On Hyphen-Labs

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 29, 2017

This week, we are thrilled to present NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, the latest project by Hyphen-Labs, an international collective of women artists, designers, engineers, game-builders, and writers known for works that merge art, technology, and science. 

In this interview with SAIC graduate student Mev Luna, the collective shares their thoughts on Afrofuturism, virtual reality, ritual, and other concepts related to their project and overall practice. 

Hyphen-Labs, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, ongoing. Image courtesy the artists.

Mev Luna: Your latest project is titled, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism. Afrofuturism is a term that is heralded in our contemporary moment, but can be traced all the way back to the 1970s, the root with Sun Ra’s film Space is the Place (1974). There are a lot of current manifestations of Afrofuturism in art, including the work of sound, video and installation artist Kamau Patton, who’s faculty here at SAIC; UK based conceptual artist Sonya Dyer and her collaborative project And Beyond Institute for Future Research; and the work of artist Otobong Nkanga, as discussed by scholar Denise Ferreira deSilva in e-flux journal.

How do you trace your lineage within Afrofuturism? And what aspects of the aesthetic are you drawn to?

Hyphen-Labs: We contextualize this project within the lineage of Black women’s literature, especially poetry and magical realism, Black art history and philosophy, and non-colonial scientific exploration. The themes, symbolism, language, and coded messages draw most heavily from Mother Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Colson Whitehead, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. From an artistic perspective Arthur Jafa and Chris Ofili were informative to our work, as well as emerging artists we encountered on Instagram. So not specifically Afrofuturism as it manifests as a categorical and theoretical framework but people of color creating work that places us firmly within the context of futurity while subverting the white “validating” gaze. The idea of performing research in public spaces also resonates with the projects so thank you for the introduction to deSilva’s work.

ML: I’ve been thinking a lot about future and how it has been invoked in discourse around the marginal body, both in Afrofuturism–as claiming a black future to be called into a present in which black lives are precarious, and Black Lives Matter has been an important invocation–and in queer theory.

Similarly, in the opening of his book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009, NYU Press), the late José Esteban Muñoz wrote that “The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”

So I am curious, what does future mean to you? And what does it’s invocation do for us in the present–when so many marginalized people in serious state of precarity, and #nofutureness?

HL: We think of the future more in the realm of quantum physics. The future moves along a continuum of infinite possibilities and because of this, speculations about the future most often tend to reflect the dominant narratives of the current society positing the ideas. In quantum theory, looking at something changes its state thus re-rendering it. We’re looking at conversations being had about the future–especially in the digital landscape–and wondering where are the folks of color are. Speculative design is highlighting driverless cars, but we have yet to see a case study featuring a black or brown perspective. We have artificial intelligence reflecting the bias of the developers programming them, and it’s mostly not people of color so what you have is the erasure of histories and mis-categorization of black and brown bodies.

The problem is the future is rarely rendered by communities of color at the level of infrastructure and implementation. Where are the black and brown architects, engineers, programmers, mathematicians, quantum theorists, aeronautical engineers, chemists, roboticist, speculative biologists, neuroscientists, immunologists etc talking about the future on a global platform? Nope, it’s Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, Palmer Lucky, Mark Zuckerberg etc so current futurity is just repeating the past and present. The possibility of us starting from square one in the struggle for social justice is real unless we’re demanding our “spot at the table and bringing a chair” with us.

Hyphen-Labs, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, ongoing. Image courtesy the artists.

ML: Muñoz’s use of the word rendering reality makes me think about the medium of 3D rendering, which is also the medium of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism. The virtual reality and augmented reality artist Claudia Hart situates 3D rendering as a combination of photography and sculpture. The interface of the software, be it Maya or other softwares, is a liminal space between the body and the screen. It’s post photography–and considering the vast ability to download 3D models from the internet or to scan ANYTHING and import it into 3D space–it is also a very postmodern medium.

Where did the collective’s interest emerge in working in this medium? And what does 3D rendering allow for in your project that other mediums do not?

HL: We chose the 3D medium because it is what we know and it is a space that evolves very rapidly. Trained as architects and engineers, our designs are constrained by this world’s physical systems, existing infrastructures, and material properties.  In 3D, theses constraints drop away and we are able to express alternative pasts, presents and futures.

