#981: Worldbuilding with the Guild of Future Architects’ Futurist Writer’s Room: “Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler”

One of my favorite pieces at Sundance New Frontier 2021 this year was a series of four open web experiences created as a part of the piece Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler. Born out of The Guild of Future Architects‘ Futurist Writer Room, lead artists Sophia Nahli Allison, idris brewster, Stephanie Dinkins, Ari Melenciano, and Terence Nance participated in a series of worldbuilding workshops featured on the themes and imagination of Octavia Butler’s body of science fiction work. Their original output were going to be live performances, but with COVID-19, they decided to use open web technologies to distribute their speculative design art pieces. You can see these four immersive web pieces on the website Interstitium.space/.

kamal-sinclair2I had a chance about how this project came about with Kamal Sinclair, Founding Executive Director of Guild of the Future Architects, as well as with Ari Melenciano, a creative technologist & founder of AfroTecTopia. We trace the lineage of these worldbuilding processes that take inspiration from Alex McDowell’s World Building Institute, Afrofuturist designers, Allied Media Projects, AfroTecTopia, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), Skawennati Fragnito’s Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Afrocentric Design, Processes Centered in Blackness, Janet Wong & Bill T. Jones of New York Live Arts, Future Imagination Summit 2019, as well as Octavia Butler’s body of work.

Ari-MelencianoSinclair and Melenciano talk about how this type of speculative worldbuilding allows Black artists to go beyond deficit-based narratives focused on trauma, and the space to step deeply into “the audacity of bold imaginations of our future” where reconciliation is possible and new potentials are released. They are cultivating a practice of creative & collaborative foresite that’s able to “liberate minds of calcified understandings” and ultimately democratize of the imagination of our future through these creative, worldbuilding processes. Sinclair has become convinced of the power of radical imagination facilitated through these worldbuilding processes, because she has witness multiple times how these imaginal Afrofuturism visions expressed through art have come to pass when given enough resources and community members with the capacity and willingness make it happen.

Each of the four pieces within the Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler have their own speculative designs and take on the future, and you can experience them yourself on the Interstitium.space webite.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[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. So continuing on in my series of looking at some of the immersive experiences from Sundance 2021, today's episode is about a series of pieces called Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler. So I'm really excited about this piece for a number of different reasons. For one, they're using a lot of open web technologies, which means that you can actually go to interstitium.space and check out all the experiences before you listen to this podcast, which I highly recommend you go off and do. Second, I just love this concept of world building and speculative design. So this piece was born out of a collective called the Guild of Future Architects. They had this whole futurist writing group and dives into things like Afrofuturism, Afrocentric design, and centric and blackness. So they have this collective of people who came together, they read all of Octavia Butler's works, trying to mine out all the different themes, and they created these immersive projects that originally were going to be these presentations, but because of the pandemic and we couldn't meet Ari Melenciano. was exploring using immersive web technologies. And so they decided to create a series of these open web experiences. So this conversation is actually with Kamal Sinclair, who is the executive director of the Guild of Future Architects, as well as with R.A. Melancino, who was the creative technologist on this project. This project also had like four other directors. I wasn't able to meet with the directors during Sundance. Hopefully at some point I'll be able to touch base with some of them and to be able to do more of an in-depth interview with some of their different projects. But because of the shortness of the Sundance Film Festival and I ended up doing about 16 hours worth of interviews. I didn't get a chance to catch up with the other directors of these pieces, but highly recommend you go check out these pieces at interstitium.space before listening and then dive in to learn a little bit more about the creation process that went into traveling the interstitium with Octavia Butler. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Kamal and Ari happened on Sunday, January 31st, 2021. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:13.833] Kamal Sinclair: I'm Adi Malenciano and I am an artist and creative technologist and educator. So oftentimes I'm exploring creative technology through the lens of. design and sentient experience and how it impacts just living beings and creating mostly experiential work. And often I'm inside of a classroom and I'm teaching usually at New York university where I graduated out of, in their interactive telecommunications program. And more recently have stepped into Google to explore creative technology and the creative labs now thinking about how that can expand on a much bigger scale.

[00:02:48.820] Kent Bye: Awesome.

[00:02:49.713] Ari Melenciano: Great, Kamal. And Kent, I think we know each other from the New Frontier world. I used to be the director of the New Frontier Story Lab, supporting artists like Ari over seven and a half years, which was an incredible honor and delight. And one of the key things that I felt called to doing that work was really supporting a democratization of the imagination of our future because we have so many So many things to navigate, but exponential technologies like immersive technology, AI, IoT are really creating new questions for how we want to adopt these technologies, if we want to reject these technologies, and what value systems we're bringing them into. And so about a year and a half ago, I became the founding executive director. of the Guild of Future Architects, which the founder is Sharon Chang. And so we have about 180 members, and I would say, I think we did a calculation that at least 50% of them are involved in immersive technology. And so we were able to support members of our community that are exploring the potentials of these technologies as well as the ethical questions around these technologies and really how are they best positioned to create meaning and well-being in the world. So that's how I came to this particular project as a steward and support of people like Ari and creating space for them to connect as best I can.

[00:04:14.671] Kent Bye: Nice. Yeah. And I know Kamal, we had a chance to talk a couple of years ago about your work at New Frontier and you went off to the Guild of Future Architects and watching the conversation that you had as the artist statement for this piece that's traveling the interstitium with Octavio Butler, that there was this report that you put together that we talked about briefly in our last conversation that you and I had, but then you went off to kind of put a lot of those principles into practice. I guess maybe working a little bit closer to the artists and doing a variety of different things. Maybe you could fill in the gaps in that story in terms of what types of things you've been doing at the Guild of Future Architects that kind of led to this project that's here at Sundance 2021.

