future things: on skawennati, yan jun, feedback improvisation + international kindred in montreal

i’m writing from a train pressing through a gray quebec landscape. yesterday i spoke at science faction, the sight + sound international digital arts festival in montreal. the panel i was a part of was called ‘whose fictions? upturning the male dystopian gaze’, and it was pretty fantastic.

i am wary of things that sound very cool, especially in the digital tech world – i always seek the organic connection. this space felt like building the organic bridge between technology and the heart, desire, evolution. it felt like being amongst those who will tinker and experiment and push edges into the future. i was blown away by the kindred thinking of the other artists on the panel, especially skawennati, who i got to connect with before the panel on sex, sugar and sabbaticals. i share my notes from the conversation below.

i also got to experience a few other artists. sound artists. i have found a new experience to love. let me start there.

the first artist was named yan jun and he did something called feedback improvisation. i followed an instinct to sit in the very front row. an announcement came on before he played, that the performance was subtle, so the audience should be quiet, calm. the room was dark, just a bright light where his equipment was set up. it looked like a bunch of volume knobs, a sort of gun with a cone at the end of it, some round metal disks, rubber bands.

yan jun walked up with a quizzical alert look on his face. he took off his hoodie and draped it over the back of his chair, then took off an outer shirt and folded it carefully and draped it too. from the first movement, everything felt meticulous, intentional. he sat down and started making noise. the noises he made took us on a journey. sound is vibration, we are vibration, and he took us to the very edge of what the body can handle in a performance that was part meditation, part internal massage, part tension and distress, part caress.

subtle, yes, and incredibly sensual. he would hold a piece of paper near the sound gun, or press two fingers against a vibrating coil, and the feedback would shift in ways that sounded like dancing, heartbeats, terror. at one point i was sure i heard a choir in the static. it was strange and exquisite.

after him, leslie garcia came on with bio-box, this complex set up with algae and moss in little dishes, hooked up to wires, so that the sounds of the plants could be used to create music. it was beautiful and paradigm shifting – there was so much life in the sounds. leslie is from mexico city. she says at home she has over 80 variety of plants, and each makes a unique sound, that philodendron sound nothing like lavender, and algae nothing like moss.

if the opportunity comes to you to take in some sound art i recommend it. get high first, it helps you listen with your body.

now, notes from ‘whose fictions?’

our facilitator erandy vergara was wonderful. she opened up by asking us to speaking about how fiction can move us beyond binaries, and offered us two questions:

1. how does something unnatural become natural? (if you cannot reproduce human children, for instance, it is considered unnatural – how does it become natural? she had a clip from the movie her to explore this, but as is the case at every tech related conference i have ever been to, the tech didn’t work)

2. how does the cyborg figure show up in your work?

i was the first speaker. i spoke of my social justice background, my background reading and watching sci fi, and how that was coming together in my life through octavia’s brood and my sci fi salons and emergent strategy sessions.

i said for me the cyborg figure – which is becoming current, i am one step away with my constant devices – is a way to explore: what is freedom? the ways we become cyborg are not necessarily so drastic, so binary as human, not human. it is often to address some self-defined limitation. my friend recently got bone anchored hearing aid to counter the severe hearing loss he’s experienced in the past few years. he looks like a future. i think our cyborg age will likely come very naturally, slip through and into us, as an expansion of nature. afterwards i thought about talking about cyborgs and economic divide – who gets to enhance? how do we hack into cyborg equality? but perhaps that will be a future talk.

in terms of natural or unnatural, i said what interests me is how often that which is different is considered unnatural, at least at first. but really difference, diversity, is what nature shows us works for evolution.

i said fiction is one way to naturalize things which people aren’t yet comfortable with. i have been thinking about this lately as it relates to the idea of ‘master’s tools’…perhaps there is no such thing. master’s ideologies, yes. but there are tools, masters use them, so do we. fiction, storytelling is a tool. men, mostly white men, have used it to express their imaginations for years, particularly in the realm of science and speculative fiction. through projects like octavia’s brood, we as women, people of color, queer people, feminist men, claim this tool for the inception of our own power in the future.

skawennati was next, and i just have to say i love this woman, and i love her partner. some people you meet and its just easy from the start.

her work focuses on natives in sci fi, imagining indians in the 25th century. she used second life to create a series. she spoke my thesis: if we dont imagine ourselves in the future we will not be there. she said particularly in native communities, ‘we spend a lot of time thinking about the past. its an unfulfillable wish’. she did a millennium project where she made a timeline from just before contact, 1490, to 2490. as she moved through it she realized it was a girl project, and wanted to do a brother project.

she created a scenario about a time in the future when people have a device that they can put on and have the 3d experience of a historical event. in her work it was important to notice that her people, mohawk people, were no longer worried about survival, they were thriving now.

of her character, skawennati shared that by learning about himself, his history, he learns to love. he is even financially successful. she said she was inspired by a lyric from an indigenous artist: ‘im gonna live real lavish for all the times you called me savage’.

