Diane Hau Yu Wong
Deep Alternative Futures – Temporal and Geological Perspective of Afrofuturism
Over the last several decades, narratives that focus predominately on human extinction, global catastrophes, and the ecological apocalypse has emerged in the social sciences discourse. However, in these apocalyptic narratives, the stories explicitly center figures of whiteness as the survivor of the apocalypse and saviours of humanity. This ongoing apocalyptic discourse is more specifically concerned with protecting the future of global structures that are rooted in whiteness. Instead, this paper will reject the Eurocentric notion of a single future and the assumed linear temporalities at the center of mainstream apocalyptic visions and offer up alternatives and pluralistic worlds in the form of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism will first be situated in an art historical context by tracing its development in the mid to late 20th century and its revitalization in the 21st century. Through the use of Siegfried Zielinski and Jussi Parikka’s notion of the deep time of media with an emphasis on temporalities and future fossils, this paper criticizes the linear progress myth. Instead, it offers up imagination new temporalities to address different aspects of planetary-scale justice. Through the discussion of the works by Black Quantum Futurism and Quentin VerCetty, we can imagine ways in which we can collapse more equitable futures that are parallel to our reality into our own lives to encourage steps towards making these futures our reality.
Keywords: Deep time of media, Technofossil, temporalities, geological deep time, Afrofuturism
Over the last several decades, narratives on human extinction, global catastrophes, and ecological apocalypse have emerged in social science discourses. However, in this “end of the world” narrative, the stories explicitly center figures of whiteness as their protagonists and the survivors of the apocalypse who can save the world. While humanity’s greatest offer strategies and methods to preserve the future of humanity, the emerging ecocritical discourse is more specifically concerned with protecting the future of global structures that are rooted in whiteness. Ironically, the roots of these structures of whiteness are the primary cause of these apocalyptic futures. In this instance, whiteness is not simply akin to skin pigmentation or genetics, instead, it is a set of cultural, political, and economic structures that derives from Eurocentric systems of imperialism, colonization, and capitalism. This can be seen in the structural absence of Blackness in mainstream science fiction, or the tokenization of Black characters as a source of difference and otherness within a post-apocalyptic future that stemmed from racial contamination and racial paranoia. While neglecting to address the disproportionate effect of eco-crisis on marginalized communities worldwide. However, ongoing discourse on different iterations of BIPOC futurisms such as Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurism, Asian Futurism, and many more have challenged this notion of apocalyptic futures.
Instead, this paper rejects the Eurocentric notion of a single future and the assumed linear temporalities at the center of mainstream apocalyptic visions and offers up an alternative and pluralistic and equitable future in the form of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism will first be situated in an art historical context by briefly tracing its development in the mid to late 20th century with Sun Ra and its revitalization in the 21st century with what is described as the second wave of Afrofuturism. Siegfried Zielinski and Jussi Parikka’s notion of the deep time of media, temporalities, and future fossils will be intertwined with the works of Black Quantum Futurism and Quentin VerCetty to shift this depiction through an ecocritical lens to criticize the linear progress myth and instead offers up possible ways to imagine new temporalities to address different aspects of planetary scale justice. The artworks discussed in this essay put forth alternative methods of examining nonlinear and equitable futures that are parallel to our own, from which we can collapse into our world to encourage steps towards making these futures our reality.
The term Afrofuturism was first coined by the cultural critics Mark Dery in his seminal text “Black to the Future” to describe “speculative fiction that treats African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”1 Afrofuturists combine elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. According to Ingrid LaFleur, a curator and Afrofuturist, “Afrofuturism is a way to imagine possible futures through a black cultural lens, as a way to encourage experimentation, reimagine identities, and activate liberation.”2 In selected writings of revisionist Afrofuturist scholars such as Kodwo Eshun, describes the notion of chronopolitical where “the temporal complications and anachronistic episodes that disturb the linear time of progress, [to] adjust the temporal logics that condemned Black subjects to prehistory”3 create complication within temporality. Afrofuturism disturbs the linear time of progress to insert Black subjects to prehistory where these revisionists historicity can create a series of powerful competing futures that infiltrate the present at different rates. In a text written for the 25 Years of Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Thought Roundtable discussion, Sheree Renée Thomas, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, describes Afrofuturism as a powerful tool for resistance and liberation.