ML: 3D renderings are used more and more in commercial design, and given that Hyphen-Labs is a design firm as well as artistic endeavor, are you interested in this medium because of the aesthetic slickness it offers which is so readily found in contemporary design?

HL: Yes. As architects and engineers, 3D modeling, prototyping and digital fabrication have always been part of our work experience and we use 3D rendering to prototype what ifs… VR is an interesting medium because it fits the story we want to tell. Allowing audience to be enveloped in the materiality of our world and walk away having experienced many “feelings”.

Hyphen-Labs, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, ongoing. Image courtesy the artists.

ML: It seems as though the Beauty Salon is both a design implementation and a ritual. Not only a way to address the contentious issue of how the mainstream treats black hair, from Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair (2016) to Phoebe Robinson’s book You Can’t Touch My Hair (2016, Penguin Random House), but also the black ritual of hair braiding. Do you see this work as ritual?

HL: This work is ritual at its core. We hear from black women who have done the experience that it felt familiar and safe. In this time where the black body is endangered, where black and brown women are being abducted a few miles from our nation’s capital and no one is talking about it, we wanted to build a space of ritual, self-realization, and reflection. Black hair holds our ase and our philosophy.

March 30 – Hyphen-Labs NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 17, 2017

Hyphen-Labs, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, ongoing. Image courtesy the artists.

Hyphen-Labs is an international collective of women artists, designers, engineers, game-builders, and writers known for works that merge art, technology, and science. Their latest project, the multi-platform NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism uses video, virtual reality, and medical imaging to explore Black women’s contributions to science while raising issues of identity and perception. Set in a future “neurocosmetology lab,” where Black women pioneer brain modulation and cognitive enhancement by embedding electrodes into extensions and braiding techniques, the piece reimagines technologies of beauty as media for scientific and social experimentation. Hyphen-Labs presents and discusses the project, while inviting viewers to help produce new images and avatars of Black women to reprogram our digital and physical realities.

Presented in collaboration with Black Cinema House.

2017, USA, multiple formats, ca 60 min + discussion

Hyphen-Labs members Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ashley Baccus-Clark, Ece Tankal, Nitzan Bartov in person

Carmen Aguilar y Wedge is a Cuban-Mexican-American engineer, artist, and researcher. In 2014, she cofounded Hyphen-Labs, an international team of women with backgrounds in art, design, engineering, science, and architecture who synthesize art and technology to create meaningful experiences. Emphasizing experimentation and alternative education, the team finds creative solutions and applications to complex problems using new media, emerging technology, robotics, and computation.

Ashley Baccus-Clark is a molecular and cellular biologist, and multidisciplinary artist who uses new media and storytelling to explore themes of deep learning, cognition, memory, trauma, and systems of belief.

Ece Tankal is an architect, moving-image maker, and multidisciplinary designer from Istanbul, living in Barcelona. She is one of the cofounders of Hyphen-Labs and operates at the intersection of art and human interaction to craft experiences that go beyond visual perception, performing tangible outcomes.

Nitzan Bartov is an architect, game designer and artist based in Brooklyn and Tel Aviv. She is a co-founder of n-Dimensional game studio and a recent member of Hyphen-Labs collective, where she explores mixed realities in an artistic context. Reflecting the movements between media, her work is a mashup of architecture, spatial storytelling, and pop culture.

On Sky Hopinka

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 15, 2017

Sky Hopinka, still from I’ll Remember You as You were, Not as What You’ll Become, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

We are excited to present Translations & Transmutations, in conjunction with Video Data Bank, featuring the work of artist Sky Hopinka.

Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians, creates sublime polyrhythmic films that draw upon his history and identity, addressing ideas of homeland, language, and landscape.

In addition to this week’s screening, Hopinka’s short films will be featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial opening this month in New York.
For more insight on Hopinka’s work, we’re linking to a recent article from ArtForum written by Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Read Lim’s article here.

Sky Hopinka, still from Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sky Hopinka, still from Visions of an Island, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

March 16 – Sky Hopinka: Translations and Transmutations

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 15, 2017

Sky Hopinka, still from Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

A Ho-Chunk Nation national and descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Sky Hopinka creates sublime polyrhythmic works that draw upon his history and identity. He presents a selection of recent works built around ideas of homeland, language, and landscape. In the dazzling Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary (2016), audio of one of the last speakers of Chinuk Wawa, a Native American language from the Pacific Northwest, echoes over images of memorials and contemporary structures around the city of Portland, Oregon that have complicated connections to the Chinookan people who have lived there for thousands of years. In a new work, filmed at the site of the Standing Rock resistance, the land is at once living and abstracted through history, politics, and money. Also on the program are I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become (2016), Visions of an Island (2015), and Jáaji Approx. (2015), among others. In English, Hocak, Aleut, and Chinuk Wawa with some English subtitles.  

