A.I. and African Art Meet at New Frost Museum Exhibit

Garskins' algorithm paintings on display at the Frost Museum. Photography by Zachary Balber.

Jonathan Fields / Asst. Entertainment Director

The swirling, kaleidoscopic imagery of Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, with vibrant, vernal color, spearheads a burgeoning new genre in African American and Diaspora art–Afrofuturism.

The artworks are on Display at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum’s Transfiguration exhibit until April 25th.

Deep Style, a variation of the shockingly surreal artificial-intelligence-driven image compositing system, Deep Dream, serves for Gatskins as a digital paintbrush. 

The Deep Dream algorithm, first devised by researchers as a way to visualize the processes A.I.s use to interpret images, was made open source by Google, in 2015. Since then, many variations, including, Deep Style have emerged.

“It’s like you are on LSD and using everything on the internet to make art,” said Gaskins, speaking of her first impressions of Deep Dream at “Art and Algorithms,” a speaker event hosted by The Frost Museum.

Gaskins first began investigating the Deep Dream system to teach a class of high school students. However, after investigating and experimenting Deep Dream and Deep Style, she began to see the potential for making more serious artwork.

The results from Deep Dream may look impressive quite easily. At first glance, they may even look a lot like a Snapchat filter. However, much thought, careful planning and skill are needed in order to reach a museum quality final product.

“The algorithm does not know color theory. At all,” said Gaskins.

In addition to the gallery showing at The Frost Museum Gaskins’ works will also be featured at the Smithsonian Futures Show in November.

“Fair Fighter” by Nettrice Gaskins.

“It’s a lot bigger than what I first started doing teaching high school,” Gaskins said.

A professor and Assistant Director of Lesley University’s STEAM Lab, and artist in residence at the Autodesk Technology Center, Gaskins accomplishments include inventing a glove that turns color into sound, and studying the use of algorithms in traditional African basket weaving.

Gaskin’s mother was a computer programmer but growing up Gaskin’s was much more interested in art.

“I saw my mother’s work and I said ‘that’s not art’, ” Gaskins said. “But once I sat down and started moving pixels around, I got it.”

Gatskins said she attended a magnet High School for the arts, before being accepted to Pratt University, in Brooklyn, NY.

“My first year at Pratt, I took figure drawing, and also typography–which I kind of hated–but it was color theory class that really turned it around,” said Gaskins.

Gaskin said that she hopes her work and work like hers will empower African American students to pursue STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts and Math), by showing they have representation both in the world of high-tech and academics.

Gaskins research into African braiding and basket weaving exemplifies how this artist and educator seems to search tirelessly for creative new solutions, in order to fill the lack of representation for African Americans in futurism and high tech.

The first punch card computer systems, invented by Charles Babbage were based on the Jacquard mechanical loom. However, African textile designs, such as those of the Kuba, in the Congo, also had the innovation of generative patterns in textile designs.

And, as Gaskins pointed out, for the Kuba, this innovation came thousands of years before the first early imaginings of modern computers, which came about in the late 19th century.

Gaskins showed screenshots of a simple drag-and-drop computer interface, designed to teach young students the algorithms, or sets of instructions, necessary to create generative basket weaving patterns.

Gaskins’ glove, an interwoven meshwork of several tiny electronic parts, is yet another outlandish amalgamation of creativity and innovation. The glove plays a different tone for every color it is pointed at.

“What people really wanted was to hear what their skin sounds like,” Gaskins said.

Playing the different sounds people’s skin made under the glove created a kind impromptu symphony, which Gaskins said served to illustrate the beauty of natural variation.

Gaskins was also eager to show off the Island she had built in the virtual world Second Life, while an artist in residency at IBM. Much in step with the digital artist’s other projects, the island appears all at once impressive, high-tech, cerebral and surreal. Half of the island is utopia the other half is dystopia.

She explained that in order to make the surveillance state of her dystopian half of the island, one of the tasks was to make a wall of eyeballs that would follow the user’s avatar–a task which involves triangulating and calculating angles in 3d space.

“It uses a Javascript-type programming language, some of the things in Second Life are drag-and-drop” said Gaskins. “But for this, you need to know some coding.”

She is now working on a collaboration project involving the costumes at Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. The project will also make use of A.I. technology and is sponsored by The Mozilla Foundation.

Gaskins’ commitment to both art and education seems evident through her wellspring of tech-heavy imaginings which seems to also be matched in equal measure by her prolific execution of innovation projects.

“The idea is not to extract the cultural heritage and not give back. And this is where we get into the idea of futurism—we want to give something back to the future–and the generations to come.”

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