Technologies of the diasporic mind: an Interview with Timothy Yanick Hunter
An Interview by Heather Rigg
Timothy Yanick Hunter’s practice is rooted in a research based process of sampling and remixing. He draws from AI algorithms, familial knowledge, DJs, mix-tapes, videos, and institutional archives to create his own multidisciplinary repertoire of Black diasporic culture. His videos and music recontextualize his sources, often pulling them out of colonial modes of seeing and hearing. By bringing together citations that are both disparate and related, his work preserves, shares, and de-fragments collective Black memory, existing in a place where “ridden is citation.”1
HR: Hi Tim! I would like to start by talking about your 2020 exhibition at A Space Gallery in Toronto, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Everything. It brought together the various conceptual, digital, and material underpinnings of your practice and process.
One of the foundations of this exhibition is your book Reconstructing True and Functional Autonomy, which you co-wrote with an Artificial Intelligence program. It is set in the future, in the 2080s, and is an incredible product of speculative thinking and technological collaboration.
To summarize, it explores the decolonization of an individual, and a community’s mind, through an anti-colonial approach to knowledge dissemination and technology. It describes a future that is decolonized and where the defragmentation of Black cultural identity has been achieved. Part of your interest in this project was working against the racialized (and other) biases of AI; what was it like writing this book with an AI program?
TYH: I was thinking a lot about Deepfakes and the manipulation of images and sound. In my research process I stumbled upon the GPT-2 algorithm. GPT-2 can predict, summarize, and generate text based on prompts. I started with these small writing prompts, mostly to test its accuracy and readability. The writing was convincing and specific; it was scarily indistinguishable from a human. But a major caveat was that the algorithm’s language seemed to be limited by its own biases. What stood out the most was its voice. I would input sentences and ideas and it consistently wrote back from a very male, eurocentric perspective. One example would be that every time I’d write about the dismantling of colonialism, the machine would expand on how to ‘help’ Africans to achieve this goal. The algorithm certainly leaned towards othering and speaking of Black people as a subject rather than from a personal perspective, especially since the tone of the book was so scientific and theoretical. I worked to counter this by inputting my prompts several times until I achieved a desired result—yet even then I would have to edit the phrasing and the word choices. In a way you’re writing with the algorithm, but you’re forced to direct it along the way.
Much of your practice is working with and against the internet and AI. You use it as a tool to search for information, histories, and communities related to Black diasporic living, thinking, and relating. You are as much interested in what you find as what you don’t find. In one of our previous conversations about AI you posed the question; “How can we [the Black community] engage with technology not built for us?” Can you talk about this?
Yeah, truthfully I think a better way of thinking about it isn’t so much how, because we in fact do engage with non-neutral, oppressive technologies—this is a reality. It’s more of a question of what does it look like? Going back to subversion via technology—in the face of an oppressive tool, historically, Black people have found ways to challenge and amend its use. I think of Chritstianity and its function as colonial mythology and propaganda and how in the United States, Black people invented the spiritual as a subversive practice of hope and freedom from the plantation. This practice became a cornerstone in Black American culture, and its offspring, blues and gospel music, went on to influence modern music around the world. I feel like Black music specifically is riddled with examples of this type of transformation and proliferation. How Black people develop new ways of exchange within the framework of oppressive languages—the creolization of things, you know?
Two foundational elements of your practice are collage and sound. You remix and re-contextualize found material, often releasing them from colonial narratives. Your arrangements of still and moving imagery, and sound, create new contexts, narratives, and juxtapositions while still citing their original source. Your sources range from colonial archives, album covers, music videos, classical music, R&B, and books from your grandmother’s house. What makes you choose one sound or visual over another? Tell us about your process and how it relates to anti-colonial approaches to knowledge dissemination.
