Introducing AfroFutures by Florence Okoye
In the field of Complexity studies, one of the characteristics of a complex system is that it will often show sudden discontinuities, tipping points after long periods of apparent stability. For those of us interested in the way societies adapt and evolved, it might be something of a comfort to think that radical change is indeed a possibility, regardless of how dominant and intrusive the current status quo seems to be.
This isn’t a particularly unique insight, but it comes up whenever I start thinking about the way new trends bubble up out of nowhere and are sometimes able to leave a trace after the inevitable denouement. I like to think that the resurgent interest in the genre of AfroFuturism is one such trend – one that will leave a more interesting world of genre fiction, media and even technology in its wake.
AfroFuturism is a genre where the trope of science fiction are melded with black culture. The term was first coined by Mark Dery ‘to describe science fiction by African-American writers such as Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler, whose work “treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriate images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future”’.
Although originally used to describe what was in many ways an African American movement, is a broader collective these days. Inspired by cultures and experiences both within and without the African continent, AfroFuturism is an artistic movement where black people can put themselves in the middle of futuristic narratives. No longer passive victims, magical assistants or entirely vanished, the black person is now someone who can be the astronaut, the engineer, the astrophysicist and have an active role in navigating, deciphering and creating at the boundaries of out knowledge.
This might seem trivial, and perhaps it is. However, it should be enough to understand that growing up surrounded by stereotypical depictions of ourselves and our communities, lowered expectations within the educational system and other hallmarks of institutional racism, imagining that there will indeed be ‘black people’ in the future was a subversive act for some of us, particularly those acquainted with sci-fi and speculative fiction.
By imagining, we can create. In an age of renewed civil rights and social justice activism, AfroFuturism has inspired many black artists to rethink and refresh the ways in which the arts can be used to benefit communities, either for examining the intersectional nature of oppression – and thus liberation – or for exploring new ways of living with difference. From Janelle Monae who uses the conceit of a time travelling cyborg on the run from futuristic cyborg hunters to explore the ways in which oppressed communities are both entrapped and in some ways hunted as they seek liberation and new spaces to create live in a self-determined dignity, to writers like Rasheedah Phillips whose writing explores the way exploitation of less advantaged groups is sometimes the very backbone of material scientific progress, it is an exciting time for the arts within the black community.
In many ways I see the return – albeit in literary form – of that brash surrealism of 90’s hip hop videos which mashed up space travel, martial arts films and sampled tracks to create a sound which reflected the multitudinous voices and experiences that make up the social entity which is the black person.
But what of the sciences? The arts have always been a crucial way for black people to express themselves and a means to escape the social confines enforced by a white supremacist society. Black Lives Matter and an increasingly vocal intersectional LGTBQ* rights movement has in many ways encouraged black artists to express themselves as persons of politics as opposed to solely as outlets of creative forces. As with artists like Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Florence Mills, contemporary artists like Alisha Wormsley and Denenge Akpem, prove that the personal and the political is ever entwined. This fact is not something to hide away, but something to explore and celebrate. Not only should it be celebrated, it is in fact vital for people who are used to being shunted onto the sidelines.
The science are also ready to be shaken up by this contemporary AfroFuturism and there has never been a better time for it. In the midst of discussions about Open Access Publishing and the importance of citizen science, now is the perfect time for those of us interested in increasing participation in the sciences to speak up. Just as AfroFuturism inspires new ways of framing the arts as potential vehicles for social change, it can also inspire new ways of thinking about how we do science and engage people from less represented communities into contributing to scientific process.
AfroFutures_UK was borne out of two core goals. Primarily, as a means to bring a fresh kind of AfroFuturism to our communities, putting the next generation in touch with a whole swathe of exciting AfroFuturist writers, filmmakers and artists who envision people like them not only existing in the future but also shaping it.
Our second aim was to use the genre of AfroFuturism as a new way of engaging with the sciences and technologies. Instead of seeing tech as something to be bought and upgraded when no longer shiny and new, by teaching young people how to code and become makers in their own right, we aim to show them that tech is something they can make for their own unique contexts, not just buy. When John Lasseter, the director of Toy Story, said that ‘the art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art’, he was alluding to the symbiotic nature of technological innovation that we also recognise and the importance of the intersectional, multi-disciplinary perspective. This is a perspective as necessary in the sciences as in activism.
As we’ve seen in an age of austerity, the sciences are not immune from changes in policy. From history, we’ve seen how the sciences can contribute to as much as be damaged by dehumanising ideologies. For those of us who exist as minorities due to race or sexuality, it is radical genres like AfroFuturism that can drive engagement as theorists and practitioners, inspiring new technologies and methodologies which will ultimately lead to innovative discoveries.
These are just some of the ideas that we will be exploring at our seminal event on the 10th October which will be held at the Manchester Digital Laboratory. We hope that you will join us on our radical journey as we explore the future of blackness, as creators of a truly intersectional futurism through the arts and technology.
AfroFutures UK is a collective dedicated exploring the future black experience through interdisciplinary research and creating disruptive technologies. Our seminal event will be held on 10th October from 10am – 6pm at the Manchester Digital Laboratory. It will be an Afrofuturist exhibition and conference exploring the intersection of futurism and the black experience through art, performance and technology.
AfroFutures UK aims to engage people from all backgrounds with new ways of imagining the future, inspiring young and old alike to become active participants in creating their own futures through the arts and technology. We will be joined by writers, artists and academics from around the world including Rasheedah Phillips, author of the Recurrence Plot and founder of the AfroFuturist Affair; the renowned academic Dr Reynaldo Anderson; Camae, producer and writer at Moor Mother Goddess; Erik Steinskog from the University of Copenhagen; the artist Mary Ononokpono and zine maker Rudy Loewe, who will also be hosting a zine making workshop for all ages! There are a plethora of new voices who will also be at our event, performing and presenting their research.
As well as talks, there will also be a programming and coding workshop held in association with Arduino Manchester and OpenCode Birmingham who have kindly donated equipment and tutors for the workshop.
The list of confirmed speakers and workshop leaders can be found here.
You can also follow us on Twitter for further updates @AfroFutures_UK
If you are interested in sponsoring or partaking in the event, send all enquiries to [email protected].