As an extension of Mirabelle Jones’s exhibition “Future Technology Products” at Catch in Denmark, the artist is hosting a Digital Alchemy Event Series this summer around diverse voices in science fiction. Mirabelle spoke with Makery about diversity, technology and the power of speculative fiction.
Mirabelle Jones self-identifies as “a queer, non-binary creative technologist, educator, researcher, and transdisciplinary artist focused on the development of interactive and immersive storytelling technologies, educational activism, and ethical AI practices through a lens of intersectional data feminism”. They also love to read and write science fiction, in the most inclusive sense of the literary genre.
During their Feral Labs residency at Catch in late 2020, Mirabelle read, researched and developed three speculative high-tech prototypes inspired by science fiction stories for their exhibition Future Technology Products, extended through summer 2021.
Among them, perhaps the most symbolic is the e-Protea, a sort of wetware flower that is constantly gathering and projecting information, sprouted in a future environment irreversibly polluted by e-waste. (In the physical exhibition space at Catch, the e-Protea is displayed alongside the separate project Grow Your Own Cloud: Data Garden, a collection of real plants used to store data.) The e-Protea was directly inspired by the M-CPU in Africanfuturist author Nnedi Okorafor’s story “From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7”—an organic giant flower with a memory spanning thousands of years, across human civilizations, having become an omniscient griot storyteller and repository of oral traditions.
Mirabelle comments: “Okorafor shows us a world in which nature has been forever changed by technology, fusing until definitions of ‘natural’ and ‘biological’ become difficult if not impossible to disentangle. The story is one of survival—and asks us to reflect on how the decisions we make or do not make today around our relationship to technology might create hazards we leave to future generations to survive.”
Based in Copenhagen, Mirabelle continues the conversation in a series of real-space and online workshops: Digital Alchemy Event Series (June 3-15-22, August 12) at Catch in Helsingør, Denmark; and “When Things Speak: Giving Voice to Objects” (June 9) at European Lab in Lyon, France.
What first sparked your interest in exploring the greater world of science fiction literature?
Science fiction has always been a part of my world. I have a BA in language arts from the University of California Santa Cruz, and my MFA is in book art and creative writing, so my background is at the intersection of literature and fine art. I’m very concerned with what the future of reading looks like. This will have a tremendous impact on how we think in the future.
When I was in college [in the early 2000s] there was still this distinction between the canon and the multicultural canon, which was new and also contested. There were college instructors who were appalled that we would interject multicultural authors into the traditional canon. They really felt it was an affront, an attack on the “integrity of literature” or whatever. At this point, luckily we don’t have that view largely. The canon that now exists is more open to considering that we have a huge problem in terms of what we’ve considered the history of literature and what’s foundational literature, and we need to start addressing that.
For me that’s the journey, realizing that I was taught nearly one hundred percent white authors as a kid. Even up to bachelors level, it’s awful. And mostly men. Women were part of their own adjacent canon, and also contested for being included at the time. So if you flash forward to 2020, we’re doing pretty good. But who gets to have a big name in science fiction is still about who is in power and who is supporting them, and who will pay for the translation.
Who are some of your favorite science fiction authors?
I do love Ted Chiang, Margaret Atwood… but Octavia Butler is the author who broke my white man literature streak when I was a teenager. It blew my mind. I think most people who aren’t cisgender white men have this moment at some point where they read a story where they’re like oh my god, there’s representation of the things I care about! That was Octavia Butler for me, and a lot of that representation had to do with women, strong women, women as owners of technology, as creators of technology, but also a lot of things around queerness and gender and aliens. I think a lot of queer, trans, nonbinary people point to Octavia Butler as being a sort of gateway for them to really talking about body and dysphoria.
So what inspired you to create these future-tech prototypes based on stories written by diverse voices?
The idea came about from the fact that a lot of the technologies we point to as having been adopted from science fiction are works that are written by either European or American white male authors. I love science fiction by those authors as well, I spent a large part of my childhood [in California] growing up with classic authors like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne… But it got me thinking about how invested I am in intersectional feminism, in data feminism, and where does that turn up in literary influences? Certainly the world of science fiction is not lacking in diverse voices, it’s just that those voices aren’t represented inclusively when we discuss science fiction. It’s changing a bit, but still has a long way to go in how science fiction that isn’t written by white male authors tends to be siloed and addressed as something that’s othered. So you’ll see split-offs of the science fiction world, sometimes anthologies of African science fiction or Latino magical realism. Those are usually not in conversation with what we consider science fiction, science fictive literature, and how that literature is influencing technology.
