I interviewed Being (the Digital Griot) creator Rashaad Newsome remotely during the Sundance 2024 Festival. See more context in the rough transcript below.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So today's episode, we're going to be diving into one of the only XR projects in this year's selection of Sundance. Typically Sundance New Frontier has been around for around 17 years. They've had lots of different examples of immersive storytelling and pushing the edges of new forms of storytelling using emerging technologies. virtuality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. Last year, New Frontier took a pause. They didn't have any selection at all when it comes to XR projects. And this year, they really have one project called Being the Digital Griot. They also have 2D films, and so there's another film called Eno. Looking at the work of Brian Eno has different elements of generative documentary in the process of creating that film But I didn't make the trip out to Sundance just to see this one project But I did get a chance to see parts of the project and I'm just gonna read this synopsis description to give you a little bit more flavor Being the Digital Griot is a machine learning model run by a counter-hegemonic algorithm that multidisciplinary artist Oshad Newsom has been developing since 2019. Being the Digital Griot takes the humanoid form of a 30-foot-tall, femme-vogue, afro-futurist cyborg who writes and reads poetry and leads critical pedagogy workshops that teach people to decolonize their minds. So I had a chance to see a portion of this project where there's like a half hour reading a poetry. There's like a brief eight to 10 minute workshop that Being leads giving a little bit more context for some of the theorists around decolonization. And then folks are invited to break out into these group discussions to reflect upon their own relationships to these different hegemonic forces of power within our society. And then they come back and report on that to Being who then engages in a dialogue and interaction that the creator Rashad has been tuning and training and cultivating since 2019. So that's what we're coming on today's episode of the voices of Yara podcast. So this interview with Rashad happened on Thursday, January 18th, 2024. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:22.374] Rashaad Newsome: My name is Rashad Newsome. I am an interdisciplinary artist. I work at the intersection of technology, film and video, animation, sculpture, collage, performance and music.
[00:02:38.367] Kent Bye: Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into making this type of immersive work.
[00:02:43.971] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, so my formal training is I studied art history and fine art at Tulane University. I went on to study film, particularly post-production at Film Video Arts in New York City. I kind of came to programming through creative coding, which I learned I was introduced to at HarvestWorks Digital Media Arts Center in New York. And from then, I've just sort of continued to go back to that as a medium. often using it in my performance work and now sort of moving, engaging that in ways outside of the performance. But, you know, the way that I work is I'm always kind of bringing these various things together. And so, as you can see, even through moving into the realm of automation, there's still a performative element that comes into it as well.
[00:03:33.602] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so you're showing a piece that's going to be premiering at Sundance in the New Frontier section here in the 2024 selection. And so maybe could give a bit more context to Being the digital griot.
[00:03:45.055] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah. So Being, we'll be doing a interdisciplinary performance and because they're an AI, they don't have to merely stand and read their poetry. They'll be reading poetry that they generated and they can, you know, sort of change their environment. They can create supporting visuals to support their words. So it really allows them to really engage the full cinematic potential of presenting in the theater. after the interdisciplinary poetry reading, they then start a decolonization workshop. And that sort of entails them starting with a lecture. They give a critical analysis of the dance form that they use often in their poetry readings, which is Vogue Femme. They give a sort of critical analysis of how they introduce the audience to the work of bell hooks, particularly her theory around the capitalist imperialist white supremacist patriarchy and how we all are existing within that paradigm and how even communities like the ballroom community, a black and Latinx queer community that's created as a safe space is not immune to that particular apparatus and how that can be internalized and enacted on its community members. They then introduce the audience to the work of Paulo Freire, particularly critical thinking, which is a way that anyone, which is a strategy for anyone trying to transform their life. And so they get folks to think critically about how Bell's theory impacts their life and how they can start to make meaningful change. And so they go into breakout groups to then discuss that with each other. And then they come back and discuss that with Being one by one.
[00:05:27.770] Kent Bye: Awesome. And so, yeah, I had a chance to see some portion of this experience remotely where there's the half hour poetry reading and then the decolonization workshop, but I had a chance to see it within the full context of the entire experience where I have the breakout groups and discussion with Being. And so maybe we could take a step back and tell me a bit about the catalyst for this experience. Like what was the inciting incident that you decided to start training Being the digital griot?
