Golan Levin: Good morn­ing. And wel­come back every­one to our sec­ond ses­sion of today. This is Art && Code: Homemade and I’m delight­ed to wel­come you to a pre­sen­ta­tion by LaJuné McMillian. This is LaJuné’s sec­ond Art && Code. LaJuné pre­sent­ed at the 2016 Art && Code called Weird Reality, which was was all about new and inde­pen­dent visions for aug­ment­ed and vir­tu­al realities.

LaJuné is a new media artist, mak­er, and cre­ative tech­nol­o­gist based in Maryland and New York. Their work inte­grates per­for­mance, vir­tu­al real­i­ty, and phys­i­cal com­put­ing to cre­ate inter­sec­tion­al media sys­tems that sup­port the needs of sup­pressed com­mu­ni­ties. LaJuné McMillian.

LaJuné McMillian: Thank you! Hi. My name is LaJuné and I’m a new media artist. And yeah, I’ve been doing this work now for about sev­en years, inte­grat­ing per­for­mance with aug­ment­ed and vir­tu­al real­i­ty expe­ri­ences, as well as instal­la­tion art. And I start­ed this work as part of my time at NYU Tandon’s Integrated Digital Media program. 

After I left the pro­gram I real­ized that my access to a lot of these tech­nolo­gies was very lim­it­ed. And it made me ques­tion access just in gen­er­al to all of these dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies. So yeah, in the past few years access to motion cap­ture data, 3D char­ac­ter based mod­els, and soft­ware to make an ani­ma­tion of your­self” has sky­rock­et­ed. From MakeHuman to Mixamo, to Carnegie Mellon’s motion cap­ture data­base, the abil­i­ty to make and fin­ish pol­ished projects has become eas­i­er for many. And while these resources are extreme­ly help­ful to cre­ate a range of projects, they lack tools to cre­ate diverse char­ac­ters and move­ments unex­plored by sys­tems that cen­ter assump­tions of neutrality.

And so I decid­ed to start the Black Movement Library, which start­ed as an online data­base of Black motion cap­ture data and Black char­ac­ter base mod­els. But I real­ized that my approach to cre­at­ing this space was not nec­es­sar­i­ly cor­rect. Mainly because rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not enough. I did not want to per­pet­u­ate sys­tems of harm on our bod­ies and on our move­ment and how we move in this space. So I need­ed to start to ques­tion what it means to be seen in these dig­i­tal spaces and what it means to be lib­er­at­ed in these spaces as well.

And yeah, so we first need to under­stand how our move­ments and bod­ies are already rep­re­sent­ed in the media and in the tools that we use. And this is just a quote from We Need to Talk about Digital Blackface. And I’ll just read it out. I’ll just read out actu­al­ly like from half to the bottom. 

Many of our most beloved enter­tain­ment gen­res owe at least part of them­selves to the min­strel stage, includ­ing vaude­ville, film, and car­toons. While often asso­ci­at­ed with Jim Crow–era racism, the tenets of min­strel per­for­mance remain alive today in tele­vi­sion, movies, music and, in its most advanced iter­a­tion, on the Internet.
We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs

So dig­i­tal black­face is essen­tial­ly an evolved ver­sion of black­face that’s seen in a lot of dif­fer­ent social media plat­forms, but also in a lot of dif­fer­ent tools that I’ll show.

But yeah. During like the first few months that I start­ed cre­at­ing this space, in 2018 law­suits were filed against Fortnite for using dances from main­ly black cre­ators with­out per­mis­sion, com­pen­sa­tion, or cred­it. So the Milly Rock became the Swipe It, the Carlton became the Fresh, effec­tive­ly eras­ing the ori­gins of these dances. However, cur­rent­ly law­suits are on pause because dances are not con­sid­ered chore­og­ra­phy under copy­right law.

So that’s essen­tial­ly how it’s seen in video games. A lot of these dances can be bought on the plat­form and then applied to char­ac­ters of var­i­ous dif­fer­ent races. So it just sort of real­ly has this ques­tion of what it means to erase the ori­gins of a dance, or like a com­mu­ni­ty of creators

But black­face is also seen in memes and GIFs like on Twitter. And also in its most recent iter­a­tion on TikTok where a lot of dif­fer­ent white cre­ators have stolen dif­fer­ent dance phras­es from black cre­ators on the plat­form while they’re get­ting a lot of dif­fer­ent pro­mo­tion and a lot of dif­fer­ent oppor­tu­ni­ties from these stolen dances, a lot of the dif­fer­ent black cre­ators and black activists on these same plat­forms are silenced and sur­veilled at just real­ly wild rates. 