[00:04:55.168] Ari Melenciano: Yeah, so one of the big learnings that I personally had an opportunity to see in the New Frontier community was the power of the practices like world building that came out of the gaming space, connecting with the power of cinematic storytelling, interactive storytelling, all of these things. In looking deeply at the world building work, particularly I was influenced by Afrofuturists like Adrienne Marie Brown, when Sundance had done some work with the Detroit community around allied media projects and seeing how workers in the work of racial justice and all the different kinds of areas of social justice were really recalibrating the conversation from not just a look at what our history has been, but look what our present is in terms of systems of oppression, but let's also really have a liberation of our mind by allowing ourselves to have the audacity of bold imaginations around a future where those systems are not in place, where there is a healing from that trauma, where there is a future of reconciliation and where people's potentials are unleashed and we can all benefit from being in that much more healthy space. And then also I've been working with Alex McDowell through Sundance at the Worldbuilding Institute and we created a residency together around the future of work. And by going through that process of looking at how creative foresight, collaborative foresight, the dynamics of that for not only imagining worlds that we could actually potentially move into through our actions, but also really the kind of healing relationship of liberating our minds from calcified understandings of what has to be. And so that had a huge influence on me. And, you know, so at the Guild of Future Architects, we brought together people that are doing this work, that have deep practices in creative foresight, have deep practices in creative imagination, radical imagination. And through that process, a pedagogy that stands on the shoulders of people like Octavia Butler kind of emerged and we kind of organized it in this thing called the Futurist Writers Room. And we ran 50 sessions last year. We had about a thousand participants last year over all of the different sessions and we did over 1000 hours if you think of every single person's time in. And it was really just incredible to be in a time of pandemic where uncertainty and really a fear is at the core of that time to be able to be in these spaces with people like Ari that are being audacious in their visions of what comes next. That's the kind of work that the Guild has been doing, is creating space for that collective wisdom, for that creative foresight. And then in this case, with not only the five artists, but also the advisors and the facilitators of the Futurist Writers' Room, just really investing in the creative insight, foresight, and hindsight of Black folks, that unleashed something really special in relationship to Octavia Butler's legacy and example I would say continued collaboration.

[00:07:58.047] Kent Bye: Beautiful. Yeah. And Ari, maybe you could give a bit more context as your background and your journey into this immersive space leading up into Afrotectopia and then the Guild of Future Architects and this project here at Sundance.

[00:08:10.999] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, well, I can start with Afrotectopia, and that came about while I was a graduate student. I was studying technology and really just enamored and excited about all the possibilities of things you could do with technology from an artistic lens. I've always wanted to be able to do that and found a really great space to do it. But I was also in a program where it's racially pretty homogenous and not really thinking about race in relation to tech or culture in relation to tech. So for me, Afrotectopia was very much a solution to problems that I was dealing with and being in the tech space of What would a community of generally Black people that are creating technology through an artistic lens, what would that look like? What would it look like to just gather a bunch of people that are thinking about the future from a very interdisciplinary lens? In our first one alone, we had panelists that were coming from the law school at NYU to music space, actual musicians, or to health care people or educators. So let's just be able to come together and looking at the world and exploring how can we mitigate or even eradicate racial disparities. And maybe it's through technology and maybe it's not, but generally through an artistic kind of nature. So it's expanded. Today, actually, just 30 minutes ago, we wrapped up our biggest initiative. I feel so free now because it was just such a long and it was a month long of celebrating 20 different, really brilliant Black innovators for the entire month of January. And it takes a bunch of different forms. Sometimes it's the festival. Sometimes it's like what we just wrapped up of a series of conversations. Sometimes it's a think tank. Sometimes it's a summer camp, an alternative school. But it's generally a community of people that are very invested in very pluralistic and imaginative futures. And that's what we spent a lot of time doing from a Black and Afrocentric lens. With the XR space, that's something that I got into really at the beginning of quarantine. Once we were being quarantined, I've always had in the back of mind getting more into web development, but I thought this was a perfect time to be able to really get into it. And also being someone that was studying architecture at the time, I just wanted to bring those elements into the virtual space. If we can't go out and explore on the street, maybe we can reimagine the way that the internet feels and how we're navigating it and making it more of an architectural space. So I had actually just asked Kamal for a reference to a, it was an application to some residency and then Kamal saw the work and then we had a one-on-one conversation and we found that it was really aligned with something that the Guild of Future Architects was working on at the time and that then became the foundation for it. building this whole new environment for our collaboration with Octavia Butler's project. And before that, I'd also been working with, I had attended a future writer's room. So familiarity with some of the projects, but I think a lot of it was just synergy of just being at the right place at the right time and having these conversations, organic conversations with Kamal and seeing that there's a lot of alliance with the work that we're doing.

[00:10:53.792] Ari Melenciano: I do want to acknowledge that I got a chance to go to Afrotectopia Was it two years ago now? Oh my gosh.

[00:10:59.463] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, as the keynote speaker. Yes.

[00:11:02.664] Ari Melenciano: And it was just a wealth of inspiration around this possibility. Like it felt like such a liberated space where technology wasn't prescribed by, I mean, even though we were at Google, it didn't feel prescribed by like the market forces of like a Silicon Valley or those. I mean, it just really felt like a creative liberated space for imagining the possibility in a really healthy way. And we met many of the people that became part of this process. I met Madebo Futunde there, who is one of the key, he's a master's degree in foresight, undergrad in creative writing, and he's been facilitating many of the Futurist Writers Rooms over the last year. He's at Autodesk now in their Foresight division. I met Mitali Nkunde, who is one of the leading thought leaders around artificial intelligence and the ethics around artificial intelligence. Anyway, it was just such a brilliant community that Ari had stewarded. It was an extension and a mixture with the community that I had known. It's just wonderful when you start to see the ecosystem build in these ways, in such dynamic and emergent ways.

[00:12:08.194] Kent Bye: Yeah, I saw that the videos from the gathering from 2019 of the Afro tech Topia at Google or online. And I started to watch some of them on after Sunday. And so I'm going to dive in and check out some of those talks, but was that the first gathering or their previous gatherings before that?

[00:12:22.424] Kamal Sinclair: That was the second festival, second annual festival. Yeah. So we had, we had had a festival before that we had a summer camp and alternative school, other sorts of programming before that. And that was the second one, the last in person.