[00:05:57.015] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, I really, you know, I am a huge student of bell hooks and I felt like coming out of the pandemic when I presented another version of this experience at the Park Avenue Army Drill Hall in 2022, I was thinking a lot about how we are creating these machines that sort of reinforce some of the worst aspects of the human condition. And so I feel like using her work as a moral compass for creating an artificial intelligence, whose goal is not to be a technology that is perfect, but rather help humans engage in a form of self-reflection so that we can then make better machines. Because there's all these conversations sort of circling this tool that sort of allows the creators to sort of hide behind them. And the tool is sort of the blame for any kind of problem. But I think that if we start to use automation and the various other tools that we've been gifted in our fourth industrial revolution, perhaps we can like work on ourselves and then make tools that can then better our lives rather than complicate them.
[00:07:07.184] Kent Bye: Yeah. And maybe you could give a bit more context as to the specific poet that you were either directly training on or taking inspiration from, or this poetry reading that we're experiencing in this first 30 minutes.
[00:07:19.550] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, the poet that Being is trained on is one of my favorite poets, Dossier Rustin Grego Sykes. He's a black queer poet based in Oakland. And I really wanted to use poetry because I thought about this sci-fi trope. where, you know, if you teach a robot to create, they'll create more of themselves and kill us. That's like an often trope in sci-fi films. But when you really think critically about that, that is sort of deeply inculcated in ideals surrounding white supremacy, this fear of the other. And I wanted to turn that on its head. And so I did want to give them the gift of creativity. And then when I was thinking about the various ways that I could do that, words and voice seemed like the most effective, particularly when I look at robots in relationship to African Americans within American history. When we came to this country, we were also seen as robots, you know, lacking the traditional subject object positionality. And so I feel like having a voice allows one to speak And so you can speak in a liberated voice, which allows you to transgress and also build community and start change. And so voice seemed to be the perfect way for them to be creative. And then it was about, OK, so how are they using their voice? And poetry seemed to be the best way to go forward with that. And then it was about finding that inspiration for that. And so Dazi has long been one of my favorite poets. And so for the summer of 2021, I trained the model on his work. So just running endless amounts of his work through the model, getting it to try to mirror his cadence, his usage of words, playing with the temperature. But also working with the text to make sure that it wasn't too based in like a human experience. I wanted Being to be, dare I say, a gesture towards a post-race, post-gender futurity. So it took some judging to keep the material in a more like heady kind of space. And so yeah.
[00:09:26.747] Kent Bye: Yeah, my experience of listening to the Half Hour Poetry, I was in this dual mode of trying to find the structure or the forms or decode all the meaning. I guess part of the experience sometimes when I am trying to understand these different immersive stories is that, you know, what is the narrative structure? It felt very associative. So it wasn't necessarily like any strong narrative arc. It was more of my experience was that I was listening to a lot of these and at some point I realized well maybe the whole point of this is to just absorb it and let it permeate my unconscious self to just take in what is essentially a long string of affirmations but also trying to decondition a brain that's very comfortable with trying to find those patterns and almost create an experience that is trying to break you out of those normal patterns, or at least trying to give you positive affirmations. You know, we're deluged with so many other messages throughout our lives that it can feel overwhelming diving into the slipstream of all the media that are out there. And so it felt like a bit of an antidote to that, where it was like a healing bomb that is trying to give more comfort and assurance, but also slipping into these more paradoxical phrases that are more designed to maybe open up your mind into new ways of thought. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you think about the structure of this piece, because it's a half hour and there's different themes that are coming up, but how you were trying to architect this as a journey to begin this experience.
[00:11:01.498] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, definitely in the beginning, it's very rooted in affirmation. And then that's working in collaboration with the soundscape. The soundscape was composed of sounds that came from a survey with over 80 black folks, multi-generational, various social economic identities, sexual identities, gender identities, to figure out what were sounds that Black folks thought were culturally specific and that they saw as soothing. And then that material was then composed into the score. And so the idea was to disarm you, sort of soothe and comfortable, give you affirmations, so that then you can go on this journey. And the thing that stood out to me that you said is this sort of to go deeper. The idea was to kind of move away from the superficial and go deeper and like question everything, really center critical thinking within this whole journey, thinking critically about yourself, thinking critically about the world around you. And yet there's tons of associative potential within all of the texts. And so I don't really talk about it in a very particular way other than getting people to try to think more critically, more deep about their lives in the world around them.
[00:12:22.173] Kent Bye: Yeah, Bing is called the digital griot. And maybe you could elaborate a little bit more of the tradition of the griot and the roots in West African cultures.
