Nettrice R. Gaskins. “Alternate Futures (Lockdown) build,” 2010. Courtesy of the artist and IBM Exhibition Space.

Working at the vanguard of art, technology, and education, Nettrice Gaskins currently directs the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) Lab at the Boston Arts Academy—the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts, “serving more than 440 urban students who otherwise might not have access to both formal arts and a college preparatory education.” Within the Lab, Gaskins puts techno-vernacular creativity into practice, while pursuing her own independent work as a writer, artist, teacher, and Afrofuturist practitioner. When so many conversations around the Anthropocene call for a new epistemological approach to learning and accessibility, it’s amazing to speak with someone inhabiting that vision so intimately. In the following interview Gaskins and I discuss the intersecting layers of imagination and technology.

Caroline Picard: I’m curious about the power of imagination and how it can open new possibilities, futures, and histories—In a recent Art21 article, you quoted Jerry Philips, saying “By exploring ‘possible worlds’ and ‘intuitions of the future’ that critique the present…the [artist] recovers purposive human time, the sense that history is not something that simply happens to us, irrespective of our will and desires, but is, indeed, ours to make.” How does that approach influence your teaching strategies at STEAM?

Nettrice Gaskins: Recently, I taught a summer STEAM workshop at Boston Arts Academy. The theme was “Journey to Mars” and students ages 11-15, spent a great deal of time thinking about and designing models based on ideas about what the Mars mission would look like and what life would be like on Mars in the future. First, they were asked to identify the positive and negative elements of their actual home community, then draft a plan for an ideal community, and build a simple three-dimensional model of it. Students also constructed vehicles that would get them to Mars or help them travel on the planet. In order to do these tasks, young people have to be able to imagine possible worlds like Mars and what it might be like to live there in the future. The level of student engagement was notable because they worked constantly, sometimes through scheduled breaks. They researched and tinkered for hours. Today, students don’t have many opportunities to get involved in semi-structured (at least on the surface) activities that allow them to move from ideas to prototypes. This is the promise of STEAM, especially of “making,” or artscience which are two applications of STEAM.

CP: It sounds like there is a way you give students a kind of agency that they might not feel in most other educational contexts, creating an integrated learning environment, where social, practical, scientific, technological, and environmental factors are in play at once, to such an extent that group effectively builds a world together.

NG: Sure, that’s fair. One of the summer STEAM students approached me to say that she’d heard that I liked David Bowie. For the next half-hour we listened to tracks from his last album BlackstarSpace Oddity, and Life on Mars, then used a sound impact sensor and other electronics to see how LEDs responded to the music. I watched this student go from being extremely shy to standing in front of parents, friends, and other students to talk about her project, in addition to the work she did with her group. It’s not something you plan for but you can be prepared to respond to almost anything.

CP: Could talk a bit about your project, Alternate Futures: Afrofuturist Multiverses & Beyond (2010), an interactive, virtual exhibition you made for the IBM exhibition space, Second Life. What is it like installing an exhibition in virtual space?

NG: For this project, the now-defunct IBM Exhibition Space was the sponsor and curator. They marketed the show, so people all over the real world could visit. I had unlimited access to virtual land and virtual 3D objects to build simulations from the ground up, so to speak. There were no physical walls, just virtual borders for the Second Life region. I had virtual water, air, and sky. During the time when I created the simulation, I was researching and having conversations with different people about “afrofuturistic cultural production.” These inputs gave me ideas about where to begin. For example, I was inspired by by JJ Grandville’s 18th century interpretation of an interplanetary bridge. My version of this structure spanned the length of the simulation and was the centerpiece of the exhibition. On either side were two installations exploring utopia and dystopia. The work culminated in a grand opening and was visited by several people (as 3D avatars), some more than once. A new installation grew to include simulations of work by artists such as Futura 2000, Keith Haring, and Grace Jones. Because people from all over were in that virtual space, I had to provide information in the form of notecards that visitors could read and save in their Second Live inventories.

