“Recoding the Master’s Tools: Artists Remake Systems of Oppression and Extraction in Technology”

By Vanessa Chang

Vanessa Chang

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Chang

In Conversations with Bina48, Stephanie Dinkins stages a series of recorded interactions with a “social robot” from Hanson Robotics. In these videos, two heads in profile—on first glance, Black women in matching white T-shirts and colorful scarves—mirror each other. As the conversation unfolds, the social robot’s twitchy gestures and stilted speech soon reveal its uncanny nature. In these sometimes absurd, sometimes philosophical dialogues, Dinkins and Bina48 range across topics including race, identity, and consciousness. Though modeled on a living Black woman—Bina Aspen Rothblatt—Bina48’s programming omits any understanding of this racial identity or of Black history. Through this lacuna, Dinkins exposes the exclusionary mechanisms encoded in automation and artificial intelligence (AI)—and the largely homogenous industry that produces and disseminates these technologies globally.

By contrast, Dinkins’ chatbot N’TOO (Not the Only One) is a bespoke artificial intelligence designed by, with, and for Black women, who have long been underrepresented in the tech sector. Trained with “small data”—oral histories from three generations of women in a single family—N’TOO offers a culturally specific curative to systemic racial bias in AI. These two projects embody distinct artistic approaches to advanced technology. In the former, Dinkins engages with a finished commercial product; in the latter, she works outside of the corporate paradigm, using open-source software to build the system herself in consultation with the community it represents.

Art and technology practice has a thorny relationship with capital. Many of the contemporary technologies used by artists originate in an industry whose products replicate systemic inequities. These artists often stage searing critiques of the very technologies they use in their practice—and the systems of production that beget them. After all, artifacts have politics; technologies are not merely objects but material incarnations of the social, cultural, and political forces that usher them into being. Even as artists such as Dinkins render critiques of these technologies, their use of the “master’s tools”—to invoke Black feminist poet Audre Lorde and her claim that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house—highlights this central tension in the field.

Commercial development platforms, whether for games, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or AI, offer artists powerful tools for creating and distributing work. Hyphen Labs’ NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF) stages a futuristic “neurocosmetology lab” that centers Black women in VR. Those who couldn’t visit the original installation, which included a real hair salon environment, can download NSAF on the Oculus store. Artists who have designed VR experiences such as this one for the Oculus Rift are now contending with the platform’s integration into Facebook. The conglomerate bought Oculus in 2014 and, for new devices, now requires Facebook logins as a gatekeeper to the interface.

Certainly, many artists deploy these commercial technologies in provocative ways. Game engines—software-development environments built for video game designers—are increasingly used as a creative medium. Ian Cheng used the popular game development platform Unity to construct the virtual worlds of his Emissaries trilogy. These live simulations—according to the artist, “a video game that plays itself”—are self-contained ecosystems that ceaselessly evolve. Computational agents, from characters to wildlife, interact in open-ended narratives that fork and iterate in unanticipated ways. Installed at life-sized scale in a gallery, Emissaries invites visitors to observe how these generative universes fold the video game medium inside itself. Used for both commercial and avant-garde work, game development platforms such as Unity and Unreal Engine contain multivalent histories that embrace and confront ethically fraught situations: first-person shooters, war simulacra, survival scenarios, and animal pet games are all part of the platforms’ history and meaning.

By playing with commercial technologies and protocols, artists can unveil the systems of production—and oppression—that permeate and increasingly regulate much of human life. At the same time, they can forge unimagined opportunities for unintended audiences. Artists can create new insight into how emerging technologies work and what they can do. For this reason, this form of artistic practice has piqued industry interest. Leaders at cultural organizations dedicated to art and technology practice such as NEW INC and Gray Area cite these creative deployments as a primary motivation for tech companies to support artistic enterprise. By probing and testing the limits of a technology, as Cheng and Dinkins do, artists can generate unforeseen use cases for that technology—making a compelling reason to invest in artists and institutions. These investments, however, usually entail a quid pro quo; whether at incubators or museums, the product is rarely divorced from the brand.

Corporate support for art and technology practice in the United States has traced the tumultuous peaks and troughs of capital. In just the last decade, extraordinary buzz surrounded 3D printing, then VR, AI, and now AR. Each of these moments has heralded a surge of investment in corresponding art practice—followed, in some cases, by a drought. These moments of heightened interest—and corresponding artistic innovation—contour the “hype cycles” of emerging technologies.

Conceived and deployed by IT research and advisory firm Gartner, the hype cycle is a graphic representation of the generalized emergence, maturity, and adoption of specific technologies. Its five key phases map the life cycle of a technology, from its invention, through its tentative steps into the marketplace and failures, and finally to its widespread adoption if it finds broad applicability. According to Ben Vickers, CTO of Serpentine Galleries, art institutions tend to engage with a technology at the very end of this cycle. At this stage, the crucial product decisions have already been made and artists are ultimately creating content—however much that content, like Cheng’s Emissaries and Dinkins’ Conversations with Bina48, subverts the technology for creative ends.