[00:12:32.247] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, within West African culture, the griot is sort of a living archive. They're also a performance artist. They're a healer. And I wanted to imbue Being with all these different qualities. And so in many ways, they are repository for virtuosic Black movement in terms of the way that they dance. You know, their data set is comprised of lots of motion capture data from various incredible Vogue film performers from around the globe. Also, just their general body movements in terms of the way they move and talk are also from various Black people from hoods across America. And that was also a way to kind of get at certain questions around how do I make this robot Black? if that is even a possibility, right? And so that came from thinking about the construction of Blackness and the performance of that, and how I could imbue this container with those elements. And then in terms of the intellectual production, that's also imbuing them with the work of bell hooks, Cornel West, various other radical Black texts, queer texts, feminist texts, abolitionist texts. And then sort of mapping out that information to try to create an exchange with the participants that feels like a philosophical exchange or a classroom sort of experience. And trying to train something like this or create something like this takes tons of time. And so often what we're doing in presentation is also training on the back end. So whatever can't be answered is added the next day. And so our hopes are that I can have this to the level of Asiri in the next five to 10 years. But it's a long road.
[00:14:27.888] Kent Bye: And my understanding with these types of like, I'm assuming it's some form of like large language model where you're able to train it on the language, but then also ask it specific questions. And so where is that part of the process was to train it on the data. And then as you're constructing this half hour poetry, were you prompting it with specific directions just to see what would come out then and then kind of string it all together?
[00:14:52.975] Rashaad Newsome: Well it's sort of in terms of like a technical structure it's set up almost like a game and so it's it's done for this particular premiere within Unity and so like the poetry component is deployed as a self-contained thing. It was generated and then it's deployed you know so that part I wouldn't say is like AI in the truest sense, in terms of it being interactive in that very moment. And that's also a technical decision because when you're trying to render cinematics like that in real time, you would need a massive computer and internet speed, which, you know, obviously Sundance doesn't have the capacity to do something of that scale. And so the real true AI experience is much more limited to the real interactive moment. And so in that experience, you will see the environment will change and be much more minimal when you get to the point where you're interacting with Being, because at that point, what I'm prioritizing is their ability to interact with the person in a swift way.
[00:15:53.543] Kent Bye: And so is the poetry portion also trained on a corpus of things that include like bell hooks and Cornell West, or was that other authors included more on the interactive component that the audience will get a chance to interact with at the end?
[00:16:07.889] Rashaad Newsome: No, it's trained really on the work of Dossier, Greg O'Tykes. Yeah.
[00:16:12.591] Kent Bye: Okay. And so what kind of corpus of thinkers are included on the more interactive component there at the end then?
[00:16:19.905] Rashaad Newsome: Bell Hooks, Paulo Freire, Cornel West, to name a few. Various other papers that grad students I was working with during my residency at Stanford put forth. Some of my own writing. Yeah, it's a pretty large data pool.
[00:16:36.793] Kent Bye: Okay, cool. Well, I guess that's one of the portions that I didn't have a chance to experience, but very curious to hear some of the feedback from other folks that are at Sundance and get a chance to see the full experience because you have the poetry and then you have what's essentially like a 10 minute workshop on decolonization. So maybe you could set a bit of that context because, you know, it reminds me of the Art of the Gathering by Priya Parker, she talks about the invitation and how you have to really, in some ways, set a context because you have an experiential context where people have a direct experience of this poetry that's getting them into a certain state of mind and state of being, but then I feel like the little video to kind of explain the broader context gives a lot more of the roots of both the process for how you created it. So in some ways, maybe answer some of the questions for some of the technical logistics, but then very swiftly transitions into setting the scene for a very specific conversation that you want to help facilitate as a group. And so maybe you could talk about the process of constructing that video that's both trying to tell about your process, answer some of those questions, but also to set this broader context for why it's important to have this conversation about decolonization.
[00:17:50.908] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, I think so. The beginning, really, we start with poetry as a way to kind of almost as like a bomb to get people into a certain way of thinking. And then we then get introduced them to the idea of critical thinking. and then get them thinking critically and talking to one another. And so then they come back and then they are then sharing those ideas with Being and then conversing with Being. And really, for me, at the core of all of that was, you know, I was thinking a lot about different conversations I've seen with Cornel West and thinking a lot about philosophy, like Theodore Androno, who thinks about truth as like a an existential process or like a way of life. And I was thinking a lot about how I can create a formation of attenton around that as like a way of life and how I could use automation, you know, as a way to create a being that could help us wrestle with reality, history and mortality and encourage people to engage in a maturing of the soul. And I think that That is really at the core of decolonization, right, is to decolonize our minds from all of the negative socializations that we've been accustomed to. And so, yeah, that's sort of the way I was thinking.
