Golan Levin: Welcome back, everyone. I’m Golan Levin, directory of the Art && Code festival and we are thrilled to be in the middle of our Friday afternoon session. And I’m going to introduce our next speaker, who is Sarah Rosalena Brady.
Sarah Rosalena Brady is an interdisciplinary artist and researcher based in Los Angeles. Her work deconstructs technology with material interventions, creating new narratives for hybrid objects that draw from AI, aerospace technologies, and decolonial posthumanism, indigenous scholarship, and mentorship in STEAM. Sarah is an assistant professor of computational craft and haptic media at UC Santa Barbara. Please welcome Sarah Rosalena Brady.
Sarah Rosalena Brady: Hello, thank you. My name is Sarah Rosalena, and I just wanted to take a moment to thank Golan and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University for this invitation to talk about my work. And also just to breathe. These past few weeks of the year have been very intense, and I just wanted to start off the talk by acknowledging and creating space for this moment.
And it’s also a really interesting time to make work if you’re someone who likes to deconstruct or materialize things that machines see. So much of this talk is going to be focused on materializing pixels from a technological remove, and talk about my history with that in…especially with the pandemic, remote sensing devices through our devices has replaced our physical interactions, in many ways scaling from these distant proximities and resolutions have become part of our everyday life. But yet we forget where it comes from and all the boundaries and borders that were also trained from hundreds of years of imperialism of course by technology.
So for my background, how I became an interdisciplinary artist and researcher is very much based in Los Angeles where I grew up. I came from two very different worlds. My grandfather Brady was an aerospace engineer and astrophysicist for JPL and started at the early days at Caltech. Right across the way, I was also raised by my grandmother who came to Los Angeles as a domestic laborer and taught me Huichol weaving from a very early age, which is a tradition that’s passed from grandmother to granddaughter. I also lived in a pueblo and have been working between myself being born in Los Angeles and geopolitics. It was a very interesting…I had an interesting childhood because my grandparents mostly raised me because of conflicts between my family. So really I’ve always kind of seen myself as a perfect representative of how hybrids can exist. Because I’ve never really fit in one box. Let’s put it that way.
And for me it really inspired me because my grandfather worked along with computers when they were people and wrote a lot of spacecraft trajectories through tables and equations. In many ways I always saw that in relation to patterning when I would be on my backstrap loom, or when I’d be beading something. And this really made an impact on how I see the world, but not only how I see it but how machines function and machines view things.
And that was a very large part of me growing up, witnessing you know, our first images coming back from Saturn. And I remember when these images came pixel-by-pixel through mission control where my grandfather worked. And that really stood out to me, how the machine sees and understands things, because in many ways you can break it down into woven form. Pixels is an ancient pixel-based technology.
But there’s a lot of control and power at play that we forget and how its role has played a part in colonialism and how how we’re able to look into deep space and have these images like the black hole arrive. This was done by a team of researchers led by Katie Bouman, who’s now Caltech, by weaving eight event horizon telescopes using the world as a camera.
So, here we are again looking deeper into space and using algorithms, patterning, as a way to view, but now becoming much more advanced. And the more and more we become reliant on machines, we also have to remember our past. And what that cultural impact makes upon that within our cosmologies. Because so much of what we think and we know of our reality has been manipulated by technology which stems from the military-industrial complex, massive tech corporations, and we have to be mindful of that because it’s also embedded in the code.
For example, how we see the Earth even stems from our first image of when we first saw ourselves in 1946 by strapping a camera to a German V2 rocket which was captured by the Americans after World War II and was launched with American scientists and former Nazi scientists from the rocket program. This is part of our history. And that really still shapes how we see things on.
And what happens when you introduce the machine to see other things. So I at that point was interested in studying not only what I could train the machine on, but how could we exit that pattern, which I’m going to be talking a little bit later. I’ve been doing a lot of research on a particular design that focuses on exiting. But this was an AI neural network that I trained on images of the black hole and the blue marble. And I was really interested how can we feed it into itself and you know, where is the exit point where we’re at a point where so much of what we’re being tracked, surveillance, seen, and so much of that is embedded in our knowledge. And knowledge has in many ways been a way to control the way we think. And technology and science has in many ways been on the forefront.
So this [inaudible] I was interested in using it also as a weaving pattern for a mechanical jacquard loom. Like many people here, I’m sure, we all know that the first computer algorithm that was written was by Ada Lovelace by witnessing the jacquard’s ability to weave intricate flowers and leaves, in many ways bridging the gap between the very first moments where we’re able to produce images on the loom through algorithms to this point where machines are seeing, understanding, and making choices, manipulating us all the time. And what does this mean when we’re now looking out into space? And that’s something that I really wanted to focus on in this talk between what’s happening on Earth and what we’re projecting into space and how do we change that? Change our trajectories and exit them by reflecting on the past.