So it made me think about those connections between how science fiction and the products that we see in science fiction, these future technologies, who is considering those, who is creating those, which authors have the right, the platform, the mic to share those technologies, and how does that get implemented when we talk about companies? There’s this feedback loop that happens between science fiction, especially science fiction adapted into film, and what technologies get produced by companies like Tesla, or companies that are also owned by white men who grew up reading this literature. What would it look like if we had an alternate approach to investigating these technologies and the influence of realizing them, of them becoming part of our world and how we interact with our world? Deep reading meets archaeology meets tech fab!
What would you say are the most underrepresented voices in science fiction?
I’m not qualified to answer that question! I mean, there are people who could answer much better than I could. One thing that’s problematic is that a lot of people will make a separation between magical realism and science fiction, and this excludes a whole bunch of authors. It actually has happened a lot in Latino science fiction. Incredibly interesting works are being produced and not translated, it’s a big problem. There’s a lot of attention right now on African science fiction, particularly because works are being adapted into film or other forms of media. China has been getting a lot of attention in terms of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and adjacent authors. South Korea for a long time has been producing really interesting works. And of course Japan has a long tradition of science fiction, but very few have been translated. Again it gets into that magical realism / science fiction divide, where people know Haruki Murakami, they look for things that are Murakami-adjacent, and everything else just kind of gets swamped.
Most of this project has been reading, selecting stories based on whose voice am I basing work off of. For example, in African anthologies lots of white expats are represented, I want to be aware and avoid colonial representation in terms of works I’m highlighting. There’s an interesting anthology of Latino science fiction called Cosmos Latinos, where the pieces date back to the 1800s, looking at the history of science fiction in different parts of world. Samuel Delaney wrote a wonderful article, about the announce of the “rise of African science fiction”. At what point does it stop rising? Can we just say that it’s here? Every culture has their own variety of science fiction. Many people will define science fiction in such a way that it needs to have some of these ideas of European or American culture or situations involving technology, so it becomes a self-fulfilling definition.
It’s interesting that the three origin stories for the Future Technology Products are written by successful authors who are respectively Nigerian-American, Chinese-American, and a white American woman writing under a white male pseudonym. Is this also because these stories primarily target Western readers, where there is more of a tradition of incorporating futuristic digital technology?
You’re right that in looking for objects which I could make as prototypes, more authors surfaced who were working with these themes of products in technology development in the United States. Another struggle was translation and finding works written in English. Although I read easily over a hundred stories, not all of them contained technologies that would be suitable for the project. Meaning that not all of the technologies could be made into interactive objects. Several stories used technologies more akin to magic. And as much as I’d like to be able to develop drums that can summon ghosts, for example, it wouldn’t really fit the theme.
Not all the authors for the entirety of the project were from the West, however. The “When Things Speak: Giving Voice to Objects” workshop is based on Japanese author Ryo Hanmura’s short story “Cardboard Box”, and several of the other stories that have come up in conversation in the Digital Alchemy Event Series are from different locations, such as “A Series of Steaks”, an excellent story by Vina Jie-Min Prasad [from Singapore]. For the Wikipedia edit-a-thon, we focused on adding authors of diverse backgrounds from around the world to Wikipedia.
There’s also a Japanese artist who for several years has been building and flying life-size prototypes inspired by the fictional glider imagined by Hayao Miyazaki in Nausicaä. Yet the prototypes look quite different from the original glider, whose aerodynamics are physically impossible in our real world. How did you deal with the “impossible” aspects of realizing these sci-fi products?
There are many impossibilities in this project. One impossibility is knowing how everyone will interpret a passage in a science fiction book and producing that thing, it’s just not possible. I’m definitely producing my heavily skewed version of what I think this thing is according to my perspective as an artist.
Then there’s the impossibility of actually making the thing. None of these stories have ingredients for how to make the thing. Or if they do, they trail off at some point, and I have to interpret, imagine, fill in the rest. In some ways it’s like those projects where archaeologists find part of a pot or sculpture and they have to 3D model and interpret what they think the rest will be like. It’s sort of like that, but certainly won’t represent the whole context of the story. I’m really removing that item as part of a world and getting people to hypothesize what kind of world would you have this in, and how does that relate to our world, how can we use that as a way of interpreting the products that we have and consider where we want to go as a species?
A good example of impossibility is the Quantum Crystal [based on the “Plaga interworld signaling mechanism” prisms in the story “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”]. Ted Chiang hypothesizes a world where there are different quantum branches, with a “many-worlds” philosophy to time, in which every potential branch in reality is actually happening. This is a really comforting thing to think about, because it means that you can’t have any regrets, because you’ve already done all the things you possibly could do, just not doing them in this reality. It’s probably why I like this story so much.