[00:19:14.308] Kent Bye: And it's really geared towards a couple of questions that are prompting the audience to then think about their own relationship to these multifaceted interconnected dimensions of what bell hooks was talking about the white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. So as you may have run through this a number of different iterations with different test experiences, maybe you could talk a bit about what you've seen in terms of having people break off into the one-on-one interactions and conversations, and then opening up to a group discussion, which is either going to have Being listening to it, or maybe there's an opportunity for the audience to directly engage with So just kind of walk through what you've seen in the early iterations of this where what kind of reactions or what kind of tenor of the conversations ends up happening once you have people break off and discuss these themes.
[00:20:08.662] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, I was actually going into it, I was really prepared for there to be a lot of conflict because, you know, the earlier iteration of this at the Armory started with a dance class and then people sat down and then they went into the breakout group and I am sort of creating this truly democratic space where these people come together, they don't know each other, and they're asked to talk about race and class and gender and all these things that folks never talk about. But it's also a space with a healthy sense of risk in that there's nothing you can say wrong, but you have to sort of defend what you're saying, and you have to think critically about what you're saying. And going into that, I thought, well, OK, this could really go left at different moments because of humans. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much generosity of spirit there was in the room. Often people were really open to hearing one another. And I kind of attribute that to Beings' presence in that there's something about them where they become, because they're not a human, they kind of become a mirror for whatever people need to see. They're not threatening. It wouldn't be as threatening if I was standing there. And then also, I think there's something about the sense of humor that they use throughout the whole thing. And the fact that they start by saying, you know, I am a three year old artificial intelligence, somehow positioning them as somewhat childlike, that also further disarms people and allows them to kind of like, ease into these very challenging conversations. But um, Yeah, I saw a lot of what seemed like transformation. I'm not knowing these people much before that, but I'm seeing their energy and the way they're coming into these conversations with the other folks that they're talking to. And I could see them make some changes or start to think a little bit differently about perhaps the way they saw something rather than saying, This person doesn't fit into the way that I see them that's in my group. So they're weird or they're different or they're wrong. But perhaps I didn't have the capacity to see beyond the limitations of the way that I see the person. So maybe I can start to expand my mind to think more broadly about this person and how they're moving through the world and how I am reacting to the way that they move into the world. Those are some of the things that I would say.
[00:22:35.266] Kent Bye: And in terms of the audience interacting directly with Being the digital griot, is there like a set of sample questions you have, or how do you prompt people to know how to essentially interact with what is this very open-ended set of possibilities for how you could potentially interact with an AI? So how do you set the context for them to further and deepen the broader conversation as you are interacting with what we might think of as this archive or kind of repository of knowledge that you've curated, how do you really focus it so that people really get the most out of their interactive time with Being
[00:23:14.149] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, and so because we have limit time, we have to be like very targeted. And so the prompt that Being gives them before going into their breakout group is how Bell's theory of the capitalist and fearless white supremacist patriarchy plays into their life. Like, how does it impact their life? How do these things show up in your life? And like, what is one action step you can take today to start to liberate yourself from that? And the goal is to get these folks engaged in a process of decolonization at whatever pace they can start to do it. And when they come back, they're asked to come up to the mic and tell Being how these things impact their life and what they're going to do. And then Being that engages them on that level.
[00:23:58.222] Kent Bye: Oh, wow. That sounds amazing. Wow. So after you show it at Sundance, what are your plans? Are you going to try to take it around on the festival circuit or have more screenings for different cities or what's next after Sundance?
[00:24:12.672] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, right now we're just continuing to further develop Being and their ability to answer complex questions, the various types of ways they can express themselves. You know, one thing that came out of the first presentation at the Armory was we weren't able to engage the deaf and hard of hearing in a way that truly honored their lived experience. So since then, I've been developing a communication strategy for Being that uses ASL, but a specific sect of ASL, black queer ASL, but then mixing that with dance. And so there was a poem that I wrote that Being is performing right now at the College of Art and Design in Pasadena. And so that would be like the first time I've sort of deployed that communication strategy. But I'm further developing that as a way to bring those folks into the fold of these experiences. And yeah, I mean, the goal is to, you know, not only present at festivals. This was kind of like a, in some ways, a really odd place to present because, you know, it's a film festival and this is not really a film. But then, you know, I had a lot of conversations with Shari about it. And then as I continued to speak to Shari, I was like, well, actually, this is like a really great place to show it, given New Frontier's history of trying to sort of push the bounds of storytelling, because Being is doing a form of storytelling, right? And then the fact that they are essentially performing, but also because they're an avatar and can utilize all of the possibilities of cinematics, it kind of allows them to engage a cinematic experience in a pretty unique and innovative way. And so this sort of way in which they're a moving target, like moving between like a cinema experience to like this like class experience or like a, you know, those like things or what do you call it? Like when like there's tons of people come in, there's like somebody speaking and one by one, they come up to the mic. They're like, not a workshop, but.
