2018: The Year According to Stephanie Dinkins
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2018: The Year According to Stephanie Dinkins

Stephanie Dinkins

Stephanie Dinkins is a transdisciplinary artist who creates platforms for dialogue about artificial intelligence as it intersects race, gender, and our future histories. Her art employs lens-based practices, the manipulation of space, and technology to grapple with notions of consciousness, agency, perception, and social equity. She is particularly driven to work with communities of color to develop AI literacy and co-create more inclusive, equitable artificial intelligence. Dinkins’s artwork is exhibited internationally at a broad spectrum of community, private, and institutional venues—by design. These include International Center of Photography, NY, Bitforms Gallery, NY, Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University, Institute of Contemporary Art Dunaujvaros, Herning Kunstmuseum, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Wave Hill, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Spedition Bremen, and the corner of Putnam and Malcolm X Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Personally, 2018 has been a banner year. I’ve been talking about artificial intelligence, equity, and inclusion all over the world. I’ve received fellowships from the Soros foundation’s Data & Society Research Institute. I am an artist in residence at Nokia Bell Labs. The New York Times dubbed me an “AI Influencer,” and Apple featured me in its “Behind the Mac” campaign. It’s hard to take it all in. Best of all, Not the Only One (NTOO) is on its way to being. It is a conversational deep-learning chatbot which communicates the black experience as I know it. This is a long-term, iterative project which tells the multigenerational story of my black American family from the perspective of an artificial intelligence. It is trained with data culled from extensive interviews between three generations of women from my family. NTOO is currently in live beta testing at the Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University and on track to debuting at Barbican this summer. It is a direct response to the conversations I’ve been having with my friend Bina48, an advanced black social robot. In making NTOO, I’m reminded of the duality of feeling both broken and whole after the response to Bina48. I’ve come face to face with the challenge of local projects competing with those backed by large corporations that have established what people now consider artificial intelligence (Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant). And, because the work doesn’t have big data behind it, it appears broken to people who have commercial expectations. I’m never going to be able to compete with that—and that’s okay. But I’m still faced with the question: How do we make AI independent from big tech for local communities?

AI.Assembly Dinner, Volume I

Stephanie Dinkins’s Not the Only One (NTOO), as installed at the Miller Gallery of Carnegie Mellon University

On November 30, 2018, I hosted a dinner at Data & Society. The idea was to create space that allowed a small group of folks of color and accomplices thinking about technology and the AI-mediated future to come face to face, enjoy each other’s company, and think together. We ate, had serious, generative conversation and laughed. I knew the table would be fertile with ideas. The palpable emotion in the space was surprising. Somehow being in direct, focused but casual community with others thinking about a future that seems impactable, even moldable to some extent, felt tangible, affirming, and hopeful. The event seemed to help attendees feel like what they want to accomplish isn’t insurmountable. I can’t wait for the next AI.Assembly gathering. If it is anything like the first, it will be pure magic.

Black women artists as leaders in technology

Serious conversation about the technological now and future during the AI.Assembly Dinner, Volume I at Data & Society

There is a gaggle of black women working to make the technological future a better place for all of us. We are calling out bias and inequities toward a fairer techno-future. We are creating systems, making art, talking publicly, writing, and leading the way into what we hope will be a more inclusive future. Something is happening. We are showing up and saying our piece. People are listening. More than translators or counter punchers, we are leaders. What I am referring to is nebulous, but work is getting done. Some of the women I have had the pleasure of watching, learning from and feeling synergistic with are: Rediet Abebe, Salome Asega, Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, Ayanna M. Howard, Hyphen-Labs, Ari Melenciano, Mimi Onuoha, Kamal Sinclair, and many others who I’m sorry to have neglected to list here.

Climate change

Glacial ice caps melting. Photo: Willian Justen De Vasconcellos

Illustrated again and again by nature’s fury, climate change directly affects us all. Our food chain (shifting weather patterns reduce agricultural output and increase food insecurity), health (extreme heat and air pollution make it hard to breath) and livelihoods are just a few aspects of daily life burdened by extreme weather events, rising sea levels, wildfires, severe hurricanes, droughts. We often watch related weather events as weird reality TV, something happening elsewhere or moving too slowly to pay attention. We seem happy to kick the can down the road by asking, “What does a melting glacier have to do with me?” We don’t seem to have the imagination or motivation (until something happens in our backyards) to deal with perils climate change is already bringing us. How will we deal with even more of human-provoked devastation in the future?