CP: Can you say a bit more about what the IBM Exhibition Space was like? How did you approach the relationship between physical and virtual space?

NG: The only physical part is the computer (screen, mouse or trackpad); the rest is virtual. In a sense, you become the avatar you control in Second Life. Prior to the IBM SL build I took a leap from a virtual 3D cliff in someone else’s simulation and, for a few seconds, my brain reacted as if I was leaping in real (physical) life. A really good virtual simulation does that; it uses objects or effects we experience or see in physical space and re-purposes them to create entirely new experiences. For example, in my IBM SL build surveillance/profiling was simulated by scripting a wall of eye balls that follow the visiting avatar around the installation.

CP: You mentioned how you provide an option to enter either an alt_Utopia or an alt_Dystopia at the beginning of Alternate Futures. How does the layered, multi-textural experience you compose with chain link fence graphics, photography, digital simulation, cosmograms, music, shifting perspectives and architectures work together to articulate that dichotomy?

NG: Texts in afrofuturism are often about utopia or dystopia. For example, in the novel Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler created a futuristic, dystopian, science-fiction world where the United States has devolved into city-states warring for the few remaining resources. Within this dystopia is Earthseed, a sacred space or religion based on the idea that God is Change. Earthseed was an option to create a different reality and in the Second Life simulation/exhibition there was a sandbox where visitors could do that. In other spaces there were objects that simulated the experience of being watched (profiled) or jailed for minor infractions. In fact, there was a floor tile in one of the SL builds that moved the avatar that stepped on it into a cage or cell. They could get out whenever they wanted but the experience urged them to explore how any group’s reality might be like that in real life: one minute you’re pulled over for a busted tail light and the next you’re in jail or worse. These Second Life installs facilitated aesthetic responses to mediate the visitors’ perceptions and interpretations. These responses were triggered by installations in a virtual 3D simulation that provoked sense making. Installs or builds are spaces where people can make sense out of raw sensory input. In real life, this is usually done through performance, i.e., call-and-response interaction. In SL, an avatar’s actions can trigger different events.

CP: Does it connect to Alexander G. Weheliye’s notion of a “virtual sounding space”?

NG: Alexander G. Weheliye’s notion of a “virtual sounding space” is a collection of sensory inputs but it’s not necessarily interactive. It is through the creation of virtual 3D spaces that we can simulate future worlds.

CP: You’ve described Afrofuturism 3.0 as a “new wave grounded in cyberpunk or postmodern sci-fi, DIY culture, electronic music, and data visualization.” Can you speak more about that lineage and how Afrofuturism 3.0 builds upon themes you attribute to Afrofuturism 2.0—i.e., inventiveness, adaptability, imagination, (re)appropriation, and persistence? What are the differences and similarities between the two? What about our current era yields this new development in Afrofuturist thought?

NG: The term Afrofuturism 3.0 challenges the notion of technology, not merely as a 20th century, Western domain. I was inspired by the coinage of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. The former consisting of static web pages, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), blogs (WordPress), and microblogs (Tumblr). Second Life is Web 2.0 because you can bring in live video and social media feeds into the virtual 3D space. Web 3.0 refers to the concept of every gadget and appliance we own being interconnected via the Internet. It is made possible by Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), Bluetooth, Wireless Fidelity (WiFi), and more. After the Second Life/IBM simulation, I started looking at how objects/designs like the cosmogram— cultural maps that represent the universe—could be overlaid with digital or virtual content. The cosmogram is a technological and navigational tool and it also facilities audience participation, specifically movement, improvisation, and ritual. This design can also be simulated (re-appropriated) using software to explore geometry and other subjects. We live in a time where more and more things (devices) are connected and, yet, more and more people feel disconnected or divided across race, class and gender lines. I see Afrofuturism 3.0 as a mechanism to bring people together through art.