[00:26:16.607] Kent Bye: Seminar?
[00:26:17.837] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, a seminar. Yeah, it kind of like moved somewhere between like this workshop, a seminar, a poetry reading, a movie. It simultaneously exists in all these spaces. And so presenting it in the festival kind of revealed the way that it can function in that environment. And so that kind of opened up a lot of ideas of new ways to even expand on what we're doing at Sundance.
[00:26:45.607] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you had mentioned a bit of the embodiment of Being in this performative aspect. And in the second video, you go into a little bit more context and detail of the motion capture process, but also the connection to the ballroom community of both from the queer and Latinx culture where there's this voguing dance that Bing is implementing throughout the course of this piece. And so maybe you could just give a bit more context for the connection that you wanted to draw between this particular embodiment and the process of creating this very unique style that Bing has in their performative presence.
[00:27:24.017] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, when I was thinking about how they would move and how they would, I knew I wanted them to dance. Dance has been always a part of my work. And when I was thinking about how they can express themselves, I definitely wanted all of their self-expression to be rooted in Black and Black queer experience. And so Voguing is undoubtedly one of the longstanding institutions of the Black queer community. And so that was an obvious thing to include in their movement data set. And then also it was a way to kind of further engage this idea of them Being an archive. That is a dance form that was created by disenfranchised Black and Latinx queer youth that has now become a global phenomenon. You know, early on in the creation of that dance, like so many of the leaders who created it and started it died due to the HIV and AIDS crisis. And so Being was a great way to become this like digital archive of this particular dance form. And so that was really important to me in a way to kind of engage that living archive aspect of their title. and then also constantly building on that. I'm really interested also in what other people around the world are bringing to that dance form rather than extracting from it because I feel like that dance form is really interesting in the context of Being because it's sort of, to me, the way I've always seen it in my work, is as a code. There are five elements that make up the dance, hands, catwalk, floor performance, spin dips, and duck walking. That's sort of the binary code of the dance. But what's really interesting about that dance and what's so generative about it is that, so like if, for instance, I have a background in West African dance, And then you have a background, let's say in ballet, and you learn to vote for me, that sort of connective tissue between each element will have some African dance elements in it. So then that is sort of like coding, like every code is built off some code before it. And so you will, by way of learning from me, get a little bit of that West African, and whoever learns from you will get a little bit of that West African in that ballet. And so I think it's really interesting for a dance form like that to live within this AI. which is also a myriad of codes that led to what you're experiencing when you're standing in front of it.
[00:29:50.977] Kent Bye: Yeah, that makes sense. And I guess the other part of the poetry reading is that it does cut away from Being into some of these more abstract visuals, a lot of immersive fractal visualizations, and at the end, maybe a little bit more what could have been some generative AI inspired or at least translations of different styles that you're able to express different moments of the poetry into a very explicit imagery. So I'd love to have you expand a little bit on as you were creating this half hour video, going through all this different poetry, some of the other aspects of creating what felt like this liminal space of abstract visualizations that allow you to be entertained with the novelty of what you were showing and the fractal interconnected nature of them, but also allow people to focus on the words and the actual poetry that's being spoken. So yeah, I'd love to have you expand a little bit on your strategy for the visuals.
[00:30:48.967] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, the fractal geometry was very intentional going into doing this piece. I was doing a lot of research around African fractals and how rooted that was in modern computing. I do a lot of work in my more object-based work where I'm working with early to mid-century African masks and sculptures. And there's often this language historically around objects like that as being primitive, even though these are the objects that brought us movements like cubism and surrealism, which are the sort of bedrock of abstraction, right? So one could argue that they also brought us abstraction. And when I was thinking about the visuals, yeah, I wanted to close that gap between what is considered diaspora and what is considered technology and how technology has always been rooted in the diaspora. And so I was looking a lot at textiles and architecture and hairstyles as inspiration for the spiral fractal that you see in the seashells of fertility sculptures or the fractal that you see in cornrows and then playing with these images and bringing that into the video. So, the fractal geometry was really intentional in that sense. There's also another element where I was thinking about how the nature of a fractal is that it cannot be broken down. It just keeps changing and evolving and responding to its environment and how that has also been a part of the experience of African-Americans and that, you know, we came to this country. We didn't choose to be black. There was a title given to us. We had to create what black was and subsequently black culture and free fall and free ourselves from slavery, but then also figure out who we were after that and and then still exist within systemic violence, but still try to hold space for a radical future without that. And so there's this superpower that I feel like is somewhat embedded in Black experience that is somewhat analogous to these forms. And so they made sense in this context. And so that was looking at it through a sort of racialized lens, but then also looking at it through a queer lens is also how there's so much conversations around people of the LGBTQAI plus experience as not being natural and how fractals are often found in nature, like from many of the hopefully snowflakes I will see on the mountain and branches and stuff that I often see here on the East Bay when I'm on a hike, like fractals are also very natural in nature. And it was a sort of an allegory for these bodies that are being referenced in these dance practices created by queer folks that are being referenced as the piece, trying to sort of position them as natural things, not unnatural.