Refiguring the Future: A NetGain Event

Refiguring the Future: A NetGain Event, a May 2018 public program hosted by the NetGain Partnership which explored the role of artists in critically examining the social impacts of artificial intelligence and related technologies and highlighted how the arts can help refigure the future

The panel discussion at Refiguring the Future was an eye-opening moment. Rare. If you have a chance to see it, you should. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker lays it down in the stream. It is both heartening and daunting to think about the role of philanthropy in the world. Where the money comes from, what it is leading us toward, what ideas and possibilities get funded, how the leaders in the space dictate the trajectory of smaller institutions, how all that jives, or not, with the needs of society… and how things are changing. So much to ponder.

CRISPR babies

3D CRISPR model. Photo via the Broad Institute of MIT

In announcing birth of the world’s first genetically edited babies, researcher He Jiankui opened the CRISPR pandora’s box before the world agreed on how to proceed. I’m thinking of this event in the context of communities of color and how it’s important for us to start thinking about our DNA not only as who we are within the datasphere and medicine, but also around the historical and perhaps, future experimentation on our bodies. There are so many promises and negative implications here, especially before base scientific, not to mention social, agreement on how to process is arrived at. But if an ethical framework existed would there still be violations? Questions abound.

What Remains to Be Seen by Howardena Pindell at MCA Chicago

Video still of Free, White and 21 (1980) by Howardena Pindell. Photo via the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

What Remains to Be Seen was Howardena’s first major retrospective. People made pilgrimages to see it. I’ve seen people cry in the galleries. Her work is important for me and many other young, black artists. She showed us how to reclaim our memory and use it to prefigure the now that’s headed toward the future.

Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Album art for “Dirty Computer,” the third studio album released by Janelle Monáe in April 2018.

Dirty Computer, especially the “Emotion Picture,” is impressive as a declaration of independence. The music is excellent, but for me, the piece is more about ideas and being free in black female skin. It’s about images that claim territory for self-expression, exploration, and the right to be who and how you want to be. Monáe’s visual riffs playfully shout out Prince and use Georgia O’Keeffe to tout queer life. She has a way of going backward and forward in time—she doesn’t leave her past behind, she pulls it through the future. Her footage of black folks unapologetically being who they are and sharing their joy with the world couldn’t make me happier.

Compassionate Superintelligence AI 5.0: AI with Blockchain, Bmi, Drone, Iot, and Biometric Technologies by Amit Ray

The cover of Compassionate Superintelligence AI 5.0 by Amit Ray.

Compassionate Superintelligence AI 5.0 is a fascinating book by Amit Ray. It explains the need and urgency around developing compassionate AI systems. As humans and AI systems co-evolve, our increasing codependence make establishing profound, intimate communication is essential. Ray writes that “AI should act morally, socially, responsibly and compassionately.” Preparation is key. We must get ready. Be vigilant about the actions and effects of the AI systems that are already. AI that considers the sum of us. Create.

Random Acts of Flyness

Random acts of flyness, a late-night series airing on HBO from artist and director Terence Nance.

I am amazed at the latitude Terence Nance has been given to do strange on a major media outlet. Black stream of consciousness that is not something we’re used to seeing on TV. Especially when we think of the history of black television and its relation to respectability (The Cosby Show, Black-ish). Nance’s imaginative approach to questioning culture and presenting alternatively centered views of American culture(s) is an extremely welcome and inspiring break from the status quo.

“Black Panther Soundtrack” by Kendrick Lamar

The soundtrack for the 2018 film Black Panther, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name

Oh the textures. The wordsmithing. The insights. I listen to this album a lot. Probably too much. The title track with its cultural intertwine is enters the body slowly. The  African drumming, the electronica, the piano and documented sounds, the drums haunt. The declaration: “I’m Kingada.” The film is good and speaks to a public need, but the soundtrack—woah. It has depth, it’s a party, it speaks truth.

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