Category Archives: Science/Technology
Parliament – “Children of Production”
Recently, I read Therí A. Pickens‘ pieces about Kanye West’s “Monster” and it inspired my own thoughts on “Monster” from the view of Frankenstein, which led me to listen to songs from Parliament’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. I wondered how all of these strands of ideas fit together.
These stories reveal the fear that we as humans have not only of the other, but the fear of our own creations and further the fear of our own selves as creations. For creation, and by association knowledge and technology, is ambiguous in that it is both constructive and destructive to our lives. Creators can be seen as both heroes and rebels, both creators and creations. But its how we confront that which makes the difference.
The story of Frankenstein was originally called The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus in Greek mythology is known as a trickster god who is credited with creating humans and bringing them fire, the spark of life. As a trickster god, Prometheus deviated from the norm by rebelling against Zeus and through creation of a hybrid creature who is part god (breath, fire, knowledge or spirit of god) and part human (made from physical matter, clay or dirt of earth). In Biblical stories, both Adam and Jesus can be considered hybrid figures as well (Jesus as well can be considered technology or a technologist). Other trickster-creators include Isis (she put Osiris back together after Set dismembered him and created a hybrid child, Horus) and Anansi (is sometimes credited with creating sun, moon, stars and agricultural techniques).
A couple of weeks ago, I attended Movies at Bryant Park with my friend Jane, who I interviewed in another post. On the train, we had a short discussion about film, photography, memory and the spookiness of it. One of the ideas we discussed was the belief that photography steals your soul. My answers reminded Jane of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I still need to read. However, other works influence my thoughts as well, such as Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the film Dark Mirror, and the musical The Total Bent, which is partly about a singer who strives to make another record like the hit record he had at 11-years-old. I also read this “Photo Myth Study” article about the relationship between mirrors and photography and the religious beliefs behind the topic of photography “stealing souls.” These works provided a base for the thoughts I have been having about all types of recording technology. They all have their haunting elements to them. Basically there are ghosts in these machines.
“Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I’m thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it’s our front, it’s our face” – Faith Ringgold
What do we think of when we think of science and technology? Living currently in our hi-tech, digital world with computers, the Internet, techies, and laboratory scientists, many of us separate ourselves from science and technology as if they are not part of our everyday lives. Do we think of things like a mask as technology? I want to explore that idea.
A few weeks ago, I began reading Tempestt Hazel’s Black to the Future Series in which she interviews artists and intellectuals about afrofuturism and afrosurrealism. While reading some of the answers of the interviewees, I recognized a subtle framing of and at times distancing from afrofuturism based on electric and digital technology of the 20th and 21st century. Saying phrases like “I’m not a techie” in a sense undermines how much science and technology are embedded in the creation of our lives and that they have existed longer and have a wider reach than we normally think. As the aesthetic movement of afrofuturism gains recognition, we need to break down the boundaries of what we describe as science and technology.
A few weeks ago, Melissa Harris Perry gave a segment on her show about the political, economic and historical significance of transportation in the United States. Transportation for Black communities, as well as other marginalized communities, historically have been modes of displacement and transcendence, and the lack of transportation for these communities has meant entrapment. For transportation, social mobility and social freedom go hand in hand.
When we think of transportation, human rights and freedom, the first image that comes to mind is Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, these ideas reach further back in time and outside the boundaries of the United States. Being “carried across” or “carried away” is a sentiment that is embedded within the Black Atlantic, and humanity in general. For example, in Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, he recalls his own abduction:
“The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board…I was now persuaded that I gotten into a world of bad spirits…”
For Equiano and other enslaved Africans, transportation resulted in a lack of agency and freedom. Yet they tried to reclaim it in two essential ways- the spirit and the feet. The runaway slave was person who took agency in carrying themselves away, not a piece of property suffering from what masters in the United states called drapetomania. If anything the madness was caused by their enslavement and they were escaping to find healing.
The most famous example is Harriet Tubman, our favorite afrofuturist navigator, who led the enslaved away on a secret network of paths and safe-houses called the underground railroad. Artist Sanford Biggers described her as “an astronaut, traversing the south to the north by navigating the stars.” But she did not do it alone. If we look at the spirituals, the enslaved were constantly creating codes and sending messages on how to escape. Songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Wade [walk] in the Water,” “Steal Away,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “The Gospel Train A-Coming” gave instructions on how to travel by land, water and vehicle.
