AI: Ancestral Immediacies

Technologies of Making the Past Present

Screenings, Performances, Talks, Lectures


Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells. Photo: Tom Deerinck, National Institutes of Health, CC BY-NC 2.0

AI: Ancestral Immediacies presents conversations, performances, and screenings that seek to address the disconnect between technology and the body. Contrary to the technocratic vision of AI as disembodied superintelligence that will either dominate or destroy the human, AI—and technology in general—have always been inseparable from cultural knowledges and human bodies, long predating contemporary concerns surrounding data extraction and loss of privacy or jobs. The problem is one of knowledge and the ethics of its production. 

The development and scientific research use of HeLa cells offer just one historical example. HeLa cells are characterized by their ability to proliferate indefinitely. They were and are indispensable in the development of modern cancer therapy and were later sent aboard Soviet satellites to prove whether humans might survive in space. The original HeLa cells were stolen from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, a descendent of enslaved relatives, during the 1950s. While the cells live on until this day, Lacks herself was buried in Virginia in an unmarked grave, until a headstone was belatedly erected in 2010. 

Acknowledging bodies as technology in this way unravels and complicates dichotomies of artificial/natural, rational/irrational, mind/body, authentic/fake, intelligence/stupidity. Amid this complexity, technology is a practice that reworks temporal, spatial, and generational ways of knowing, bringing the ancestral into immediacy; it can be understood as relational, situated, cosmological, and collective practice, rather than a thing. In this project, engaging with ancestral immediacies becomes a strategy for exploring how AI rearticulates the past, proposing a return, rather than a rupture with regards to societal norms, cultural divisions, and racial or gendered exploitation. 

The inseparable conflation of bodies/technologies therefore entails an acknowledgement of histories of pleasure and pain, of extraction and prediction. As artist Tabita Rezaire proposes: ‘The womb is the original technology’, a statement that is both critique and utopia. It shows the power and productivity of bodies to become the source of generative worlds. But while this generative force is continuously channelled for capital gains and directed against its source, the productive potential inherent to these collective embodiments should not be overlooked. How is a part of Lacks alive until this day, in the words of Audre Lorde in her poem ‘A Litany of Survival’, ‘seeking a now that can breed futures’? How is she alive even though, Lorde continues, ‘we were never meant to survive’? 

AI: Ancestral Immediacies revisits ancestrality to bring its lessons into the immediacy of the present. The programme looks at modalities of prediction and building futurity from untravelled and underappreciated pasts and presences. What technologies of divination and prediction lead into what futures? How are ritualistic practices technologies of knowledge production? And how does technocratic vision impede, extract from, and destroy other ancestral and divine mediations of futures past?