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!.

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