This Neuroscientist Uses Art to Fight Hate

Hyphen-Labs' Ashley Baccus-Clark co-created a VR project that puts users into the body of a black woman.

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Feb 26 2018, 5:00am

If intersectional feminism has managed to escape your grasp, then look no further than Hyphen-Labs to better understand the concept. This international collective of women of color is using art and emerging technology to combat inequality. Their latest project, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, is a virtual reality installation that puts users in the body of a black woman at a hair salon.

Brooklyn-based neuroscientist and creative director Ashley Baccus-Clark led the research for the project. Giving someone control of an avatar that is a different race, she explained to me, can help decrease prejudice. “A lot of what I do at Hyphen-Labs is think speculatively about how to fit research into the large-scale installations that we do,” Baccus-Clark said. With a background in molecular biology and marketing, she uses real-world data to create interactive experiences that will alert others of their own privilege.

“We want people to understand it can’t just be me talking about this [inequality]. It can’t just be you. We need to be allies with each other,” Baccus-Clark said.

In July 2016, two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were shot and killed by the police within days of each other. Baccus-Clark came home from her job as an experiential marketer at Warby Parker and cried in the living room with then-roommate and Hyphen-Labs co-founder Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, who is Latinx. “It’s important to have friends, even if they’re not black, who are still impacted by these high-profile killings and extra-judicial killings,” Baccus-Clark said. Along with co-founder Ece Tankal, from Turkey, these three women are helping to center all women of color from a global perspective. “Virtual reality has been touted as this empathy machine,” she said. “I’d prefer my work to be contextualized in the frame of mindfulness: of being mindful of a person as an experience and not trying to commodify it.”

I caught up with Baccus-Clark to learn more about NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, which debuted at Sundance last year and will be exhibited at Rutgers. She told me about the ways in which virtual reality, biohacking, and other emerging tech can help us unlearn biases.

Ashley Baccus-Clark is wearing top and trousers by Telfar, a jacket by GmbH, and shoes by Raf Simons.

VICE: How do you apply your background in neuroscience to the work that you do?
Ashley Baccus-Clark: NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism centers neuroscience as a narrative device. The story takes place inside of a hair salon, but it’s a covert brain lab where you’re going to get your brain optimized. Everywhere that we show NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, we also do research. So we’re doing cognitive impact testing to see whether or not virtual reality can be a tool for decreasing prejudice and bias. It’s been shown by a number of different neuroscience labs that if you put someone who is not, let’s use a black woman for example, in the body of a black woman, and give them control or agency over that avatar, it’s been shown to decrease a prejudice or bias toward someone of that color or that nationality.

How does that play out in NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism?
In NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism you sit in a salon chair, and you’re facing a mirror, and you see yourself as this young black woman inside of this salon. When you see yourself in the mirror, you can move your head and the avatar will move its head at the same time. So that’s the point of connection, of showing that you have agency over that body. And it’s like, “Oh, this is me.” There’s that level of recognition.

Who’s the target audience for that installation?
The target audience, there’s two. First, we want to increase visibility of WOC inside of virtual reality and emerging technology from its inception. In this first episode, we want to tell a nuanced story that centers a theme of blackness and Afrofuturism. So our target audience there are for women who are coming up who don’t see themselves represented in this technology, who might not have thought of a career in emerging technology.

When I mentioned that I was a molecular biologist, when I was in the lab, I went about five years without seeing anyone that looked like me. When you don’t have that level of visibility you’re like, well maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I’m not supposed to be here. But I think having those optics on someone, even if it’s just passing in the hallway, it’s like, OK, this person is here and they’re doing it. Maybe I can, too. We want to be that touchpoint, even if it’s just to encourage people to get excited about these things and show them what can be done. A year and a half ago [Hyphen-Labs] didn’t even know how to do anything with virtual reality. But we just asked a lot of questions and tried to make it happen.

Which is different from having this technology that’s created by a white man and then 10 years later it’s like, oh we’re alienating black women or we’re alienating this market and we need to fill in the gaps.
Our tech director Todd is a white man but he’s there to tell us, “Hey this isn’t going to work technically.” Because we want to know how to do this. Like I don’t want every time I want to make something, I have to go to him. And Todd teaches at NYU. He’s like, I have a lot of black and African students in my class and I want to get them excited about this, too. So he’s teaching NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism to his class [to show] you are in here, too. You matter. Your stories matter. If no one else is going to build it for you, you build it yourself. Even if no one sees it, you’ve done it, and you can pass it on by word of mouth. There needs to be critical mass here.