Presented in collaboration with Video Data Bank (VDB) as part of the organization’s 40th Anniversary Year.

2015—17, USA, digital file, ca 60 min + discussion

Sky Hopinka in person

Sky Hopinka was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington and spent a number of years in Palm Springs, and Riverside, California, and Portland, Oregon and is currently based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Portland he studied and taught Chinuk Wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. He received his BA from Portland State University in Liberal Arts and his MFA in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

On The Passion of Remembrance

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 8, 2017

This week, we look forward to screening The Passion of Remembrance, the first feature film from The Sankofa Film and Video Collective, co-directed by members Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien.

Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien/Sankofa Film and Video, still from The Passion of Remembrance, 1986. Image courtesy of Women Make Movies.

For additional insight and context into this film and the impact of the collective’s work, we are linking to YOUNG BRITISH AND BLACK: A MONOGRAPH ON THE WORK OF SANKOFA FILM/VIDEO COLLECTIVE AND BLACK AUDIO FILM COLLECTIVE written by interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco.

Read the monograph here.

March 9 – The Passion of Remembrance

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 3, 2017

Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien/Sankofa Film and Video, still from The Passion of Remembrance, 1986. Image courtesy of Women Make Movies.

The Sankofa Film and Video Collective was part of a wave of politically-minded Black independent filmmakers who emerged in London in the 1980s, during an era of increasing social conservatism and racial unrest. The group’s acclaimed first feature, co-directed by members Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, is a prismatic look at gender, race, sexuality, and generational conflict. Interwoven with footage of England’s inner-city riots of the early 1980s, the film is comprised of two main storylines: one features a dialogue between an allegorical Black Man and Black Woman, and the other follows the everyday experiences of the Baptiste family from the 1950s through the 1980s. A rich and complex work whose reflections reverberate today.

1986, United Kingdom, Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien/Sankofa Film and Video Collective, 16mm, 80 min

Maureen Blackwood is a writer and director. After completing a degree in media studies, she cofounded the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Her works with Sankofa include The Passion of Remembrance (1986), Looking for Langston (1988), and Dreaming Rivers (1988).  She also wrote and directed the award-winning Perfect Image? (1989) as well as A Family Called Abrew (1994), Home Away from Home (1994), and Shop of Dreams (2005).

Isaac Julien is an installation artist and filmmaker. His work breaks down the barriers between different artistic disciplines, drawing from and commenting on film, dance, photography, music, theater, painting, and sculpture, and uniting these media to construct powerful visual narratives. Julien has had solo exhibitions at MAC Niterói, Rio de Janeiro (2016); Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City (2016); the De Pont Museum, Netherlands (2015); MoMA, New York (2013); Art Institute of Chicago (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2012); Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo (2012); Bass Museum, Miami (2010); Museum Brandhorst, Munich (2009); Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea – do Chiado, Lisbon (2008); Kestnergesellschaft,  Hanover (2006); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2005); and Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (2005).‌

On Stacey Steers

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | March 2, 2017

This week, we are excited to welcome back graduate student Julia Sharpe to write for us! Sharpe’s essay looks at Stacey Steers’ surreal films, which explore the inner-lives of women, meditating on fraught relationships, motherhood, medicine, and death.

Stacey Steers, still from Edge of Alchemy, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Whispering, dropping, digging, buzzing… A page peels back and a rose rapidly blooms and decays; the forest opens up into a cave which opens into a laboratory; the macabre flora and fauna grow and retract; tubes and beakers carry an elixir up from the earth. Everything is breathing, wheezing but living. Within a cottage of incubating eggs, one heroine writes, “strange things are happening here, mother.”

These are the shapeshifting worlds of Stacey Steer’s collaged trilogy Phantom Canyon (2006), Night Hunter (2011) and Edge of Alchemy (2017). Each iteration of the trilogy combines victorian engravings, drawing, painting and an appropriated female figure of the silent film era: Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor and an unnamed figure from Eadweard Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion. Each film is nearly black and white except for the sparse reds, greens and blues added to the female figures and the entities that haunt them. There is no oral language in this world, but rather an ambient chorus of sighs and whispers amidst the whistling wind and rustling forest. The result is an answer to the question: what are these women experiencing in their silence?