“Our art [Afrofuturism] has the power to subvert and resist erasure, to resist silencing, to resist being co-opted for other agendas that have little to do with black love, black joy, black liberation and freedom, health and wholeness. When we determine our way forward, rooted in our own creativity and values, those that would distort and exploit our creativity and us become fiercely and transparently uncomfortable with the enterprise.” (Thomas, “25 Years of Afrofuturism,” pp. 139-140)
Afrofuturism can be best situated within Siegfried Zielinski’s notion of a deep time of media which critiques a natural and linear evolution of teleological notion of media. Rather, Zielinski believes that the “notion of continuous linear progress, from lower to higher should be abandoned alongside any images, metaphor and iconography currently used to describe progress.”4 From an Afrofuturist perspective, this means examining the perception of progress away from colonial ideals, and instead focus on the intersection of technological innovation and traditional African knowledge. Deep time of media believes that earth time and geological duration can become a theoretical strategy for resistance against these linear progress narratives that impose a limited context of understanding the world. Zielinski’s works draw inspiration from Stephan Jay Gould’s idea of “punctuated equilibrium” which suggests that “instead of the constant uniform speed of change and evolution, fossil record shows that there are different speeds of changes that occur: from slow to sudden jolt.”5 Afrofuturism then offers an opportunity to better understand the different temporalities within our world to shift focus away from a fetishization of future apocalypse. What Black Quantum Futurism and Quentin VerCetty propose are variations to the examination of temporalities and linear time to define alternative deep time strata of our media culture outside the mainstream depiction of the post-apocalyptic world and provide tangible actions and steps we can take to work towards a more equitable future.
Zielinski believes that humans should encounter the past as if objects and situations were still in a constant state of flux, and development can still occur in various directions. Through this understanding of temporalities and time, it can be argued that the future can be conceivable to hold a multitude of possibilities for technical and cultural solutions for the distinctive and intersectional needs of the community.6
Early iterations of Afrofuturism in the mid to late 20th century predominantly focused on the development of music that represents the African diaspora. Afrodiasporic musical imagination was characterized by “Afrophilia that invoked a liberationist idyll of African archaism with the idea of scientific African modernity.”7 One of the most renowned Afrofuturist of that time was jazz musician Sun Ra, whose Afrocentric and outer space themed synthesis reflected the linkage of ancient African culture and knowledge to Afrofuturism that deeply influenced the works of Black Quantum Futurisms, Quentin VerCetty and other contemporary Afrofuturists. Sun Ra’s music was deeply rooted in the concept of Egyptology, which is the desire to recover the lost glories of the preindustrial African past while at the same emphasizing the colonial conspiracies that covered up the stolen legacy of African science.8 By incorporating the imagination of African diasporic identities in a futuristic space realm, the genre inspired Black artists, musicians, and writers to imagine an alternative future that embraces Afrodiasporic knowledge and characteristics to inspire liberation at a moment where they were continuously erased from history and any future was made difficult for them to imagine.
The second generation of Afrofuturism, also known as Afrofuturism 2.0, was coined by Reynaldo Anderson and Charlese E. Jones in the book “Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro- Blackness.” The goal of Afrofuturism 2.0 was to expand Afrofuturism upon the emergence of social media and other technological advances since the 20th century. In the introduction of the book, the two author described the second generation of the Afrofuturism as “the early twenty- first century technogeneiss of Black identity reflecting counter histories, hacking and or appropriating the influence of network software, database logic, cultural analytics, deep remixability, neuroscience, enhancement and augmentation, gender fluidity, posthuman possibility, the speculative sphere, with transdisciplinary applications.”9 This new iteration of Afrofuturism movement is inclusive of regional differences, including but not limited to Caribbean futurism, African Futurism, and Black Futurism. Contemporary Afrofuturism 2.0 is now characterized by five dimensions, including: metaphysics; aesthetics; theoretical and applied science; social sciences; and programmatic spaces.10 Although both BQF and Quentin VerCetty’s works chronologically and their subject matter fits with the second wave of Afrofuturism, their works continued to draw inspiration from their early counterpart.