I read an interview you did where you talked about changing emerging technology to accommodate black women’s hair…
There’s this technology that exists called transcranial stimulation. And there’s a lot of people in the biohacking community, people who think they can use technology to hack their bodies to transcend death. I think it’s absolutely absurd, but a lot of people who have access can use certain technology to optimize themselves and give themselves an unfair advantage over people who don’t have access to this technology. In Silicon Valley, there’s people who are taking drugs called nootropics. There’s people who are using transcranial stimulation to hack their biology and make themselves learn faster.

So I’m like, as a black woman who has locks, this technology isn’t readily accessible to me. If I want to figure out how to hack my biology in the same way, then I would have to create my own electrodes and stuff. So it started out as this crazy thing, but we were like, hey it’s not that hard to build this. We don’t actually want to optimize people’s brains or put any sort of electrodes on them, so let’s use virtual reality to tell a story about what something like this might look like.

Who is the second target audience?
The second target audience is people who don’t have any diversity in their day-to-day lives. A lot of people engage with other cultures through media—whatever they see on television or in movies or read about in the newspaper. You have somebody from Nebraska or Wisconsin who can go for months at a time without seeing someone who doesn’t look like them.

When you think about virtual reality, you have someone’s undivided attention for four to five minutes. You can place a veil over their identity in a way that they can engage in the story without thinking about how they fit within that story.

James Baldwin has talked about how white America has the privilege of not having to understand someone else’s point of view, because they control the dominating systems and institutions. Whereas black people must know white people more intimately, for survival.
Yeah exactly. When we were kids, turning on the TV, the stories that would resonate maybe had one person who looked like us—and it was a very stereotypical view of that person and of us by proxy. So now that we’re starting to get broader stories that center blackness, that center the Latinx community and Asian communities, it’s a blessing.

We’re trying to help people unlearn all those stereotypes they’ve been fed for like hundreds of years. And there are definitely built-in biases in our technology already, but there can be an intervention now. Maybe we can bypass some of the more disastrous things that can happen.

How is your work helping people unlearn their biases?
We’re telling the story from a global perspective. My partner Carmen is Latinx from San Franciso. Her mom’s white. Ece is Turkish. We work with a lot of women of all colors, creed, religion, everything. We want people to understand it can’t just be me talking about this. It can’t just be you. We need to be allies with each other. We need to uphold and praise each other’s cultures and histories—and that’s a question that has been countered now because people are so afraid of appropriation. Like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to say this. I’m not supposed to say that.” And it really just keeps us pigeonheld in a lot of ways so that we can’t progress past it—which is by design. When you pit one person against another, you’re cutting off any sort of mass movement that people can have toward solving what we’re in right now. And we’re in some deep shit.

Do you see future use of technology becoming more beneficial to people of color and women because it helps us get our voices out there or is there like a foreboding element to it because of increased surveillance or censorship?
That’s the interesting thing. Anything in this world has that duality. It can either be used for good or for evil. I think it’s the people who are driving the boat and directing where this technology is going who will really impact what our future is going to look like. That’s why our work at Hyphen-Labs is to get more people to realize that it’s not up to these big corporations to tell us and to sell us what they think and what they want the future to look like. We need to be that barometer. And right now we’re not—it’s Facebook, Twitter—those are the barometers, and what they have in mind is their bottom line. It’s about money.

We also need to figure out how to build the language and the syntaxes for the movement. We’re adding a new element of technology, which at its very nature has no ethics built into it at all. It’s an optimizing machine, and unless we dig down deep and use our humanity to build ethics into the technology, it’s going to take us over. I’m not afraid because I think that we’re stronger. But I think that’s why Elon Musk is so terrified about it.

What’s he afraid of?
Elon’s afraid that we’ve gotten to the point where our machines are so intelligent that there’s a real possibility that they might [take over]. But the question is, who’s coding the robots and why aren’t the ethics built in from the stage of the algorithm?

Is there any other problem you would love to solve or just bring attention to through emerging tech?
Definitely. It irks me when I go to a conversation about environmentalism where someone’s speaking about what we’ve done to our environment, but they can’t see what we do to each other. They think it’s separate. If you don’t believe in intersectionality, you can’t believe in environmentalism, because our planet is a living, breathing organism and we have damaged it. It can’t be divorced. If you don’t care anything about black and brown people, then you don’t care anything about the environment. People of color and people in marginalized and developing nations are going to be the ones most impacted by climate change, by these disastrous climate events that are happening.

What are your plans for NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism?
We just got a residency with the Open Doc lab at MIT, so we’re going to be incubating the second iteration of it there starting in February. We’re going to do prototyping on a new line of objects, a new VR experience, and build out another research pilot.

Photography and Styling by Maroon World
Makeup: Wanthy Rayos
Hair: Illy Lussiano
Nail Artist: Eda Levenson of Lady Fancy Nails

This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here .

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