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Honoring Black Computational Histories

March 6, 2023

This year we honored Black History Month by celebrating and centering black artists, thinkers and makers in the SFPC community, as an act in line with our commitment to continually disrupt the traditional white canon of art and tech history (including what we mean when we say ‘computation’).

Over the course of the month, we featured four black artists and makers working in the tradition of black computational thought and the artists, ideas and pieces that inspire them.

The process of working with these pieces and ideas was inspiring, as they prove that computation, outside of the rigid, white canon, is a space of immense creativity, a space that reveals the need to keep resisting arbitrary limitations set by industry, and instead welcome poetry by working with and through black computational thought (a term coined by the artist Romi Morrison).

So let’s look at the thinkers, artists, poets, teachers and makers featured in Black Computational Histories:

1. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s experimental poetics and Amiri Baraka’s “Technology & Ethos”

Yvonne-Bertram’s poem “america is the cabinet of our chains”: a visual poem with the title phrase printed in black and white text, of varying sizes, arranged in circles and half circles of increasing and decreasing size, spiraling off the page in its largest size and shrinking to an illegible circle as its smallest.

Lillian is an African American writer, poet, artist and educator who works at the intersection of computation, AI, race and gender. As you can see here, they work with experimental and computational poetics.

They wrote about Amiri Baraka’s essay “Technology & Ethos”, here’s a bit on how he influenced their work:

“As a writer and artist who works with computation and artificial intelligence computing systems, this piece put into clearer perspective some of the issues I have grappled with as a user (but not creator) of these technologies. If, as Baraka states here and as D. Fox Harrell suggests in his book Phantasmal Media, technologies and computing systems are culturally contextual, then we can analyze and determine what cultural values they and other technologies make explicit. Biases built into technologies and systems (like biasing the fingertips) are culturally situated and affect all users.”

You can read more of their thoughts on this essay here.

A screenshot of ‘Technology & Ethos’, the essay by Amiri Baraka that Lillian-Yvonne is quoting and referencing.

2. Ryan C. Clarke’s tonal geologies and Don Lewis and his Live Electronic Orchestra
Wooden art object titled, "Bystander' seeming to loosely replicate a door.

Ryan is a tonal geologist from the Northern Gulf Coast. He notices the passage of time as both a trained sedimentologist and artist-researcher as co-editor at dweller electronics, a group dedicated towards providing black counterpoint within an otherwise eurologically dominant music industry.

Through the lenses of Jazz, New Orleans Bounce, Detroit Techno, Chicago House, and the geologies underneath, he views the progression of technology and culture at-large as a depositional process sourced by black innovation under the theory, “Southern Electronics”.

He wrote about synthesis pioneer and musician Don Lewis:

“Rooted in the black church as a child, being a choir director, and playing music for rallies led by people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, I enjoy to consider the ways Afro-American social architectures and infrastructures potentially gave context to his approaches of the then nascent consumer electronic landscape. Wondering if he thought knowledges found in the paradoxical structure of a gospel choir joined together polyphony; on one accord but in every which way, gave him a path forward.”

You can read more here (don’t miss out on Don Lewis energizing the slides on this post!)

A quote that reads: “Was the oral-aural method of ring shout sound past hush harbors, shine through Jubilee Fisk Singers’ gramophone recordings to slide even further into his day? Did he see his work as extended conversation where he might contribute to a tradition of thought where subjects once denoted as technology themselves find interest in giving objects subjectivity to further express themselves?”

3. Gabrielle Octavia Rucker’s interdisciplinary poetics and Suzanne Césaire’s "The Great Camouflage”
Gabrielle holding a copy of their book, Dereliction.

Gabrielle is a writer, editor and teaching artist from the Great Lakes currently living on the Gulf Coast. Her debut poetry collection, Dereliction, is currently available via The Song Cave. Reading Suzanne Césaire’s essay “The Great Camouflage” had a great impact on her, and she thinks back on the first time she read it:

”I remember reading Suzanne Césaire's 1945 essay The Great Camouflage, first published in the Martinican literary magazine Tropiques, in the windowless lobby of a beige suite of offices where I worked. The office suite stood lofted some thirteen stories, give or take, in a building amongst a sea of buildings, on what was once a forested island turned present day global metropolis. It was no secret to me at that time, as I wandered the maze of cobblestone streets in search of an affordable lunch, that this office where I spent the majority of my “free” time working for measly wages stood in the middle of what was once the New York Municipal Slave Market. A placard, located at the intersections of Wall Street and Water Street, was dedicated to this history in 2015 but I rarely saw anyone pause to read it as I passed by.”

Read more about Gabrielle’s thoughts on the essay here.

Screenshot of the essay “The Great Camouflage”, originally published in Tropiques nos. 13-14.

4. Amber Officer-Narvasa on text, earth, ritual and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s work
A photo of Amber’s hand holding a candle, other items seen in the background are feathers, a rusty Corona bottle cap, pieces of rocks, minerals and what seems to be a piece of tree bark.

Amber is a writer and landworker. Their work dwells at the confluence of Blackness, environmental thought, and cultural criticism. Utilizing text, archives, and land-based art practices, they seek to explore stories of interspecies intimacy, resistance, and anticolonial navigation that are encoded within Afro-Atlantic geographies. A central question of their current work is: How do Black people steward the earth under conditions of climate crisis and colonial haunting, and what can these practices teach us about our collective survival?

They wrote about Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s work:

Brathwaite-Shirley's work has inspired me to ask more of the archive, of the digital, and of myself. Her video games have provided places where I can rest. At the same time, they've complicated my ideas about the uses of documentation and historical (re)searching. Her work is a crucial model of how to create Black digital spaces that are at once soft and uncompromising. Spaces that question the easy comfort of concepts like "representation" or "honoring." In Resurrection Pro League, the narrator and Black trans archivist asks a question I will never stop returning to: "How is it possible to store you in a world that had once erased you?”

Read more about their thoughts on Brathwaite-Shirley’s work here.

A still of Brathwaite-Shirley’s piece “I Can’t Remember A Time I Didn’t Need You”

We want to thank everyone who contributed to this project, and want to reiterate that, although this year’s Black Computational Histories has come to an end, SFPC’s commitment to disrupt the white canon of tech and computer history is an ongoing endeavor and a beautiful journey we will always be on.