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29 September 2015

Ayo the Afronaut Meets World

Ayo & Mariah Rap it Out

......................................................................................................... rap 19 August 2015

The thing about creativity is that as soon as you start to create anything, take that first step, you become aware that you have no idea where you will be, or what you’ll be holding when you emerge from that dark forest into the light.

You make one gesture toward that glimmer of a notion and an idea starts to unfold. Ideas present and we have to follow them in order to arrive in the place they hold. And they need us, too. Ideas cannot manifest until we feed them. Creativity is a symbiotic relationship between us and our ideas. We feed them, they lead us. They grow, we arrive.

And this takes guts, because as you begin, nothing but that tiny seed is visible. In order to grow up into an oak that will shade and warm us, we have to nurture the seed. But until it actually becomes a strong, beautiful oak, we have no idea what that seed will become. It could become anything. And so could we.

So, nurturing that seed takes a leap of faith: you make an effort toward the unknown and expose yourself as you do it. That’s terrifying. And it means we walk blindly onto an unmarked rope bridge over a deep ravine concealed in fog. As with love, we may want to fall or fly, but we don’t want to hit the ground. We struggle against vulnerability, yet creating requires that we engage with vulnerability.
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Ayodamola Okunseinde is an artist. Like all of us, he was born a seed. But he didn’t grow into the man he is now on luck. He wandered a long and winding journey to arrive as an Afronaut stomping through Harlem from the future.

Born in New Jersey to a Yoruba father and African American mother, Ayo was a baby when he returned to Lagos where he was raised until adolescence. After stints in Oman and Holland his family returned to the States where he graduated from high school, and studied electrical engineering and then art and philosophy at Rutgers.

After college, Ayo opened the DC gallery Dissident Display (blackle it, you won’t be disappointed), made art, worked in performance video, and made films like The Chasers. As he told it to me, he applied to MA programs to prove to himself that he was good. And they weren’t wrong when they accepted Ayo into the Parsons Design + Technology Master’s in Art (May 2015).

I’ve known Ayo for almost two years and picked up with him this August just home from an IDEO Fellowship in Boston, to talk about the thesis he just completed. Having noticed the tragic lack of projections of black human beings in works about the future, he posits that if we include African descendants in work we make now about the present and the future, we can change both.

Ayo told me: “to do that I come back as an Afronaut from the future to the present. The work is a suit, a functional suit that gives me oxygen. It cools me down. It gives me water; it gives me food; it records video. It’s a cross between space-aged materials and African fabrics.”

So that’s where the work of the thesis came from: this idea of projecting my identity or African identity into the future. And a way of actually both ritualistically and in a very practical way, creating the future: because when you have objects or when you have an identity of a future, you can then start to map your direction or your trajectory to that future.

Here’s where the conversation went:

M: tell me about AFRONAUT…

A: The thesis is about the projection of identity onto the future. There’s a lack of representation of Africans or people of Africa in the future and I argue that that dehumanizes Africans presently. So in an effort to add capacity or humanize those communities, I propose that by creating a culture in the future where their representation is present, it’ll add capacity to the present.
In a way it’s akin to the Engugu of West African masquerades, and by wearing the suit I’m actually performing a ritualistic rite, or a ritual that’s actually creating the future itself.
So I go around the city interacting with people and documenting the experience as an alien from the future in the present.


M: and then in January, while working on your thesis, you experienced the police. what were you thinking when the cops assaulted you?

A: I was thinking, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe that he’s trying to push me down to the ground when I’ve done nothing.” And I thought to myself, this was literally right after one of the shootings, and I thought to myself, “I could be shot right now.”
I mean, I was, I really felt- I felt I was gonna get beaten up, I might get arrested, or I might get shot right there. I was terrified. I was shaking for the rest of the day.

M: how did you feel a week later?

A: A week later… I felt a resolve to sort of- it made my thesis more valid, you know. I felt a resolve to actually… I had already stood outside of the thesis, and worked from outside. But now I decided that I was gonna go inside the thesis and work from inside by truly believing, number one, believing that I am the Afronaut from the future. Before I was this external person that was narrating the story. But after the experience I became the character.
By becoming the character, I take on a responsibility. And that’s something that I hadn’t done before: take responsibility for the thesis. And by believing that I am the character I took on – and also, not only believing that I am the character, but believing that the time travel is actually true.
And that only came about because I realized that truly, that there are some people, that that situation happens to over and over and over again. And because they don’t have any political recourse or financial means of getting out of that situation, they don’t have a way to get out- they don’t have a way to travel beyond that. I felt that – I have that ability. And that time travel is actually possible.