Stacey Steers, still from Edge of Alchemy, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Separate, but united formally, each film evokes an internal/personal creation myth that pivots around the transformative nature of longing for another, nostalgia for what has been experienced and longing for possibility. Insects, serpents, eggs, vegetation, bed frames, laboratory equipment become physical embodiments of desire and fear. Manifestations of the imagination that are the result of experience outside of the body become lived experience within the psyche. Silence becomes the presence of an imaginative internalization of exterior experience.

In this way, when Lillian Gish’s figure in Night Hunter writes “strange things are happening here, mother” she invokes each layer of the self: the physical body in space, and the space created by the internal psyche through which feelings manifest as lived experience. Such that an incubating egg in the psychic space becomes an allegory for something happening to the physical body. This triple space contains terrors and pleasures, fears and desires, longing for separation and communion. What feels particularly acute about the convergence of these spaces in Steers’ work is the simultaneous collision of domestic and feral space within the terrain. Further, that such a collision has the power to haunt, comfort or turn against these female figures; but that such power is only enacted by way of the figures’ own thought patterns. Because each system is closed, the female figures appear to be enacting these terrific dreams upon herself.

Thus, our answer to the question, what are these women experiencing in their silence, seems to be an evocative, personal and perpetual self-transformation, one that is strange, beautiful, terrific and tied inextricably to femaleness.

Stacey Steers, still from Edge of Alchemy, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.


March 2 – Stacey Steers: Edge of Alchemy

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | February 28, 2017

Stacey Steers, still from Edge of Alchemy, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Bees swarm, a bat swallows a young woman, and eggs and orbs multiply against backdrops of flora, viscera, and pulsating night skies. Such are the surreal visions of Stacey Steers’ animated films, which she composes by hand from thousands of silent film stills and fragments of 19th-century engravings and illustrations. Over the last decade, she has produced a trio of works on women’s inner lives, meditating on fraught relationships, motherhood, medicine, and death through the images of early film stars Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, and the unnamed women of Eadweard Muybridge’s proto-cinematic study Human and Animal Locomotion (1887). She presents all three films, Phantom Canyon (2006), Night Hunter (2011), and the latest, Edge of Alchemy (2017), together for the first time.

2006–17, USA, multiple formats, ca 50 min + discussion
Stacey Steers in person

Stacey Steers is known for her process-driven, labor-intensive animated films composed of thousands of handmade works on paper. Steers is a recipient of major grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Creative Capital, and the American Film Institute. She was the focus of a major retrospective at the 2015 Annecy Festival of Animation, France, and received the Brakhage Vision Award at the 2012 Denver International Film Festival. Steers’ animated short films have screened widely throughout the United States and abroad and have received numerous awards. Her films have been included in the Sundance, Telluride, and Rotterdam film festivals and have screened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and MoMA, New York. She lives and works in Boulder, Colorado.

On Nathaniel Dorsky

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | February 22, 2017

We are thrilled to welcome graduate student George Olken to write for us this week. In his essay, Olken reflects on the work of Nathaniel Dorsky, whose films explore the relationship between cinema and the unknowable. 

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Summer, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Nathaniel Dorsky captures silent images of the world, subtle shifts, beauty. His tools are deceptively simple: a 16mm camera with few controls and a small set of film stocks. To make this work requires remarkable patience—light moves slowly, the equipment is heavy, and one’s feet get cold standing still. One hundred feet of film (the maximum load for a camera such as his) runs less than four minutes at 18 frames per second. Measuring oneself against the tempos and durations of film-time is a humbling experience that has produced many earthbound visions. But where others see material existence, Dorsky sees through it to the spirit.

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Variations, 1992-98. Courtesy of the artist.