CP: In a funny way, this makes me think about your Alternate Futures exhibition again, in that the Afrofuturism 3.0 you describe, where all devices are synced and connected and interacting with daily movements, seems to mash virtual and material reality, illustrating on the one hand how porous those differences are, but also how they can very easily slip into utopic or dystopic scenarios. What are some strategies for empowerment? 

NG: If we were to look at what Mark Dery was studying when he came up with the term “afrofuturism” we would see that the technologies are outdated. The artists were at the cusp of a shift in how technology is viewed, from a narrow scope to a much wider landscape where we are now. To become empowered is to engage the technology, to learn it, to hack, or jack into it. I bought my first pair of virtual reality goggles in the late 1990s but it took another two decades for the mainstream to catch on (i.e., Oculus Rift). Because I am an artist who is also a computational thinker I feel empowered to tinker with Web 3.0 or the “Internet of Things.” W.E.B. Du Bois imagined this scenario in 1905 in his short story “The Princess Steel.” Now it is a reality. Right now, young people are either consumers or producers of the technology. It is the latter and the speculators who power the imaginations of the writers and artists. This is why I took on virtual 3D space.

CP: Why is art important to you? What is added, for instance, in Art and Technology as a pair, rather than just Technology? Partly, I’m thinking about it with STEAM vs STEM, though maybe also because so often it’s the art and humanities educational or public support that suffers funding cuts.

NG: Art is an extension of the creator. My mother was a computer programmer but I was not interested in computers or technology until I learned that they could be used to create art. Once I started pushing pixels around on screen I was hooked and this happened in high school. It would take a couple of years before I learned how to program and I never stopped drawing, painting and sculpting with analog materials. Artists are often more willing than scientists or programmers to engage other domains, which is why STEAM is more provocative than STEM. I began as a visual artist (sans the computer) and now I can program or build virtual 3D environments. It’s still an extension of me (the creator). My toolkit is bigger. It is because of silos that we find ourselves having to choose a domain. Many, perhaps, older funders are not aware that these fields are converging. Real integration of these fields is a fairly new paradigm.

CP: Do you think there is a connection between Afrofuturism and the Anthropocene? What does the future look like in that intersection? 

NG: I think there is a connection (i.e., the overlay of art with a socio-political dichotomy). Depending on who you talk to, the world began or ended with the election of President Barack Obama. His presidency resulted in a shifting of social interactions and political allegiances that will greatly impact current and future generations of people. Octavia Butler wrote about a character named Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, a harbinger for violence in the novel Parable of the Talents, which follows Parable of the Sower. Jarret ran for office during a period of isolationism, religious intolerance and duress. This period of time existed in Butler’s mind and she could imagine how it could have a much broader impact on nature in the future. Butler imagined Earthseed to counter this development, as a religion that comes from the idea that the seeds of all life on Earth can be transplanted, and through adaptation will grow, in many different types of situations or places. There is something subversive in black speculative fiction and afrofuturism that challenges people to think of alternatives to current conditions. Butler’s Earthseed feeds into this idea of an Anthropocene where human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Many artists or practitioners that are considered to be afrofuturist have some version of a utopia within or in contrast to a dystopia. For Sun Ra it was Saturn. For my summer students it was Mars. In general, the afrofuturist’s alternative is another world or reality.

CP:  I read that you developed a math and music curriculum based on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. That seems like another example of how you dovetail art and science.

NG: Coltrane’s chart for Giant Steps is a cosmogram or mandala. This design connects to many things including the cosmos, geometry, physics and music. You really can’t sit in a silo and break down Coltrane’s design. I tell music students who study Coltrane or Giant Steps about his interest in Einstein’s theory of relativity and it blows their minds. Einstein is famous for his ability to transcend mathematical limitations with physical intuition. Coltrane’s mandala explores jazz improvisation as a characteristic of both music and physics. The use of the cosmogram/mandala reveals a musician’s and physicist’s capacity to contextualize or place something in a new or different context, synthesize or see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields, and syncretize or invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to put together. At the center is the art form, that we can use to connect to academic subjects.