Photo credit: Zack Arp

Photo credit: Zack Arp

 

 A MAKER PODCAST exclusive interview with speculative neuroscientist, storyteller, writer & inventor, Ashley Baccus-Clark

“I believe in empowerment through technology”

Brave new world

Ashley Baccus-Clark is a Brooklyn-based 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.

I first spoke with Ashley Baccus-Clark via WhatsApp in June 2019. I realized somewhere around the 12-minute mark that I needed more information in order to keep up with Baccus-Clark. Consequently, I made a plan to interview her face-to-face during her impending visit to Amsterdam.

Photo credit: Zack Arp

Photo credit: Zack Arp

During her recent visit to Amsterdam, I had the privilege of taking my maiden voyage into the world of virtual reality with Baccus-Clark,a soft-spoken, bespectacled woman with dreadlocks carefully arranged atop her head. With her deep and intelligent gaze, she is easy to engage and has a warm, inviting energy that encourages thoughtfulness and curiosity.  Clearly an original and creative thinker, the most impressive thing about Baccus-Clark is her low-key genius.

Baccus-Clark’s award-winning work, NSAF (Neurospeculative Afro-Feminism) is a VR experience that places the user inside the experience of being in the chair of a hairdresser in an African-American beauty salon. The beauty salon is the context in which the actual experience (gentle rewiring to “escape neural tyranny”) takes place.

 
What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.
— Octavia Butler

Virtual and Tangible

The NSAF is both virtual and tangible. After experiencing the VR environment, you can touch products created by Hyphen-Labs i.e. the visor, the scarf or, the sunscreen. These items may seem basic however, upon further inspection, we can see the attention to detail , the beautiful packaging and the built-in technological advantages. These are”smart”products.

 
Art used to be science, and science used to be art.
— Ashley Baccus-Clark
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The security guard told me I didn’t look like I belonged in the lab [...] this is when I realized I had to find another way...a backdoor to science
— Ashley Baccus-Clark
I am a storyteller and an inventor [...] my tools are science and art.
— Ashley Baccus-Clark

Hyphen-Labs describes the NSAF VR experience as follows:

Operating at the intersection of product design, virtual reality and neuroscience, is a neurocosmetology laboratory that has developed a series of accessories designated to address problems experienced by black women in their daily lives such as surveillance, lack of privacy and police violence. Among its products are a scarf to avoid facial recognition , a dichroic reflective visor that averts hostile looks, and earrings with embedded micro-cameras that record transgressions. 

If we can change people’s realities, how does that impact the way our brains are wired and how we register things?
— Ashley Baccus-Clark
 

Their flagship product is a virtual reality experience that immerses customers in a kind of futuristic hair salon. The setting refers to the long history of salons as ‘safe spaces’  for women of color and a fertile ground for political and philosophical discussions. When wearing the VR-headset, users experience themselves as a black woman with long braids who will soon be fitted with ”Octavia Electrodes,” which propel the wearer into a dreamlike digital multiverse. Thanks to the ‘Octavia,’ an explicit reference to the American science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler.

 
All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.
— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

meta

I had the honor of having Baccus-Clark place the VR unit on my head, gently adjust it, and wish me a pleasant voyage. Having the designer personally share her vision with me felt like it must have felt to have Henry Ford personally show you his Model T.

It helps to know a bit about African-American popular culture in order to fully appreciate the elegant and subtle cameos in the NSAF VR experience. For example, the character, “Naima” is named after the John Coltrane composition of the same name from his 1960 album, Giant Steps.

 
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I want to find new ways of thinking about big scientific problems.
— Ashley Baccus-Clark

There is also prominent mention of Octavia E. Butler, the first African-American woman to gain popularity as a science fiction author. Widely considered the godmother of Afrofuturism, Butler once said, “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction.” By inventing new VR experiences and continuing to address complex issues, Baccus-Clark has taken Butler’s science fiction universe to the next level.

We invite you to listen to Baccus-Clark’s exclusive two-part MAKER interview below.

Ashley Baccus-Clark is a Brooklyn-based 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.

She regularly works with Hyphen-Labs and is part of the Ida Rubin Artists in Residence programme of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology.

Learn more about Ashley’s work here.

Special Thanks to:

Ashley Baccus-Clark for sharing her time in Amsterdam with MAKER 

Dimension X sample courtesy of Archive.org

Music Ashley Baccus-Clark PT I courtesy of Yerim Camara

NSAF detail cards courtesy Hyphen-Labs

Part II Ashley Baccus-Clark recorded at Studio Coco, Amsterdam

Orlando Jousset for audio production and copy layout for this episode