Myth Science: The STEAM Legacy of Sun Ra

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Prepared for a STEAM/Social Media Week Event on September 26, 2013.

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  • Good afternoon. I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Digital Media program at Georgia Tech, working with my thesis advisorCelia Pearce on Advancing STEM Through Culturally Situated Arts-Based Learning. This two-day workshop will bring researchers, artists and cultural practitioners together to explore the role that culture and art (cultural art) plays among underrepresented ethnic students that, as studies show are increasingly uninterested, or disengaged in STEM.
  • The term “myth science” was coined by is the late jazz pioneer and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra who engaged science, technology, engineering, art (music) and mathematics concepts in his work and set a course for an contemporary artistic movement called afrofuturism. Sun Ra is seen as a central figure in the afrofuturistic practice ofmerging STEAM. As the STEM to STEAM movement in education gains momentum in the U.S. and abroad it is important to highlight Sun Ra's role as a STEAM blueprint for present and future generations of students.
  • The Smithsonian’s African Art Museum presented “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” to show how the sun, moon, stars, and the phenomena of lightning and rainbows inspired the arts of Africa for thousands of years. This artwork illustrates a Khoi San (South African) myth that recounts how a girl dancing around an evening fire threw glowing embers into the night sky, where they remained as a wide, shimmering pathway illuminating the celestial firmament: the Milky Way. To set the historic frame of deep time, Gavin Jantjes rendered the dancing figures in a style reminiscent of southern Africa's ancient rock paintings.
  • One of the inspirations for my research is the late jazz pioneer and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra who engaged science, mathematics, and technological concepts in his work and set a course for an contemporary artistic movement called afrofuturism.
  • Sun Ra ‘redeployed, reconceived, and re-created’ the materials and metaphors of cold-war science in his artistic practice. This [practice] includes DIY (Do It Yourself) instrumentation to experiments with electronic costumes and multimedia performances. These are spectacular examples of ‘black vernacular technological creativity’, or the embrace of STEM in ways that go beyond aesthetic form to engage with materiality itself.On the left is Sun Ra and on the right is contemporary Kenyan artist and TEDGlobal fellow Cyrus Kabiru who creates art called “C-Stunners” which are wearable eyewear sculptures made from found materials in Nairobi.
  • Kabiru’s work sits itself between fashion, wearable art, performance, and one of a kind commodity objects. Kabiru’s C-Stunners remind me of another DIY project, EyeWriter. EyeWriter is a low-cost eye-tracking system originally designed for paralyzed graffiti artist TEMPT1. The EyeWriter system uses inexpensive cameras and open-source computer vision software to track the wearer’s eye movements. While neither TEMPT1 or the artists/engineers who designed this device are afrofuturists I do consider EyeWriter to be exemplary DIY, linked to graffiti and hip-hop.
  • In my research, I look for recurrent cultural practices in African American art, as well as themes that illuminate these practices. This image shows the production cycle of African American artistic and cultural practices that reflect diverse influences and contexts. Black artists manage their representations (images, sounds, systems) in mainstream society and the global world through creativity and innovation, and by using improvisation and re-appropriation to move beyond the limits of nationality or identity. We see these representations manifested again and again in black culture.
  • The appropriation of technology such as electronic instruments, virtual worlds and game console platforms counter the notion of the digital divide that usually only looks at computer technology. How can we as researchers and educator tap into the energy of this production to inspire young people to explore STEM?
  • Here are but a few examples of artists and designers who appropriate technology in new and creative ways. Their methods counter the notion of a “digital divide”. I think we need to widen the technological net to come up with ways to engage underrepresented ethnic students in STEM.
  • For the upcoming “The Shadows Took Shape” at the Studio Museum in Harlem (NYC) I’m planning a panel to discussrecent developments with artists whose works are in the exhibition. The name of my panel is ”Enlightenment, Strange Mathematics & Rhythmic Equations: The STEAM Legacy of Sun Ra”. Sun Ra’s work is what ArjunAppadurai (1990) refers to as the social imaginary (ex. technoscape) that embraces the semantic, cultural, and creative aspects of science and technology. Today, this imaginary is sustained through techno-vernacular creativity and innovation. This is ‘myth science’ and the legacy of Sun Ra.
  • Myth Science: The STEAM Legacy of Sun Ra

    1. 1. Myth Science: The STEAM Legacy of Sun Ra By Nettrice R. Gaskins
    2. 2. myth science : how to re-create oneself in a place of adversity or oppression
    3. 3. Gavin Jantjes (b. 1948, South Africa). “Untitled,” 1989­-90. Acrylic on canvas, National Museum of African Art.
    4. 4. Sun Ra's technological appropriation critiques dominant views on socio-technical change by showing how African Americans and other socio-economically groups that are excluded from high technology engage with artifacts on their own terms. How might contemporary artists from ethnic communities whose artworks involve STEAM inform research & practice in the future?
    5. 5. Sun Ra in rehearsal October, 1971 Oakland, CA. Photo from nuvoid.blogspot.com; Cyrus Kabiru’s C-Stunner.
    6. 6. Creativity & Innovation Improvisation Identity Reappropriation Creativity & Innovation
    7. 7. The appropriation of technology such as electronic instruments, virtual worlds and game console platforms counter the notion of the digital divide that usually only looks at computer technology. How can we as researchers and educator tap into the energy of this production to inspire young people to explore STEM?
    8. 8. Artist Ellen Gallagher who is interested in the ocean’s depths and ecologies. Her Osedax multimedia installation explores diverse microclimates existing in otherwise uniform ocean environments. The installation consists of 16mm film and painted slide projections inspired by a species of undersea worm that buries into the bones of whale carcasses. Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash who played a key role in the technical design of Rane Corporation’s Empath mixer. His technological rhetoric acknowledges that he understood he was re-creating technology based on his own personal aesthetics as well as using scientific methods to develop his technique. Former graffiti artist and break dancer and current interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers who programmed a player piano using a MIDI controller to perform his original arrangement of the American jazz standard Strange Fruit. Sound architect Young Guru who contributed thousands of digital loops/beats to the EarSketch program engages students in computing principles through collaborative computational music composition and remixing.
    9. 9. Nettrice R. Gaskins. “Sun Ra Scepter (in Second Life),” 2010. Courtesy the artist.
    10. 10. Nettrice R. Gaskins nettrice@gmail.com Related STEAM Projects Science 100 Year Starship with Dr. Mae Jemison Technology Alternate Futures: Afrofuturist Multiverses & Beyond by Nettrice Gaskins for IBM in Second Life Engineering The EyeWriter system Art The Shadows Took Shape at the Studio Museum of Harlem Mathematics Mathematics: A Beautiful Elsewhere by Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain

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