Speaking at the Harvard Film Archive in 2013, Dorsky explained how the architecture of cinema affects filmmaking. In the theater, the screen is positioned like a stage for images. Many filmmakers follow this logic, as if gravity pulls the bodies on screen down to the bottom of the frame. This need not be so. Dorsky’s images explore other possibilities in thrilling variety: looking down and up and through. He takes nothing for granted; darkness and color become load-bearing elements in his films’ structures. He held up his hand to diagram his concept of editing: the color red, for example, in two successive shots (he indicated his thumb and forefinger) becomes overdetermined—too meaningful; a little farther apart (thumb and middle finger) and it throws you out of the flow—remember the shot before last—too literal; but separated just enough (thumb and pinky), beyond conscious apprehension, and the film resonates. In Devotional Cinema (2005), Dorsky writes, “When all this is functioning and wedded to its subject matter, a film becomes like a leopard walking across a room—beautiful, liquid, and full of meaning.”

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Winter, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Winter, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

It is difficult to describe films like these—without characters or narrative—they are hard to recall (and not available in digital reproductions). One is left with banal fragments of what can be put into words: flowers, bubbles under ice, a mannequin seen through a window. Reading back in my journal, for one film I wrote just the word “dark.” Of a film titled Winter (2008), I wrote, “an older film about winter in San Francisco.” But that can’t be right because his films are not about. It is precisely description, and language, that they defy, which is why it is crucial they are silent. It is the continuity of sound that bridges, what Dorsky calls, the “intermittence” of vision; that connects a glance up into the sky with the ground, by the voices and noises out of view. Silence is “the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden.” Dorsky goes on, “Allowing intermittence into a film activates the viewer’s mind. There is an opportunity to make connections, to feel alive and stimulated. Making these connections, activating these synapses, brings the viewer into the present moment.”

Within that moment, one is suspended. There’s no way to anticipate what image will come next. Instead one is conscious of sitting in front of an event on screen—both the light from the projector and the moving pictures it transmits. It is like sitting in the world before a flower or a bee. There is no word for the feeling of shifting sand as wind changes direction (as in Dorsky’s Alaya, 1976-87); or the sight of a dying man brought back to life for a moment and then gone again with the cut (Dorsky’s friend George Kuchar in August and After, 2012). We see a world perpetually unfolding, like the turning camera motor, winding down, arrested a moment too soon.  

Behind these images, one feels a human being moving across landscapes. Given his propensity for the word devotion, one is tempted to call Dorsky a pilgrim. Suffice to say, he is a walker. Dorsky says he makes his films by walking each day with his camera. He says more recently, passersby eye his cranky old Bolex with curiosity and humor. It’s a relic from another time. But his films reveal an eternal present, what he calls “deep, vertical nowness,” within the ebb and flow of “horizontal temporality.” That’s when he’s trying to explain. Otherwise he says simply, “Human beings are born, live for a certain period of time, and die. There’s no denying that form.”

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from August and After, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from August and After, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

George Olken (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, MFA in Writing, ’17) taught and studied filmmaking with Robb Moss, who studied with Ricky Leacock, who worked with Robert Flaherty, who made the first film to be called documentary. He also makes cookies.

February 23 – Nathaniel Dorsky: The Dreamer

Posted by | Paris Jomadiao | Posted on | February 20, 2017

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from The Dreamer, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Since the early 1960s, Nathaniel Dorsky has been making extraordinarily beautiful films that blend a reverence for the sensual world with a deep contemplation of the mysteries beyond.  They are “occasions for reflection and meditation on light, landscape, time, and the motions of consciousness,” writes curator Steve Polta. Dorsky’s “photography emphasizes the elemental frisson between solidity and luminosity…while his uniquely developed montage permits a fluid and flowing experience of time.” In this rare Chicago appearance, Dorsky presents four recent films, Summer (2013), Intimations (2015), Autumn (2016), and The Dreamer (2016), each suffused with grace, joy, and mourning for changing seasons and times.

2013-16, USA, 16mm, ca 90 min + discussion

Nathaniel Dorsky in person

Nathaniel Dorsky (b. New York City) is an experimental filmmaker and film editor who has been making films since 1963. His 2003 book Devotional Cinema explores the relation between cinema and the unknowable. Dorsky is the recipient of many awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the LEF Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the California Arts Council. His work has been included for exhibition in the Whitney Museum, New York; MoMA, New York; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Modern, London; the Filmoteca Española, Madrid; the Prague Film Archive; the Vienna Film Museum; the Pacific Film Archive, San Francisco; the Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge; and the New York Film Festival. Dorsky has lived in San Francisco since 1971.

Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Intimations, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.


Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Summer, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.


Nathaniel Dorsky, still from The Dreamer, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

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