[00:12:34.067] Kent Bye: Okay, cool. Yeah. Yeah. So I guess the futurist writing room has come up a number of times. And I know when I talked to Tony Patrick, who was involved with beyond the breakdown here at Sundance 2021, he was talking about, there's a number of different world-building sessions that he did specifically to this project of traveling the interstitium with Octavia Butler. But maybe you could take a step back and talk about the origin point of this futurist writing group, because That's actually a big theme that I see this year at Sundance is different levels of speculative design, Afrofuturism, ways of using technology to peer into potential futures. It's something that I've already seen within other projects like Indigenous Futurism, a series of projects in Toronto a number of years ago that projected out, it was like 150 year anniversary of colonialization, and then they projected out 150 years in the future. They could sort of give them the space to sort of imagine, go beyond the existing institutional dynamics of our world and cultural dynamics and economic dynamics, and imagine something that's in the future that we can strive towards. And I see something like Black Panther that they were able to functionally do that within that film. And I don't know if that was a catalyst or, so maybe take us back into like the origin point of this concept of the futurist writing room there at the Guild of Future Architects.

[00:13:49.348] Ari Melenciano: Well, I think you're already starting to outline the lineage. I mean, Skawennati is one of our members and one of the key thought leaders in the Indigenous Futures Program in Toronto, has been working on, you know, seven generations work in terms of in virtual and immersive worlds for 20 years now. I mean, she's just phenomenal and a huge influence. Amelia Winger Bearskin, you know, another huge influence in the Guild, doing work with Wampum.code and kind of reimagining the ways in which Indigenous storytelling, her mother was the kind of official storyteller for their tribe and traveled all over the world, really learning from her mother's practice of being the oral storyteller, keeper of both the past and the seven generations future concepts. I mean, this is a community of 180 people that definitely have this deep practice. And obviously, I mean, there is a moment right now, for sure, that has been building for I mean, I really got the bug. Oh, man. I mean, it must have been probably eight years ago around this current wave of movements around Indigenous futures, Afro futures, Latinx futures, queer futures, Muslim futures. Like, we've been in all these conversations. And I think it is a demarcation of that shift from going from narratives that we've been so saturated with around inferiority complexes or deficit-based narratives around blackness or queerness or all of these things. Like, there's been a moment where I think this generation specifically is saying, we're not going to allow, especially with the massive amounts of imagery that's coming at us now that, I mean, I thought we were saturated in imagery back in the 80s and 90s. It's nothing compared to the saturation of imagery and narrative that this generation is going through, my children are going through. And there was just this moment where they were like, I think Black Lives Matter articulated it, just like we're not going to only see ourselves as black and brown bodies in trauma. We're not going to see ourselves as just the descendants of those that were enslaved. But we're going to see ourselves as the descendants of resilience and really liberate from what some people describe as the slave mentality and really put a stake in the ground about claiming a healthy future. And that really had so much power. And then, you know, also, like I said, with Alex McDowell, with the Worldbuilding Institute and the work that Melissa Painter, who's one of our members, and Paisley Smith, who's one of our members, this work that they had done around taking the mechanics of game design and immersive design and building out story worlds and bringing it into communities and creating a collective co-creation space. And then seeing over five years how those designs that were made in community actually manifested, like they actually came true. So there's this strong proof. And then, I'm sorry, I'm going to go a little bit off here. I also got to see, like I said, the Detroit community, the Detroit Narrative Agency really doing this work. And then the piece that Beyond the Breakdown came out of, we did a residency at USC World Building Institute with Tony Patrick, Grace Lee, and Lauren McCarthy and Pigeonhole Productions. Coffin Foundation had underwritten that residency and saw the dynamics of this world building work, brought it to Kansas City, their headquarters. Tony was one of the facilitators with members of Kansas City And I got to go and see the final exhibition. You had people like Muslim woman educator with a hijab, Latin exponent announcer, white guy with a Trump hat in the same space, co-creating their future using immersive design technologies and VR. They had recreated the things that they had imagined in virtual reality. And now that whole idea of becoming known as a biodiverse city in the country that emerged out of that is actually being implemented by the city. There is an organization called P5 Holdings, it's a public benefits LLC, and they are actually implementing the world that was created for Kansas City through this process. And Mark Beam, who was our funder at Kauffman and now is one of the administrators for this P5 Holdings, is on the board of the guild and a member of the guild. all those threads that you're identifying, it is a lineage of people that are finding each other and understanding. And then Kat Cizek, who you may know from the New Frontier World, who's, I would say, the godmother of interactive documentary, she created the co-creation studios with Sarah Wallace and at MIT, and they did a deep dive into collective design in technology as a way of better ensuring that we don't design into our perceptual limitations like we've done in previous innovation cycles. And so I'm sorry, I'm just going off, but it is such a rich ecosystem and it's no one entity and it's no one person, but it is this dynamic community that we're witnessing at Sundance for sure this year with all these different projects.

[00:18:38.269] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for that call out to all those different lineages. That'll be really helpful to help look at this as an ecosystem that's been evolving. And Ari, I'd be very curious to hear from you in terms of your entry point into all this. And if the Afrotectopia had an element of Afrofuturism or speculative design already kind of embedded into it as a part of its intention. But yeah, maybe you could, from your perspective, all the different lineages and strands that either you were taking inspiration from or building off of as you were sort of doing your Afrotectopia and then moving into the future?

[00:19:09.172] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, I think the lineage really starts from ITP of just like, that's where I came out of at NYU. And that program was very impactful and inspiring to me of just finally a space that was blending so many, what most people would consider vastly different subjects together into one classroom, like one class is called culinary physics and another class is data visualizations on hip hop, cultural indicators. So I think that for me really grounded the possibility of education being something that's exciting. Like you want to take a bunch of different classes, like your schedule can't be enough. So Afritopia definitely builds off of ITP's shoulder as far as being a space that's very adamant on interdisciplinary practice and engagement with the arts and design and technology. And then where Afrofuturism comes in, that's a really interesting space for me, because for one, Afrotutopia came out at the same time as Black Panther. So people were really excited about this idea of Afrofuturism. A lot of people that never heard of it were especially more familiar with it because of Black Panther. But me personally, I never studied Afrofuturism and didn't really know much about it at all. I was just more thinking of, I want to design our future. Let's come together as Black people and let's design together our futures. But it wasn't really thinking about Afrofuturism at all, but people immediately associate with Afrofuturism. I think though I still don't consider myself an Afrofuturist or someone that really does Afrofuturism because I feel like it's, it's generally been something much more theoretical and aesthetic driven. And now it's kind of like a 2.0 wave of where it's actually actionable and people are using the philosophies in action. But for me, that's just where it began all along. And it's really just blackness and Afrocentric design and in the future. So yeah, it's always nice to have those questions just to like give a moment of clarity of, that it's definitely a space that really appreciates Afrofuturism, but it's not rooted in the philosophies that it originally was created out of.

