Transcranial stimulation. A character named Brooks—for Gwendolyn. A billion-year-old throne run by a Queen Mother in the cosmos. The defiance of gender binaries. The creation of a new black American mythology inside virtual reality. All through the cultural lens of black women as they worship at the temple of our familiar: the hair salon.
“I’ve been going to salons since I was 10 years old. Salons for black women have been the site of political activism, community building and creative endeavors,” says Ashley Baccus-Clark, co-creator of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, a virtual reality experience showcased at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. “We really wanted to mirror that, but also think about how science and technology are being left out of that space. Because the women there are chemists and creators. Why wouldn’t they be neuroscientists as well?”
NSAF is the brain daughter of Baccus-Clark, a 31-year-old molecular biologist; Carmen Aguilar Y Wedge, 31, a structural engineer; Ece Tankal, 28, an architect; and Nitzan Bartov, 30, also an architect. The four women bring a world of culture to the project and cite influences ranging from black womanist literature to Young Thug. Even the eye logo for NSAF is a nod to its creators. Aguilar Y Wedge, a Latinx woman, is really into the Nazar amulet, and Tankal hails from Turkey, where the symbol is a big part of her heritage. “[The eye is] also about you watching, you seeing what’s happening,” Baccus-Clark adds.
The idea of NSAF came about after two African-American men were killed in quick succession by police last summer, both deaths broadcast on video like the high-tech lynchings they were. For those of us who, in fact, know that black lives matter, the aftermath was deeply unsettling.
“When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered within days of each other, Carmen and I were living in New York, and it just left us with this heaviness,” Baccus-Clark says. “We decided to implement these self-care rituals because we didn’t know how else to deal with it. And from that we decided to make a project that tried to get people to get people to think critically about the world we live in.”
Six months later, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It then traveled to South by Southwest and is currently showing at Tribeca.
There are four parts to the NSAF experience: the physical installation, virtual reality, speculative products and cognitive-impact research.
The installation was purposely designed by the two architects on the team. The VR experience is a four-minute event that transports you into a black hair salon (or “neurocosmetology lab”). You, a black woman, view yourself in a mirror, replete with Afro puffs.
After being primped and fitted with your Octavia electrodes, and chatting with Naima to your left, you are then whisked to a sumptuous place where black girls rule. Here you encounter a Queen Mother, who is a billion years old and the ultimate trans human. She creates her own prosthetics, and her legs are held together by a magnetic field of her own kind. There is also Brooks, a genderless whiz who runs a record company, and Mama Wata, who is our watcher and protector.
Next are the speculative products, all made in the likeness and liking of black girls. They also protect us.
First are Ruby Cam door-knocker recorder earrings, designed to discreetly launch video recording with a touch of a button (if only Castile’s fiancee, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, had them that fateful day, she and her daughter would have been safer, muses Baccus-Clark). Next is the hyperface anti-surveillance scarf (styled by Whoopi Goldberg at Tribeca), a deceptively simple garment that essentially is meant to trick and disable facial-recognition algorithms for those who don’t want their visage trapped in some database.
There’s also a transparent sunscreen solution that matches black skin (and doesn’t cost $60); ScatterViz, an iridescent reflective facial visor that can be pulled down to block microaggressions and have them reflected back to the perpetrator; and the pièce de résistance, “Octavia electrodes” (named, of course, for Octavia Butler), a nod to technology that already exists.
Actual transcranial stimulation sends electric currents to stimulate regions of the brain. It is used to alleviate depression and anxiety, but now is being used to induce hyperflow states. Like the sunscreen, it takes black women into consideration—it is large enough to accommodate big hair: ’fros, puffs and locs.
“I thought if I were to reimagine this in a way that fits in with black-hair-care rituals, how do we do this?” asks Baccus-Clark, who said that she embedded electrodes into hair extensions after thinking about braiding techniques, a large part of black cultural expression.
Hyphen-Labs, the company that produces NSAF, has also partnered with Columbia University and Intel to conduct research to determine whether VR can be used to “decrease prejudice and bias.”
Baccus-Clark says that she and her co-creators are taking the summer to put at least one of the speculative products into production (most likely the scarf) and optimizing NSAF for mobile, where users can access it through the Oculus store.
They are also looking into ways to bring VR into the larger African-American community.
“I think the future of virtual reality is that it’s going to give us another plane or dimension to explore and to tell stories in. It’s going to give us a tool to question what we consider to be reality,” she explains. “And if we don’t start to put our stories into this emerging medium now, it will be like film, where we have to wait 70 or 80 years before we start seeing nuanced stories of our experiences.”
She continues, “Art is supposed to challenge you. Art is supposed to get you to question the way you move in the world. We wanted to be in your face about what we wanted to say; hence the name.”