How Do You Fight a System That Commodifies Love?
Simone Browne in conversation with 2022 Fellow Mother Cyborg
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If the cyborg is a body reconfigured, tricked out and made more by some means of incorporation or augmentation, then it is those very possibilities of radical reconfiguring that Diana J. Nucera, a.k.a. Mother Cyborg, teaches us. She is technologist-as-teacher, artist-as-community organizer, DJ-as-radical dreamer, and more. Since founding the Detroit Community Technology project in 2015, and even long before that, Nucera’s realizing of radical dreams has been a practice of collaboration, communion, and disruption. Like working with other Detroit residents to make accessible, autonomous, and affordable Wi-Fi for their communities. Like Dream Systems and community gardens. Like psychedelic fabrics and Digital Security Blankets. Mother Cyborg deepens our understandings of the liberatory possibilities of people-centered technology, when it comes to, as she puts it, “fighting a system that commodifies love.”
How do you give an introduction to Mother Cyborg? Maybe I should just write the paragraph, rather than having those, “Who are you?” questions, which I feel are so rude but also to the point. But who are you today?
Today, right? I think I’m getting closer and closer to merging Diana and Mother Cyborg, which feels really nice and kind of unique. I wonder if that's something that could have happened before. Mother Cyborg is an alter ego or entity that essentially is trying to bring people into the future with love. She is a reaction to so much of the dystopian sci-fi we are saturated with. I love thinking about cyber futures and whatever we want to call it. I want to live to be one hundred just to see what tech emerges. I enjoy thinking about how we advance things and how we discover things, but I’m also quite aware of the double-edged sword that comes with that new discovery and knowledge. I think I might also be that sword in a sense, where Diana is on one end, fighting the fight, trying to kill the beast, trying to work to bring people into the work itself. Then on the other side is Mother Cyborg, trying to cut open a new reality and envision something that's completely different than what is. I think now, I am both: seeing art as a way of telling stories and documenting futures and a way of projecting them. I think that's why the tactility of the quilts feels so important, because they offer this is instead of this could be.
Diana, with the People’s Guide to Tech Press, is using that work as a research portal. That’s why I say it’s finally merging together. Mother Cyborg at one point was a way of protecting Diana, while I was in the tech policy world, because it was really hard, as you probably know, in academia to have any sort of weirdness, and I’m a weirdo. It was really hard for me to hide that. At some point I realized that the point of living is to not hide this stuff. I hope that answered your question.
It really did—weirdos, documenting weirdness, double-edged swords, and the goddess Diana being protected by Mother Cyborg. You said this is rather than this could be, and I really love the use of tense there. One question I have for you is about documenting and quilts as archives of labor, sometimes well-worn and discarded clothes. I feel like if I had a grandmother—I did have a grandmother, two of them, but I never met them—so I think about that kind of loss and longing and the kind of ways that quilts map memories and hold something. I’m reading bell hooks, as we all should, all the time, with my class this semester. She has one essay in Art on My Mind on beauty called “Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics in the Ordinary” where she writes that when she was growing up, she learned from her grandparents and the elders in her Southern Black, rural, working class and poor community that it was better to seek beauty in a world that was not subject to monetary exchange. bell hooks tells us in that chapter that for her grandmother, that way of seeking beauty was through quiltmaking, which she calls an oppositional aesthetic.
Your digital security blankets on your Instagram also have this oppositional aesthetic and are really a continuation and extension of the work, the learning, and the educating that you do around art and technology, such as the Data Criminalization Quilting Bee. Can you talk about your quilt study?
Ladies and gentlemen, Simone Browne is in the house. This is a great, thoughtful question. You know what’s wild? I never met my grandparents either. One of the first things people ask me about quilting is about my grandparents, and I’m like, Look, I don’t know, and I don’t know much about them. The immigration story erased it somehow, and it’s embarrassing to talk about sometimes because people do romanticize their grandparents, so to not have that information feels somewhat detached but also, I want to say, liberated.
I say that because these quilts are ways of creating my own legacy because I don’t have one that’s been handed down to me. I don’t have one that is available to me because of my queerness and my otherness, so the study of quilts for me is almost like a re-parenting type of shit, a way of creating my own story, my own legacy by looking at the idea that legacy doesn’t even exist. I don’t know how to make it sound clear, but it’s a way of saying that there’s a lineage within me because I come from a long, long line of tailors, none of which taught me the skill, because of their beliefs––or their lack of––in me. There’s something about reclaiming my ancestry and my heritage through quilting.