In this world, there’s a way to capture a specific time or specific branch. It’s the equivalent of a quantum leap sticking a pin in something. The idea is that you can use these devices that allow you to speak to another version of yourself in another quantum branch. So the technology adapts in the story by going from just being a text interface to being a video interface, but the video interface uses up the quantum crystal, it only has so much juice. So it will talk to you, but only for a limited amount of time, and it will cost you. So there are these services where you go, basically a phone booth kind of situation, where you can rent a crystal for a certain amount of time and talk to yourself in other branches.
The story is about people who get addicted to these crystals, because they’re obsessed with another version of themself. This is a really human problem. We think about “What if I did this?”, there’s always this concern of “Am I leading my best life? Where did I mess up?” It usually comes from that point of view, and not where have I done great things—an unfortunate thing about how humans think and how our cognitive biases work. It also involves issues of surveillance, including self-surveillance, which is a very interesting topic in our time. I’ve also gone from being a kid and having no Internet, then Internet appearing, to it being totally normal to document most points of my day somehow visually.
My recipe for this crystal was to deal with an issue in technology that we’re currently dealing with in our time that is related to surveillance and self-spying and obsession with self and our own standards for ourselves. That has to do with GANs and deep fakes. Deep fakes are really an emotional topic for a lot of people, because of the ways they’re used to trigger our sense of self, how who we are could be misrepresented by an image in a representation of ourselves. So I’m using deep fakes in order to give people the opportunity to talk to themselves, using that technology.
Speaking of body and dysphoria, another story you selected was written by James Tiptree, Jr.—the succesful male pseudonym of a hidden female author—about a dying bedridden girl who operates in society through the body of a beautiful young idol?
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is a fascinating story about a girl who is on her last legs in society, and basically gets abducted with an offer to become like a star human being by having a piece of wetware attached to her permanently, so that she inhabits this grown body. It has a lot to do with influencer culture, even though it was written in the 1970s. It’s basically this idea of creating a fake celebrity. The reason the company does this is that in the world this story takes places in, advertising has become so abundant that it’s become illegal, except for displays on the product itself. So advertisers have to come up with very clever ways to sell their products, and they start growing these fake bodies where beautiful young stunning creatures, influenceresque, basically become living walking talking advertisements. It’s influencer culture before its time.
That whole thing is fascinating, but the Influencisizer product that I made is just a one-liner in that story, based on how people watch television in this world. Because there’s always this ritual that companies need to go through when they develop stories, series, you try to predict what people are going to want and respond to and create an arc, but sometimes you miss. Sometimes your points don’t necessarily line up once you air them. So in this world, they have a sensor system that takes readings of the viewer, so that the story can adapt in real time. The idea is that we take data through a wearable (again not very well explained in the story) and we turn out the content that people are responding to. Actually I think this is a really dangerous concept as a storyteller and someone who works with sensors, because a high response rate can mean that you’re stimulated in either a good or a bad way. I don’t think the point of stories should be to just keep stimulating people—at least not in that way, it sounds like torture!
Instead of using a sensor system, I’m using attention. So I have a webcam that’s positioned and tracks gaze. If someone is looking directly at it, it will continue to play the same video, but if they look away, it will switch to a different video. The videos are all advertisements for various products that are taken from various stories. So it’s kind of a very big interpretation of that very small bit of that story. But I think that it touches on a lot of the concerrns that are raised by that piece of technology—attention and stimulus, and who’s on camera and what does that mean, and who’s watching us and are we watching ourselves… all that surveillance stuff.
It must have been fun making the fake ads for other speculative products!
I wanted to leave with the products some amount of mystery, but also mystery that speaks to some of the ethical complications of how products are presented to us. A good example is Ted Chiang’s story “Dacey’s Patented Automatic Nanny”, which is basically an advertisement of the Victorian machine nanny. That one is very specific about how it works and even includes an advertisement for it. The ad is heavily sexist and heavily racist and maintains all of that critique of Victorian technology in it, which is great.
The music capsule is just mentioned as a blip, as an alternative to another technology that someone is using in that story. I wanted to create an object that looks somewhat plausible or intentionally not plausible and get the conversation started about how do we think this really works, what are the complications with having music that you imbibe, or digest? What does it mean to digest or consume media? There are a lot of questions linked to pharmaceutical industries like cost, independence, things like it changing you, and you wanting more of it, the co-dependency that happens with medication, and what does that mean for media and media consumption? And for music and the music industry? Who’s the Pfizer of the music industry?
Mirabelle Jones’s Future Technology Products
Digital Alchemy Event Series at Catch
Read Nnedi Okorafor’s “From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7” (2009)
Read Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” (2019)
Read James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973)
Part of the Feral Labs Network co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union