And how do we exit this. And also where are the entrance and exit points for us to think about these objects through our human interactions. And that’s something I feel like is really important when comparing things that are digitally made and hand-made is this blurring between human and the nonhuman. Could there be something in between, but what does that mean when for me it’s always been a challenge because colonialism and commodity is such a big part of technology and who it exploits.
And this stems from a lot of research that I’ve done in the past. I’ve always been really interested in how AI or the machine sees language, because in many ways the machine is biased because it’s written in a language that has a very particular point of view. So this was a project I did in 2017 called Reformation of 50,000 Letters where I was really interested to see what a Sketch-RNN model—how it would see language, and what would happen if it was forced to write language for over three months. And you can kind of see them dance in between latent space and interpolation here, and how it’s shaping and shifting over time.
And for me I was interested also in a process of the machine having to write something that it’s normally not used to, and also viewing it from a stance that programming in some ways is forgetting. So how do we force the machine to do things where it’s being introduced to things that it maybe should’ve known, including a lot of letterforms that in many ways could possibly be extinct just because as we keep growing with technology, we’re becoming much more homogeneous. So how do we introduce that?
So I blew up some of the letterforms on a CNC machine. So I just directly outputted it and had the robotic arm cut it out. So these are about three feet by five feet. And blowing them up, I was really interested in also viewing them in many ways almost as a memorial or a monument to what the machine learned and also all the artifacts that are embedded in it, through written gesture, typography choices…and also interested in making new patterns out of them and playing with materials.
So these were cast in porcelain, and I was interested in making your new patterns out of them.
And also, making them handmade. So these are done with just me trying to reenact the form by hand.
And you know working with clay and machines, I went back to JPL, my roots, and became very very fascinated in the role of clay in the future. So here I am, I’m actually holding a soil sample tube that was on Perseverance that’s about to land on Mars, and talking to people at JPL and understanding how these machines work when they’re trained on all this extractive technology and how they’re going to be the next mediator of forms in many ways.
So this is JPL’s fabrication facility where they built Perseverance and the Mars sample tube.
And I’ve just been finding it so interesting because so much of what those machines are trained on are actually based in the Southwest. So for example, I’ve been making a lot of work with Martian soil simulant, which actually comes from a desert in Mojave and there’s also one that’s a desert fairly close to Flagstaff. And you know, the main component of it is having that rich iron oxide that give it that red color. But I find it’s really interesting that JPL scientists and people are trying to mimic the soil and what that actually means.
And then training even more satellites that are viewing and tracking these spaces from above [inaudible] they’re also being trained on like I mentioned, borders and boundaries that are rooted in colonialism, you know. Like who has access to satellites, and what does that mean when you collaborate with a machine who’s taking that much data information and make something different or you’re being really critical about it? What happens when you materialize it?
And the main important thing is how much of that is driving by these anxieties of climate change? Most importantly water. And for me I’ve been really interested in the colors red and blue because the red planet and the blue planet, and there’s this tension between the desertification of our blue planet and then colonizing the red planet to simulate the blue. So there’s this tension between red and blue because so much of that is embedded in water and climate, and that’s what the future is going to be about. And all these people are pushing and projecting so much above us, how can we also to look again at ourselves, especially in the past, where do these technologies come from?
So with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter it’s been taking thousands of images of Mars for the past fifteen years, in manys way stitching them together. I used a large sample data of all their ice imagery to create these kind of AI-envisioned landscapes. But really interested in tracing the blue because so much of that is ice, and potential clay, which scientists are really interested in because if there’s clay that means there’s water. And if there’s water there’s some type of habitability, but they’re also really interested in it as a building material.
And then also put this through a mechanical jacquard loom. And also looking where’s the exit point, you know, how red and blue shifts within the pixels, which has been trained on billions of years of climate on Earth and on Mars. And how do the machines view color in this way, when it is so linked to land and access with machines completely mediating, controlling these situations and circumstances.
And also what’s underneath these things. So I’ve always been really fascinated by leaving Earth and being beyond the human, because in space you know, above/below in many ways dissolves. And so how could you also view this textile from the front and from the back, and what’s underneath I find really interesting. Because so much of what’s above and below can be broken down into actual compounds and pigments. Which I’ve been spending a lot of time doing at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
I’ve been spending a lot of time on studying pottery, the materials of pottery, and this Laguna Pueblo pot. And most importantly I’ve been really studying this design called the spirit line. And I’ve been researching it also from the form of an exit point. Because in many ways just like when you make something with a machine, the blurring between human and nonhuman, living/nonliving becomes blurred. That’s a concept that’s very traditional in a lot of Japanese cultures and most importantly indigenous cultures, is this idea that things are embedded with spirit, how things are alive. And that I’ve been really interested in.
I’m not only viewing it from pottery but also how do we exit museums and how things are archived. We could also view these objects as pixels in a vast matrix. Where does the design start and end, and how do we exit them? And with this in mind that’s where I’ve been kinda going back to understanding different design choices and figuring out ways that we can strategize ways to think differently about technology, because like I mentioned, so much of technology is the next mediator of forms.