M: why ART and WHEN?

A: I was in, maybe I was 13 maybe, and I was making a drawing in class and the teacher saw the drawing and said it was very good. And I think from there I started trying to draw even better.
And that’s how I came to art. For a little time, not a little time, a long time actually, I wanted to do engineering. So I did my undergrad in visual arts, and then the graduate program is design and technology, so its engineering and art combined.
I wanted to understand artificial intelligence, I wanted to understand human behavior, and I knew that I could get to that with science, but I felt that getting to that through art was more dynamic, more exciting, and it allowed for more creativity.

M: a year ago you told me you felt the thesis was something you had been working up to for five years prior. was that also ideological?

A: It was ideological because I had been thinking about -a lot of this comes from my interest in artificial intelligence and the mind and cognition, and sort of trying to understand that philosophically, and I think I was able to get to some aspects from painting but I felt that maybe using technology I could get to some semblance of artificial intelligence, some sort of interaction that would be closer to human behavior. So I guess it is ideological in the sense that the work that I’m doing technologically is still trying to answer those questions of cognition or AI.
Emergence, for example, getting intelligence or getting some sort of aesthetic output out of a system that has several nodes where each node is not necessarily smart but the combination of all the nodes creates some intelligence or some sort of aesthetic value that it’s either through programming each node really simply yields, synthesizes something, or the noise within that system creates something.
It’s [in] an emergent property of those nodes that an intelligence is formed. In that same sense I want it to be an emergent property of these cultures that I’m interviewing [for Prophecy] (below).


M: it’s hard not to miss from where I sit, your metaphor/ comparison between the way that the brain works and the way that human society works, which is that no one individual creates a culture. lots of us together create a culture feeding into one another. and then that culture comes to define us both as individuals and as a community, and to pass down whatever wisdom then does lend itself to shaping our wisdom, our personalities…

A: And objects come out of that culture that then reinforce certain things, or that create the future.

M: yeah, yeah, based on value, based on society, based on all of that…

A: Yeah, yeah.

M: and this experience of being assaulted in January, in a way, made you one of everyone else.

A: Yeah, it did…

M: so you’re thinking to yourself, “well, I’m educated, I shouldn’t be part of this” – but you were.

A: Also, because I’m Nigerian, right, and the issues that were going on here were with African Americans and I’m an educated African man, which culturally is different from African American. So, I never put myself in that, I never really… I don’t identify with that. So then when I was pushed into that same category, I realized that that was the way that the world saw me.

M: you became one of the nodes.

A: Yeah, yeah!

M: and you had never been a node before.

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

M: so tell me about PROPHECY, the community / interactive project.

A: I didn’t want to do this work. I thought I should just make work and have it seen in a museum. For me, I felt my work should be personal.
I didn’t think it was my purview and then after that incident, I realized that there are some people that don’t have the ability to get out of that space - that would always be powerless or that because of lack of education or lack of resources don’t have an opportunity to see beyond their world.
So they don’t have the ability to dream beyond tomorrow or to project themselves into the future.
I realized that as a result of that I’m obligated -if I have the ability to project myself into the future to see beyond myself- that I’m obligated to make works to at least elucidate the possibilities that these other people might have that possibility.

M: who is going to be involved in PROPHECY?

A: People that are told, “this is what your future is gonna be.” And in the most positive way, you know, “this is your future. We’re gonna construct it for you.” I, I don’t like that. I think the future should be constructed internally, you know.
The dreams of these people should be constructed internally, not that some outside agent, state or government or organization, constructs it for them. You know it should be something that grows from inside out.
That idea of synthesis I think is present in this work where I’m collecting stories, ideas about objects in the future, and interviewing the community and trying to synthesize an object from that, trying to synthesize something that’s aesthetically pleasing, and interactive, something that’s intelligent.

M: what does CREATIVITY feel like?

A: For me it comes as little flashes. I keep a notebook with me all the time. Sometimes I just have an idea that pops into my head. And it doesn’t even need to be based on art at all. I just have a scenario that pops into my head, and I draw it or write it. When I’m addressing problems and I’m trying to solve those problems I find sort of thinking about the problem yields all these creative ways to approach the problem.
It’s just, it’s second nature to me now. It just happens; it happens all the time.

M: so, who are you, as an ARTIST?