So that’s in social media space. But also there are dif­fer­ent tools that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly show us also. In this back pic­ture GIF, this is a GIF of the dancer that I was work­ing with doing this hip hop dance in this data­base. So this is actu­al­ly Mixamo. And Mixamo is a free data­base that you can use. I do you reck­on that folks who are inter­est­ed in get­ting into ani­ma­tions use this tool. However, when you’re look­ing for culturally-spe­cif­ic move­ments in these exist­ing motion cap­ture data­bas­es, you may find some but are often met with dances and move­ments that don’t reflect the search terms. 

So in the back there, the char­ac­ter’s doing a hip hop dance. But clear­ly that’s not hip hop danc­ing so it’s like, what’s going on? But also in the name of mak­ing it easy to use, these tools often omit valu­able infor­ma­tion from the users, includ­ing infor­ma­tion about the motion cap­ture actor who pro­vid­ed the move­ment and impor­tant his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion about the move­ments performed.

And this is anoth­er exam­ple of char­ac­ter cre­ation soft­ware that I use called FaceGen which which is a plu­g­in for Daz 3D. And essen­tial­ly it’s real­ly good for pre­com­pil­ing faces by upload­ing your pic­tures to this face. However, you can see on the right here with all of these dif­fer­ent slid­ers, there are a lot of prob­lems that arise. You can see that at the bot­tom half here, they’ve reduced a lot— They’ve cre­at­ed a lot of dif­fer­ent prob­lem­at­ic slid­ers for African, East Asian, South Asian, and European. So basi­cal­ly like, no. I have a lot of ques­tions around what software…like…where did they get this infor­ma­tion from for like, this is what makes you look more African.” Or more East Asian or more South Asian or European. Where are you get­ting this infor­ma­tion from, and also how can you sort of like take all of this range of data for all the dif­fer­ent ways that a per­son can look into one slider?

But inter­est­ing enough, you can also see that as the fea­tures become dark­er in skin tone, they also asso­ciate that with them fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line” char­ac­ter­is­tics of the face. So you can sort of see how these bias­es are imple­ment­ed way more clear­ly than in a lot of dif­fer­ent oth­er soft­wares when it comes to how soft­ware devel­op­ers see the body, see our faces and how we are. 

And so the com­mon thread of these exam­ples is the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of Black peo­ple, our sto­ries, and our lives. And this is real­ly a net­work of sys­tems that quan­ti­fy and degrade our human­i­ty in order to cap­i­tal­ize off of our exis­tence and being. And so how do we com­bat that, the exploita­tion, the era­sure, and the dilu­tion of our cul­ture and of our peo­ple? And what do the cul­tur­al repa­ra­tions look like? 

Black move­ment does not only rep­re­sent our indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences, but it also rep­re­sents our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, tran­scend­ing space, time, and white suprema­cist social struc­tures. It allows us to con­nect to each oth­er, our ances­tors, our deep­est selves. It gives us a space to com­mu­ni­cate to our future. Black move­ment is also a tech­nol­o­gy, hold­ing the sto­ries of our exis­tence across the Diaspora. And our sto­ries and bod­ies are more than data points and avatars. They hold our human­i­ty. And so it’s time for dig­i­tal spaces and all of the phys­i­cal spaces that we enter to reflect that.

So yeah. I just end­ed up hav­ing way more ques­tions than answers. What does it mean to eth­i­cal­ly dig­i­tize our move­ment? How can it bet­ter serve and cel­e­brate the com­mu­ni­ty? And how can we effec­tive­ly chal­lenge dig­i­tal tools and land­scapes that don’t share these val­ues, and gain lib­er­a­tion over our col­lec­tive future? 

In Black Performance Theory, Dr. Nadine George-Graves defined dias­poric spi­der­ing” as the mul­ti­di­rec­tion­al process by which peo­ple of African descent define their lives. The life­long onto­log­i­cal gath­er­ing of infor­ma­tion by going out into the world, and com­ing back to the self. She does this by draw­ing con­nec­tions to the evolv­ing folk­lore of Anansi, to how Google and oth­er search engines use web crawlers to find and orga­nize new infor­ma­tion for their grow­ing databases. 

So basi­cal­ly tak­ing this idea of dias­poric spi­der­ing, the Black Movement Library is a space for activists, per­form­ers, and artists to cre­ate diverse extend­ed real­i­ty projects, a space to research how and why we move, and an archive of our exis­tence. And we seek to grow this com­mu­ni­ty through the use of per­for­mances, a var­i­ous amount of XR expe­ri­ences, work­shops, con­ver­sa­tions, and toolmaking. 

So basi­cal­ly, last year I start­ed with cre­at­ing a per­for­mance series which start­ed with Nala Duma and Renaldo Maurice, where we used the Perception Neuron suit and Unreal Engine to essen­tial­ly cre­ate these move­ment por­trait land­scapes. And I’m going to show you a video of what hap­pened. However, essen­tial­ly I did inter­views with them both. And through those inter­views about their move­ment jour­neys, I embed­ded those into the sound­scapes that they per­formed to. And I did all this work as part of a res­i­den­cy at [indis­tinct]. And I’m just going to show a move­ment por­trait that came from that. 