[00:20:58.635] Kent Bye: Okay. That's a helpful distinction that I wasn't aware of. So thanks for elaborating on that. So the difference between Afrofuturism and Afrocentric design, is that what you had said?

[00:21:08.423] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, I would say, yeah, it's Afrocentric design and blackness. It's thinking about the future through an Afrocentric and black lens.

[00:21:15.048] Kent Bye: Okay. Okay.

[00:21:16.689] Kamal Sinclair: Which I don't think people would generally find much of a difference. It's just for me, I didn't come from in Afrofuturism space and Afrotectopia didn't because I wasn't aware of it. So for me, I identify Afrofuturism and what it was at the time as something that was more theoretical and aesthetic oriented.

[00:21:32.273] Kent Bye: Okay, cool. So yeah, maybe we could dive into like the origins of this specific project of traveling the interstitium with Octavia Butler. And what was the catalyst for how this project came about?

[00:21:45.241] Ari Melenciano: I was at Afrotiktopia, I'd just given the talk that Ari invited me to speak on, and Janet Wong from New York Live Arts was in the audience. And New York Live Arts is an institution in New York that Bill T. Jones established. And Bill T. Jones, as you know, is just incredibly seminal figure in arts and culture and dance as a Black queer man that has been definitely changing perceptions and breaking open ideas from his whole career and practice as an artist and cultural thought leader. And so she invited me and Sharon to go to coffee with her and Bill and just talk about, they were doing a festival, they were planning to do a 2020 festival called the Live Ideas Festival that they do every year. And they were theming the 2020 festival on the future of the African diaspora. And they were calling on Octavia Butler, Sam Delaney, like all of these cultural thought leaders that had been looking at through science fiction lenses and other kinds of lenses. And so we were just in this conversation. And I just remember, I mean, Bill T. Jones, I was a dancer for 27 years. And so sitting with him, like one of my icons, And I was like, I was trying to keep a straight face and like not be fangirling, but I was felt so honored to be able to spend that much time with him. We spent a couple of hours together and just hearing he was so funny because this is like somebody who just has so many experiences traveling around the world, speaking to presidents and all these things. And he listened to me with such intention and curiosity. And every time I tried to turn it around and gather his wisdom and what he understood, he was like, no, no, no, no, no. I want to understand this generation. And he was just so curious and keenly generous with his listening that it was just such a joyful moment. And me and Sharon were like, well, we hadn't even planned on going in this direction with the Guild in that first year. We were just trying to build the community and not necessarily get into production of work like this. But we just knew we had to engage with him and Janet. We knew that we had to engage on this topic. And so the Futurist Writers Room leads Tony Patrick, Madebo Futunde, Robert Sinclair, and Lafayette Cruz had already prototyped the Futurist Writers Room at our Future Imagination Summit at NYU. So there's another connection with NYU in November 2019. And so we said, well, let's do the next iteration for this. And we decided to basically invite artists that we knew had a deep creativity, radical imagination, and a deep personal practice in the work of Black Insight, Foresight, and Hindsight, brought them together, and then we spread out the day-long Futurist Writers' Rooms a month apart. The first two were in real life, and the third one was virtual because of the pandemic began. and we ran, you know, day-long Futurist Writers Rooms, but we literally were doing the big post-its on the, it was just like, it was really much like a writer's room, but focused on the future. And we decided to give everybody a, I don't know if it was, I think it was like $500 gift certificate or something like that, for all the artists to be able to buy the body of work of Octavia Butler. And we said, okay, over this month or three-week period, read Kindred. And this one, read the Parable series. This one, read the Patternist series. And even if you can't read the whole thing, do the Cliff Notes and listen to this interview from Octavia Butler. So we really saturated ourselves in her body of work. And then we called upon her quite explicitly when we were going through the meditative openings of the writers' rooms and doing the breathing exercises and really tried to bring her into the room, if you will, in a very real way. to be in the room thinking through these ideas with us, which sounds strange. But we were really using the power of imagination that does the time shifting and allows you to converse intergenerationally even with our ancestors, which is a deep practice within a lot of different cultures, but definitely within African cultures of calling on the ancestors. And so we were doing that work very explicitly. And what emerged, I mean, my assumption going into it is that we would imagine this 2080 or 2100 world that had these specific ideas about what the future is. But what actually emerged from the conversation was, wouldn't it be amazing if there was a future or a condition where Black knowing didn't have to be questioned and defended? when it could just be. And that's where that thing of the interstitium, that this organ that people didn't know existed in the anatomy of the human body, scientists didn't even know it existed, didn't have a name for it. And then finally, they discovered, oh, there is an organ that is the space between all the spaces. this organ between all organs and the organ that facilitates the work of all organs. And that was an analogy that felt so relevant and resonant with the artists that this space of creativity and sight foresight and meaning making is like that thing that all the little parts are encompassed by, kind of like the dark matter of our thinking. So it was just a beautiful emergent experience. And then, of course, the pandemic hit, and then we had to shift into a digital... Originally, we were going to do a live performance where everyone read their narratives and then think the universe that Ari happened to be thinking about this WebXR experience while we were like, oh, we need to shift in this space as well. And Ari had already been an advisor for the Futurist Rhyme, so she was already in the process. But it was just really a beautiful convergence of a lot of stuff.

[00:27:25.465] Kent Bye: Yeah. All right. I'd love to hear your perspective of where you fit into coming into that story that Kamal just shared.