Due to the technical proficiency needed to use such tools creatively, however, artists have the potential to reshape the trajectory of a technology—and indeed, have a history of doing so. Seeking to activate this potential for intervention, some cultural organizations have launched their own research and development initiatives. Several major European institutions, including Ars Electronica’s long-running Futurelab in Austria, ZKM’s Hertz Lab in Germany, and Serpentine Galleries’ R&D Platform in the UK, provide infrastructure for collaborative research at the interface of art, technology, and society. Affirming this climate of sustained support for interdisciplinary inquiry, the European Commission launched S+T+ARTS to center artists and foster cross-sector innovation in the development of human-centered technologies.

North America has seen a recent renaissance of the art and technology lab. There are more than a hundred programs dedicated to such transdisciplinary experimentation. They span art, academia, and industry—from University of Texas at Dallas’ School of the Arts, Technology & Emerging Communication (ATEC), to the Berggruen Institute’s Transformations of the Human program, which embeds artist-philosopher teams in R&D labs at tech firms, including Facebook, Adobe, and Google.

This resurgence is rooted in mid-20th-century collaborations between artists and Cold War-era military-industrial institutions such as EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), CAVS (Center for Advanced Visual Studies, MIT), and LACMA’s Art & Technology Program. These projects emerged from a techno-utopianism that animated much academic, military, and artistic research of that era—and still drives their current revivals. In their models of collaborative, project-based, time-limited interdisciplinary activity, they have provided templates for many of their contemporary incarnations. However, as scholars John Beck and Ryan Bishop caution in Technocrats of the Imagination, 21st-century initiatives in this space are reproducing these models unmoored from the utopian political visions of the 1960s. In so doing, they risk innovations that are mere product and spectacle.

Like the gig economy, these models of collaboration are built on the labor of the creative precariat. In their lionization of flexible labor in temporally bounded projects, many of these labs operate within an extractive economy. Within the context of cultural production, a logic of extraction understands artistic labor as a resource whose value is to be milked and fed into industry for profit. Media artists working with technology firms have often found their intellectual property deployed in commercial products—sometimes without permission or credit. Such an approach does not engage in the labor of renewal or regeneration—extraction’s opposite—and in creative fields can exhaust artists, organizations, and communities pouring their sweat equity into this work.

In art and technology fields, open-source practices offer a radical alternative to this logic of extraction. “Open source” originally referred to software code developed in a decentralized fashion, emerging collaboratively through peer review and community production, and designed to be publicly accessible. It has since become a movement whose values and distributed production model undergird and sustain community and creative agency. For media artists, open-source tools afford creative freedom, human interconnection, and new avenues for artistic expression.

As the 21st-century return of the art and technology lab affirms, artists can uniquely enliven technological research and development with creative vision. Open-source approaches channel that expression in service of self and community as well as product. For many art and technology practitioners, toolmaking is as much an exercise of their creativity as the production of artworks. When existing tools have met their limits, artists have long built instruments to realize their creative ambitions.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ report, Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium, traces these open-source ethics in the practices of independent sound artist and inventor Onyx Ashanti, as well as the collectives who built openFrameworks and Processing, software tools now widely used for creative coding projects. Beyond supplying emerging and established artists with better instruments, these tools embody regenerative politics invested in building and fortifying community. Guided by a fundamentally cooperative ethos, a driving philosophy that reimagines “do it yourself” (DIY) as “do it with others” (DIWO), these toolmaking projects show how artists can foster new social possibilities for technology—outside of industry paradigms and the extractive logic of capital.

In their core commitments—and impact—these open-source projects signal an urgent need to expand access for diverse artistic communities to all stages of technological development. By working with existing and emerging commercial technologies, artists have pressed them into service of compelling creative and critical outcomes. On their own, however, these commercial engagements do not nourish the field. As fertile as the investment cycles around new technologies have been, a lack of ongoing support makes it very challenging to sustain healthy art ecosystems. As more wealth is captured in the coffers of massive corporations, it becomes all the more pressing for funding agencies to nurture incubation efforts beyond the sphere of industry. A regenerative art and technology ecosystem that serves artists demands ample material support of these open-source toolmaking efforts—and the organizations that champion them. Open-source projects, makerspaces, and other independent labs are the crucibles not only of the tools but also of the communities building the future of art and technology.

As a writer, curator, and educator, Vanessa Chang builds conversations and communities about art, technology, and embodiment. She is senior program manager at Leonardo/ISAST, where she runs CripTech Incubator, an evolution of the Recoding CripTechexhibition. She holds a PhD in modern thought & literature from Stanford University. Her work appears in Wired, Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, Noema Magazine, Journal of Visual Culture, and Art in America, among other venues.