So it first start­ed as a live per­for­mance, so there’s a live per­for­mance with live pro­jec­tions. But I’m just going to show the move­ment por­trait, which is a 2D rep­re­sen­ta­tion of all of the move­ments from that performance.

And just in the inter­est of time time I’m just gonna go back to the pre­sen­ta­tion. But yeah, they’re both ten-minute-long pieces for both Nala and Renaldo. And essen­tial­ly you’re just learn­ing about their move­ment jour­neys. And you’re learn­ing about their mov­ing jour­neys both through their own words but also as through their move­ment as well. 

Over the course of four months, I learned about their movement journeys and practices through recorded interviews that are embedded within soundscapes that they perform to.

So they’re seen as both a live per­for­mance and a docuseries. And basi­cal­ly over four months I was just learn­ing about their move­ment jour­neys and practices. 

This trans­la­tion into a por­trait allows the move­ment to be re-represented as an abstract dig­i­tal mem­o­ry of the per­for­mance day. And and over the course of the year, I sat with the data, relearn­ing both Nala and Renaldo through their move­ment and inter­views, recon­struct­ing and div­ing into the visu­al process as its own rit­u­al. How do we trans­late dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the self and others? 

And that brings me into the work­shop series that I’ve been devel­op­ing for the past two years now called Understanding, Transforming, and Preserving Movement in Digital Spaces, which is a work­shop to learn about extend­ed real­i­ty tools in rela­tion­ship to race, gen­der, and cul­ture. And it’s been a trav­el­ing work­shop, and basi­cal­ly I host­ed it at Eyebeam, Afrotectopia, Pioneer Works, Barbarian Group, Barnard College, City College, and PBS POV

And now it has an online ver­sion where I’m help­ing folks find all these dif­fer­ent soft­wares online. Because we can’t use any dif­fer­ent motion cap­ture soft­ware tools, we’re actu­al­ly using DeepMotion, which is an online AI-powered motion cap­ture data­base where you can upload videos of your­self as long as it’s a full-body video cap­ture of you. It can can use algo­rithms to decom­pile your move­ments into 3D animations. 

And that brings me to the last thing that I want­ed to talk about, which is Antidote. And this is a project in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Marguerite Hemmings. And we essen­tial­ly cre­at­ed new por­tals of care using Zoom but also motion cap­ture and Unreal Engine. And we were also able to col­lab­o­rate with Rena Anakwe, Solome Asega, and Amber Starks. And we got a beau­ti­ful dif­fer­ent sound­scape and a real­ly beau­ti­ful dig­i­tal land acknowl­edge­ment from there. And I’ll just read this last part and then I’ll show you a clip of that. So yeah,

Antidote is an offer­ing and a prayer. It’s an inter­rup­tion, hack­ing, a por­tal, a med­i­cine. A rit­u­al response and phys­i­cal undo­ing, of the lie that we are not our own, that we are not free. 

And I just want­ed to show a part a por­tion of this. This is Salome Asega’s part of the dig­i­tal [inaudi­ble]. [McMillian plays a ~3min excerpt of the fol­low­ing video, start­ing at 4:11]

And I stop there for that one.

And, yeah. I guess the last thing that I just want to say is that this library is a move­ment that cel­e­brates our his­to­ry, our cul­ture, and that serves our com­mu­ni­ty to learn and grow as soci­ety evolves. And it holds us account­able in the ways we deal with Black people—our move­ments, our bod­ies, and our lives. 

And I’ll stop the share now because I want­ed to also show basi­cal­ly just how I’ve been mak­ing ani­ma­tion. So, yeah. Basically I’m wear­ing the Perception Neuron suit here. And this back­ground stage is where I’ve been ani­mat­ing myself, doing all of these move­ments. And I was just going to share my screen to access Neuron.

Essentially my body’s all real­ly bad right now. But essen­tial­ly I would go through a cal­i­bra­tion series. And I’ve been doing mocap using a Perception Neuron suit in my liv­ing room. So yeah, I think that’s where I want­ed to end things. But thank you all so much for lis­ten­ing and shar­ing space with me. If there are any ques­tions I guess we can do that now.

