Cultural Archiving through Computational Generative African Print Tapestry.
In this research project my aim is to explore cultural archiving using computational generative art.
The project aims to produce a living digital archive of the cultural practices, traditions and artefacts of the Ndebele tribe of southern Africa.
The research draws on feminist technoscience theory, Afrofuturistic perspectives and speculative fabulation analysis to provide theoretical frameworks.
The semiotic materiality of printed cloth is pertinent, allowing for the review of textile and pattern as containers for visual cultural symbols as well as serving a practical, utilitarian purpose.
In setting the parameters for the digital archive, this research draws on the art of Yinka Shonibare, who uses African printed cloths in his sculpture and Esther Mahlangu a prominent Ndebele mural artist as well as search engine artist Gretchen Andrew and Noonoori a CGI model, whose use of African printed cloth is relevant to this project.
The research project uses an ethnographic methodology, allowing this and theory to inform the artistic practice.
A digital archive for cultural artefacts and traditions
The research seeks to contribute to the efforts to find sustainable and modern ways to record for posterity some of the traditions of tribes such as the Ndebele. I am interested in how technology might offer new and interesting ways to capture elements of cultures which have only been preserved by oral traditions and practice of rituals thus far. This attempt to encode in code these practises and narratives engages with the challenge of curating a new type of archive which can be preserved and shared in new ways.
In what can feel like a rush towards cultural homogeneity, the research aims to raise the question of how new generations of African diaspora can engage with the traditions of their heritage. In attempting to archive for future generations these traditions, I seek to follow the afro-futurist approach of reclaiming the post-colonial record and narrative of the Ndebele culture.
The influence of Afrofuturism 2.0 can be found in the use of social media as part of an ethnographic research approach and my assertion that new African aesthetic narratives can be developed by using the affordances of these technologies. In Afrofuturism 2.0 according to Anderson, “future-looking Black scholars, artists, and activists are not only reclaiming their right to tell their own stories, but also to critique the European/ American digerati class of their narratives about cultural others, past, present and future and, challenging their presumed authority to be the sole interpreters of Black lives and Black futures.” (Anderson, 2016)
The lineage of this project
I have a fine art painting practise, making abstract, patterned work. This sparked an interest in how this pattern making might be taken further as a metaphor for cultural patterns. I have started using generative patterns for projection installation pieces which explore similar cultural influences, for example an animated mural of Esther Mahlangu’s painting (‘Home is where the hut is’, 2018) as well as an installation exploring how modern medical culture codifies the grief process (‘Sorry for your Loss’, 2019).
This research project started with an extensive search online for digital cultural archives of the Ndebele tribe. Recognising the cultural influence and ability to shape perception of the search engine, led to a review of search engine artists such as Gretchen Andrew.(How One ‘Search Engine Artist’ Hacked Her Paintings Into Frieze Los Angeles’s Google Results, 2019) Her manipulation of the Google Images Search engine in particular revealed the inadequacies of Google as the first port of call for visual cultural information. The search for the Ndebele tribe served images of women like Esther Mahlangu whose paintings are well known. This seemed to reinforce the theory put forward by Galunic that the cultural products that survive are those that are ‘networked’, that is, those which use existing cultural elements and are references for other creative output. (Networks of elements drive human creativity: do they also stifle it? | Aeon Essays, 2019).
A key aspect of this research is that of preserving ritual and tradition in a textile and digital archive. The research considered the following particularly helpful. ‘Archives, derived from the Greek word for town hall, are the reservoirs of data and factual information such as records, documents, photographs, manuscripts, contracts, plans, and other material, considered significant for preservation (see Hodder 1998: 393–402). They are places and sources of inherited knowledge, that is, they are sources of information and simultaneously places of preservation.’ (Edited By Janis Jefferies, n.d.) This led me to ask, ‘what does this mean in a digital age and how can we ensure such an archive is not co-opted by other narratives?’
The need for a cultural archive was further emphasised by the revelation of the influence of social networks as spaces of cultural sharing and archiving. (Gajjala, 2011) The same search for ‘Ndebele’ in social network Instagram, returned more images of fashion shoots and was a helpful contrast to the top-down approach of Google. The self-selection use of the hashtags on Instagram, though still subject to an algorithm, seems to more readily engage with a self-actualised and self-defined approach of Afro-Futurism 2.0.
The search on Instagram also revealed new players in the cultural landscape. Computer-generated models. These new purveyors of fashion represent an intersection between the virtual and corporal space. In thinking about how patterns are worn, the collaboration between South African influencer Trevor Stuurman and the CGI model Noonoouri, creates a new precedent (Trevor (@trevor_stuurman) 2019). Taking a dress designed for the film Black Panther by artist Manthe Ribane and using it for an Instagram post that would reach tens of thousands, could be one way of creating a cultural archive.
New interpretations of cultural artefacts and traditions arose in this review. ‘In their seminal work, Cloth and Human Experience , Weiner and Schneider (1991) remark that ‘complex moral and ethical issues of dominance and autonomy, opulence and poverty, continence and sexuality, find ready expression through cloth.’ Indeed, they argue, ‘cloth has furthered organization of social and political life’, evoking ideas of tying or bringing together many different kinds of publics whether through the banners of the Suffragettes and Trade Unions or the wrapping of the fences at Greenham Common, or the laying down of the AIDS quilt or through addressing issues and relations that are not pre- given through kinship but are produced in gatherings and cooperations.’ (Edited By Janis Jefferies, n.d.) The research reflected on how cloths have been appropriated for social cohesion or well-being projects in the same way that the rituals captured in the generative pattern, namely the ‘isitshikitsha’ dance routine which was also used by theatre groups to engage communities during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
A few themes began to emerge. Firstly, the impact of software on the process both from a research perspective and in making the work. ‘Software produces culture at the same time as it is produced by culture.’ In pursuit of a new cultural archive, I was aware of what this might influence in turn. I was, initially, seeking to use digital data to influence the pattern making.
