When asked to consider the futures of art and technology, I find myself increasingly prone to write, instead, about my grandmother.
“Instead” may be misleading, as it suggests that an autoethnographic excursus about one’s grandmother isn’t germane to discussions of futurity. It’s understood that these discussions are reserved for the consideration of new and emerging machine intelligences, which have become metonyms for the future writ large. What other futures come into view, instead, through attunement to the forms of knowing and making made possible through ancestral intelligences?
A rhetoric of hyper-novelty effloresces in current popular arts discourse: it’s alleged that we are witnessing a “paradigm shift,” an “inflection point,” a “technological boom” hitherto unprecedented in the annals of any recorded history. Large language models and image-based generative adversarial networks, we are told, will reconfigure cultural work beyond recognition. The aesthetic field will look as it has never looked before.
It has also been said and bears repeating that we have been here before. Despite claims to radical newness, the logics underlying this moment are all too familiar. Inheriting the space-time of coloniality, popular discourses on art and tech crystallize around the inevitability of forward motion that proceeds through sharp ruptures with (implicitly non-Western) pasts. They project aesthetic futures synchronized to the tempos of technoscientific progress. They reduce extractivist effects, algorithmic harms, and ecological byproducts to the realm of parenthetical reference. At the core of these discourses is the claim that the hyper-novelty of the present demands new ways of knowing, thinking, and making that do away with the presumed obsolescence of what came before.
(Here is where my grandmother enters my writing, or has already been embedded in it. She was neither a technologist nor an artist in the usual sense. Rather, she was a post-Soviet Armenian diasporan who declined to learn the English language beyond the word “no,” professing a steadfast and incisive skepticism toward prevailing models of cultural and economic progress. Her critical invocation of West Asian pasts mediates my own lens on the present and future, here and elsewhere.)
Against the backdrop of the present moment, ancestral knowledge conjures a space for intervention in emerging technologies. Rather than seek out never-before-known data points and translate them into never-before-seen visualizations, ancestral approaches look to what has already been known and seen, but may have been submerged or occluded from spaces of visibility.
Ancestral approaches materialize across a wide array of recent projects. Stephanie Dinkins’s Not the Only One (N’TOO) (2018–ongoing) develops a voice-interactive entity taught by oral histories of three generations of women from the artist’s family, recasting AI as the repository for a “multigenerational memoir of a Black American family.” Morehshin Allahyari’s Moon-faced (2022) uses Qajar dynasty imagery to train an AI model to paint genderless portraits and resurface queer forms of representation within Iranian visual culture. Sarah Rosalena Brady’s Above Below (2020) draws from matrilineally transmitted Wixárika weaving traditions to produce AI-generated Jacquard textiles that disrupt the assumptions of colonial cartographies. Nancy Baker Cahill’s Motherboard (2021) geolocates an AR monument above LA City Hall to propose forms of governance modeled on the networked structures of mycelium, “the mother of us all.” Alice Yuan Zhang’s Remembering Our Roots (2021) deploys AR toward an “ecological time portal” wherein visitors encounter plant elders from her family’s migrant journey, presented as “an invitation for sharing ancestral plant wisdom from our entangled lineages.”
Refusing understandings of emerging technologies and artificial intelligence as a “view from nowhere,” instead, ancestral intelligences ground knowledge in embodied transmissions from human and nonhuman elders. These transmissions suffuse the present, calling on us to tune in.