So this is a piece that I made with the Mars regolith simulant. I made a clay, used the simulant and mixed a little bit of bentonite clay, put it in a pug mill, made a mixture, and put it through a ceramic 3D printer trained on architecture software that many of these rovers and drones are also trained with to build habitats. So if you actually google “NASA habitat challenge,” they do this every year because NASA scientists know the best way to build a structure on another planet is to use the native material that’s there. Which I find again hilarious because it’s like, indigenous people have been doing this for thousands and thousands of years. And I know there’s this idea of us wanting to be sustainable on another planet when we could be sustainable on Earth. There’s still some disconnect.
And also with my designs I’ve been interested again in thinking about how do we exit these patterns. And very much inspired by the black hole and thinking about entrance points, exit points, gravity, how things flow, and what it means to actually break down to its core level not only for what it looks and materializes, but how does it exist through machines and archives, and how that can be broken down into numbers and patterns and how do we break a lot of these borders through art and different narratives and conversations that aren’t necessarily one or the other in that so much of, like I mentioned, my research and my work kinda grapples with that, being multiracial and trying to work with technology while still acknowledging its role in the past, and coming to terms with that.
Because again, you know, so much of what’s happening on Earth can be played out in space. And it really goes down to climate change and how we understand our environment and our surroundings, because we cannot go to another planet and be reliant on technological expertise to terraform it, or to make it habitable. We need to focus on where we’re at right now.
And I just wanted to stop with that and thank you so much. If you want to reach out, I’m at UC Santa Barbara. And thank you.
Golan Levin: Thank you, Sarah, so much for this talk. A lot of really amazing ideas here. Climate change on Earth is this incredible catastrophe that weighs on our minds. And I don’t know if if climate change on Mars is something that we worry about. Colonialism within our own Earth displaces people who were there but are being ignored. Do we have the same…or should we have the same guilt about colonizing Mars? As you said, if there’s a notion that there’s a spirit there, is it okay to just do what we want to with it.
But the questions that are arising. First of all, are you collaborating with JPL, or just in conversation with them through your work?
Brady: So I’m in conversation with them with my work. So my relation to JPL is I actually got the LACMA Art + Tech Lab grant two years ago. And when I actually gave my talk there, somebody who worked on mission control with my grandfather ended up going to that talk. And so he’s been my back door to go through there. And that’s the thing I think is so interesting about these people. They think thirty, forty years ahead. That’s what my grandfather had to do with Voyager, like what is the actual implications of putting a machine outside of Earth for that long. And what will happen? And we have to seriously think about the implications of what our technology is doing thirty to forty years ahead, because right now so much of that is focused on space. Which [crosstalk] in many ways I find—
Levin: Seven generations ahead, right.
Brady: Yeah! I find it absolutely absurd because we’re not built to go to space. And we are built to live on Earth and we should be focusing so much on Earth, so I’m really interested in kind of using a lot of that narrative, let’s put back in space almost as a mirror to look back at how we view our technology now. And the pandemic has made it even more apparent for me, because this you know, this is all remote sensing. I could be at another planet right now. [laughs]
Levin: Your observation that sustainable design is this obvious consideration for working on Mars but something we just completely overlook when we think about working here on the planet that we actually live on was really poignant to me. And in the chat someone remarked, “I’ve always shirked from science around space stuff because I feel you have to collaborate with so many other systems and people and governments to do stuff. So it’s amazing, people who can kind of rock through it and get cool stuff done.” And was wondering how you sort of navigate the relationship between being critical and collaborating, or conversing with institutions that don’t always have the same perspective you do.
Brady: Oh I’ve had big fallouts. I had a big fallout with Google. I’ll tell you a story. So actually when I was doing my research at NMAI I was really interested in understanding how machines view archives in a museum. And we had a huge— Like, Google was more interested in supporting the project in terms of making like a commodity, something that would base with their neural network. But had zero accountability for what their networks do. And mostly dealing with intellectual property and so many things. And I really had like a full mental crisis working with a lot of these machines because you know, you’re at the mercy of their absolute will to not hold themselves accountable for what’s happening in terms of bias, in terms of how machines view people. So much of that is subject to skin tone still. And it really is an amplifier and I feel like the past two weeks has really made it really obvious how machines are really amplifying a lot of the injustices that’re here. So even though I make things and have worked with technology that’s in many ways in conflict and contradictory I think it’s also very important to do, because it can exist in conflict. Because that’s just where we are as a species. It’s just very complex. I always feel in conflict, as a multiracial person. So that’s something I feel comfort in and I kinda work with my work in layers like that.
Levin: Yeah, your work is aimed right at the heart of the conflict. That’s great.
Thank you so much, Sarah. We are going to pause here. In five minutes, we will hear a presentation from Professor Imin Yeh, my colleague at Carnegie Mellon. So we will see you at 2:30 Eastern time in about five minutes when we pick up Imin’s talk. Thank you so much Sarah for your presentation, and we’ll see everyone soon.
Brady: Thank you!.