In considering software as a tool, we ignore the ways in which it changes the nature of what it processes. As the Snelting article suggests, we do not often think about the design, materiality and impact of the software that helps us make sense of our world. (Femke Snelting - Monoskop, 2006)
The choice to use a generative algorithm to create a pattern is a metaphor for how new interpretations can come from a few core parameters. ‘The processes of spinning, plaiting and weaving have been imperceptibly changing the world, finally emerging as the digitization of reality, and as new possibilities of matter to interconnect and engineer itself in unprecedented patterns and new designs. As male and female practitioners increasingly work with computerized looms, intelligent fabrics, pixeled screens, and the Internet, this connection between sexes, textiles, and technical processes is converging as never before (Plant 1995: 110)’.(Edited By Janis Jefferies, n.d.)
The technology offered some distance for me from the final creation of the pattern. In addition ‘not only does digital craft enable makers to navigate a continuum of possibilities through iteration and rapid prototyping, “computation makes autographic media allographic” (McCullough 1998, 102) The iteration of illustrations and paintings as a design basis could then be tested using Instagram.
‘Algorithm’ is a ‘term that offers the corporate owner a powerful talisman to ward off criticism, when companies must justify themselves and their services to their audience, explain away errors and unwanted outcomes, and justify and defend the increasingly significant roles they play in public life. (Algorithm [draft] [#digitalkeywords] – Culture Digitally, 2014) To some extent this was very appealing as I consided using generative algorithms to make the pattern.
The use of CGI models was an enticing one as I was led to consider the limitations of printing dance movements in a static medium. Could the dance be ‘taught’ to the CGI models and attached to a popular Afrobeats song instead? The creation and ownership of bodies, even virtual ones, is not without controversy as Cameron James-Wilson has discovered.(Petrarca, 2018) However this methodology for creating an archive, one which is inherently networked and potentially viral seems to be an avenue for further development.
I was initially drawn to generating a new African print because I recognised new opportunities and affordances from making this type of textile. ‘For Sandra Harding, feminist research and theory was based on a different ontology of methods. In citing Mary Daly’s concepts of ‘spooking, sparking and spinning’ (Daly 1978/1990), Harding was able to use the metaphor of spinning to elaborate new meanings, moving away from critique of patriarchal approaches to new insights. To spin is to also stretch, to co- develop our imaginations and thus weave new ways of knowing. This methodological approach also creates communities of practice both in practice and in theory. Feminist research meant the inclusion of political action, poetry, art, social science research and consciousness- raising feminist subjectivity’.(Edited By Janis Jefferies, n.d.)
Furthermore the intersection between the generated pattern, using imagery or video sourced online, and the physical printed cloth was influenced by the researcher’s view of the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’. ‘Weaving, Donna Haraway wrote, is for ‘oppositional cyborgs’, whether across the computer- generated screen of satellite images or through the electronics of the loom, mindful of the politics of location in its mix of metaphors as an ‘epic tapestry’ and a ‘bulletin board’.(Edited By Janis Jefferies, n.d.)
Understanding this project as a process of archiving some of the traditions led the research to consider the inherent metaphors which pattern and textiles provide for the weaving of ‘social fabric’, the organic and evolutionary development of a people and culture. ‘Ideas of location are picked by Homi Bhabha in his Location of Culture (1994) through the writing of Doris Lessing as a (now) conventional sign of cloth and the feminine to evoke ideas of nation and nationhood in transition and translation.
I aimed to find new ways of making the work interactive. The crossing from cloth to CGI raised an interesting choice to be made. ‘The caressing of fibre enables the remnants of an interior life to cross the boundaries of the body, from an ‘inside’ that is constantly in the process of weaving itself to propose a distinctive relationship between touch and vision, a crossing over from the tactile to the visual and back again. Merleau-Ponty (1968),’.(Edited By Janis Jefferies, n.d.) Eventually, I chose to make paintings, which allowed me to step into the physicality of the dance. My dancing abstract paintings have beats, rhythms and patterns which resonate with hope, joy and hard-won resilience. Most importantly to me, they have an authenticity which does not feel derived from the African prints designed in Holland, made in Asia and sold in Africa.
The accessibility of the CGI bodies, led me to abandon the fabric printing using generative computational programs, at least in the near term. Resorting back to painting, I found I could enact the dance movement while creating my own new patterns. This ensure the inclusion of that which could not be measured and simulated by digital means. I aimed to reduce the loss of the physicality of dancing. The series of paintings leaves room for new interpretations, for example the marks that might be left on the dust and earth as the dancers stomp into the ground. This connectedness to the ‘source’ would be a meaning lost when interpreting the dance purely in a computational practice. The individualistic nature of dance was established by use of the personalised illustrations in addition to the pattern paintings. I aimed to then create repetition to develop a new pattern. Stories could be told about the nature of the dance and the dancer.
A speculative fabulation framework could help guide the direction of the generation of the patterns and supporting in the creation of the imagery, symbols, colouration and other aesthetic decision making. I am interested in looking at memetics as a potential avenue of interest.
The artefacts generated in this project are part of a black speculative art practice, ‘ a creative, aesthetic practice that integrates African diasporic or African metaphysics with science or technology and seeks to interpret, engage, design, or alter reality for the re-imagination of the past, the contested present, and as a catalyst for the future.’(Anderson, n.d.) I imagine the characters in new stories of Africa wearing these, they could be the ‘skin’ of new CGI models which perhaps re-enact the dances of old.
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