Somewhere along the long timeline of human existence, society began associating innovation with speed: faster cars, rapid test results, instant messaging. In today’s hyper-digital landscape, trends go viral overnight then leave the zeitgeist just as quickly. But just as some creations—like high-speed internet or mobile payment services—are centrally concerned with pace and convenience, others are enhanced by a patient approach, one that prioritizes depth and nuance over immediate gratification. For instance, when Afrofuturists — Black thinkers that molded their philosophies of history and science around the relationship between African Diaspora culture and technology — rose to prominence in the 1990s, they reclaimed rightful ownership over the visual aesthetics and literary canon that define the Black American experience…beyond the limits of how white society historically dictated that the evolution of Black culture, across time and place, be understood. This journey was not an easy or popular one, but it was a radical rewriting of a formula for change.

Following in this tradition, Ari Melenciano, a designer and multidisciplinary audio-visual artist, is seeking to incorporate new ideas from Black innovators into the academic canon, in an effort to increase their lasting power and make these new, culturally specific ventures in the worlds of technology and design accessible to everyone. While the work of early Afrofuturists offered a template for how this could be done, the current media landscape requires new approaches to the concept of Black futurity.

An animated promo for The School of Afrotectopia.
Promotional image used to advertise Ari Melenciano’s School of Afrotectopia. Image credit Afrotectopia.

Open access

Melenciano designed the School of Afrotectopia as both an experiment in alternative pedagogy and as an exploration of the ways in which Black culture, art, and technology are entwined. The school is part of a larger Afrotectopia universe, which Melenciano first imagined while a student at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), as a new media, culture, and technology festival focused on building a network of Black creators, celebrating their multimedia designs, sharing resources, and “exposing the possibilities at these intersections” for people entering the fields of new media,” Melenciano says. “Within those missions, education and access is fundamental. The School of Afrotectopia was designed to reinforce those same values through two weeks of free workshops.”

Melenciano’s unique education model was piloted for the first time last month in New York City, hosted by Verizon Media; from January 6-17, 250 students enrolled in 10 different courses covering everything from valuing the digital self to creating data portraits, themes that are ripe for discussion (and expansion) when placed in the minds of Black innovators. Melenciano drew on her larger Afrotectopia community to invite fellow creative technologists to teach the courses, which were each offered just one time for two hours.

This approach to pedagogy is not completely novel; after all, many creators have eschewed traditional design schools in favor of more experimental formats. But though the School of Afrotectopia free workshop model isn’t necessarily unique, its goal is a refreshing divergence from most initiatives in the design world. In an industry full of largely white, male gatekeepers, it is an accessible space for people of color to engage in rich discussion that use tools to create media through the unexamined lens of the Black experiences. This makes all the difference.

“As with much of the general mission within my own personal work, including Afrotectopia, it’s about synthesizing a lot of different branches of knowledge and exposing the relationships [between material that is often assumed to be siloed],” Melenciano says. “The instructors of Afrotectopia all exhibit a great ability to create in interdisciplinary forms, allowing for technology-oriented pedagogy that is much more culturally relevant and approachable.”

Ari Melenciano talks with participants at the School of Afrotectopia event in New York City, January 2020.
Founder of Afrotectopia, Ari Melenciano, leads a class called Black Power Synesthesia. She is teaching how to create polyrhythmic drum beats in a modular synthesizer. Image credit AIGA.

Building a curriculum

One course featured in the pilot curriculum, designed by motion designer and art director Rad Mora, explored phygital (physical + digital) motion design. This hybrid art form, which our ever-growing dependency on screens necessitates, blurs the planes we exist on. Mora’s course invited students to create art using digitized simulations of fabric and scans of living flora to ultimately develop ASMR animation projects. “I often work with representations of natural elements like leaves and liquids because we have an internalized understanding of how those objects feel [and] how much they weigh…injecting real world elements into these digital spaces are sort of avatars for these spaces to understand how we could feel within them,” Mora explains. Under Mora’s supervision, students learned to alchemize these plants and convert them into ASMR animations, as a parallel to what humans undergo when we translate our realities into digital narratives. 

“Where I find the power of 3D motion design is in the power of straddling this uncanny valley of what’s real and not real,” Mora says, adding: “Here’s a physical feeling provided to you by a digital element that technically you can’t actually feel but you have some sort of stimuli from it.” Mora also draws upon African spiritual and cultural practices to inform his work, and invited participating students to explore the relationship between the physical talismans that show up in these traditions and how they can be incorporated into computers.