[00:27:31.287] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, I think in just like the post revealing of us participating in Sundance and just being a part of these conversations, I'm continuing to learn about the project too. Like even hearing Kamal give that explanation of the interstitium being this organ, there's so many, the story is just so vast with this project that I just learn more and more in these conversations. So yeah, I came in. and participate in the Futures Writers Room. And it was such a exciting time because we were literally just tasked to just be experimental and explore a whole new world. And we were designing it together and just hearing, like we would throw out these ideas and then someone would build off that. And we would get really invested and would have to remind ourselves that this isn't real. Like we're just getting a little too excited about these realities that we're creating. But it was just, it was so inspiring. And then to returns to the project as the creative technologist and that was also a really beautiful time. It was with five artists, other artists at the time. and learning about their individual practices and how they were thinking about Octavia Butler in relation to their work. We were also going through the transitions of a pandemic together. So we would meet, I think we met once a week at least for like probably six-ish months straight. So always connecting and checking in on each other's projects. and just for us to spend those moments of time together. And sometimes we wouldn't be able to gather because things were just too intense and emotionally and we just couldn't handle getting on another Zoom because all we were hearing were protests in our street. But just like to have that small community of us together and like having that project just ground us through the experience and always having something to continue working on was really Nice and meeting all of them. They're all artists I really respect and admire. So it was just nice to build that relationship with them. And then in working collaboratively of like trying to create the space that would satisfy all of them was a challenge within itself. But a beautiful challenge of we're learning how to be artists together and they all are very unique and visionary within their own practice. for me to come in as kind of like the architect of the container of how to like respect their work, how to respect Octavia Butler, how to respect the Guild of Future Architects. It was a really, it was just an expansive place to be in as a creator myself and to be in that position where I'm working alongside them, but also really trying to serve a purpose for them. So we moved through a lot of different iterations of what the project would be, being very literal of like, this is Octavia's house and you're walking through it to really pulling back a lot further. kind of landing where we are now of for them, it was really important to not have the work speak too much for their projects, like to not have the container say too much before anyone got to enter their space. So the way that the current interstitions portal is, is it's a place that's very abstract, you don't know really where you are. And it's intentional, because the artists want the experience to be something that you get to bring yourself into. and decide what's going on within it. So yeah, it was just a really rewarding. I'm so grateful to have been able to work with everyone, Kamal and the other artists and the whole Guild team.

[00:30:32.815] Kent Bye: Yeah. And talking to Tony Patrick after doing the beyond the breakdown experience, and also Lauren McCarthy and Grace Lee, I did a whole interview analyzing what they did with that. And one of the big takeaways I got from that conversation was that Tony was saying that, you know, a big part of the world building is to constrain it to a geographic location sometimes, and then a time in the future. So a time and place. And then the process that I went through was interesting because it was both imagine the values that you want to see in the future, but also flipping in between these different contexts, whether it's education or medicine or, you know, these different prompts that help you flesh out all the components of a culture. And what was interesting was that you can step into that speculative design space, but then at the end of it, say, okay, what can you take away and commit to today? in order to build this future. And Kamal, you had mentioned that that's already starting to happen with this type of imaginal future dreaming that happens with the world building that you imagine it or tell the story of it, or allow you to step into an immersive experience. And then it inspires people enough to actually go and make it, which I think is a fascinating concept that really speaks to the power of the immersive media and experiential entertainment in general. And so I'd be really curious to hear about the world building process, specifically focusing on Octavia Butler. And what were some of the themes or the principles that were the underlying guidance to these individual products that we're showing here at Sundance 2021?

[00:31:56.100] Ari Melenciano: That's a really, uh, first of all, just, I, well, are you, if you have something immediately to respond to, I can talk a lot. Um, yeah, you know, I just, on your point about the power of world building and as it being a part of what becomes our reality, I think it's definitely something that I've been able to witness and I've definitely drank the Kool-Aid on, if you will, because it's really powerful. One of the things I would put caveat to that, which I think is really important as well as I had an opportunity to talk to, I was in South Africa for Electric South's virtual reality lab. with Ingrid Kopp some years ago, and Yasmine Elayat, who also has a piece in the festival this year. And I met with one of the artists who had been part of this big world-building campaign within Lagos in order to imagine the future of Lagos. And I had been watching all this unfurl when the campaign was happening years ago from afar, from my little, you know, my little computer in L.A. And it just looked amazing. I was just like, oh, my God, this is... the future, this is brilliant, you know, democratize the imagination of our future. And then I talked to him and he said, I said, it must've been amazing to be part of that process. I mean, he was deep in it, he was on posters and all this stuff. And he said, you know, it was amazing to imagine the future of Lagos in such robust ways with so many members of our creative community. He said, but I wish it had never happened. And I said, oh, why? He said, because it felt like a dream deferred because we didn't make sure that there was the investment to go into those dreams to be realized. And so I think that's one of the things that we hope to do as a community is to both dream and resource those dreams. So I just wanted to put that caveat out there. But for this project, I would say some of the themes that emerged, particularly from reading Octavia Butler's work, were things around, I don't know if you've ever read her work, but one, she talks a lot about gender fluidity, shape-shifting, the kind of fluidity not only with genders, but also with races. So there was a lot of questions around how do we understand these kind of boxes that we put blackness into in terms of like, this is black, this is not black, which is something that emerged from a previous project I had brought to New Frontier years ago. called Question Bridge Black Males. Like, how do you break that container of what is officially Black and what is not officially Black? And it was just, again, a liberation of the mind of who we are and how complex and non-monolithic the full spectrum of being a people Is and where it intersects with the full spectrum of our humanity is much beyond that. So I thought that was an interesting theme. Sophia particularly brought a lens of the work that she'd been doing around the mythologies around black women. these deep mythologies around African women flying. And what does that mean? And where did that come from? What are the origins of those? And that's really what informed, I think, this brilliant work called Pluto, where she is not only looking at the technological aspects of Black women in flight and going into deep space and having that be a reality, but also the metaphorical relationships of the ways in which African women flying has always been a refrain in the diaspora, in the storytelling. So those are just a couple of ideas that emerged. I think there was a lot of stuff around healing as well. And then with Parable of the Sour and the Talents, I mean, Terrence took it to the third book in that series that never got written called Parable of the Trickster. And Parable of the Sour and Parable of the Talents so closely match what we're experiencing right now. They talk about ecological breakdown. They talk about vigilante extremism. They even have a president that very much mirrored Donald Trump in the narrative that he says, let's make America great again. So you see all of these ways in which our current time mirrors the breakdown that Octavia talked about in those books. But there's this character at the center of it, who imagines, in the middle of some of the dystopic apocalyptic moments, still has the audacity of hope to imagine when humans can live in deep space, can go into deep space from a technological and from a human evolutionary perspective. And so that felt really resonant, especially as we're transitioning into the pandemic at the height of the political unrest and ideological warfare in our technology and in our dialogue and our media. it may feel hopeless right now, but we still have the audacity of a future that defies our current state.

