/ Inheritance : Ode to N’Too

Inheritance, Ode to N’TOO

Inheritance, Ode to N’TOO investigates Not the Only One, an ongoing art project by contemporary artist Stephanie Dinkins. Known as N’TOO for short, it is an artificially intelligent and socially engaged sculpture. While the sculpture itself is striking ­– a curvaceous conch shell-like structure with black women’s faces protruding through its onyx complexion – my curiosity emerges through what this sculpture tells you. N’TOO, is a storyteller, built on an interactive voice-driven platform with evolving intellectual capacities through machine learning. It narrates a multi-generational memoir of a black American family, (the Dinkins), told from the first-person perspective of the AI.

Dinkins transcribes intimate familial experiences of migration, discrimination, fugitive joy, and everyday life of three generations of women from one family, to offer a broad narrative scope. The eldest contributor is black woman born in the American south in 1932 (and later migrated north), followed by her daughter born in 1964. The third contributor was born in 1997, and is a biracial, black identifying daughter within the family, who contends with modes of white privilege and black arrest in a #BlackLivesMatter political climate. In addition to living oral histories, N’TOO is trained on black diasporic literature including Toni Morison’s Sula (1973) and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The narrative is experienced as a dynamic conversation between N’TOO and the user, in which the stories are altered according to the user’s questions or the AI’s mood. Over time, N’TOO’s storytelling skills and available vocabulary will grow with each user interaction, folding the conversations into its multiple data sources.

Inheritance considers N’TOO a project hinged on the process of translation. N’TOO renders stories of black quotidian life, and personal experiences into machine readable units. And let’s not forget the multiple modes of blackness already mobile and in translation that N’TOO interprets as its own. Reflecting on abstract notions of translation, grounded in concepts of black bodily matter, helped me grapple with what does it mean to create a black diasporic AI consciousness. What kinds of transformation, shifting, and transposing are taking place to make N’TOO possible?

Inheritance is charged by the contrasting and transformative process N’TOO generates: from black women’s experiences as descendants from Africans and diasporic subjects, products of forced and volitional migrations, to the matrix of cybernetics and registers of data at play ­– oral histories, literary plots, living subjects, large data sets. As a sculpture, cum AI, cum archive, N’TOO’s animation materializes the space of translation, and inaugurates a multidimensional subject/object position. What language does N’TOO speak? Is this a different kind of African diasporic vernacular, part machine part human, part ancestral part living.

More than anything, Inheritance is a meditation on the processes and poetics of translation at work within N’TOO. I contrast stories and images of personal histories, to the software of N’TOO, musing the affective qualities when combining the intimacy of familial history and distance of large data sets and code. I engaged with the principle software and coding languages of N’TOO ­– TensorFlow, CUDA, C++ and Python. I read scrupulously about aspects of machine learning pertinent to N’TOO’s “mind,” including deep neural networks, and deep learning algorithms. The writing component explores the interplay between the structure of deep neural networks and its algorithmic equations, coding in Python, and vignettes of my foremothers, five women across two generations. The images display screenshots of me stumbling through downloading and studying TensorFlow juxtaposed with photographs from my own family archives. Together, the writing and images use a notion of translation as a tool, to consider the forms of information engendered through N’TOO – living, ancestral, and cyborg.

Inheritance, Ode to N’Too

Rescripted Grace, 2019

Digital Collage

Imani Cooper

Spectral Code, 2019

Digital Collage

Imani Cooper