Golan Levin: Hi, LaJuné. Thank you so much for shar­ing your work with us. It was a great talk. I have one ques­tion. Which is, an aspect of what home­made is now…the dig­i­tal home­made or the neo-homemade, is mak­ing things for one­self, one’s friends, fam­i­ly, and com­mu­ni­ty. And your Black Movement Library is clear­ly com­ing from your com­mu­ni­ty and back to it’s com­mu­ni­ty. Maybe you…like I saw that sort of Christmastime or New Year’s video from Boston Dynamics, the robot folks, who had made these danc­ing robots that were clear­ly appro­pri­at­ing tra­di­tion­al Black dance move­ments from the 20th cen­tu­ry. And we see Black dance, Black move­ment con­tin­u­al­ly be appro­pri­at­ed, often with­out cred­it, now in robots even. And these are like­ly robots—I think in a par­tic­u­lar­ly ghoul­ish way—which are almost like proto-cops that are gonna be sup­press­ing Black lives. 

I guess my ques­tion for you is, in mak­ing a Black move­ment library, pre­sum­ably from a com­mu­ni­ty and for a com­mu­ni­ty, you’re dis­till­ing move­ments and also mak­ing them repur­pos­able in a way. And there’s a risk that in mak­ing them repur­pos­able, it’s gonna come out of your con­trol and… Which is good and bad, alright. You want peo­ple to use it in ways you could­n’t have planned. But you also want to see it used in ways that are eth­i­cal and respon­si­ble to the mate­r­i­al. How do you make sure that you don’t have danc­ing cop robots who are using your library?

McMillian: Um…yeah. And I guess it’s also why I changed my approach to the library space. Like I think in the begin­ning I was very much just inter­est­ed in hav­ing just like a dataset and data­base of this stuff. But I real­ized real­ly ear­ly on that I did­n’t want to be some­one who was per­pet­u­at­ing that space? Like we have a long, long, long his­to­ry of exploita­tion of Black peo­ple. Like that’s lit­er­al­ly you know…#slavery. You know? That is the basis of America. And so all that I can do is make sure that I am con­tribut­ing to, stew­ard­ing, and work­ing in spaces that are try­ing to or work­ing towards abo­li­tion and what it means to abol­ish those ways of think­ing about how we treat peo­ple, our bod­ies, and what our bod­ies can be and what our bod­ies can pro­duce, cre­at­ing and… Not even cre­at­ing but yeah. It’s like, work­ing to uncov­er and to redis­cov­er and reestab­lish our con­nec­tions to our own human­i­ty? Like what does that look like? You know, we’re liv­ing in a lot of dif­fer­ent sys­tems right now. White suprema­cy, patri­archy, imperialism…all of the isms, right? And all of those isms real­ly con­tribute to us dehu—us, all of us, dehu­man­iz­ing our­selves in order to fit into cap­i­tal­ism. To fit into sys­tems that com­mod­i­fy our bod­ies in ways that make it hard for us to human­ize our­selves and to human­ize each oth­er. So what does it mean to cre­ate spaces and to reestab­lish those spaces, stew­ard those spaces where that’s not the case, you know? 

So that’s real­ly what I’m inter­est­ed in. I think that shift from data­base and see­ing our­selves as just data, and see­ing our­selves as human, as peo­ple who hold so much infor­ma­tion, and try­ing to like— And I guess like the expan­sion from data­base to library allows space for us to be in many ways in that space. And allows us to real­ly care for our­selves and care for each oth­er in that space. And to real­ly see our­selves and to see each oth­er in that space, too.

And I guess that’s like the basis of the research that I guess I’ve been devel­op­ing and work­ing with. In the lat­est iter­a­tion of Understanding, Transforming, and Preserving Movement in Digital Spaces, we did a lot of move­ment work. So we did a lot of wit­ness­ing activ­i­ties where we were mir­ror­ing each oth­er over Zoom. And then basi­cal­ly I gave every­one prompts to define their move­ment, to define each oth­er’s move­ment, and to real­ly think about how those move­ments make you feel. 

The last thing with this, I’ve been real­ly think­ing about what it means to tran­si­tion from motion cap­ture to motion wit­ness­ing. I feel like the term cap­ture” is so…it has just like real­ly problematic…just like a real­ly prob­lem­at­ic ety­mol­o­gy. This idea of cap­tur­ing some­thing, of own­ing some­thing. Like what does it mean to real­ly trans­form that into some­thing new and dif­fer­ent. And so yeah, basi­cal­ly the space, the library space…I don’t own it. I’m a stew­ard of the space. I am a care­tak­er of the space. And I am try­ing to cul­ti­vate and help oth­er folks come into the space, and through that we’re all hav­ing to do this work of decol­o­niz­ing and decom­mod­i­fy­ing our bodies.

Levin: Thank you. This notion of motion wit­ness­ing and of the decom­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of move­ment data is real­ly I think at this new essence of the neo-homemade. 

With that, I have to close this. Thank you so much, LaJuné. In about four min­utes we’ll pick it up with han­nah perner-wilson. And so, every­one stay tuned. Thanks so much.

McMillian: Thank you!

Further Reference

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