the final speakers were members of the transnoise collective, a platform based in barcelona for artists to collaborate. they said they are part of the transhack feminist movement. their approach is network, DIY, performance as a way to live. play with noise. they use garbage from the places where they perform. there were technical difficulties and a language barrier, so i don’t have as much of their content, but they shared awesome stuff, such as:

– we understand ourselves as a mixture of culture and nature.
– no more projects and outcomes, more processes
– we see in research that bacteria sex is the transmission of information. sex, pleasure is another level of information, of communication.
– the fear of the unknown doesn’t exist. you have fear because of something you know, something you have heard, even if it is false. you heard it. it made a belief in you.

then erandy asked us how working with communities had impacted our practices. i shared that as a virgo, an oldest child and an american i was oriented towards individualism. but i have also learned from early achievement that success in that context is isolating. so with lots of fits and starts and lessons, i can proudly say community is growing me.

the allied media conference has been a major space of being and working and growing in community, around the principle: we begin by listening.

i shared that in most of octavia butler’s work (its always comes back to her somehow, she is muse and prophet to me) she is challenging hierarchy. that has really impacted me. it’s working with others, but also shifting traditional power dynamics.

the collective creation process of the sci fi writing workshops has been major – when building a world with others, the imaginative space goes beyond what i would think alone.

i also spoke to pace in terms of learning to work with others. often we realize we want to be more collective in our approach, and then leap from working alone to being part of an intricate highly involved collective.

collectives are advanced. the phd level of human interactions.

i have been learning to work with one other person at a time, and learning about myself in that. my work with walidah on octavia’s brood, for instance, is really revealing for both of us.

creating with others in detroit is important to me. i realized that so many of the spaces i was in in detroit were about our shared suffering, victimhood, powerlessness. and we need the reality of those spaces, to grieve and vent. but i also needed to experience and create generative healing space. and the pleasure of creating together.

at some point we spoke about embodiment – how important it is to bring the body self, which needs to eat, drink, have sex, have pleasure, into the space where the future is being imagined.

skawennati said people should teach that sex is for pleasure, instead of procreation. my heart flipped. i shared how my brother is talking about not teaching the babies the concept of virginity. how do we teach different things about the role of intimacy, the work of bodies – to not see ourselves through a religious lens, but a wholistic lens.

i spoke of pleasure, referencing audre lorde and the uses of the erotic. that the body and pleasure can be a compass for leaving behind suffering. people are motivated to change for pleasure, for desire and longing more than fear. we have tried scaring people to change, for instance, with climate change. but we have to paint compelling futures because we change when the future is so beautiful, abundant, not because it is so terrifying.

skawennati countered, ‘our society is based on fear. turtle island was developed on fear, religion based fear. telling people how bad they are. same in europe in all colonized countries. i think this is the role of the artist – to think about ways for us to move forward as a society. to put these ideas out and hope they take root.’

she recommended reading snow crash and physics of the future.

in the conversation we also got to speak to how important it is to create outside of the ongoing dynamics of oppression. toni morrison speaks to this, and nnedi okorafor has spoken about writing stories without white people in them, not as a slight to white people, but just because she writes worlds centered on black or african people who are reacting to other challenges than whites.

this means not centering our victim selves, but our creative selves. it becomes easy to come together based on shared oppression, and then start to compete about something that cannot be measured – the suffering of oppression.

i spoke about emergent strategies as an alternative. birds don’t win migration, they just go where they are supposed to be, adapting and facing the challenges along the path. this gives us space for our complexity, to have oppression in our identity and so much more. to have the tools in our communities not just to commiserate, but to move through and beyond grief and survival.

i noted that i intentionally spend a lot more time on healing, generating solutions, positivity, in relationship to others focused on cultivating the same things. as radical work.

an audience member asked how we respond to the singularity, the idea that eventually we will create an artificial intelligence that surpasses us, and how can we continue in, or merge with, that future?

i referenced kweli tutashinda’s book on grassroots and indigenous responses to singularity, which basically posits that we are all connected, that the intelligence of the planet, of life, is beyond what we comprehend and that will still be the case in and through the technology we create.

but also, we have to keep working on increasing our capacity for impermanence. meditate.

another audience member asked how to get more women to his hackerspace in mexico city. the other panelists spoke of creating women only spaces, safe spaces for women to be a part of. i added that it would be amazing if the people there, if the men reflected on how to turn up the feminine in themselves.

between the talk and performances i met two women. one was anne goldenberg, a feminist hacker artist who had just given a workshop on meditation and computers and somatics and being present with the body of your technology and the body experiences you have in your computer interactions. i was so excited to hear somatics!, and loved the premise of her work, bringing mindfulness to the machines we use all the time.

the second person was named angela gabereau, co-creator of this awesome little expressive lamp. she invited me to be a part of her current project, a queer futures online video tarot deck. um…yes.

i think that’s everything.

i will just add that having the organizers bring me by train rather than plane worked beautifully to give me a writing retreat. i feel creative and rejuvenated in it.