[00:36:29.911] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah. What about you, Ari, in terms of the themes that you saw emerge out of this process that you saw embedded into some of these projects?

[00:36:40.194] Kamal Sinclair: Time was something that was big and the definition of time, moving from one moment to another. So I think a lot of the artists, it wasn't designed specifically to be in the future. It was more of like a parallel time. And I think that was really interesting of just us having a conversation because even just the earlier iterations of our work, we were trying to think of what would be the passage of someone going through these different pieces and if they would be time-related and if some would be more in the past and some more in the future. So just exploring this idea of time was really exciting with the different artists. Other themes that I saw were where intelligence comes from. And I think that comes from, those were from conversations that we all had with Stephanie, a producer on the team shared a video of a rant from this Black woman at the height of the uprising. And that was really important, things that were just so relevant to the time, obviously it was taken during the middle of the uprisings. And that was really important for us to see because then that also sparked a light for Stephanie of this idea of ranting and where we, especially if you like, live in a city area and you're, you know, just walking down the street, you might hear someone that is very unassuming and you wouldn't think much of them intellectually, but they're saying a lot of things that are really important and interesting and they're ranting often. And so it's kind of like, where is intelligence coming from and where are we assuming that it should come from and not assuming? So I saw that within the work. Sound is also pretty big. Idris and Terrence both have a lot of sound within their work and Idris is a music producer and so is Terrence. So both of them are exploring how sound really just expands the cinematic kind of feel of their work, which was nice. So yeah, I think it ranges so much. And I think it's perfect that it does range in the way that it does because just as Kamal was saying, we're constantly exploring what does Black mean and what's included and not included. I think this is a perfect spectrum of Blackness as really oppositional to this idea of Blackness being monolithic and that every Black person experiences it in the same way or shares the same culture. how different each artist is in their Blackness and their cultural kind of understanding, and even just their artistic kind of nature. Some were really comfortable getting into the tech, some were not at all and had no interest in putting themselves in that kind of space, even though we had to move to this WebXR platform. So I think their movement through life was really reflective and just showed the vastness of the spectrum of Blackness, I feel like is what this project does so well.

[00:39:06.692] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. I hope I get a chance to talk to some of the other creators to be able to dive into some of my very specific experiences of each of them, because it was, I'd say overall, it was very rich and I found myself really captivated and really appreciating a lot of the sound design and the music. And it was to me, a reflection of the amount of collaboration and relationality when it comes to all the different people that were participating and co-creating a lot of these sound designs and immersive worlds. And, you know, I guess the other thing I wanted to ask and follow up on is this moving into open web technologies, because we are all at home. I watched all of these on my computer screen. And what was interesting to me is that I could start to view source and look at things, you know, and see like, how was this created? And there's something about the existing distribution platforms of Unity, Unreal Engine, and even through the Sundance Film Festivals, where it's not accessible for most people. So the fact that you've been able to take these visions and to infuse it into what I see as this revolutionarily decentralized technology that's the most accessible that you could possibly have. Everybody has a phone and web browser or if it's computer only, but at least there's onboards for people don't have to have a lot of additional technology. And you can start to use the spatial affordances of the medium to explore these fascinating ideas and future dreaming and world-building and Afrofuturism and speculative design and centered in blackness, all these things that you're exploring, but in a way that people can actually like immerse themselves into it. So I'm just curious to hear a little bit more about the technology stack that you decided and that decision to go with web-based technologies.

[00:40:41.241] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah. Yeah. Cool.

[00:40:43.150] Ari Melenciano: No, I was going to say, I'm just batting this over to Ari. Cause, uh, really when we were like, oh, we can't do this live. Oh, what are we going to do? Ari came to the rescue.

[00:40:55.417] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, it was, we went through a series of different technologies, but what we ended up with was JavaScript is kind of like the main language for the portal page. So I think if you like inspect that page, you'll see a P5 JS script that all of the introduction portal page was made out of. Idris's piece specifically is made with 3JS. So that's like this whole web VR platform that is very flexible. It allows for a lot of flexibility. Terrence's work, I mean, they were all so different. I think also Stephanie's work was also, I'm pretty sure ended up using 3JS or potentially A-Frame. Like we were kind of bouncing them forth between 3JS and A-Frame. And yeah, and then the other works are more of like a video with sound design and Terrence's work. I collaborated with someone who I often DJ with on Terrence's sound piece and kind of creating like this sonic experience that would amplify his idea of this parable of the trickster idea of the conversation between just Javier X-3000 as a character and the director of the film. So the technology was also, we were, it was really just what technology best serves the purpose of what we're trying to create, which is this alternative kind of world in a way that's accessible, as you mentioned, for people to be able to just enter the space, not need a headset. They can enter purely from their computer screen. and enjoy it. And yeah, I think that is really exciting of just like this idea of how you can kind of see beneath the veil or underneath the veil or through the veil of what people have created, which is very atypical, I think, of, as you mentioned, of other Sundance projects. And now you can see how maybe you can use these technologies and build some of your own.

