because it humanizes people's experiences. People are calling virtual reality the quote unquote empathy machine, which I don't subscribe to. But what I think it does do nicely is, it gives your audience a world to inhabit, and you have their undivided attention for a few minutes. If you are able to hit them at a visceral level, then they can connect with your story, and hopefully through increased exposure expand their minds to be inclusive of the people that they see around them.
Empathy is something that came up in games a lot, and now game developers have a very fraught relationship with it. I'm curious what you think empathy's role in VR is.
Baccus-Clark: I think why gamers have come to have this fraught relationship with the term is that it sort of creates a distance between the person viewing the work and the person who has created the work, or the group that is being represented in that work. It sort of makes it seem like the audience is at a higher level and has to feel a sense of sympathy towards the story that's being told, and that's not what this is at all. This isn't about empathy, this is about engagement.
It felt like the thing I tried was part of a larger experience; are you still expanding this?
Baccus-Clark: Yes, this was chapter one.
Aguilar y Wedge: This is our beta version, so we're trying to see what the response is and what people like. The biggest response is that it's too short, and that they want more of that. People really need to be told that they have everything inside of them in order to be the person that they want to be, and to see their own reality acknowledged. I think that this kind of content is really going to be important for our society and for our culture. In our experience we're acknowledging you as the participant, and I think that resonates with me — and hopefully that resonates with other people, too.