I’ve always considered music as my first and most prominent exposure to artmaking. I had always been fascinated by DJing and sampling as a practice. There was a Madlib song (“Jazz Cats” by Quasimoto, released in 2000) where he kind of lists all these jazz influences in his verses. This song in particular opened me up to jazz music in general. My favorite thing to do was to cross-reference songs and the samples DJ’s and producers used. I feel like this was my earliest exercise in archival research. It took some years to really see it for what it was—this idea of reference and sampling. My work now really is an investigation of this sampling process and how archival exploration and re-contextualizing can be an important practice in the preservation of Black culture across the diaspora. I think of my work as a research-based practice and the material output as a way to share my learnings. I don’t feel like I’m trying to make any brand new, profound statements—I believe I’m just sifting through documents and presenting my findings. Truthfully, I hope to just participate in the rich canon of Black cultural work that has been established before me. As for the process, my choices are intuitive—sometimes a piece (sound, collage, or video) may have an intended feeling or goal, but in the end I let the work and my research process guide me. In this sense I harken back to a feeling of cultural memory or reflection.
True And Functional is an ongoing online audio project of yours (that is so lovely to listen to, and wonderful that it is accessible online). It is music you create through sampling and remixing that you release in editions. This work considers Black cultural production within the context of music and sound. Can you talk about how T&F has evolved over the years?
I’m really happy you had a chance to enjoy the project. In a plain way, I was looking for an interesting format to share my music. Normally, I would conceal the music within the video works. For me there was (and still is) a great deal of vulnerability that I feel when sharing music. Before officially starting True And Functional, I had made two beat tapes and I thought of putting them on SoundCloud or YouTube, but the lack of control on those platforms bothered me. I didn’t like the intrusive branding and the algorithmic distractions and suggestions. I wanted a neutral space to show this work. In one way, the project came out of the rejection of a kind of digital consumerist aesthetic and mode of presentation. I decided a standalone site would be the best option. As I worked on the site I started to see more potential conceptually, and I chose to use the platform as a fieldwork for my research. In my artmaking process, I have lots of leftover ideas or concepts that end up on True And Functional; working on each volume I discover new threads between and within the various parts of my process. While the site is an assemblage of ideas and process work, I’m allowing the project to take its own direction.
One final topic I would like to talk with you about is familial knowledge. One way you access anticolonial and diasporic knowledge and history is through your family and community. You have spoken about the importance of talking with your grandmother to understand the nuances of the social, political, and economic reasons for your family’s move from Jamaica to Canada. Your grandmother’s library has also been helpful to you as a further source of knowledge about Jamaican history, herself, and yourself. Can you talk about the importance of familial knowledge such as dance, spirituality, folklore, and food in your work?2
Well, my grandma kept a lot of things in the home—all things she had hoped to send to Jamaica one day, either to sell or give away. She accumulated many things, including many books. Eventually my mother, uncles, and aunties had to sort through her things, and some of the books I have from her have made their way into my work in different ways. As for familial knowledge in a general sense, I feel like my work is definitely predicated on this connection with family. I’m still trying to understand it from a complete view. But I always think about the political history of Jamaica and how my dad always shares these stories about the political climate in Jamaica, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, and when I think of my practice in my adulthood it’s so apparent the influence that it had on my work. My mother’s love for singing and music; my uncle’s non-stop playing of music, or his mixtapes, or his handmade speakers; my other uncle’s love for computers, experimentation, and music making—all of these things influenced me deeply. These are influences that go beyond research, art, or academia. These are practices that become embedded in my DNA.
Timothy Yanick Hunter is a multidisciplinary artist and curator. Hunter’s practice employs strategies of bricolage to examine non-neutral relationships relating to Black and Afro-diasporic experiences as well as concurrent strategies of decolonization. His approach alternates between exploratory and didactic, with a focus on the political, cultural and social richness of the Black diaspora. Hunter’s work often delves into speculative narratives and the intersections of physical space, digital space and the intangible.
Heather Canlas Rigg is the inaugural Curatorial Resident of the Toronto based artist-run centre Gallery TPW, and is half of the curatorial collective ma ma.
- As per Simone Browne
- To learn further about familial, embodied practices and anticolonial approaches to the archival, read: Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.