A: I think I’m becoming an artist that deals with future spaces… with time travel, because I – honestly- I truly believe that artifacts allow for time travel. That’s the closest that we’re gonna get to time travel.
I honestly believe that these artifacts allow for time travel. In the same way that you have archaeological objects… historical objects that allow you to see into the past, get an understanding of humanity’s past, these objects I’m gonna create would allow you to see humanity’s future.
And I want to get an idea of what the future is for people, not just for me. So that’s why I’m doing the community interviews.

M: what changed that? Why EVERYONE ELSE now and not just you? really, the assault in January?

A: Yeah.

M: what happened?

A: I just have an obligation. It just struck me that I have an obligation.
I’m in the position that I can make a change and it’s, it’s an existential issue. You know, like, it’s so- to- to imagine that that there are people out there that have the ability, that have the capacity to- to do great but because of systems or because of lack of resources, they’re being curtailed, that’s – and to think that I could possibly have something positive that I can add to that!
It’s –it’s – I’m obligated to do it, I don’t necessarily want to do it, or like to do it, but I’m obligated to do it – yeah.

M: ok, so if there’s one thing I should get right, what is it?

A: That I believe that these future objects will actually create the future: that they will direct people to the right future.
The more I think about this, the more I do work on this, the more I believe it. It’s so clear in my mind that these objects, or this way of thinking, of-of sort of creating a future in the mind, in your mind, in others minds, would …
By creating a future … and creating objects from that future that will actually move people in the right direction- it’ll actually change the present.

M: did you ever think, in college or ten years ago that this is what you’d be talking about with your art?

A: No, No!
I think also that what makes my work different than other people that do [Afrofuturism] work is that my work is actually interactive in the sense that these objects are interacting with the present. They’re collecting data from the future and sending it back to the present, or from the present and sending it to the future!
I think this technological interactivity adds another way into it. And then with Prophecy there’s a social interaction as well, that I think is vital.

M: so if there was one way to completely misunderstand you, what would it be?

A: That I’m sure about myself.
Like, I believe it, but believing in it and… Sometimes you believe this is the right thing to do, but do you do it? You may find a reason not to do it. You know? But you believe it’s the right thing to do. Yeah, so I’m insecure in that sense. I’m still struggling with that.
I’m trying hard that, by the end of this year, I work through those insecurities. I think it’ll make my work better, or make me a stronger person.
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As we wrapped up, Ayo said he was amped up, ready to go to the art store, buy materials and go make art. I was amped up, too, because we had a great conversation.

My mind wandered all over the terrain for a few days, a few weeks. We are always metamorphosising. I think a lot about that: how to change my life, how to change my work, my relationships: how to grow my heart, my mind – to meet that source space of my soul. And I found myself remembering something I have always said about Ayo: 

One thing that makes Ayo great is that he is not limited in what he can imagine by what he can make. He imagines first and freely, and then begins in the dark, only a glimmer ahead, to create. He has told me when he was fearful, when he was afraid and unsure how to begin. And then- he begins.

Creativity is a process. Like anything we engage in repeatedly, it can become muscle memory. But you have to engage in it, bit by bit. And you have to follow it – blind as you may be, the path unmarked and darkened by heavy foliage. And it’s hard at first and taxing, and fatiguing, but you just keep doing it. And then a path lays itself out – and if you follow the ideas you’ll see what they -and you- can become, and they will show you your next step. Steps into the future.

Imagining that future changes you now – because now a future becomes possible, and you drive at it, and that in itself changes you. That idea makes possible the future, and the future arrives right now.

Most of the time, the biggest part of our society is neither watering nor sunning us. We have to do it ourselves. And lots of us have ideas… but do we start to make them? Because that takes courage and strength and determination.

The creative process is not only about people who make art, or write, or play music, or follow the science. It’s all of us – can we create ourselves, our lives?

Can we imagine ourselves?

Can we imagine?

Faith and strength are intimately tied up in one another. Just as we need our ideas as much as they need us, faith and strength symbiotically feed one another making possible the marriage between us and our possibilities. Take from us these two things and we mortals lose our ability to become our greatest selves: creators- of our world, ourselves.

The hard world will often try to take from us hope and power, to maintain the status quo, capitalism, fascism, poverty, control over what humanity can become – over humanity itself. If it is successful in taking from us faith and strength then they’ve got us. We will never rise new.

And it works both ways. If you want to take back power and hope: create. Yourself, a song, a garden – just create. Start to create and power and hope will grow in you: creator and creation.


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