Please see details included in my email.
Tell us about yourself as an artist.
I’ve been making interactive art with intention for the last ten year, since my first year of my BFA in New Media from Ryerson University. I am listed in the 2016 Top 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada and I am currently pursuing a Masters in interactive art in a program called ITP at New York University inside of the Tisch School of the Arts.
My work sits in the intersection of art and tech so I have exhibited in both art galleries and maker festivals. In my undergrad, I designed an interactive art pieced entitled The Obama Board, a keyboard that swaps the sound of the note with a word from Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. After showcasing the project at the Toronto Mini Maker Faire I was invited to demo the installation at the Detroit Maker Faire for 20,000 people where I won Make Magazine Editor’s Choice and was highlighted on Barack Obama’s website.
Within the last three years, my practice has veered away from the overtly political. I now make art that discusses identity and imagines an empowered future for people of colour. As a coder and mixed race, black woman, I am endlessly curious about afrofuturism and the ways in which technology can shape the existence of the marginalized person. I’m interested in using speculative design to exploring identity through a population I call afroterrestrials – black technologists of the digital diaspora who fall outside the margins of the majority and code within the system to inspire societal self-reflection, equality and ethical tech while imagining the empowered future for people of colour.
I am heavily influenced by black technological artists like Stephanie Dinkins, and American Artist and futurist fabricators like House of Malakai and Cyrus Kabiru. I draw inspiration from black science fiction, feminist text and content that pulls current issues into the future for metaphoric symbolism like the music of Janelle Monae and Jamila Woods and writers like Saul Williams and legendary black sci-fi writer, Octavia Butler.
In 2018 I exhibited my black futurist piece, Tree Tank, twice in Toronto, at BAND Gallery and at Diende Visus, an immersive art show (more on this piece below). This created an opening for a series of afrofuturistic artworks that address food, fashion, sustainable communication, association to historical practices and empowered existence. I am currently exploring and developing these works as part of a studio practice in my Masters program at New York University.
Tell us about the work you want to exhibit here.
I would like to exhibit a second phase of Tree Tank at the MOEG. Below is a description of the functioning piece that was shown at BAND Gallery and Diende Visus.
Tree Tank is an artifact of the the year 2050. It depicts an aspect of the life of afroterrestrials; a future people of colour who are actively addressing food sovereignty. They created a sustained connection to their heritage through the food that they eat while avoiding the oppression that comes with the growth, production and transit of that food from its country of origin to their plate. As a population of free people, they strive to circumvent the social, economical enslavement of all sectors by designing and fabricating solutions to their own needs. In an attempt to reform the damage of the 1980 – 2050, this community of the future harnessed the agricultural prowess of their ancestral roots through the application of their culture’s knowledge of bio cultures, botany and plant cultivation. They designed this Tree Tank, using accessible materials, to emulate the natural climate of this Jamaican Orange Tree so that they can harvest fruit right in their very own North American diasporic community. The Tree Tank responds in real time to update the climate, using foggers to regulate humidity and light strips to adjust the light levels in coordination with Jamaica. The screen displays stats on the atmospheric conditions of the incubator and allows the user to upload setting adjustments should they wish to house a different foreign plant from their culture.
Using this functional piece as as a prototype, my aim is to transform Tree Tank into an interactive performance piece. I’m very interested in the historical performance of care around plants and agriculture. I believe that in the future we will need to establish an active participation in the food that we consume in order to emotionally engineer a culture who who waste less food, appreciates food in new ways, feels connected to its origins and therefore consumes food more mindfully. Historically, Caribbean culture were far more tied to this form of active participation in agriculture. I’d like to use phase two to fuse the existing technically advanced nature of Tree Tank to the cultural practice of singing to plants as a form of nurture and care.
I’d like to develop this piece so that the tank is fitted with a rain-like watering system. This watering system will be connected to an audio input that will be triggered by sound. My vision is that, in several events held over the course of the exhibition, a black female or male vocalist would sing a traditional Caribbean folk songs into this audio system, triggering the sensors, and causing the tree inside the tank to be watered. The water would fall inside the tank like rain, with the intensity of droplets in sync with the high and low points of volume in the song. This moment would be treated as a though it were a sacred space of the future.
Are there special installation considerations for presenting your physical work at the MOEG? A copy of the floorplan is here.
Tree Tank is often best placed in an area where viewers can walk around it and see it from all angles. The new audio component that I am building will extend from the top of the piece, out several feet in front. In total the piece takes up an area of 2ft by 6ft with room to observe from all sides.
How do you identify with living and working on the margins? (If you have concerns about or are unsure of how to answer this question, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org prior to submitting your application.)
The new media art world is a place that has not historically created space for people who identify as female or people who identify as black. Living inside the margins of a mixed race, black identifying woman I have had to covertly find ways to overcome these challenges, to been seen as equal, to circumvent the racism and sexism that is pervasive to the industry. I have spent a lot of my time organizing community around this identity to try and hold shows for one another as the audience. I have spent time fundraiser to ensure that my peers have the finances that they need to exhibit. When I graduate from my masters, I am hoping to open a studio that creates the opportunity for technological artists of colour to work side by side, dismantling the idea that we are tokens in our circles.
The modern world of innovative tech has a reputation for being an place that is exclusive and white establishing. Working within my margins and effectively holding positions of power has been exhausting and degrading. I have spent the majority of my professional life working towards recalibrating the demographic. To this day I have taught ~3000 young women and people of colour how to code in an attempt to make the future of tech more representative of the population it serves. My hope is to inspire a new intersectional generation to see the field of tech as a viable career path.
Not only am I living and working in the margin but I am organizing in the margin and, hopefully, creating positive change for the margin of those who also hold my identities.
Please send documentation of the work you would like considered for inclusion in a group exhibition at the MOEG.
Do you have any other relevant online content you’d like to share? Include additional links below!
https://ashleyjanelewis.com – You can check out my website to see more on the tech activism and code based endeavours that I also pursue as a way to sustain my art practice. I’ve worked with and for a wide array of companies like NASA, Google, Mozilla (Firefox) and more.
https://ashleyjanelewis.com/press/ – The press section will demonstrate the ways in which I’ve used my platform to advocate for under represented identities like women and people of colour in the field of tech.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Feel free to write anything you think is important that we did not ask.
In this section, I’d like to stress the value of futurist work. I believe that, as a marginalized community of the diaspora, we have a responsibility to “write” ourselves into the future to ensure that we exist. Some may not know that the origin behind quite literally every piece of technology we have began in the space of speculative fiction. The idea for the computer and the internet came from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, credit cards came from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Back, tablets were first seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, cell phones from Star Trek and so on and so on. Thinking of the impact that these pieces have on our everyday survival, it seems to me that to imagine the future is to indirectly create it. As a black female technologist and storyteller I see this as an exciting position to use speculative design, not only to make social commentary of the present, but to help bring to fruition technology that may serve to empower us in the future.