Not only did the United States have runaways, so did the Caribbean, from where my family comes. They were called “maroons.” The word comes from the Spanish word for runaway, “cimarron,” which literally meant “living on moutaintops.” From Queen Nanny in Jamaica to Gaspar Yanga in Mexico, they would escape to hills and other hard to access areas.
Although spirituals existed in the United States, in both the States and the Caribbean, African descendents achieved a transcendence beyond their boundaries through spirit possession. For instance, in Haiti Voodoo, the participants in the possession are described as being ridden like a horse by a spirit, or Lwa. Instead of being carried away by an oppressor, they were carried away by a spirit.
As transportation and society changed, so did our relationship to transportation. At the beginning of the 20 century with inventions of the steamship, train, airplane, car and spaceship, migration and migration art also rose in popularity. Throughout the 20th century, the great migration in the United States of African-Americans to cities, to the north and to the west was an effort to escape the harsh Jim Crow racism of the South and find better jobs. Migration for a better life was also a desire for many Black people from the Caribbean and Latin America
The invention of records also led to the popularity of transportation songs, most notably in blues and r&b songs. Many of these songs expressed the notions of these vehicles taking people away to another world, whether it was heaven or just another part of country. During the Civil Rights Era and Black Power Era, these songs also expressed the desire to transcend boundaries. One early example is in 1927 record of Reverend Nix’s “White Flyer to Heaven” and the “Black Diamond Express to Hell” sermons, which could be controversial in his use of colors.
Some other examples include Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” about going to a Sugar Hill in Harlem; Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” was about the singer’s love for traveling as a means of escape from the world’s problems; The Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” was about boarding a train to heaven; Ike and Tina’s “Proud Mary was a boat that went to other side of town; Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” was to the land of funk; and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” was a woman joining her man on a train to another world, Georgia. To bring this full circle, my favorite Parliament song, “Mothership Connection” alluded to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” connecting religious mythology of god coming down in a chariot from the sky, transportation and Black freedom, and alien spaceship during the space race era of the 60s and 70s.
The rise of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s also was affected by transportation. Robert Moses’ project for the the Cross Bronx Expressway displaced several U.S. Black, Caribbean and Latino communities as well as took away funding for subway infrastructure. In some ways the subway became a new type of underground railroad, but more as a way for youth to voice their discontent with music and graffiti in the underfunded subway system. The car cultures of West coast and Southern hip-hop came with spinning rims and hydraulics that bounced cars up and down so high to the point that they might blast off into the air. Bay Area hip-hop popularized “ghost-ride the whip.” Hip-Hop continued the fantastical and speculative approach to transportation as a form of free expression for poor, disenfranchised communities.
As we have entered the 21st century, how will our transportation stories change? The infrastructure in the United States is crumbling. In disaster areas, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2004, poorer communities lack of access to transportation leaves many trapped and left to die. Reverse migration stories are happening as some Black communities are moving back down to the southern United States or back to home countries. We will just have to see where the next voyage takes us on this wandering rock.
Kanye West’s “Spaceship”
Rockwell- Somebody’s Watching Me
With the recent death of Rodney King, I wanted to reflect on the gaze or surveillance in our society and how it has manifested itself during this year so far. The gaze has implied that the bodies of others, like Black bodies, should always be under scrupulous examination because we are threats to dominant groups. Theological philosopher James W. Perkinson said that one of the main modi operandi of Western culture has been technologies of the eye. In their superficial use, much destruction has occurred in the world. I would also add that our own eyes as a kind of technology themselves have been just as harmful. The world we see is not actually what we see – images are flipped, there are perceptual errors and the brain creates illusions to fill in gaps. Yet entire cultures for centuries were and still are built off of what we see only, and it has had dangerous and paralyzing effects on people of color.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon describes himself like the wave that becomes a particle under observation: “The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me. I am fixed. Once their mircrotomes [used in microscopy] are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality. I have been betrayed” (95). As Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also exposes the simultaneous hyper-visibility and hyper-invisibility that people of color face. For their eyes do not see the full spectrum of all, but only what they wants to see of others and it is stifling.
This year, the gaze still has shown itself in a variety of ways. We have seen Black men and women watched, stalked and killed for just being, as in the killings of Trayvon Martin, Kenneth Chamberlain, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, and Darius Simmons. We have families who are threatened because they look different in a community as with the Kalonji family who were held at gunpoint in their home by neighbors in Georgia. The debates and protests over “stop-and-frisk,” which happens to males of color more often, is reaching a peak in New York, London and other cities as well. Although statistics show Black and Latino people do not use drugs more than other groups, they are actually stopped and frisked way more than their actual percentage in the population. While we suffer at the hands of this practice, we have people who have the nerve, like NY mayor Bloomberg, to obnoxiously tell us that it is for our own good.