I also was dealing with lots of assimilation growing up in a small town in Indiana, as a queer brown person. It really sucked. So there’s some Indiana in there, too. Quilting was a big part of Indiana heritage that was around me but never for me. I didn’t learn about crafting within other Indigenous and Black and Latino cultures until well into my study of them because I was so surrounded by the white version of it. So to me it’s reclaiming a whole lot of things while trying to tap into my ancestors. I don’t know anything about them, so it’s a little bit of a spiritual practice for me. That’s a very long way of saying that. I do love the utilitarianism of them. I love that there’s a history of women’s work. I love that there’s a history of labor organizing around them, so it feels like a continuation through material of the work I’ve been doing on the ground, organizing here in Detroit.
Speaking of material, the textiles, the colors, the neon, the iridescence: is there something about how you source them? And secondary to that, the naming that you have: 404Mom, Encrypt Me, Data Crunchers, The Platforms Are Segregating Us. They’re really saying something about what’s always been present in your work: technology and perhaps its failures, its potentialities and promises and dangers.
Yeah. There are some cliche moments, I think, with the ones and zeros, and I’m like, how do you talk about tech in such an analog, historical medium that has so much projected on it already, as to what it is and what it means? It’s like you said, people always think that my grandmother taught me how to quilt, and it’s a whole different story, so what do you do with that? I wanted to have some cliche moments to make it clear that we’re talking about tech. We’re talking about tech, specifically in an analog form, with psychedelic bright colors to bring people in for a few reasons. One: to be curious, because I’m super interested in how you invoke curiosity, and I think the color and the designs are my way of studying aesthetics and visual language. And two: in traveling and learning about the textiles of Central and South America and Mexico, I have learned that neon is actually quite Indigenous, even though it is often thought of as contemporary.
Like a 60s psychedelic type.
Yeah, or the 80s, the neon 80s. That’s the first time we saw it, but for centuries people have been grinding up cochineal insects to make hot pink dye. So you’ll see this in a lot of traditional textiles in the south, like the molas, which are the layered quilt blocks that you see in Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia. I wanted to tap into that because I love the effect bright neon colors have on us. I work with the emotional presence and historical lineage of color.
It’s so rich. I was doing a little bit of research about discarded tech and the kind of labor that goes into electronic waste, and I thought that there are some links there with the intellectual output that you’re creating with these quilts and what they tell us with the naming, with your labor, and what they allow us to think about, how the digital is in our lives.
As I mentioned, I’ve been following your quilts through your Instagram account. Thank you for sharing them. You mentioned in one of them that you had a new series that was about nature’s role in technology. I’ve been very inspired by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and her work Undrowned and other folks who have been interested in what we learn from plants, from marine life, and other organisms when it comes to anti-surveillance tactics. There are parrot fish that encapsulate themselves in mucous membranes to hide and change colors and they’re iridescent. They even change genders when they feel it’s necessary. I’m really curious about how we can learn from biomimicry when it comes to anti-surveillance for tech.
That’s a long way of building towards Detroit and the work that you’ve been doing there with Allied Media Projects and other local spaces. I want to know about how your relationship to Detroit and its ecologies plays a role in your practice. What can ecological life teach us when it comes to digital literacies? If “digital literacy” is your thing, or maybe “harm reduction.” Maybe those are not the terms you use.
No, they are. It all makes sense. I love how dense the question is. The deepest connections I have had with my family were through cooking and watering the plants. At a very young age those things brought me lots of joy. As someone who was pretty ostracized as a young person, I sat and stared at plants for a long time, wondering what they were thinking, and I still do. I remember the moment when George Bush Sr. became president. I flipped out and thought, I need to learn how to grow my own food, because I had a moment where it felt like my body, my mind, everything was at stake with this Republican turnover that was happening. So I learned to grow food with my best friend, who was a horticulture scientist. I learned so much about horticulture, so much about Earth and atmospheric science with him, working on the farm, doing all kinds of weird things. The way I learned was that I would teach him art stuff, and he would teach me science stuff. It was years and years that we did this, and we developed a beautiful relationship through it. I think my initial knowledge comes from the intersection of political refugee to art and science to find a new world, to rebuild a new world. I have always had these connections with how plants work; learning their inner workings really inspired me, especially thinking about how those systems work in comparison to human structures. That knowledge always gets me thinking about how we are the animals on this planet and what has made us detach from that.
The argument for a long time in Detroit, when we were bringing more ideas of what was possible with tech to organizers, especially the elders, was that people were just going to end up being individualists on their computers alone, instead of working in community. That begs the question: What can media-making and technology do in building these stronger relationships and stronger economies?