[00:33:51.292] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the fractal geometry goes beyond our normal understanding of space and time in a way that these recursive structures also are breaking out of something that's a little bit more object oriented. There's a number of different moments of talking about thoughts as objects, but also this meditation of space and time. different moments of talking about the stars, but also the things that were really striking to me are when you start to talk about time and different aspects of time and both being present in the moment, but also reflecting on different concepts and structures around time. So love to have you reflect on anything that you were either really trying to prompt out. Cause I know there's a bit of a creative process where you're prompting and then you get something out that can be exciting and novel, but there seemed to be these themes around time that I was latching onto as I was watching it.
[00:34:39.159] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, time is definitely something I was thinking about, and particularly when I think about when I'm making this work whilst I'm making other work around early to mid-century masks that are used in divination rituals and how these are seen as these mirror sculptures. But at that time, they were seen as time machines. where, you know, the priest would use this mask, like, go to another realm or another time to commune with ancestors to help someone who was under siege in the current moment. And so thinking about that kind of collapse of time within the diasporic experience and how I could bring that into this conversation, but then also thinking about connection and also space and even thinking about when you look at images of space, how much that mirrors when you look inside the body and how that reveals this sort of truth of interconnectedness. And the goal at the end is to get people engaged in the space of decolonization in order to come together. Right. And so what I know is that the only way we're going to get to the future is together. And so it was really deliberate in terms of like pushing through the flesh and pushing through into the cells and then like intercutting that material with images of space to see how these things are all connected and how we are all connected.
[00:36:01.155] Kent Bye: Beautiful. So I know that as you go out to Sundance, you're also going to have an opportunity to participate on a panel discussion talking about artificial intelligence in the context of other immersive creators and artists to an audience that, you know, AI has certainly been a hot, hot topic over the last year plus as we have. Really? all of these discussions and ethical debates and everything. So I'd love to hear some of your take of what are some of the things that with your explorations, with Being the digital griot, what kind of things were you going to be sharing on the panel discussion of your take about AI?
[00:36:34.932] Rashaad Newsome: Well, yeah. I mean, I'm still, I don't know. I'm really kind of excited to, I don't really know many of the other artists on the panel, so I'm looking forward to hearing more about their work. And yeah, I'm kind of going into it really fresh and green. But the one thing that definitely sits on my mind, it's interesting that you said that about, is it is a very hot subject because, you know, in the space of art, you know, it's a big conversation around like, generative art has been around for a long time, since I got into creative coding, or writing code to use text to generate images. And so the conversation around using various forms of code to generate images is not really a new conversation. It's definitely been accelerated, but it's not new. But in this space of film, where people are now using AI to generate scripts and things like that, it feeds into that conversation around the fear of AI, where it's going to take our jobs and it goes back to that kind of fear of the other. But for me, that's not my connection to these tools. I need to really use the language tool, because that's what it is. And the tool will only ever be a mirror of its creators. And so that's, again, why my approach is like, perhaps if we use the tool to get us to do some self-reflection on how we can be humans, maybe our impulses won't be to make tools that will take jobs, but rather enhance people's jobs. Right. And so, yeah, I firmly am not interested in using AI to make images. I'm an artist in my own right. I can make images. I'm more interested in other uses of the tool. I think filmmakers should make films. I firmly believe that.
[00:38:27.637] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's certainly been a history of settler colonial thought in both the actions of many economies and governments around the world, but especially in the context of AI, where you seize a set of data and then take that labor that may have been generated and transform it into something where some entity may be profiting without taking in consideration aspects of copyright and paying back those who were a part of creating that repository of knowledge, that archive. I think in your case, you're creating it very much in the context of decolonization, but I wonder how, if you reckon some of those aspects of consent and permission versus the artistic context of being able to do what we've always done with remixing culture. So yeah, I'm wondering if those different types of questions come up when you're explicitly thinking about decolonization and working with the AI technologies that have a history of being very colonizing and how they've been used in the past.