Not only is it governmental and penal policing, but also institutional and media policing. We do not have access to or it is viewed as insignificant for us to have control of the information and images given to us and that depict us. The most recent example is the Erykah Badu and Flaming Lips controversy over the video for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Whether this is a real feud or publicity stunt, Badu’s claim that her rights in collaborating on the creation of the video were taken away in favor of her and her sister, Nayrok’s sexual objectification highlights the manipulation of images of people of color in general. The killings, police beatings, stop-and-frisk, and media dehumanization are continuous parts of a system that denigrates, criminalizes and hyper-sexualizes us on sight. Our blackness implies our inhumanity to the greater society that refuses to question why when they look us, they do not really see us. Maybe its time for another Invisible Man.
I was going to do a post on how all our creations are technology (and even we are in a sense technology), and how that applies to definitions of afrofuturism, but I will probably do later. First, I will like to reblog a post I read on tumblr from Moniquilliloquies about Indigenous American cultures and biotechnology:
I plan on making a longer post about this later in conjunction with my planned photo essay, so… know that I will be repeating it later.
One of the most disheartening aspects I’ve found in American Steampunk alternate histories is the assumption that despite alternate histories that allow for magitek and phlebotinum and aether-powered airships and steam-powered, clockwork everything from cell phones to teleporters to ray guns… there is still an assumption that NDN genocide took place. That European contact can only have occurred in the 15th century and that it can only have resulted in colonialism, slavery, resource theft, land theft, and genocide.
Come on, people.
We can have clockwork robots but not POC civilizations?
A functional alternate history that has the kind of tech seen in steampunk can’t have just started one day in the 19th century. If you’re going to alter your universe, why stick with our existent timeline right up to the last second?
What if NDN folks had, say, knowledge of vaccination? Or what if we’d had a greater number of domesticable animals and thus developed a wider profile of immunities to the kinds of communicable diseases common to Europeans? What if we’d developed advanced cross-national communications systems for the sharing of technological breakthroughs before European contact happened?
NDN technologies have historically tended to be green and sustainable – not because NDN folks are ~magically spiritually attached to Mother Earth~ but because NDN cultures tend to value foresight and cycles, considering generational consequences of technological adoption and understanding of systems over flat utilization of resources. There’s an existent, historical emphasis on biotech (do you enjoy potatoes, tomatoes, or corn? (YOU ENJOY CORN, DO NOT LIE.) Thank NDN folks for making these plants exist, because without human intervention you’d have nightshade, nightshade, and teosinte.) I like to imagine technological development of American nations sans European contact or with non-oppressive European contact as following biotech lines and resulting in super-powerful herbal medicines, biomimcry in architecture and materials development, mycoculture and mycoplastics, and use of solar steam power. I explore NDN science extensively because I am sick and tired of the myth that prior to European contact NDNs were a stagnant neolithic monoculture. To quote Elizabeth Lameman (speaking here about her film “The Path Without End”):
“We often limit ourselves and discredit our ancestors by thinking they didn’t possibly have the technology to travel when in fact they did have canoes and other forms of ships. To me, this is how we represent ourselves in steampunk, which is otherwise a very colonialist genre that stems from the Victorian mindset. We do and did have technology, but since we use(d) biodegradable materials, and thus “evidence” has faded with nature, we are told by the dominate culture that we were savage with no technology.”
Native Science understands that nature is technology – a compost pile is a massively-tested super-applicable multifaceted waste management system resulting from four billion years of research and development where you put food waste in and get high-yield fertilizer out and the whole process is carbon neutral!
I imagine a Steampunk North America (Turtle Island) in which the buffalo population wasn’t deliberately eradicated for genocidal purposes and which thus still enjoys the resources of vast areas of tall grass prairie (you need buffalo to have prairie as much as you need prairie to have buffalo because many seeds will not germinate correctly or thrive without passing through a buffalo’s digestive system unless human intervention is applied). I imagine a Turtle Island in which deforestation is severely curtailed and vast areas of old-growth forest are deliberatly maintained. I imagine city architecture utilizing rammed-earth walls and green roofs on large communal buildings, and time-tested local building technologies on smaller, private residences. I imagine populous cities designed for walkability and communal pedestrian culture. I imagine a North America in which the Black Hills are not defaced with gigantic carved graffiti of doofy white dudes.