The way that we, The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and Allied Media Projects, approached it was looking at how community gardens were building up communities and relationships. In Detroit there is a lot of vacant land from the great white flight and the rebellion that happened in the 60s leaving lots of derelict homes. There is also the housing crisis where everything essentially started decrepitating and speculators came and we started to lose the grip on the land here. These community gardens became ways that people started having agency around space while building a relationship with the food they put in their bodies. That was always an inspiration. The harms that can happen with our media consumption are similar to the harms that can happen with eating shitty food: our internal systems suffer. Media, food, relationships are all systems that feed us both mentally and physically. I say all this because I started thinking deeply about media miles and that informed a lot of this internet organizing that I did. Looking at food systems and how we would talk about food miles. Where is your food coming from? Do you have a relationship with the soil that it came from, or is it coming from a far away place? Are migrant workers farming it? This food movement was making us really think about how food was getting to us and what about that system was healthy and what was harmful. That got me wondering in similar terms about technology. Thinking about it in terms of media miles; where is your media coming from? Is it coming from the community or outside sources?
Also at the time of these thoughts, it was the housing crisis in 2006 to 2008. People were coming from outside into Detroit, reporting on the stories of Detroit, so there was so much ruin porn circulating and pictures of Detroit pulled apart. Yet there were these incredible gardens, these incredible homes that people fixed up from salvaging different areas, and this incredible organizing work happening, all looked over because of someone’s outside perspective.
We did a lot of good work to change the narrative of Detroit to include the perspectives of residents, and so much has come out of that work that is still going on. Detroit heavily influenced how I think. These questions would not have emerged without the context or spirit of Detroit surrounding me.
During the pandemic lockdown, I found myself back in the gardens, looking to reconnect relationships and understand the political climate we are in. My garden, too, was like a mesh network, a point of connection and distribution. In the garden I think about how systems are intersecting, how their symbiosis happens. My questions about tech are rooted in my experience with nature and awe-inspiring moments that I’ve had between nature and relationship-building.
That answers the question, “How do you fight a system that commodifies love?” It’s in the garden. It’s in communion, and it’s in collaboration.
I do have one more question for you. You mentioned that you started a CSA at the beginning of the lockdown. I thought about all the work that you’re doing with Detroit. Detroit seems like an incubator for these tech companies, these carceral tech companies or practices. Project Greenlight and others. The fight must have been exhausting for you because it seems almost unending. We are in times of crisis and, of course, the crises are experienced differently and unevenly. The collaborative works and the community-based works that you’ve done or that you’ve been doing––you are the former director, as you mentioned, of the Detroit Community Technology Project, and you have co-created and distributed The People’s Guides––they’ve been guided by, as you put it, “a vision of the future, where the greatest possibilities for collective liberation are craft and technology merged.” So, what possibilities are you envisioning now for your 2022 Knight Arts + Tech Fellowship?
Oh, I need a greenhouse—
Yes, yes, we’re talking possibilities, yes!
The work that I’ve been doing specifically with the quilts and craft is about reflecting on the past and analyzing what I have learned and what has emerged since I’ve been working in the field. It’s dissecting, it’s continually looking as an activist would, dissecting what is there. What I really want to do with this fellowship is take some time to create new ideas rather than dissecting them. What that means for me is creating objects that can create rituals, while also looking at why the ritual is necessary. There’s a specific mobile candle magic project that’s looking at stuff like power cycling or these things that we do so that tech mysteriously fixes itself, and it often feels as if the internet gods are all around us making things work. So there’s this level of surveillance, too, that is mystical that we just trust will all be okay. I want to make objects that tap into that and give people more agency to interact with that mystical space.
Can I ask you what power cycling is?
When your computer crashes and you unplug it and plug it back in to get it to work again. It’s literally the fancy word for unplugging it and plugging it back in.
Shaking it, blowing on it.
I find it so fascinating that we trust that that works and we don’t know why. The People’s Guide to Tech publications, to me, are trying to demystify why it works, and the art is looking at the human interactions and the complex relationships that we have developed with tech.
I’m thinking about objects and visual language that are more proactive and can summon ideas and inspiration for people to move with, because right now the work is reflecting, telling a story, and offering some truths that are hard to hold. So with this fellowship I want to make things that inspire us to say, “This is what the future is.”
Thank you so much, Simone, I really appreciate you.
I really appreciate you.
Simone Browne is Associate Professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. She is also the author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. This spring Simone curated the exhibition Not Only Will I Stare at the Art Galleries of Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Mother Cyborg is a multimedia artist who uses music, performance, DIY publishing, quilting, and popular education to elevate collective technological consciousness and agency and reveal the curiosity between individual people with each other, with technology, and with the natural world. Her art draws from and includes thirteen years of community organizing work in Detroit, Michigan, during which time she wrote guides and devised organizing models to fight digital redlining by teaching residents in low-income neighborhoods to build and run their own Internet Service Providers. Her seventeen zines, which include The Teaching Community Technology Handbook, and A People’s Guide to AI, document and disseminate community technology practices.
Photo by Corine Vermeulen for The Beholder