[00:42:27.316] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had an experience of watching 99 frames per millennia where I was actively trying to find the original podcast of where these conversations had happened. And it wasn't until I couldn't find anything on Google that I realized, Oh, this was all made up, made up in a sense of, you know, it was written or it was performed in such a way that I, and I was like, I want to see this trailer they're talking about. I want to see like. What did I miss? I like, I want to see this. And it was like, I thought that was really a brilliant conceit. Imagine these films inspired by Octavia Biltler already being made. And this was the interview of talking about it and how successful all these other ones had been. And I don't know, I just, it was sort of a joy when I realized how tricked I had been. So yeah, well, just to finally, just to kind of wrap up things here, I'm curious what you each think is the ultimate potential of these immersive technologies and Afrofuturism or Afrocentric design centered in blackness and this world building conceit, you know, what is the ultimate potential of all of these things coming together and what they might be able to enable?

[00:43:30.452] Kamal Sinclair: Yeah, I could say, um, I've just said what Kamal said earlier, the more you practice these ideas, they start to manifest. And I think that's just a really important thing to do, especially within the Black community of just I learned a long time ago of a part of the brain that shrinks because of trauma and PTSD and just all the experiences that you're navigating through as a person of a marginalized community. And so when that happens, it's very difficult to imagine futures and to just even think of what you're going to do next week because you're constantly thinking day to day. So I think to flip that and to give people an opportunity to think vastly in the future and then potentially work backwards is, OK, what do I need to do now so that I'm a great ancestor to the people that are coming behind me? I think that's just a really important practice and it ends up manifesting in really healthy ways.

[00:44:18.236] Ari Melenciano: I could not have said it better. Yeah, I mean, you know, we're in that work right now as a community trying to both support the catalytic potential of these practices and then also to bring resources, like I said before, to bear. One specific concrete example I would say is there's one collective of our members, which you may know also from the Sundance world, Alyssa Moorhead, Tahir Hempel, Bradford Young, Sean Peters, They've been creating an intentional community of black artists and creative technologists in Baltimore for, I think it's six or seven years now. And they've been using radical imagination and their creative practices like this work, and then actualizing it in building, buying property together, supporting each other's businesses, creating spaces for children to kind of be raised as a village. So they actually are manifesting in very real ways what they've leveraged their creative work as artists and as technologists. And so I hope to see a lot more of that as we continue to see healthy communities being built.

[00:45:24.296] Kent Bye: Yeah. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:45:30.821] Ari Melenciano: Oh, the other side of it is I am on the advisory board for the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. And on that side of things, just from the technological side of things, I think we have just especially with the convergence of artificial intelligence, there's just so many things that are possibilities and also things to really think strongly about, like the ways in which dream technology is now coming into this space and the ways in which we need to understand. We now have had a global shift where people have been forced into engaging with the world more digitally than in real life. And as we come out of the pandemic, I'm really curious to see what of this behavior we want to keep and where it leverages aspects of our lives that we can't do in real life in a meaningful way, and then obviously how it integrates into our real life. I think that we're still at early stages of how these immersive and digital spaces operate as public spaces, how they operate as healing spaces, how they operate as places to rewire our brains to possibilities that we may have calcified. So anyway, there's a lot left to do here. And I don't want to say that the hype cycle around the last VR cycle is going to define this moment. I think there was a lot of learning that happened there, but I hope even our perception of what immersive technology is today doesn't limit us in what it can be over the next 10 years.

[00:46:54.856] Kent Bye: Yeah. Anything else, Ari, that you wanted to say?

[00:46:57.011] Kamal Sinclair: No, I'm just, I'm glad this project came into the world. I'm glad I was able to do it with Kamal and the Guild and all the artists and yeah, I'm really excited for more people to experience it.

[00:47:07.387] Kent Bye: Well, thank you both Ari and Kamal for joining me here on the podcast to be able to capture the context and the story, the evolution. I think this whole concept of world building and dreaming into the future in this way is super exciting. And I love these pieces and I can't wait for people to have their own experiences with them and to see where this collective of the Guild of Future Architects and Afrotectopia, all these different clusters of artists and creatives and where this continues to go. So thanks for joining me. And yeah, thanks.

[00:47:34.319] Kamal Sinclair: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:47:36.820] Ari Melenciano: conversation. Thank you for doing this work. You always bring great conversations. It's never fluff. It's always depth. Thank you.