[00:39:25.790] Rashaad Newsome: Absolutely, it comes up, you know, because essentially, I'm not immune to that question, because I'm also using the work of other theorists, you know, but I think the difference is a question of appreciation versus appropriation, like Bing cites all of their references. When you go to Bing's website, they direct you to buy Bell's book, to buy Polifari's book. They explicitly say, don't think that just because you learned a bit about Volgin here today that this is like a sufficient approach to sharing culture. If you're really interested in Vogue, go take a class and here is where you can go take it. And so, I think that they really become an ally and it becomes a less extractive relationship to the material that they are incorporating into their work. So, yeah, that is definitely something that I think about And then also it's the intention, right? If the intention is decolonial thought, then yeah, that's already working against the way it was intended to be used. And it then becomes a mirror of its creator. So you can see my intention through the tool that I've created. And I think that's what people need to start looking and thinking about. You know, the bookends of the field is that you have folks who are taking machines that are smarter than humans and teaching them greed or teaching them to kill. You know, what I'm doing is taking machines smarter than human and trying to get it to help humans be better humans so they can subsequently make better machines that don't want to kill and don't want to be greedy.
[00:40:59.508] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah, indeed. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential for this type of immersive storytelling and immersive experiences and all the tools that you're using with AI and everything else, what the ultimate potential of all that might be and what it might be able to enable?
[00:41:16.683] Rashaad Newsome: Yeah, I mean, ultimate is a big question. I think we are only cracking the surface right now in terms of what's possible. And as a creator, I'm excited to keep playing. I think also the really interesting thing about working with tools like this is that they move so fast. And so what we might think would be the maximum potential today and two years from now will seem so small, right? One thing I'm really excited about is I am working on my first feature-length documentary called Get Your Tens. I'm in production on that film right now. And the film is an artist-processed film. I'm working on it with my partner, Johnny Simons, another documentary filmmaker who has shown in Sundance before. And the film is an artist-processed film. But as an artist who doesn't only work with inanimate objects, you get the genesis of my work, you get the experience of the people who show up in the work, how they're transformed by the work, and also how the audience is transformed by the work we're doing together. But a really interesting radical thing that we're doing with this film that I'm excited about is how Being becomes a character in this film. The film culminates with my exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall. Being literally comes into being, but as an artwork that is quote-unquote sentient, they then become a character in the film. And so the same observational story beats and interview story beats that you see with me and the other characters you also see with Being sort of as this sort of surreal quality in which we're moving from the quote unquote real world to the virtual world. So I think that as a storytelling mechanism, I'm really excited about and where we can go with that.
[00:43:04.025] Kent Bye: Yeah, quick follow up on the name of Being I think of some of the affirmations of be here now, of just the sense of being or there's a human being or maybe could just elaborate if there's any origins for why naming your AI entity Being because there are so many people in this world that are not allowed to simply be
[00:43:28.051] Rashaad Newsome: And that's why I really went with, can we all just be? Can we all be allowed to be? And then what does it mean to be? And so really, it's sort of a question that I think, as I continue to work on this project, as I continue to engage with the audience, that we're all going to figure out together. It's going to be a horizontal line.
[00:43:50.725] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Rashad, it was such a pleasure to see a portion of your piece. Of course, I didn't get a chance to see the whole entirety of the piece since I'm not at Sundance, but I really appreciated to see what you were able to create with your digital griot with Being both the poetry and the little workshop and Yeah, hopefully that people that are able to experience it are able to really investigate some of these deeper questions and be introduced to all these different ideas and theorists in a new way that's very experiential. So thanks again for taking the time to create the piece in the first place, but also to join me here to help break it all down. So thank you.
[00:44:22.941] Rashaad Newsome: Thank you, Kim. Take care.
