Stephanie Dinkins: On Love and Data
March 13 through August 14, 2022
By PRIYA GANDHI, June 2022
On a busy Sunday in May, I headed to Queens Museum to see Stephanie Dinkins’ On Love and Data. First shown at Stamps Gallery at the University of Michigan, the exhibition begins with Secret Garden, 2021. African American women recounting oral histories of the past and present are projected onto the walls overlooking Queens Museum’s glistening Panorama of the City of New York, a to-scale representation of NYC’s boroughs from 1964. Sounds from the individual projections overlap, creating a slightly uncomfortable dissonance as you walk through the space. It is difficult to catch an entire sentence; instead I hear words like “slavery,” and “rebellion.” Secret Garden is eerie within the context of the Panorama; as years of personal stories surround the 58-year-old, mini-representation of NYC, time feels imperative. In this garden, time is the water that provides the viewers with budding stories from each woman, collapsing the past and present in a discordant space.
Following the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Dinkins unveiled her concept of “Afro-now-ism”; her “Afro-now-ism Manifesto” can be found in a newspaper offered to museum visitors within the exhibition. I hesitated to grab one from the neat, perfect pile, and once I did I kept it folded due to the newspaper’s clean lack of lines, linear just like the inputs and outputs of the computers and screens set up in the exhibition. Dinkins’ Afro-now-ism is a play on Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that connects members of the black diaspora to an African ancestry through science-fiction, fantasy, and history.
Narratives often focus on a technological utopia; a re-telling of the past that makes other futures possible. A section of Dinkins’ Manifesto reads, “Instead of waiting to reach the proverbial promised land… Afro-now-ism is taking the leap and the risks to imagine and define oneself beyond systemic oppression. It is active resistance away from cynicism, disaffection, and indifference towards constructively channeling energy today.” For Dinkins, the present is immense and graspable, facing us constantly in our search to address the institutional failures that surround us, specifically systemic racism. AI and algorithm-based technology repeats those institutional failures back in a loop embedded with the same biases of our society, as they are our world coded through inputs.
They are reflections of patterns, tuned by the sounds of our society’s racism and sexism. It is easy to forget that humans are so embedded within technology. The childhood memories of 1950s Jetson family technology and the myth of the American dream are all wrapped up in an otherworldly, slick silver phone or console. The tendency to believe that AI is neutral and out of human hands is unconsciously held by many, and is similar to society’s illusions about the future as something completely separate from us. Futurism and technology lend to each other because they both mask themselves in the scent of possibilities. Still, we cannot forget that the “now” is also mystified; the urgency of Dinkin’s questions are necessary, but are not neat, like tech may seem.
Energy needs to be activated now, but how? In Binary Calculations are Inadequate to Assess Us, 2021, Dinkins provides museum visitors with voting booths where they are asked to provide images and text that honor their cultures and lived experiences. These images and texts go towards building a “people’s data commons,” a collection of diverse experiences that parallels the deep biases in AI technology. Regardless of this narrative-based intervention, it still seems that so much of tech is separate from the ways forward that so many communities of color emphasize; storytelling, empathy, humanity. Can the narratives of surveillance via data collection and racial equity actually co-exist? Dinkins moves towards saying this could be, but it is not lost on me that binaries are still in existence within the exhibition, and that all of this technology is deeply entrenched in a history of white supremacy that is not easily shaken.
It is a tall order to create something personal from the technological, something equitable from the inequitable. In Say It Aloud, 2020-21, I entered a private booth with a screen. A question on the screen read “What do you need to release to move forward?” I hit the RECORD button and in an attempt to be vulnerable, I said I needed to stop doubting myself, that I needed to trust myself more. During this act of individual tenderness, I was accosted with my own face, lit only by the screen. Speaking to the camera made me clench up. I wonder if these screens will ever feel human enough.
There are many who would say that tech cannot be equitable, who would deny Dinkins’ proposal of an equitable tech future. Dinkins’ public interventions are indeed interventions, but do they take us somewhere in our present? I think they may, if we are open to having hope for them, to having hope for ourselves. To deny Dinkins’ insistence on the power of now is to deny ourselves any agency in the fight for equity. WM
Priya Gandhi is a writer located in New York City. She has held positions at Creative Time and the Smart Museum of Art, and has been published in Hyperallergic and MODA Magazine.view all articles from this author