Black Quantum Futurism11 is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Camae Ayew, also known as Moor Mother, an American poet and musician and Rasheedah Phillips, an artist, community activist, and housing lawyer. Their research explores notions of personal, cultural, familial, and communal cycles of experience as well as solutions for transforming oppressive linear temporalities into empowering, alternative temporalities. The duo’s work unpacks and traces the future’s history and the lineage of linear futures as a colonial tool.12 The hierarchies of time, inequitable time distribution, and uneven access to safe and healthy futures inform intergenerational poverty in marginalized communities the same way that wealth is passed between generations within privileged communities. To combat the hierarchies of time, they use Afrofuturism as a tool to tell stories of marginalized people, exploring the nature of their collective reality, and inspiring agency in marginalized communities to actively shape and reshape their own pasts and futures that are continuously erased in dominant history. One way to “dismantle the master’s clock”, as BQF states, is through time travel. In the case of BQF, time travel is completed through the power of memories to gather and revise histories that places certain stories and histories in the center due to colonialism and Euro-centricity.
For their work, Nonlinear & Quantum Futures (2020) at Manifesta 13 Marseille, the duo created an interactive installation outside the Palais Longchamp. The work consists of three entangled circles designed based on cosmograms, a simple geometric system that arose from cosmology and belief systems rooted in African tradition and knowledge (Figure 1). The installation is part of BQF’s “bio clock” project in which they engage with clock time. Instead of numbers, the dials were motion sensors and spun to point at different time dimensions (past, present, and future) (Figure 2).13 The work was conceived as an interactive space, where the installation responds to each visitor’s movements “through a series of dials, synchronizing individual, and collective movements through time.”14 The design of the two stages are hand- collaged works using found objects and archival paper from Jet and Ebony magazines from 1962 -1972, particularly focusing on the 1968 space race and Black liberation and civil rights movement from their Black Space Agency series. It features Black women scientists, doctors, and healers from the duo’s Temporal Disruptor series (Figure 3).15 BQF’s inclusion of the space race and their Black Space Agency series is reminiscent of the exploration of space within early iterations of Afrofuturism that Sun Ra explored within his music.
The figure on the ceiling of the installation is a temporal map of upcoming events in BQF’s project, the Community Future Lab (Figure 4). The Community Future Lab was a year- long community space where the group was able to develop and practice a framework of Community Futurisms. The vision of Community Futurisms is to create a communal and accessible quantum time capsule that centers and amplifies memories and stories of community members.16 The project seeks to create space for marginalized community members to participate in the imagination and creation of space and time within their own neighborhood through personal and communal histories and futures. The project aimed to facilitate a deeper understanding of the “dynamics, rhythms, temporalities, memories, histories, and ideas for the community’s shared futures, primarily through creative and informational workshops and ‘oral futures’ interviews.”17 Through the temporal map and highlighting future community activation of the project, the duo was able to incorporate a community aspect into their work at Manifesta 13.
The circular structure of the installation and temporal map are prompted by the duo’s exploration of non-linear time. In their book, “Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice,” Ayew and Phillips emphasize the intersection between African tradition and knowledge and Quantum Physics to discuss a non-linear approach of time orientation. Using the Quantum Physic terms, “retrocausality” and “time symmetry” which states that time is symmetrical for particles, meaning events happen the same way if time progresses forward or backward. For example, a video of a particle colliding and scattering off each other will make sense if you play it forward or backward.18 BQF connects this knowledge to African oral tradition, in “which time flows backward and time is defined in relation to interpersonal events in the past and future where it is deeply ingrained in rhythms, and patterns to nature, events, and time.”19 BQF believes that the past and future are not cut off from the present and instead both dimensions have influence over the whole persons’ lives, including who we are and who we become at any point in space-time. So, within a BQF timeline/worldline, time may look like circles or spiral shapes which represent recurrent events, synchronized events, and quantum connection. In this sense, events form a grouping pattern around the focal point that acts as a magnet for other events.20
Alongside Nonlinear & Quantum Futures (2020), BQF also exhibited their work, Oral Future Booth (2020) (Figure 4) at Manifesta 13. For Oral Future Booth (2020), the duo installed a small sound station that functions as both a recording booth and an audio archive in Alexandre Labadié’s former office. The visitors were asked to record their own visions for the future of housing, land, and public space in Marseille by answering a brief questionnaire.21 The work becomes a space to record these memories and hopes for the future of housing and land from the community that might otherwise be erased from public memory. Through this project, BQF wants to give voices to those disproportionately displaced from their communities because of ecological disasters and rising sea level and the increasingly precarious housing crisis. The two works at Manifesta 13 allows BQF to extend Zielinski’s deep time of media to not only push viewers to actively imagine and invent other futures that is built upon community collaboration and solidarity. But also to use deep time as a metaphor for passages to map different times and spaces of media art history that can eventually collapse these different temporalities into our own lives.
