A forest blooming with power cords and algorithms, a sea drowning in data and waste: these are the terrains evoked by Synthetic Wilderness, a group exhibition currently on view at LA’s Honor Fraser gallery until 18 December. Curated by tech writer Jesse Damiani, the show features three artists—Nancy Baker Cahill, Xin Liu and LaJuné McMillian—whose work traverses the social, political and cultural implications of emerging technology. McMillian does this with an added emphasis on marginalized communities. Through their series of NFT self-portraits, the artist examines technology’s twofold capacity to harm already vulnerable people as well as spark liberation for them. Using Unreal Engine and an avatar creation software, McMillian (who will be participating in a speaker series related to the exhibit, called “NFTs in 2022” in 13 November) distorts their profile, creating a kaleidoscope of colors that grows like a rhizome and bursts across the frame.
To McMillian, this evolving effervescence is akin to portals opening, where bright and bold entrances beckon towards better, pluralistic worlds. In fact, imagining how liberated bodies can exist in digital and real-life realms often permeates their art. Their previous work, the Black Movement Project, is an online database of motion capture data from Black performers and Black character base models that seeks to help activists and artists connect to their spiritual and physical bodies through digital media. We spoke with McMillian about the signification of data, using technology as an art form and what it means to build systems that care for oppressed communities.
Why do you gravitate towards digital forms of art?
I started using digital tools in my work as a student at NYU, and I basically just fell into it. I didn’t go to be an artist. I went to be an engineer, and then sort of changed my major and fell into technology. I became really interested in not only using the tools and softwares, but actually teaching them, because these are tools that we use in our everyday lives. I use them to talk about the larger contexts that they have.
You use tools especially when critiquing them. What is gained or conveyed when using the medium that you’re analyzing?
The process of understanding and dissecting that tool—that’s the main focus and importance of the work itself. I think it’s important to work with the tools you critique because if you don’t do that, then it’s a lot easier to perpetuate systems. I have to be honest, I grew up in New Jersey in the US, so I have a lot of embedded oppressive systems in my body and in the ways that I operate. So I’ve been going through that process of undoing and unlearning, but you can only do that work when you dive into it.
Another theme of the self-portraits is locating opportunities for liberation within digital spaces. Where do you locate this hope?
It’s not a hope in the digital technologies that we have right now, it’s really a hope in us as people because people are essentially building these tools and software. I’m hoping to get to this place where I’m erasing the power of digital tools and re-establishing that power with the people. Basically, we have that power in us, within our bodies, our ancestral technologies. We have to stop looking so far outside of us to do the work that we’re supposed to do from within.
In your self-portraits from other shows, like “Self-Portrait 2,” you make a reference to Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, which talks about using errors in the system as a site for resistance. How does your work relate to this idea of glitching?
What I really loved about Glitch in general was this idea of the body being a world-building tool. In a lot of my movement work, I work a lot with Glitch, where I never clean the motion capture data of my live performances. To keep the glitches of the machines within the work, I highlight the relationship between technologies and our bodies.
We prescribe machines all of this power. In the term “motion capture,” that term capture assumes that machines can capture us and within my work, within my process, I’m rejecting that. Machines don’t capture us—they witness us in different ways. So what does it mean to transition that relationship from being captured to being witnessed? What does it mean to transition our relationships to the tools and technologies that we use so that they’re not violent? Glitch provides that opportunity for that to occur, because it basically says that these tools aren’t perfect, but that we’re allowed to add in who we are into that process. And often, when we add who we are to that process—because we’re not perfect—it makes everything a little bit messy. To make room for this mess is a beautiful thing.
Can you talk about the movement within your portraits? When thinking about technology and how it is a binary thing, fluidity often feels contradictory—yet your digital work is filled with movement. Where does it come from?
When we bring our humaneness into anything—whether it be computers or performance or any type of medium—there is automatically a fluidity. In one of my workshops, we talked about this term called “embodied metadata.” It’s the data about the data that our bodies produce. This additional data talks about what it means to be human, the messy data that nobody really talks about. What does it mean to use that embodied metadata as a way to hack digital technologies and softwares? What does it mean to re-establish our connections to our embodied metadata? What does it mean to acknowledge the inherent violence in these tools?
How these digital tools are presented to us, they are a reflection of the larger society around us, so there are also ways to tap into those liberated realities in the world around us; we don’t have to just live in oppressive systems. We can actually build and mold our own systems that care about us. Actually, a lot of the histories of these digital softwares and tools are commodified technologies from other cultures. So what does it mean to de-commodify these tools? De-commodify our community?
How can I bring myself, my community, into these spaces in a way that really allows us to be liberated and how can that also be reflected in the outer worlds that we live in? I talk a lot about portal-opening in my work, so I guess visually a lot of my work is revealing and opening up portals into those realities and what they may look like, adding abstraction to them so that it leaves room for multiple realities to exist. It’s not necessarily about the technology; it’s really about what it means to be fully in the world.
Hero image of LaJuné McMillian’s “Self-Portrait 4” courtesy of the artist