By the 19th century in my alternate timeline, Turtle Island has a thriving, technologically advanced pan-Indian culture, a collective of independent nations with distinct regionalisms that has a UN-like organization to engage with the global community. A group of nations that meets Europe as equals and trades technology and cultural influences as such. (This was from December, so check her other posts on her blog)
Gza from the Wu-Tang Clan will be releasing records about outer space and the ocean. Will this be hip-hop’s version of Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants?
“A Rapper Finds His Muse in the Stars” by Anna Louise Sussman
“I thought, this is probably the longest spinning record in the world,” said GZA, the hip-hop artist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, referring to the ring system surrounding the planet. About a week later, the words crystallized and he offered them over a vegetarian lunch on the Upper West Side.
“God put the needle on the disc of Saturn / The record he played revealed blueprints and patterns,” he rapped in his signature rhythmic baritone, offering a taste from his forthcoming album, “Dark Matter,” an exploration of the cosmos filtered through the mind of a rapper known among his peers as “the Genius.”
Informed by meetings with top physicists and cosmologists at MIT and Cornell University, “Dark Matter” is intended to be the first in a series of albums that GZA—born Gary Grice in Brooklyn in 1966—will put out in the next few years, several of which are designed to get a wide audience hooked on science.
“Dark Matter” is scheduled for a fall release. Another album will focus on the life aquatic, a subject he’s fleshing out with visits to the labs of marine biologists and researchers, as well as meetings with the likes of Philippe Cousteau.
“After ‘Dark Matter,’ he said, “we’ll be back on earth, but in the ocean.”
In between will come “Liquid Swords 1.5,” for which GZA will re-record the lyrics to his beloved 1995 album “Liquid Swords,” backed by live bands.
Composer and producer Marco Vitali, a Juilliard-trained violinist, is helping to score “Dark Matter.” He recalled a recent meeting in which GZA explained the images that the music should convey.
“We talked about frenetic energy, outer space, molecules crashing into each other, organized chaos,” Mr. Vitali said. “The grandeur of the fact that the universe was born in a millionth of a second, in this explosion that created billions of stars, these overpowering ideas that are bigger than we can conceive. How do we make the record feel like that?”
In other words, how does one score the majesty of the entire universe?
“We don’t have the answers yet,” conceded Mr. Vitali. One thing he does know is that the score will utilize “the power of an entire orchestra,” likely one from a smaller European country, to keep costs down.
For GZA, a major challenge is convincing skeptics for whom hip-hop and an academic subject like physics seem incompatible.
“It’s gonna sound so boring to most people,” the rapper said. “There have been times when I’ve been told, ‘Oh, you’re doing an album about physics? I hope it’s not boring.’ They don’t get the idea. Because rappers are so one-dimensional, so narrow-minded, it comes off corny.”
Still, he believes that “Dark Matter” will tap into the innate curiosity of listeners—even those with no outward interest in science.
“I don’t think people have ever really been in touch with science,” he said. “They’re drawn to it, but they don’t know why they’re drawn to it. For example, you may be blown away by the structure of something, like a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, with its hexagonal shapes. Or how you can take a strand of hair and can get someone’s whole drug history. They’re different forms of science, but it’s still science.”
He plans to package “Dark Matter” with a short illustrated book that may also include the album’s lyrics and a glossary, “like an epic textbook,” he said.
Penny Chisholm, a professor of environmental science at MIT, said she’d welcome the chance to use a GZA album as a teaching tool. She met with him last December when he came to visit her lab, where she researches the ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic cell on the planet.
“He’d been doing his homework on the oceans,” Ms. Chisholm said. “I was struck by his appreciation of the complexity of ecology and physics, and his views on life. I think he’s now on a new mission, and he could play an important role in getting various messages out through his art form—about the earth, and science. That’s why I’ve become a fan.”
It’s that kind of academic inspiration that a young Gary Grice could have used growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. He was always smart: Before he was the GZA, he could recite nursery rhymes backward and forward.
“He was the Genius, and we called him genius because we knew that he was a genius,” said Raekwon, another founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary Staten Island hip-hop crew formed in the early ’90s.
But as he came of age, the city’s blossoming hip-hop scene exerted its own gravitational pull, drawing him away from the classroom. He cut class most days, staying home to write lyrics or hang out with friends and make demos.
“I thought I knew more than what they were teaching in school,” he said. “When you look back on it now, it’s foolish to be cutting because we had so much more opportunity than now. When I look back at high school, or even junior high, we had all the things that kids don’t have now: woodshop, ceramics, metal class, electric class, graphic arts, graphic design.”