Similarly, the works of Canadian Afrofuturist Quentin VerCetty also address alternative temporalities and non-linear notion of time that is reflective of Jussi Parikka’s geological expansion of Zielinski’s deep time of media. Through a distinctively pan-African perspective, VerCetty's artworks focus on the representation and preservation of the memories of people of African descent and diaspora through the lens of Afrofuturism.22 VerCetty’s exploration of Sankofanology is similar to BQF’s exploration of the intersection between African traditional knowledge and quantum physics. The term was coined by Quentin VerCetty in 2017 after it was given to him by oral historians in Ghana. Like Black Quantum Futurism. Sankofanology is the “study and analysis of pan-African application, practice, dubbing, remixing, and applied science of using the West African concept of Sankofa to demonstrate that time does not exist on a singular dimension but rather the African past, present and future are all interconnected and overlaps.”23 This essay will particularly focus on two of VerCetty’s work, Missing Black Technofossil Here (2020) and Ancestral Technofossils (2021) which are both deeply intertwined in the concept of Sanofanology and technofossil.
VerCetty’s monument works like Missing Black Technofossil Here (2020), in conjunction with Jussi Parikka’s examination of Fossil Future, further highlight a non-linear perspective in temporalities within Afrofuturism. In this sense, VerCetty’s technofossils and monument created a temporal gateway for future generations to travel through time and as a space for public intervention and conversation regarding the representation of African diasporic communities in Canada. Technofossils are human-made artifacts composed of non-natural or human-manipulated materials that last beyond a natural human lifespan. This can include cement, alloy metals, and plastics. The term can also extend to refer to the remaining or preservation of technology in the future.24
Parikka continues this discussion of technofossil through his essay “Fossil Future,” in relation to the discussion of nonlinear progress of time in Zielinski’s deep time of media. Parikka describes electronic and technofossils as indicative of the economies and ecologies of the transient nature of these new technologies. In this sense, electronics are not only “matter,” that are composed of minerals, chemicals, and other materials. They also provide traces of the economic, cultural, and political contexts in which they were circulated in various times.25 Due to their long-lasting nature, the persistence of the technofossil is imagined as a material monument that “signals a radical challenge to the prevailing notions of time.”26 Contemporary paleontology discourse, such as that of Stephan Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, brings to light the multi-temporality of fossil layers. In his essay, Parikka speculates on how future fossils can act as a source for future temporality, to be used as a portal of sorts to return to the current moment in time.
In “Fossil Futures,” Parikka describes the fossils of technologies that can act as carriers of past memories, they are in this sense “monuments” that outlive their material duration.27 Fossils also carry with them the potential to trace the existence of the world that was around them, including human culture and record the world around us “through the technical media micro-temporalities of hard drives.”28 Temporal objects that can act as a gateway to past times as monuments in the present and show the earth as a recording medium and library. Parikka’s idea can be applied to Quentin VerCetty’s work as he not only uses technofossil and monuments as a method to speak about the absence of Black representation and missing stories within Canadian history, but also to record these missing stories for future generations. VerCetty sees monuments as time capsules which were created to store information and stories. He particularly highlights the practice of monuments that have been embedded in African practices and history, especially that of Egyptology that early iterations of Afrofuturists like Sun Ra embraces. Specifically looking VerCetty’s works are meant to uncover stories of Black Canadian contributions and challenge some of the existing stories that center on colonial histories and figures. This is evident in VerCetty’s other work, Step Towards into History, where he created a monument of Canadian abolitionist figure Joshua Glover with a forthcoming plaque with a QR code that will allow the viewers to engage in an interactive experience. Similarly, his other project Missing Black Technofossils Here, visitor can hold up a smart device and viewers decide where to place AR sculptures alongside the physical monument.
The virtual monument is a cyborg bust wearing a hybrid twin-faced ceremonial masquerade mask (Figure 5). The masks are inspired by the Baule of Ivory Coast and an enhanced and modernized version of a Karma ewe mask, originated West Africa's region of Ghana, Togo, and Benin.29 This hybrid figure represents the forged Pan-African identity of African descent people in the Black diaspora who were displaced due to colonization and the trans-Atlantic and Arab slave trade. The work moves away from representing a singular person or perspective that is common within monuments that reminds the viewers of the continued glorification of Canada’s official history of colonization. Instead, VerCetty’s works focus on the value of honouring the elders' common practice tradition and the importance of acknowledging the multiplicity of pan-African knowledge that exists in the world.