“There’s this dense, rich culture with Santeria and Yoruba that are not within our digital space or present within younger generations…so introducing them in today’s world is sort of breathing new life into the actual practices,” Mora says. An alternate education model like Afrotectopia, then, is essential for a culture and its customs that have been categorically left out of dominant academic spaces. By using both innovative and traditional systems of creation, students in Mora’s course were able to archive analog objects and non-digital practices thanks to the advent of new media and technology.

A participant at the School of Afrotectopia event in New York City is assisted in outfitting a 3D motion capture suit.
LaJune McMillian fixes a motion caption body on an Afrotectopia student during her class “Understanding, Transforming, and Preserving Movement in Digital Spaces.” Image credit AIGA.

Imagination meets creation

As director of the program, Melenciano was tasked with crystallizing an abstract mission—imagining the range of possible futures available to us—using a design-minded approach to visualize what that will look like in practice. And though racial barriers, particularly in the design and technology communities, are omnipresent, the artist’s biggest challenge was organizing all of the logistics — from gathering funding to curating the range of courses offered — that go into creating an experimental education symposium. “The biggest challenge with building things for Afrotectopia has been the labor of actualizing this sort of programming,” Melenciano says. “But everything else surrounding building The School of Afrotectopia was incredibly seamless…Once the information surrounding the School was out there, people quickly enrolled and spread the word to their social groups. A lot of the work around Afrotectopia generally feels very organic.”

Afrotectopia, as a social institution, bridges the gulf between imagination and creation. Through developing workshops that are designed to find creative ways to map the Black experience onto new forms of media, the school suggests a possible future where the human condition is conveyed in ways that everyone can engage with.

“Art, design, technology, culture and activism can all intersect very naturally. But, they also don’t all have to intersect at the same time,” Melenciano says. “Some courses focused more on Black culture, activism and technology, while other courses focused more on Black culture, art, and technology.”

It’s never about forcing relationships for the sake of being interdisciplinary. It’s more about being open to new possibilities when you don’t limit your practice to the possibilities that have currently been deemed acceptable.

Ari Melenciano, designer and multidisciplinary audio-visual artist

Melenciano and her collaborators offered opportunities for open dialogue on themes like human-computer interactive technologies and their social impact, and supplied the visionary thinkers participating in the program with the tools necessary to engage with speculative design. “A common thread in many of the courses was about challenging the status quo and using innate intelligence to inspire the technologies we have access to today. When you do that, and are able to bring your Black culture and political ideals to the worlds of art, design, and technology, the relationships begin to realize themselves.”

Bomani McClendon leads a class called Interactive Projection Mapping with Processing.
Bomani McClendon leads a class called Interactive Projection Mapping with Processing. Image credit AIGA.

Building for the future

The timeline of African-Americans’ forced immigration to this country is not a straight one. The Middle Passage was a journey marked by new life, lost language, death, and environmental change, but to reduce this experience to a classically academic understanding of the past is to limit our understanding of the futures that grew out of displacement. Black identity in America exists as both a reaction to how the native culture was stripped but also how it was rebuilt through imagining the culture anew on foreign soil.

Thanks to the work of Black innovators, artists, and activists, freedom was not won but it was designed.

For Melenciano, carving out space to explore this under-taught narrative was vital because mainstream media often ignores history that exists outside the strands of this country’s double helix: whiteness and wealth. “This initiative is important to me because this new media world is exactly where I wanted to be my entire life but I didn’t know it existed, [and] once I learned more about it I never saw people that looked like me doing this work,” Melenciano says. “Once I finally got in, I saw how unnecessarily expensive it was to be in these sorts of spaces. Afrotectopia is very much about eliminating those sorts of experiences for as many Black people as possible.”

In the future, Melenciano hopes that the pedagogical seeds she’s planting now will grow into a larger research institution—one that will include a school and other systems for creative experimentation. “In creating vibrant and accessible learning environments, the idea is to continue pushing the culture forward with newly realized practices and forms of thought for as many Black people as possible,” the creator says, adding: “And then, using the learnings that come out of [the school] to cycle back into the wider Afrotectopia community, using the festival as the place to share such resources, celebrate the pioneers doing the work, and build community amongst all that are invested.”