Would you like to receive some brain optimization and cognitive enhancement treatments? Then, step into this Virtual Reality (VR) salon and imagine the possibility of thus empowering yourself. The creator of this alternate narrative, Ash Baccus-Clark, is a speculative neuroscientist – a Molecular Biologist and an artist at heart.
While her scientific curiosity drives much of her art work, “I want to understand how things work, especially the ‘perfect’ human body,” her ultimate aim is to tell stories of evolving narratives. She wants to connect with as many people as possible so that she may continue to build her own network and challenge her own understanding of the world. “We tend to put ourselves in silos,” she said, “and I never want to be a human being who only engages with certain ideas and not all of them.”
This is where technology and creativity come into play. Baccus-Clark is a member of the Hyphen-Labs collective (Carmen Aguilar y Wedge and Ece Tankal), a creative space for making work that’s critical and engages with new forms of technology and media. Here, Black women designers from around the globe come together to share their visions and foster conversation through collaboration and innovation at a crossroads of science, art and technology. And here is where NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF), the award-winning digital project was born. The work features the VR experience, set in a Neurocosmetology lab where Black women are pioneering techniques of brain optimization and cognitive enhancement.
Ash Baccus – Clark spoke with curator Ingrid LaFleur, about this massive project, and particularly the VR component, which plays with the idea of Neurocosmetology. The project was created in 2016 during the tumultuous Trump presidency, as a space of hope and a breath of fresh air for the future, the artist said. “It started off as an inquiry: “Where are all the Black women in STEM fields, particularly neuroscience?” And then it “ballooned into this project of all of these other text spaces: Where are all the reimagined narratives that are driven in center of Black women and women of color?”
In the VR setting of Neurocosmetology, the participant is placed into the body of a Black woman who is on her way to get her brain optimized, not on her way to the hairdresser, as one might initially assume from the setting.
A key component of the analogy is the narrator of the VR experience, in the form of an older Black woman who guides the visitor. Naima, the narrator, breaks down the neuroscience for the audience in a non-threatening vernacular and through Negro spirituals. Her singing connects within our brains, our DNA and memories, explained Baccus-Clark, because sometimes words fail you, and a sonic guidepost points you to the meaning.
Framing it as a Negro spiritual, said the artist, points back to Black history, although the container of this project points to Black futures, reframing history in a way that tells a more complete story. Generally, history tends to leave out many details and the stories of many Black thinkers have been flattened out by history. Through the VR technology, these stories, Black history and heritage, can be re-imagined and re-invented to be whole again.
“This story of healing and connecting back to culture and building a mythology where one hasn’t been seen is a universal story,” Baccus-Clark explained. It is a story with which everyone can connect no matter their race or history. For the artist, this brings a special kind of fulfillment. “We all have to make a living, but at the end of the day, one asks: ‘Am I making this for my healing or the healing of my community?’” The answer to this question drives the work of Ashley Baccus – Clark and other Afrofuturists — to tell alternate narratives and build spaces of Black futures, a plethora of futures that include science, art, technology, architecture, and other spaces where these futures are heard, considered, funded, respected, elevated and edified.
Caveat: This conversation has been redacted and edited for clarity from an artist interview with curator Ingrid LaFleur.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF) by Hyphen-Labs is an award-winning three-part digital narrative that sits at the intersection of product design, virtual reality, and neuroscience inspired by the lack of multidimensional representations of Black women in technology.
The NSAF products range from sunblock for traveling through the multiverse, to earrings embedded with cameras that offer protection and visibility, the VR experience is set in a Neurocosmetology lab where Black women are pioneering techniques of brain optimization and cognitive enhancement. Finally, scientific research exploring the neurological and physiological impact of showing images of empowered Black women as well as content made for and by women of color.
NSAF has been shown at Sundance Film Fest, SXSW, Tribeca Film Fest (Jury Honorable Mention), Gray Area Art & Technology Festival, Primer Speculative Futures Conference, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Stony Island Arts Bank & Rebuild Foundation, New Inc: Versions Festival, Refinery 29’s 29 Rooms.
Ash Baccus-Clark is a Brooklyn-based molecular and cellular biologist and a multidisciplinary artist who uses new media and storytelling to examine themes of deep learning, cognition, memory, race, trauma and systems of belief. She is the director of research at Hyphen-Labs.
Hyphen-Labs is an international team of women of color working at the intersection of technology, art, science and the future led by Ash Baccus-Clark, Ece Tankal and Carmen Aguilar y Wedge. Drawing from their global vision and unique perspectives, they develop meaningful and engaging ways to explore emotional, human-centered and speculative design. In the process, they challenge conventions and stimulate conversations, placing collective needs and experiences at the center of evolving narratives. Hyphen-Labs is pushing the boundaries of speculative design and morphing global dynamics.