Missing Black Technofossil works in conjunction with VerCetty’s other work Ancestral Technofossils (2021), an interactive web and augmented reality work, highlighting the potential of decolonizing monuments. Ancestral Technofossil is a series of augmented reality sculptures that can be found on sites of colonial monuments all around Montreal, predominately in the Old Montreal area. One of which is the monument of the city’s founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve. The work allows the visitors to learn about missing parts of de Maisonneuve’s stories that was not included in his commemorative monuments as well as forgotten members of his parliament. Each of the other AR sculptures feature the biographies of leaders of African Canadian descent from Montreal (Figure 6). Through the two works, Quentin had hoped that this digital monument of the African ancestor of the future and past can contribute to stories that have been erased through colonialism. It serves as a marker of missing memories that have yet to be monumentalized.
In a speculative fashion, VerCetty’s Missing Black Technofossil and Ancestral Technofossils will not only continue to live on as a form of future fossil and monument due to its materiality, but it will also preserve stories and biographies of African Canadian leaders beyond the physical colonial monument. Through the decomposition of the physical colonial monuments, what remains in the future will be based on the stories and biographies in VerCetty’s works. His digital monuments then also act as a gateway as derived by Parikka, for future generations to revisit the current times and learn about the knowledge and biographies of notable figures of the African Canadian diaspora.
As Kodwo Eshun highlights in his essay, “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism,” “science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present. Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present [...].”30 While the mainstream vision of the future continues to uphold the erasure of those who do not fit in with the hegemonic vision, Afrofuturism speculates an alternative possible future that is built upon a different set of knowledge and traditions. While the writings of Siegfried Zielinski and Jussi Parikka urge us to expand our knowledge and reconsider non-linear perspectives on temporalities and the different viewpoints to understand the world that can be collapse into our present to encourage the imagination of a better future. How can the works of contemporary Afrofuturist such as Black Quantum Futurism and Quentin VerCetty lead the potential and the power of the imagination as a catalyst for changes in the transformation of a person's reality and experience and allows for a speculative narrative experience through a platform where time and space are altered.
1. Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose Black,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 180.
4. Siegfried Zielinski, “Introduction: The Idea of a Deep Time of the Media,” in Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Pr, 2009), p.5.
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15. Black Quantum Futurism. 2020. “Nonlinear Histories & Quantum Futures.” Facebook. September 16, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/page/735678736493770/search/?q=manifesta%2013.
16. “About FuturesLab.community,” About FuturesLab.Community | Community Futures, accessed April 10, 2022, https://futureslab.community/about.
18. Rasheedah Phillips, “Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice – Part 1” in Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice (Philadelphia: Afrofuturist Affair/House of Future Sciences Books, 2015), pp.17.
22. Quentin VerCetty, “About,” vmistudios, accessed April 10, 2022, https://www.vercetty.com/about.
23. Quentin VerCetty (Lindsay), “A Likkle Overstanding of Sankofanology,” in Cosmic Underground Northside an Incantation of Black Canadian Speculative Discourse & Innerstandings (Canada: CEDAR GROVE PUB, 2020), pp.91.
24. Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The Technofossil Record of Humans,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (July 2014): pp. 34-43, https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019613514953.
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About the Author
Diane Hau Yu Wong (She/Her) is a Cantonese-Canadian emerging curator based on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations. She received her BFA in Art History from Concordia University and is currently an MA Candidate in the Critical Curatorial Studies program at the University of British Columbia. She is also the Programming Manager at Centre A: Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and has curated exhibitions at espace pop, Art Matters Festival, Nuit Blanche, articule, and Centre A. She was the recipient of the articule x MAI Curatorial Mentorship in 2020/2022 and the 2020 Momus Emerging Critics Residency program. Her curatorial projects are supported by BC Arts Council (2022, 2023) and Canada Council for the Arts (2023).
Her curatorial practice and research are broadly based on the intersection between technology and new media art, predominantly focusing on the world-building possibilities of different iterations of Futurism, such as Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurism, and Asian Futurism. She is particularly interested in examining the depiction of Asian bodies as cyborgs and non-humans in science fiction through Techno-Orientalism and the current development of Asian Futurism.