Instead he poured his efforts into music. A first album, “Words From the Genius,” failed to make a splash in 1991. Two years later, he and eight friends—including two cousins, who would become the RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard—released “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” a critical entry in the hip-hop canon. His solo follow-up, “Liquid Swords,” went gold, winning acclaim for its sophisticated lyrics.
Despite have left school in the 10th grade, GZA nurtured his affection for science as he developed his skills as a lyricist.
“There were certain things that grabbed my interest, such as photosynthesis, such as us living off plants and plants living off us,” he said. “You look at everything in that light—so if I’m looking at ice cubes, I might start thinking about absolute zero, or Fahrenheit and Celsius. There’s so much that can make me think about science.”
In 1995, when he released “Liquid Swords,” GZA solidified his stature as the Wu-Tang Clan’s most recognizable lyricist with lines like “I be the body dropper, the heartbeat stopper / child educator plus head amputator.” Nearly two decades later, “Dark Matter,” with its rejection of the braggadocio and violence often found in hip-hop and its embrace of poetry and natural imagery, could finally enable this father of two to seize that mantle of “child educator.”
“There’s no parental advisory, no profanity, no nudity,” he said. “The only thing that’s going to be stripped bare is the planets.”
Tuesday was my last day of classes, so yesterday I decided to treat myself to a few of exhibitions. First, I went to the American Museum of Natural History to see “Beyond Planet Earth: the Future of Space Exploration.” Upon entering, we saw my favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking in a video about the importance of thinking about space. However, when I entered I was less impressed, given that this exhibition cost me $19. It was not so much that the exhibition was not informing or interesting, it was much more the perspective from which it was told. Basically, a mostly Western and European focus. I kept feeling as I walked through it, what about other cultures who have speculated about and wanted to explore space.
The first section of the exhibition centered on the space war between Russia and the United States. Walking through, we learned about female astronauts like Sally K. Ride, that Russians called astronauts “cosmonauts,” that rocks from space smell like gunpowder inside the spaceship (no smell in space), about businessmen like Jackie Maw, Elon Musk (of Paypal) and Richard Branson who are trying to send private citizens to space, putting bases on the moon and landing on asteroids, and that Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa could possibly have life on them because they show signs of water. The exhibition included literature that speculated on space like Jules Verne’s “From Earth to the Moon,” and history of people wondering about space. There was even some talk of international space station and global space exploration. However, that focused on China, Japan and India (not much of India).
But what annoyed me the most was all of it was still from a very Eurocentric perspective. It did not mention other cultures and books from other cultures who have thought about space, even before the Greeks or other Europeans started (that was exhibition’s starting point.) Writers of other cultures have written books about space. Including Tyson, space exploration of China, Japan and India, and having an app commercial with a Black girl in it is not diversity. Also, where was the deeper discussion of the larger implications of space travel, since most of the people who would go would be rich (and mostly white), leaving the rest of us here with less resources because they are diverted towards space exploration. I could hear Gil-Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” in my head.
So, I left the exhibition and went around the museum. I came across the African Peoples section and headed on in. The problem I have with some museums is that it objectifies everything, not just the art, but animals and people as well. While, I did appreciate that this exhibit had a more humane approach to African people and their cultures, included Egypt (although it was in the corner part way in the back), unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art that treats Egypt as separate from Africa, and included the diaspora and slavery, I was disturbed by something. Throughout the museum, there are exhibits of people from Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, and indigenous Americans, but I found none of Europeans. So, basically we are still treated like objects and artifacts from the past, not living, breathing people.
This is the reason I decided to go to another exhibition, the Caribbean Cultural Center‘s “H(a)unted,” which was dedicated to Trayvon Martin. The exhibit spoke to me as a human being. As I read artist Zeal Harris‘s information for her piece “Our Brother, Our Sun,” she mentioned that a conceptual conversation on art history is needed. She thinks that too much art lacks substance, soul and concern for issues. And that is how I felt looking at each piece; all of them had a sense of spirit in them that was very much alive. I appreciated the art that challenged perception of Black manhood. The art that spoke to the American fear and constant surveillance of Black men (and Black people in general), the lack of acknowledgement of Black humanity, and the ties between spirituality and physicality for us. The art that highlighted our history that still haunts us despite many telling us to forget about it. It was beautiful how we could stand up despite all the crap we have to stand in and thrown at us. Exhibitions that do this are much more important than an artifact on the wall. We should not only reach for the stars, but keep grounded as well.