[00:47:46.265] Kent Bye: So that was Ari Malenciano. She's the creative technologist on Traveling at Interstitium with Octavia Butler and Kamal Sinclair, who is a producer on the project, as well as the founding executive director of the Guild of Future Architects. So I find a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I was really happy to get a little bit of the lineage of this whole speculative design and world-building process that Kamal Sinclair was helping to facilitate, starting with the Futurist Writing Room at the Guild of Future Architects and to help, originally, going back to the World Building Institute with Alex McDowell. I know there was a piece that was at Sundance 2016 featuring Alex McDowell. And there's the World Building Residency Program that happened in 2017, where Grace Lee and Lauren Lee McCarthy and Tony Patrick were attendees of that, and they went on to create the Beyond the Breakdown experience. But then Tony Patrick was involved with the whole world building process that was three different sessions of people who were involved with this project, and they had three different meetings. So the four different pieces, and if you haven't had a chance to go check them out yet, I highly recommend going to interstitium.space. This is a great thing for me, why I'm so excited, is because you can actually go see these experiences. They're so often that you'll have a festival like this where I'll cover all these experiences, but they won't be available ever, or it'll be a year or two. But because they're using these open web technologies, you can actually go check these out and then just have your own experience of them, which I think has been really difficult to actually get your hands on to see a lot of these different experiences. So the first piece is called Pluto, which is a video by Sophia Nali Allison. It's a project about black women to be the first to Pluto. And it's about peace and solitude and Exploring the dreams and memories of being in space and then there's the quantum summer by Aegis Brewster Which was really interesting way of kind of navigating around this island and then you're listening to all these soundscapes as you go into these different locations and so just a really amazing sound design and great collaboration with different music being pulled into that experience. And so that's a quantum summer when words fail. It's a piece by Stephanie Dinkins, where you go in and you record a response to the question of what do I need to release in order to move forward? And then hearing all these different people, their responses to that. And then 99 frames per millennia by Terrence Nance was this portal visualization, listening to Stacia X 3000, do this interview with a director who was having this kind of imaginal conversation, talking about, what it would be like to translate a lot of Octavia Butler's pieces of fiction into these films and then just these discussions as if all these films already exist. So quite a provocative conversation that, I don't know, it was a little hypnotic just to kind of listen to it and all the different soundscapes that they were editing in as well. And yeah, if you actually want to hear a little bit more discussion about any of these different experiences, I have episode 975 where I have a critics roundtable where I had a number of different immersive critics from the immersive industry talk about their experiences of a lot of these different immersive experiences. So you can go to episode 975 to dig into a little bit more of a group discussion about each of these different experiences. So, I just really appreciated hearing a lot more of the context of the different influences of Scavenatti, Fragnito's Initiative for Indigenous Futures that was coming out of Toronto, Madibo Futunde, who was leading a lot of these strategic foresight conversations and also is now working at Autodesk. Then there's Afrotectopia, which is the organization that already started back in 2018. It wasn't in direct response to Black Panther, but it was happening at the same time. And it was interesting to hear her differentiations between Afrofuturism, which she sees as a little bit more of this aesthetic or theoretical vision where she's much more interested in the Afrocentric design or centered in blackness. So seeing what we can do right now and to talk about how to ground these designs that are centered around blackness and have a Afrocentric design that are happening right now, not sometime in the future. And in the discussions with other folks like Michelle Stevenson, she was talking about how Afrofuturism is now. And so there's maybe Afrofuturism 2.0, which is really trying to bring that into the present. And yeah, just all the different projects that are out there, LA media projects, what was happening there with the series of artists within Baltimore. You have Janet Wong and Bill T. Jones of New York Life Arts. And of course Octavia Butler herself and her works and a lot of the inspirations that she was embedding within her books and a lot of the themes that they were discussing and then embedding into these different projects in different ways. So just to hear about that process of trying to distill down someone who's really dreaming into this future of talking about gender fluidity or race fluidity or what's the boundaries in the context of blackness and what is black and what is not black. mythologies of black women flying that kind of led to something like Pluto, talking about healing and definitions of time and where does intelligence come from, and then, just in general, just having these opportunities to see that blackness is not monolithic, that there's a lot of uniqueness and vastness of the spectrum of blackness that you can start to explore, both through the works of Octavia Butler, but also in each of these pieces as well. There was a series of other different meetings and gatherings that happened in the past. The Future Imagination Summit at NYU that happened in November of 2019. Some of these different previous world-building exercises that happened in Lagos. This artist who had said they really wish that never happened because it was like a dream deferred because there wasn't resources that were put behind actually trying to make a lot of these world-building and future-dreaming processes actually get rooted in to do anything to actually take action. When you do that, then it can be a little bit frustrating to imagine all these futures but not actually do anything to manifest it. I think to a certain extent, you could say that the immersive experiences are a good stopgap for that, because even though if you're not investing money directly into helping create a physical manifestation, at least if you're able to distill down a lot of those different dreams and visions into some sort of direct immersive experience, then I think you're able to actually start to cultivate these artifacts of culture that can start to build and cultivate these worlds that you want to continue to build and grow on. I remember when I went to the Immersive Design Summit in 2018, there was just a lot of people that were really excited about the Black Panther and what was happening with the world building that happened there in Wakanda, and all these movements of folks that were actually starting to try to be inspired by that vision that they saw in the Black Panther, but also start to actually ground it and to build that into their communities and say, yes, we want to start to actually live into this. So even if the outcome of some of these world building exercises, even if it is just a immersive experience, then that is at least some way of creating some sort of cultural artifact that is trying to have some poetic connection to cultivate a deeper culture that doesn't quite exist right now. What's that mean to rapidly prototype and to build these futures within the context of these immersive experiences? Again, I'm just really excited about this as a concept. It seemed to be a theme that came up a number of different times, this concept of world building and speculative design. And, you know, in this case, Afrofuturism or Afrocentric design and centric and blackness, you know, different practices of speculative design, I think, is just really powerful. Like Kamal said, She saw time and time again the power of this process of people getting into this democratization of our collective imagination and to see how when you start to do that and start to find these places where there's consensus and you have a shared vision of what you want to start to create, even if you have a wide range of different values, you can start to really focus on the things that you want to create together. and bring communities together. And you've seen the power of it happen over and over again. And for me, I just think it's wildly exciting. I think it's one of the most exciting potentials of immersive technologies, because you can start to create these artifacts to cultivate and prototype the different cultures that you want to create that don't quite exist yet, but you want to get there. And it reminds me of an interview that I did with Jason Edward Lewis, who was a part of that Indigenous Futurism project that was happening out of Toronto. He created a number of different experiences for that. He has a whole thing called the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace. And so, back in Episode 654, I did an interview with him. And, you know, one of the things that he said is that they were projecting out 150 years into the future, which was a little bit like seven generations timeframe, but also, if you go back seven generations back into the past, That's about when the colonialization had happened. They figured, if you go another 150 years into the future, then you start to be in a context where you can get out of the existing institutional momentum. It allows you to really creatively imagine a potential future that, within the next 10, 20 or 50 years, maybe feel like it's too ambitious to have that much radical change happen. But if you go out 150 years, then you just have a lot more latitude to start to really dream about the type of futures that you want to create together. So that was a very interesting conceit that really stuck with me in terms of the time frame that allows you the space to really imagine the type of cultures that you want to create and what does it take to start to do that and implement that into our culture right now, step by step, even if it's seven generations from right now. And I think that it's those types of perspectives of how can you be a good ancestor for the people of the future. So people that are looking back onto what you're doing right now, how can you be a good steward for being able to manifest the most exalted potentials that you possibly can? So it's just a concept that I find fascinating. And yeah, I just really love the concept and my experiences of these pieces as well. So highly recommend you go check out these pieces at interestissuum.space and just explore around and immerse yourself into some of these different creations. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a less-than-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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