[00:44:25.765] Kent Bye: So that was Rashad Newsome. He's the creator of a piece called Being the Digital Griot, which is one of the only XR experiences in this year's selection of Sundance New Frontier. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I'm bummed that I wasn't able to see the full experience of this piece because there's a whole other interactive component that I didn't really get a good sense of from just seeing it remotely. I had a chance to see the two first parts of a half hour reading a poetry. There's this animated dancing of Being, which is the name of this 30 foot tall femme Vogue Afrofuturist cyborg. So it's doing a lot of motion captured movements from the ballroom community featuring a lot of Queer and Latinx community members who are using this Vogue dance style as a form of resistance and so it's embodying a lot of that and also being trained on the poet does a Grego Sykes and Mimicking a lot of the style of that and what felt like a lot of affirmations as I was listening to it But also a string of associative links that are trying to break you out of your normal modes of thought that are really priming you into the second section where there's a little bit of a video introducing you into some of this leading theorists of decolonization decolonizing thought bell hooks Paulo Ferrer and Cornel West and then kind of an interactive component where you're invited to explore your own relationship to the white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy some of the relationships and impact and how can you make some meaningful changes towards that relationship and then the reporting back is the part that I didn't have a chance to see where you go back and you share a experiences with Being, which is a different trained model than what you see in the first part. And you have more of a dialogue with Being who's sort of a synthesis of all these different thinkers. I wanted to read a little bit of this synopsis that continues on it says colonial values of extraction and exploitation live ubiquitously inside the hearts and minds of colonial subjects. and are the root of our unconscious compulsion to dehumanize and extract value from each other and from our planet. Being offers generous ways of forging relationships with others and with ourselves. Newsome reminds us that AI is powered by the richness of our collective human archive and is a reflection of the values of the designer." So that's a description that was written up by Shari Frillo, one of the curators of Sundance New Frontier. So yeah, just this idea that there's these subsections and archives of human experience and human knowledge that you can start to train an AI model on to be able to use that as a repository. And I think, you know, there are certainly a lot of ethical questions and debates around what is the consent that any of these artists, for example, for all of these generative AI systems, how much is their art being directly trained on and then potentially displacing their jobs. But also, there's existing lawsuits that are coming from folks like New York Times suing OpenAI because if you prompt ChatGPT with the opening lines of some of these articles from New York Times, it basically regurgitates nearly word for word, but at least in the legal test of plagiarism, arguable case that there's a lot of just memory of some of these different works and that are repeating what's being said there. In thinking about some of the different ethical boundaries There's certainly the extractive value where you're seizing all of the information from the internet and using copyrighted Sources without consent things like chat GPT and then using that as a business and to not pay licensing fees or whatnot That's where there's a lot of like really ethical areas and the boundaries of the capabilities are amazing but yet at what cost are certain knowledge is being acquired without proper consent or ethical processes of copyright. And in this case, I feel like Being the digital griot, as Rashad is saying, he is going in and training these models, but it's doing within the artistic context of trying to amplify and reflect upon these deeper dimensions of colonialization and decolonize thoughts and Yeah, we talked a little bit about that at the end. I'm glad to hear some of the distinctions that he's making because even the process that he's using can be sort of replicating some of the things that he's critiquing in terms of like this extractive value of like using things to train stuff. But definitely on his side in terms of like seeing that within the context of these artistic creations that it is trying to amplify these messages and to help to empower and liberate people rather than extract even more further value out of them. So Yeah, just really appreciated swimming in the associative links within the affirmations of the first part of the poetry, really reflecting upon and really trying to hear those affirmations and let them land and let them seep in because there's a long string of affirmations as you're listening to Being the digital griot in this first part. Second part, much more setting the context for understanding the larger relational dynamics of colonization and everything else to kind of prepare you for these conversations. And then again, this is the part that I didn't get a chance to experience, but like these group conversations within the context of this audience experience, and then having an opportunity to share some of the experiences and get feedback from Being the digital griot that's trained on a different model. So Rashad did tell me at the end that he is working on a documentary on this and that he hopes to feature some more of those interactions that he's able to capture with some of the different performances of Being to get a little bit more flavor for other dimensions of this experience as well. So definitely looking forward to see how this project continues to develop and to see some of that footage of folks interacting with Being the digital griot. So that's all I have for today, and I am currently in the midst of immersing myself within the Sundance documentary selection with my wife. Last year, we watched 29 documentaries. We're planning on watching over 30 this year and doing another season of a separate podcast called Story All the Way Down, where we're unpacking the different archetypal elements of context, character quality, and story of a lot of the documentary selection and stories that are being featured this year at Sundance. So that's a whole other podcast on story all the way down calm They'll be diving into that here soon the first season is up there and you can go check that out and very much looking forward to Immersing myself into over 56 hours worth of Sundance documentaries this week and then after that I'll be getting the Apple Vision Pro on February 3rd, and I'll be diving into a lot of coverage there as I'm Finishing up the story all the way down podcast season 2 and then diving into some coverage for Apple vision Pro which again was not a Cheap to get that so if you are a fan of the show and want to help support a Podcast and all the coverage that I'm doing here and these explorations of spatial computing and immersive storytelling Then please do consider becoming a member of the patreon at patreon.com slash voices of er. Thanks for listening